Why Women’s Presses Are Needed Now More Than Ever

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   Still from live-broadcast video including material courtesy the Milan Women's Bookstore Collective Archive

Still from live-broadcast video including material courtesy the Milan Women's Bookstore Collective Archive

Even though there are more women writers today than ever before, and even though the publishing industry is comprised of a female majority, stories about women protagonists written by women writers almost never win literary prizes or gain the same momentum as their male counterparts. Why is this? What happens when mainstream publishers are not critical of the male framework within which “serious” literature is judged, and women are expected to adapt to male models and theories about writing?

Let's Face It: Books About Women Don't Win Awards

Male authors who write about male protagonists are far more likely to win literary prizes, as is shown in Nicola Griffith’s research project The Literary Prize Data. Primarily focused on acquiring data, Griffith started a working group which assembles data on literary prizes in order to get a picture of how gender bias operates within the trade publishing ecosystem. Emphasis is put on awards that tend to have the most influence on the author’s subsequent book sales and career arcs. The most recent data, collected between 2000-2014, shows that not a single book from a woman’s perspective or about a woman has won the Pulitzer Prize (arguably the most prestigious prize in fiction in the United States). Only 13% of all winners of the Man Booker prize were woman authors writing about women protagonists. Similarly, only 12.5% of all winners of the National Books Awards were woman authors writing about women protagonists. In an interesting twist, 33% of all winners of the Newbery Medal (an award specifically for children’s literature) were women authors writing about women protagonists and only 13% were awarded to male authors writing about male protagonists. However, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to literary prizes, the more prestigious, influential and financially rewarding the award, the less likely the winner is to be a woman writing about adult women. This data shows that when women win literary awards for fiction, it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men.

Is this then about who is reading the books? Are there more male readers out there making up a dominant literary readership? Quite the contrary, in fact, according to a report from the National Endowment Fund for the Arts, the trend is that more women (65%) read than men do (45%). It may be helpful to consult the VIDA count, which is a volunteer-run organization that annually tallies the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. They break down thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, tallying genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world. Looking at the numbers from 2015, there are certain journals that stand out as still dominantly male. For example, The New York Review of Books reviewed 455 authors of which 80% were male. Similarly, The Times Literary Supplement reviewed a total of 1288 authors of which 75% were male. The list goes on. A brief look at how literary journals and reviews are still dominated by the male literary canon explains, perhaps in part, why authors considered for major prizes tend to be male as well.

Bodies, Relationships and Complaints

Catherine Nichols, an American female novelist, conducted an interesting experiment to examine the gender disparity in the publisher’s acquisition process. Nichols sent out the exact same manuscript, one under her real author name, the other under a male pseudonym “George”. Out of fifty submissions, George received seventeen manuscript requests, whereas Catherine only received two. According to these results, George is eight and a half times better at writing than Catherine. The rejection letters mentioned Catherine’s “beautiful writing” and “feisty protagonist” but stayed away from any critique about the engine of the book. In contrast, George’s work was “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”. It’s fair to say that already early on in the acquisition process there seems to be a gendered bias which strongly prefers male authors. Amy Sterling Casil, an American female science fiction writer, argues that publishers and editors think that consumers want to read about bodies, relationships and complaints from women – and everything else from men. Casil writes that “if I want to be super-famous and successful, published by Random House with New York Times Bestsellers like Anna Quindlen, I need to stop my persistent bad activities and write about bodies, relationships and complaints.” Even within the industry there seems to be a growing consciousness amongst women about a biased publishing landscape. Felicity Wood and Sarah Shaffi, both female editors at The Bookseller, have noted their disappointment by the lack of key senior female figures within the publishing industry. Though a majority of people working within the industry are women, none of the big corporate publishers are run by female chief executives. There also seems to be a trend of men being promoted far quicker than their female counterparts – even men who have started out in publishing years after women and who are now in far more senior positions. Clare Smith, who is the publishing director at Little, Brown as well as its imprint Abacus says that “it is hard to ignore the fact that publishing is very female-dominated to a certain level, and that beyond that level, the balance switches the other way.” Diana Beaumont, a female agent at Rupert Heath Literary Agency, echoes this sentiment by stating that “there are many women in leadership positions, but what doesn’t seem to be happening as often as I would like, so as to be as representative as I would like, is women in the highest positions. It is important to look and figure out why that is – especially when the industry has so many women.”

Women Should Be In Control From Beginning To End

It’s not a new discovery that gender disparity goes beyond the political and economic and enters the field of words and culture. Having painted a picture of unequal representation of gender in today’s publishing world, I suggest looking back to the boom of women’s presses during the 1970s and the motivations with which they were propelled forward. What is now largely classified as the “Second Wave” period within feminism propelled forward the emergence of women’s presses. This was birthed within a political consciousness that mainstream presses were not neutral in their withholding of women’s writing. Anne McDermind, a London-based book agent, says that “women should be in control from beginning to end”, mirroring the sentiment that emerged out of the Second Wave movement. Feminists at the time argued that the most effective way of promoting women’s voices was to own the actual means of production in order to form independent presses supportive of women’s writing. Even authors began taking to the idea, as exemplified by Lilian Mohin (author of One Foot on the Mountain, 1979). She chooses not to publish with commercial publishers because she is aware of her challenging writing and doesn’t wish to enhance the reputations of establishment publishers.

