Is “Good” Good Enough? – Marketing’s Effect on What We Read & How to Change It
Originally published on r/fantasy. You can see the discussion in the comment here.
We want to read good books. What qualifies as a good book varies between us all, but in the end we are all on the search for that next good book. It’s why we’re all here, and why there are so many recommendations threads. I know that regulars sometimes get frustrated by recommendation threads (myself included), but we’re all in search of that next, great book.
This post started as what was going to be part 1 of 4, but I’ve decided to put it together into one long post because it’s been on my mind for months now. It’s going to cover a number of different issues, but the bottom line is how marketing has effected what is visible.
Now, since it’s me writing this, we all know this is going to turn into a female authors discussion, *but* that’s not the entire thrust of this post – though, admittedly, a thread five months ago about female authors is what has prompted this post (I’ll explain more later).
First, I want to look at where we get our own book recommendations for us to later recommend? There’s the obvious self-research, impulse buys, gifts, and friends’ recommendations. Beyond those, there are more established ways word-of-mouth travels about certain books.
Amazon Also Boughts
The Also Bought section on Amazon, and to lesser extents on other retail sites, is an incredibly powerful tool. The recommendations are created when the book you’re looking at has sold enough copies to trigger common reading patterns. It’s not related to reviews, indie vs trad, etc. They’re usually updated a couple of times a week.
Take for example The Demons We See.
My other books are listed, as are other r/fantasy authors, and some indie authors. You’ll also notice there is a pretty even split between space opera, fantasy, and romance. That’s pretty representative of my actual readership.
The Also Boughts are a quick way to see what is in common with a specific author. Take Jim Butcher’s Skin Game. The first few are, of course, the rest of the Dresden Files. But then there is also Kevin Hearne, Shawn Speakman, Patrick Rothfuss, Simon R Green, Larry Correia, Brent Weeks, Tad Williams, Mark Lawrence, Patricia Briggs, Naomi Novak, Jeaniene Frost, Ilona Andrews, and Faith Hunter.
There is a downside to relying too heavily on these and get caught in a cycle of the same handful of authors constantly cross-referencing each other. This isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s not being hacked or manipulated. It’s simply showing threads based on sales figures. It’s easy to get caught in a cycle were you think there are only a dozen handful of writers in specific subgenres.
You walk in, you look at covers, you flip to the blurb, you buy the book. I mean, it’s a bookstore; It’s the most obvious place to find books. Occasionally, we come across statements here (and, once in particular, a massive thread of yelling about it) about how there aren’t a lot of women writing fantasy because of what’s at the bookstore. So let’s talk about that.
Books aren’t on bookstore shelves solely by merit. The acquisitions purchasers isn’t reading every single book and then deciding on the entire store’s catalogue. Their choices are based on marketing dollars, stereotypes about what readers want, bottom line considerations from management and higher ups, and, yes, what the ordering person likes and what kind of day they’re having.
I recently photographed and tagged authors I knew on Twitter when I saw their books at West Edmonton Mall. The majority of the female authors I knew on Twitter weren’t on the shelf. I can’t find the thread now (and I’m too sick this week to go out and redo it, sorry), but I believe it was around 15-20% of the women I found. I remember not finding Janny Wurts, and yet nearly all of the men, including Patrick Weekes’ series. Granted, I live in the same town as Weekes, so this might have an impact. Though, I didn’t see any of the local SFF women on the shelf.
Likewise, Mary Robinette Kowal did her own informal survey of airport bookstores on Instagram over a period of time and compiled her results here. From MRK’s summary post: “only 18% of the books on sale were by women.” That number matches roughly what I saw, but I was still surprised to see 18% specifically. You’ll see why in the next section.
Recommendations on online communities
Online communities can be private or open Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, Goodreads groups, and so on. I’m going to focus on us, /r/fantasy, simply because this is about us.
So, first, is Malazan all we talk about? Are our recommendations truly the same five authors? Is *The Witcher* truly never talked about? I grabbed ten random recommendation threads from the last month and counted.
Out of 299 total recommendations, 233 (78%) were male authors. Common names that appeared consistently were Erikson, Lawrence, Sanderson, Martin, and Abercrombie. Interestingly enough, Brian Staverly is mentioned more than I would have expected (3 threads), and referred to as underrated and never talked about. So his fans should take heart that he is talked about at least some of the time.
