Adapting to a Gendered Market

After graduating college, I decided it was time to become a novelist. Seven years and four unpublished novels later, I’ve realized that this was not the wisest nor most profitable of career decisions. I studied poetry and dabbled in the personal essay, but that did not prepare me for the subtle art and diligent work it takes to be a novelist; I had absolutely no experience writing fiction. Further, my gender may present a serious obstacle en route to publication.

Consider this quote from a book editor in a recent Salon article: “When we buy a debut novel by a man, we view it as taking a real risk.” Publishers know that women account for roughly 80% of fiction sales. If you’re a man, you need to have written something that appeals just as much, if not more, to women as to men.

But what elements in a book appeal to women? After working in a bookstore for nearly five years, it’s clear that the romance genre appeals almost entirely to women. I never once saw a man buy a romance without proclaiming (with an uncomfortable grin) that it was a gift for a woman. From there we can move on to “chick lit,” which features more whimsical tales of love and relationships or topics like shopping or fashion. Authors like Jennifer Weiner, Sophie Kinsella, and Jodi Picoult come to mind. And then we have more literary works like The Help, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The History of Love that, while appealing to women, can also be easily read and enjoyed by men. (I say this from the perspective a bookseller. While I wouldn’t recommend a “chick lit” author to a man, I would recommend those literary titles.)

My fiction appeals very little to women. My stories are bleak, and my characters often fail in redemption. I tend to feature male protagonists who don’t understand themselves and are frequently aloof in their dealings with other people. I looked at my body of work and felt rather discouraged that I had spent the last seven years working on something that the publishing industry won’t even consider.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is but a minor obstacle. I thought about female authors who had to overcome much greater odds in order to practice their craft. The Brontë sisters had to resort to taking male pseudonyms to get published. And they’re not the only ones. George Eliot, S.E. Hinton, P.D. James, Anne Rice, and a slew of other women have taken on male or gender neutral names to counter our culture’s gender bias. This gave me an idea: What if I were to take on a female pen name to increase my chances of getting published? But I didn’t want to stop at a pseudonym. I wanted to create an alter ego.

So for the last month, I’ve examined women writers whose writing almost exclusively appeals to women readers in an attempt to emulate their commonalities in style in my work. For fun, I’ll sometimes put my alter ego’s writing into the text analyzer I Write Like to gauge how my voice has changed.

While writing in my female persona, I’ve noticed that I tend to focus more on descriptions of people and my characters’ perception of events. I insert more wit into my dialogue.

I also write in the first person. I made this decision because, as clichéd as it is, I wanted to describe my character’s feelings. I thought the first person voice would do this most effectively, not to mention that the female authors I’ve been examining write exclusively in the first person.

I’ve always believed that the mark of a skilled writer is one who can adapt to their audience. Perhaps this sentiment is more important now than ever. If I can expand my writing to attract both female and male readers, then I’ve not only accomplished something I’ve not been able to do before, but I’ve made myself marketable, which seems to be the ignition in the engine of the publishing world.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.


6 thoughts on “Adapting to a Gendered Market

  1. I had to consider my market after realizing most of my work, as you said, features bleakness, heartbreak, violence and crime. However, rather than seeing as an obstacle, I’m trying to make a challenge out of it. It’s great to see someone out there agrees.

    1. Knowing one’s audience is extremely helpful. And this is by no means a new idea, but just one I have to remind myself of frequently. Back in college, my prof gave me advice to getting published. He said to read the journals I submit my work to, get a feel for what they publish and hone your writing to each journal.

      It also reminds me of what Apple’s Jonathan Ive recently said: “Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new — I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us — a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.”

      Writing is a product and all too often I focus on doing something new. But really I just need to be better.

  2. Interesting article, thanks. I’ve just tried out a couple of pieces of my work on ‘I Write Like’, both of which are written in the first person. One is about a man murdering his wife by allowing her to freeze to death, and the other about a mother who has lost her child in a public place. The first (written from the man’s POV) came out as Arthur Clark, and the second (from the woman’s POV) as L Frank Baum. I’ve obviously got some work still to do here … 😦

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