Revolutions Were Built Out of Books

What united women at the time was a firm belief that books could be revolutionary, that language could remake the world, and that writing mattered in a profound way. In 1975, women of the Milan Women’s Bookstore wrote, “We want to bring together, in the same place, the creative expression of some women with the will to liberate all women.” Especially trade fiction became a means for transforming women’s politics. Reading was essential in early conceptions of second-wave feminism, intertwined with consciousness-raising circles that intended to draw attention to women’s own lives and experiences. Lise Hogeland (author of Feminism And Its Fictions, 1998) argues that consciousness-raising novels were “the most important forms for feminist writers in the 1970s”(3). According to Trysh Travis (author of The Women in Print Movement, 2008) the surge in women’s presses was “an attempt by a group of allied practitioners to create an alternative communications circuit – a women-centred network of readers and writers, editors, printers, publishers, distributors, and retailers through which ideas, objects and practices flowed in a continuous and dynamic loop.”(4) Women’s presses weren’t intended to exist as isolated institutions but facilitate a dialogue of knowledge and production amongst a larger network of women. It was thought that this couldn’t prevail within the already existing structures of communication. The overarching theme amongst the dominant majority of bookwomen was to facilitate a communications network free from patriarchal and capitalist control. Between March 1968, and August 1973, over 560 new publications produced by feminists appeared in the United States, each one serving as a pillar for the movement.(1) Elaine Showalter (renowned literary critic) argues that the work of feminist criticism “is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories.” She explains further that the term Gynocriticism “begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture.”(2) In 1976, Harriet Ellebnerger and Catherine Nicholson published the first issue of Sinister Wisdom, within which they write that “corporate America controls establishment publishing because control of communications ensures control of politics and industry. Corporate presses exist primarily to kill revolution.” The perhaps most radical contribution of feminist bookwomen was the aim of changing the way readers understood feminist literature so that reading became relational; a call to accountability that required action. There emerged a complex practice of enacting a feminist ethics of dialogue, speaking with each other rather than for each other and, throughout, to revise this knowledge through collective meetings, transnational gatherings and the strategical distribution of women’s writing.

A Radically Transformed Publishing Landscape

Fast-forward to 2016 and the need for women’s presses has never been more important. Not only are male writers given more space in literary publications, there is a total lack of representation of women’s stories in the mainstream literary ecosystem. Kamila Shamsie (renowned Pakistani novelist) recently proposed a call-to-action to provoke a largely standardized acquisition process. She calls for 2018 to be “The Year of Publishing Women” and proposes that none of the new titles published that year should be written by men. There are the obvious effects on review pages and blogs, bookshop windows and front-of-store displays, literature festival lineups and prize submissions. But the real question she wants us to think about is: “what would happen in 2019? Would we revert back to the status quo or would a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable?” In a surprising twist, the small press And Other Stories committed to Shamsie’s call-to-action and intends to publish only women in 2018. The senior editor Sophie Lewis elaborates that “the team would be rescheduling male writers’ books for other years and digging harder and further than usual, in order to find the really good women’s writing that we want to publish in 2018.” And Other Stories sees themselves as a kind of small-scale model for the much bigger inquiry about why women’s writing is consistently sidelined or secondary; the poor cousin rather than the equal of men’s writing.

Women's Art is Politics

My inquiry into women’s presses is brief and succinct, there is much more to say. The herstory of women’s presses and the emphasis on diversity and political action has truly had an influence on what it means to be a small press today. I argue that we should be taking it a step further and learn from our foremothers of the seventies that radical change comes from taking control of the means of production in order to ensure that women’s voices are heard, especially by other women. Re-kindling the anti-establishment sentiment and transforming it into a collaborative network of publishers, writers, printers and bookstore owners has the power to influence and better the lives of women everywhere.

Finally, I leave you with a quote by Kamila Shamsie “I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men it is fair literary judgment, while when women recommend books by women it is either a political position or woolly feminine judgment. To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and read some Toni Morrison.”


(1) Adams, Kathryn. “Paper Lesbians: Alternative Publishing and the Politics of Lesbian Representation in the United States, 1950–1990.” Diss. U of Texas at Austin. 1994.

(2) Harker, Jaime, and Cecilia Konchar Farr. This Book Is An Action: Feminist Print Culture And Activist Aesthetics. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

(3) Hogeland, Lisa. Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement (Conduct and Communication Series). Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1998.

(4) Travis, Trysh. “The Women in Print Movement: History and Implications.” Book History11 (2008): 275–300.

Bec Wonders