Female authors represented 53 (18% — look familiar?) with Robin Hobb being well in the top. There was no consistent recommendations after her. Interestingly enough, Ursula Le Guin was recommended significantly less than I thought she’d be (only 1 thread).
4% (13 mentions) were for unknown gender, genderqueer, multi-author, fanfic, and unpublished webserials. No surprise that Hickman and Weis came up a few times. (Sorry, I forgot to write down the number).
Five of the ten threads mentioned Malazan, including threads telling the OP to give it another try. Still, the recommendations for it were overall on target; i.e. Malazan wasn’t being recommended for someone wanting contemporary fiction.
Removing NK Jemisin, there were no other women of colour that I could quickly determine with a Google search. It’s important to note, however, this was not the case in three threads I pulled randomly from a last year search for threads specifically asking for female authors. In fact, I found those threads tended to have a variety of recommendations across countries, ethnic groups, ages, and publishing experience. I have no idea why, if this is consistent always, or if this was just a function of the ten original threads I pulled.
I’m not going to offer any additional commentary on this; I’ll leave that for everyone in the comment section. I simply wanted to count the posts so that we had at least something to work with. I recognize 10 thread over the last month isn’t a huge selection field, but it’s something to work with.
Recommendations from book bloggers
This is obviously tricky because book bloggers vary. Some get ARCs from publishers, whereas others sign up for free giveaways, Netgalley, or just purchase all of their books themselves. Still others take author-solicited submissions.
So I thought I’d just pull this one blog I remember because we’d had a spirited discussion about it [here]. This blogger determines what he’s going to review based on what publishers send him. Then he picks out what’s interesting and reads those, donating the rest. So the original point of that thread what that he reviewed about 19% female authors in total (again, in line with MRK’s number and our number).
So at this point, I should note that I counted us first, then I asked MRK on Twitter if there was an easy to sort her Instagram list. While I was waiting for her to reply, I asked someone else on if they remembered this particular blogging thread. So I didn’t actually know the percentages coming in would be all pretty much the same. So please take all of this with a sprinkle of salt and maybe a dash of pepper.
Okay, sure, whatever, why are we talking about this?
Five months ago – in the thread about that particular blog, in fact – /u/APLemma said, “Every week to few days there’s another 0 karma blog post about Female Fantasy be it Authors, Characters, or Readers. Under-represented, over-scrutinized, we tread the same ground over and over…I’m really against spinning my wheels on gender politics… Is this conversation equally inevitable? Are we stuck with these stereotypes forever?”
Around Christmas, /u/DjangoWexler said (sorry I don’t have the direct quote) that he’d like to get to the bottom of where all of these misconceptions, issues, problems, confusion, and stereotypes. I agree with him. I just don’t know how to solve it.
/u/Ellber once said I needed to be the change I wanted. I replied with an exhausted, beaten down post about how I just couldn’t do it anymore. And, for a number of months after that, I scaled way back on my replies and let a lot of things pass me by. I was too tired.
Normally when we have these discussions about “diversity” or “female authors” (no matter the topic or focus), we often get a set of replies and people often take turns answering them with the same replies. So here they are:
“I only read good books. Gender doesn’t matter.”
You know what? I believe you. No one wants to read crappy books! /u/ruinEleint once said, “I read books for the awesome stories. Then, in a thread similar to this one, I went back and audited my Goodreads Sci Fi and Fantasy reads and I believe the results were 80% male and 20% female… “I read regardless of gender” is not enough.”
But isn’t what’s popular what is the best of the best? It depends on how you look at it. /u/CourtneySchafer did an excellent post on things that can negatively affect a traditional book – things that affect any author of any genre. Something as small as a someone’s bad day can mess up a book’s exposure to readers.
Then there is the story about a woman trying to get an agent and what happened when she changed her name to a male name and was getting agent emails. As it’s very difficult to get a book deal from a big publisher without an agent, there is yet another tier stopping access to what you might find “good.”
Likewise, /u/mistborn once wrote that conventional wisdom in publishing seemed to follow the thinking that “boys don’t want to read ‘girl’ books…being seen as ‘feminine’ is a big deal for a boy’s identity. However, being seen as ‘masculine’ for a female youth is not nearly as big a deal. Women can wear male clothing, but not the reverse. Tomboys get an eye-roll, while sissy boys are beat up and derided. That kind of thing. Anyway, I’m not saying any of this is true–but there is a sense that it is in publishing.”
