Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

The following questions and answers were derived from the portion of an article about Nat Sobel, the literary agent. Credit goes to Jofie Ferrary-Ader as the writer.

Interviewer: "People in the business talk about how eight out of ten readers, or whatever the number actually is, are women. I think it's very difficult for young male writers to get published, especially today. I wonder what you think about that and how you've dealt with that in your career."

Sobal: "I certainly think it's very difficult for male writers who are not writing thrillers. They have a much tougher road. We've read a number of pretty good novels by male writers that we know just won't go. Male coming-of-age novels are impossible to sell. We've already talked about how it's getting more and more difficult to sell fiction. Let me give you a better picture of it by looking back on last year. Five of us in the agency read submissions, everyone downstairs and Judith and myself. Five of us. We have an editorial meeting on Thursdays. I never talk to Judith about what I've read except at this meeting so it's all fresh for all of us. We generally read partial manuscripts, or complete manuscripts. Everyone averages about two of those per week. So, in an average year, that's more than five hundred manuscripts. Last year, from those five hundred books, we took on three new writers. And we were only able to sell one of them. Remember that much of what we get is from writers I've written to after reading their stories in the literary journals?we get very little over the transom. So look at those odds.

They're very tough."

Interviewer: "Damn right. We've spent a lot of time editing through second and third drafts and finally abandoning books because we don't think we can get the writer up to the level we want. We have to give up on them. Occasionally those books will get published too. But the odds are really difficult, and for the male writers it's even harder.

Is there anything they can do to make their odds better?"

Sobal: "I'm always looking for the unusual. I think it may require writing something of a historical nature, with a historical setting. They have to be able to get an idea of what's on the best-seller list today and see that, outside the thriller genre, there aren't too many male fiction writers who are succeeding. And I don't think that's going to change for a while."

"But isn't that troubling?"

"Sure it's troubling. I think it's troubling for all literary fiction writers today. But particularly for the male writers, who are only gradually becoming aware of how limiting that audience is. But I think you can find good male writers who can write from the woman's point of view, too. I remember a first novel I sold years ago. The writer himself was in his early thirties, but the novel was a first-person novel from the point of view of a sixty-two-year-old woman. It was entirely in first person, and it was a terrific story. It began his career. So if a male writer can write from the female point of view, or has a story that will interest a woman's audience, I think he has a better chance than somebody who's writing the kind of Hemingway-esque stuff we read in school."

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Given the fact that the largest reading and purchasing group are women, this is not surprising at all. Sixty-five percent of all books purchased are by women. I think women might account for as much as 70% (my high figure) of the entire fiction reading public. Most of these new releases are penned by young women--sometimes, very young gals, as is the case with YA titles.

This is not sour grapes and I'm not intending to start a gender flame war. But the fact of the matter is, is that the male debut novelist is becoming somewhat of a literary dodo. Due to best-selling current trends, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and YA in all of the sub-genres, we're finding that female writers have really staked their claim out in these areas and their readership is almost entirely other females. This is not to suggest that there are no male writers who've published in these genres—just fewer of them.

Truly, I had to give up SF for the simple fact that nobody, and I mean nobody, was buying it, other than the well-known trade publishers, who signed with established name authors in the business. SF, as we all know, is predominantly penned by male writers, except for the new emergence of SF romance. There are some wonderful females SF scribes out there, but how many debut female authors are writing hard SF or space opera?

Nat claims that males might have their only chance in the niche of thrillers. I think he used a rather wide brush with that comment.  But consider this: the NYC houses are run by nearly all female editors and, young ones. This is not to say that their thinking is collaborative. But from a psychological standpoint, it is not very hard to understand that a female editor is less likely to be endeared to a male MC written in a male voice--and it has nothing to do with preferring one gender scribe over another. Gawd knows there are exceptions, and some male-centric books get through and go on to print. But the majority of us guys are not writing the real popular genres, the ones that are really taking off. We have some dynamite male romance writers, but I can count them on one hand. That's if you get past their pseudonym.

Let me make this clear: I'm not talking about midlist or bestselling male authors who are appearing on the NYT list, or who are great backlist sellers. I'm talking about debut authors in the past three years. Just exactly where are the contracts going? That's my question. I've had J.K. Rowling thrown up in my face for evidence that this just wasn't true, since Harry was a male lead, and the series has been the most successful in popularity and sales ever. But I am talking about adult fiction--not YA. YA fiction is seems to be a very strong suit of female authors. And HP did start out essentially as Young Adult.

I also believe that Joe Konrath, writer of the Jack Daniels mystery series, might not have been published if not for the fact that he made his MC a female detective, and scratched his male name from the book's title. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that his agent's suggestion? What does that tell you? He admits to failing to sell nine books prior to his popular JD series. (He's a wonderful writer, by the by)

I know of some publishing houses that state implicitly that there will be only female leads used in the storyline, and that sex and romance must weigh heavily in the plot. Juno is one of them.

Techno Books (The packager) announced that it is discontinuing their entire spec fiction line. They are leaving only mysteries open for submission, plus their Impressions line--which is all romance, covering all sub genres, including paranormal and fantasy. Now, does that make sense? Once again, evidence of a major industry shift. There's no question that readers rule, and the readers are women. BTW, women rule too!

I've always heard and believed that if you write a great, compelling story, it will find worthy publication. And this is true, and women do admit to reading a ton of male-oriented books. So what's really changed? I'm going to toss this one on the bean counters--marketing. The demographics support the math. There are exceptions. But you must provide content to the largest reader purchasing group, and publishing is, first and foremost, a business that must make a profit to carry on, produce and distribute a literary product. 

What have I learned? The only control I have over this is to employ some empowered females in all of my stories from here on out. I sincerely believe Nat when he says that the male writer will have to learn how to effectively write female lead characters into his storyline if he is to better his chances for publication. I've done this, and I really enjoy the transition. My betas are almost exclusively females, who can help me address real emotions and motivations in the YA or adult female lead character. I need that direction and help. Breathe some life into some intelligent, independent, and believable females and give them some spotlight in your story lines. And guys, we really need to brush up on how to write convincing and erotic sex scenes.

Guys, times have changed for the better. More people are reading books than ever before. Adapt and enjoy the process.  

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars
Chris Stevenson, Toni Zhang
Kindle Price: $2.99



  1. Chris, I'm so sorry to hear you're giving up SF (my son loved your book). I'm especially sad because my wife and I are about to publish our own science fiction novel.

    If the above comments are true, and I guess they are, then at least 30% of the reading audience isn't being properly served. Somehow, I just don't think this is "for the better".

  2. Hal, your SF book might and probably will get a much better reception than mine did from the big six. My agent and I slaved over it for months, crafting it into something we thought might draw merit. Even with that, he received comments about the difficulty of placing such a book. So my experience might be totally exclusive. SF will always be my first love. I'll return to her when she begins loving me back.

    When my agent visited BEA back about three years ago, he was astonished at the number of female editors he met. He asked every one of them what they were looking for, and what they believed had the best chance of selling. The only thing he said to me was, "Pard, we really have our work cut out for us."

  3. Oh, forgot! I'm glad your son loved it. Did you know we G-rate wrote it to appeal to the younger crowd? I'm glad we did!