Tuesday, November 10, 2009


By Marcia Talley
President, Sisters in Crime

There’s been a lot said in the news and in the blogosphere lately about Publisher’s Weekly annual Top 10 and Top 100 books of the year.

Here's the article: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6704595.html

Shockingly, there are no, I repeat, no women in the top ten. In the "fiction section," the only female mystery writers who made the list were Gillian Flynn and Sarah Waters, and of the seven titles selected in the "mystery" category, only two are by women. Sisters in Crime finds this deeply discouraging. For the past twenty-three years, our organization has been working to raise awareness and “promote the professional development and advancement of women crime writers to achieve equality in the industry.” When a lop-sided list like this comes out from a respected and influential industry publication, it seems that in spite of our best efforts, it’s "one step forward, two steps back."

The heart of what Sisters in Crime is all about is our Review Monitoring Project: giving women authors equity in the business of writing. Our monitors check newspapers, magazines, and on-line review sites to take note of how the numbers are adding up. Julianne Balmain heads up this effort, and has just complied the third quarter results for 2009. The news is bad.

Three quarters of the numbers are in for our Sisters In Crime Monitoring Project, she says, and the results are not particularly encouraging. Of fifty publications, only two have reviewed more mystery novels written by women than those written by men. One is the Bay Area’s Contra Costa Times at approximately 63% books by women, the other is Romantic Times at just under 78%.

Graph Of the other 48 publications, many of the percentages as of the end of September were worrisome. Several large publications reviewing many mystery novels were heavily weighted in favor of books written by men. Among them are Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine at nearly 81% male, the Los Angeles Times at more than 85% male, the Detroit Free Press at 100% male, the Dallas Morning News at nearly 79% male, NPR Radio at more than 80% male, and the Washington Post at more than 79% male. We still have a full quarter of numbers to report, so these statistics will change. However, what appears to be a downward trend of review coverage for books written by women is certainly a cause for concern.

But the problem goes well beyond being ignored by reviewers. It's also clear that publishers don't take traditional mysteries seriously. Why? Because traditional mysteries are usually women's stories. How do we know that publishers don't take them seriously? In presenting the advanced reading copy of a new novel by one of our members, a bookseller received this notice: "This is not cozy time -- this is bestseller time." Can there be a more clear statement of a publisher's expectations?

NewYorkTimesBestSellers And yet, there's a great track record of traditional mystery writers selling well -- the classic British women, of course, the ubiquitous Andrew McCall Smith, and even Lillian Jackson Braun, author of the popular “Cat Who …” books, hits the New York Times bestseller list every time. On the Oct. 7 Bookscan mystery chart, Joanne Fluke is #3 (right behind Michael Connelly at #2), Louise Penny is at #7, #20, #24, #43 and #45. M.C. Beaton is at #12 and #48. And there are more.

Think of how much better mysteries written by women would sell if they didn't have to fight the low expectations of the very people who publish them!

How does this inequality develop? Editorial policies vary, but reviewers generally review
books they like. Are their choices unconsciously affected by preconception?

Equality between men and women Several years ago I served as a judge for a popular mystery anthology series, one that had, in previous years, featured primarily male authors. That year, the first to require blind submissions, the judges were gratified to discover that the stories we chose were roughly equal, male/female, and unpublished author/previously published author.

That certainly was an eyeopener for me.

Clearly, women writers are fighting against perception as well as reality. Women writers must continue to advocate for equality of advances, promotional money, reviews, interviews, and awards. And the fact that Sisters in Crime keeps track of these issues and tries to draw wider attention to them is critical.

Other voices weighing in on this issue include:




Avery Aames said...

Marcia, I hope I speak for everyone when I say that we really appreciate you voicing this alarming discovery. It's important for all of us! And most importantly for readers!!!

Avery Aames

Sandra Parshall said...

The saddest responses to this I've seen are from female aspiring writers who have said, "That settles it. I'm going to use initials or a male name." And what will they do if they get published and have to make personal appearances? Wear fake beards and try to deepen their voices? Women are just as talented and capable as men. Sometimes it may feel as if we're banging our heads against a brick wall, but the last thing we should do is give in to negativity and start feeling that we have to hide our gender.

Robert W. Walker said...

PW has done a horrible job of reviews in general in my opinion, so often "condemning a book while being cute about it" and writing reviews that are often unprofessional. I stopped paying any attention to them after so many personal attacks obvious by their reviewers as if someone were left at the prom by the author. This affront to women writers tells me that while it has the PW stamp of approval as it is published by them that it is likely a Best List created by a single individual PW relies too heavily on. One person's opinion. And I agree with you Marcia a hundred percent.

Robert Walker said...

In other words, consider the source; PW has like AIG gotten too big for its own good so far as I am concerned. It would be nice if librarians and others got the point that their reviews are not the end all.

Barbara said...

Actually, there are three women authors on the mystery list - Reggie Nadelson is a woman (and an extremely talented writer).

Leslie Budewitz said...

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and while I think the conversation is important, I’m not too worried about the lack of women authors in PW’s Top Ten of 2009. Any top ten list is inherently arbitrary, and short – ten best from the hundreds of thousands of books published last year can’t possibly be representative of gender, race, or much of anything else except what the editors ultimately concluded was excellence. I suspect the editors would be equally satisfied with an entirely different top ten – which might be dominated by women.

The real meat is in the breakout lists, and there women are decently represented – fiction (9 of 20 – Yiyun Li is female), poetry (2 of 5), mystery (3 of 7), science fiction/fantasy/horror (3 of 5), mass market (3 of 5), nonfiction (6 of 23 counting the male & female coauthors and the two female coauthors as one each), religion (4 of 10), and lifestyle (3 of 5). I don’t want to see us short-change the women who were listed by focusing too much on those who weren’t.

The conversation is important. As a society we tend to over-emphasize the matters that tend to be more important to male authors and under-emphasize those that tend to be more important to female authors. I say tend, because there are so many exceptions – there are some stunning topics and choices on those lists. The editors’ intro says they didn’t consider gender; there are good arguments for and against considering it. Ultimately, it’s about the book and human judgment – now there’s a Top Ten topic!

Leslie Budewitz

Msmstry said...

I called my local newspaper's mystery reviewer when the SinC monitoring program began and told him I'd be tallying his reviews for men and women authors. He hemmed and hawed before acknowledging that was my right.

Funnily, his reviews of women authors increased dramatically.