These roadblocks, through no fault of the author or the reader who just wants good books, contribute to reducing the pile in our usual word-of-mouth areas. There’s already a huge list of what’s “good” that’s been determined without your personal input – and some of it is as petty as two departments within a publishing house having a pissing contest, or someone getting a bad review on their job performance that morning.
All of those things impact what bloggers get in their ARC boxes. All of this impacts what is displayed at the bookstore. Thus beings the continuous cycle of only promoting what’s been pre-determined to be good. It doesn’t mean those books aren’t good; many of them are. Hell, I’d argue most of them are! But does it mean those specific books are the best books for you? Who’s to say; you aren’t exposed to any others.
Now, it’s easy for me to say, “go find some!” There. I said. “Go find some!” And I believe that’s often a little too simplistic and faulty – even though I do personally get frustrated and have said it myself. But, really, how are you supposed to find more good books if there isn’t a wide range of reviews, word-of-mouth, and discussion? If money is tight, spending even $5 on a couple of indie books can really be disappointing if that’s your entire month’s book budget and you ended up hating both. I get it. I *get* it.
I think those of us with larger reading and spending quotas can help with this by recommending more things in general. Indie books. Australian authors. South African authors. Canadian authors. Women, men, black, white, aboriginal, Asian, young, old, middle-aged. I think there is a place for that here. What’s more, I think there are enough people who already read a lot of different things and are lurking, or too shy to speak up. So I’d like to encourage them to do so.
Look at the fun we’ve had about Enchantment Emporium. How many people read that book because /u/lrich1024 and I have been talking about it? This is a fairly obscure book, but these conversations let people know if they’d like a book or not. It adds to the overall book content.
I don’t believe in reading quotas and that’s what you’re proposing.
No, it really isn’t. There’s no guild or union rules here. Some people purposely might focus solely on one group of authors for any number of reasons. (i.e. I might decide only review Canadian Authors next year.) I think there is some responsibility on the shoulders of the person reviewing, but also there’s some responsibility on the shoulders of marketing departments who send out these books (assuming it’s that kind of blog) or how an author comes across books to purchase (i.e. libraries, bookstores, etc).
If a reviewer is only covering 5% WOC in a year or let’s say under 20% women and they review a significant amount of urban fantasy, I think they are contributing to the word-of-mouth bias that can happen within fantasy circles. I think it wouldn’t matter, or at least stand out as much, if we saw more diversity in reviewers and reviews. And I don’t even mean obvious “diversity” but rather the entire encompassing meaning of it. More diversity in age, country of origin, background, and the more obvious definitions can all bring a different perspectives on books – and bring out different books.
All (too many? It seems like?) of the books by women are romances.
They aren’t, but ya know what? Some of them are. Some of them have covers and blurbs that would convince even me that they’re hardcore romances…and they aren’t. Assuming a book is by a big publisher, that again falls to the marketing department to clean their house.
I think we do need to discuss this as an overall community. Why are publishers assuming a female author needs a softer cover? Is it because marketing feels men don’t enough fantasy books by women, and therefore want to appeal to more women – both fantasy readers and maybe try to bring in some of the coveted romance readership, forgetting that a) there already is cross over and b) deception marketing to romance authors (i.e. the love interest dies at the end, but marketed as fantasy romance) is the fastest way to have an author added to their *do not read* list.
This is really noticeable, I think, in urban fantasy. I remember /u/lyrrael’s urban fantasy thread and I remember the fear and anxiety of if we’re all going to just argue all over again. And how she was told afterwards to remove a bunch of female authored books because they had romance…but not the male authored ones.
Janny Wurts wrote one of the most honest, and heartbreaking, comment in her AMA last year where she said, if she had her time back: “I’d have taken a gender neutral name in a HEARTBEAT if I could start over”.
/u/yetanotherhero wrote a post about romance and r/fantasy:
“I can think of very few epic fantasies I have read that do not have romance plotlines. Certainly all of reddit’s favourite epic fantasies do. Wheel of Time, Malazan, Kingkiller Chronicles, most of Brandon Sanderson’s entire output, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Black Company, The Dark Tower, Tigana, Lightbringer. That’s a list, off the top of my fucking head, of stories by male authors that feature romance…And yet every. single. time we talk about women writers it always comes up how male readers can’t handle the amount of romance women write. And how they feel justified in the assumption that if a woman has written an epic fantasy that it’s really going to be a Mills and Boon with dragons.”
We’ve had people say this, and we’ve had people openly talk about how their own personal bias of “romance” was causing them to skip female names. I think if we talked about more books, those people who struggle – for whatever reason – can have an easier time finding good books.
/u/Madmoneymcgee once wrote: “An important step in erasing biases is to admit that you may have some even if unintentional. And yeah it may be uncomfortable sometimes to intentionally read something by a woman just because you need to diversify. But that will go away as you realize how much you’ve been unconsciously missing out on. That was the case for me at least and now if I were to order my favorite books then women would be well represented.”
I don’t want books to have an agenda.
I, personally, have gotten this a few times. I’ve been here three years and I’m active. I post most days. I’ve started Krista Recommends this year. I’ve been trying to do more author-related posts (I’ve done covers and ways to help your favourite author when you’re poor).
Seriously, though. I recommend 5 women I like in a thread. It makes sense, since I’ve been very open that I’ve been reading more women on purpose this year specifically to help with recommendation threads and to offer more variety. It’s been singled out a few times – sometimes, jokingly, sometimes not, and sometimes has resulted in off-sub harassment (this is now rare, thanks to a lot of help, including the mods here).
But if I’ve read 5 books by women who I think are a good match, why is that an agenda when recommendation threads can be 100% male – outside of me posting in it? Why is a post with 6 male authors in it just “good” books, whereas my post with 6 female authors in it is an “agenda”?
Aren’t we just suggesting good books to read? Do we not want variety? Or do we simply want the same books that marketing (purposeful and unintentional) have told us were good?
OMG I’m so sick of diversity
The last time this complaint was made (about 2 months ago), I did a count: “In the last 3 days, we’ve had 4 diversity topics (using broadest definitions). If you think all Hugo discussions are about diversity and social politics, 6. Compare that to 3 Malazan, 5 about writing, 8 reviews, 9 art, 61 general chatter (TV, AMAs, book sales, etc), and 17 recommendations threads. It’s not that hard to skip what you’re not interested in when it’s not the bulk of what we discuss here.”
So we don’t actually talk about it all that much. It’s just that it stands out to some people for various reasons. Maybe it makes a person feel attacked; that they see discussions about reading habits and feel they are being targeted or called names behind their backs. Maybe a person does have prejudices and don’t want a spotlight on it because they have no interest in changing. Maybe a person is poor and can only rely on what’s at their tiny, rural library, and they don’t want to say that out loud.
I’d also argue that there is a place here to talk about all different things. If we have 3 threads dedicated to the greatness that is Malazan, surely we can have one thread every month or two about variety.
I’ve tried new things and I didn’t like it.
I think it’s ok to expect that you might not like a lot of things that you get exposed to, especially if they are different from your usual reading. That’s not even a gender thing. If a book is different from what you’re used to, it can trip you up. I’ve had people struggle with the setting in Spirit Caller because it’s set in a place that a lot of people didn’t know where to find on a world map. It had nothing to do with me being a woman or them being a male reader; it was literally just outside of what they’re used to. It’s to be expected.
What can we do, as per APLemma’s comment earlier?
When I think about that comment, I actually always go back to /u/marklawrence’s self-reporting survey of his readers where 20% admitted a bias against women authors. Mark posted that thread here and there were comments about how “I can’t think of a female fantasy author.” You know, I’m not even mad at that reader or readers like him. I’m mad at every single step in that reader’s life that caused him to never be exposed to a female author enough for him to remember one name.
And I think we’ve come a long way since the menstruation jokes in /u/wishforagiraffe initial Cerridwen Project posts or the “women only write were-seal porn” comments when I first arrived here.
I think /u/Mikeofthepalace request that there be more reviews on /r/fantasy is a good step. Just more people reviewing more and different books that aren’t being reviewed “out in the wild” helps.
What can we do, as a community, to bring more names and spotlight more books that aren’t getting attention in bookstores and blogs? Maybe someone might want to pick up reading a couple of obscure books that have something crazy like under 50 ratings on Goodreads just for the hell of it. I’d love to read that.
Maybe someone decides to recommend 50/50 – 50% being their first auto recommend and the other one being something off the beaten track from what everyone else is recommending.
Maybe someone decides to write a long essay about it.
Maybe someone who reads a lot decides to do a bingo card that is all YA or Canadian authors or First Nations authors, or translated authors.
Maybe someone wants to take on reviewing all of the award winning books for the year.
I don’t know. I just know that /u/APLemma is right. We’re spinning our wheels and I want to try to do more.
“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
Lieutenant General David Morrison