Women writers and gender disparity in the publishing world

The inaugural edition of the Civil Services Officers Institute (CSOI) Literature Festival in Delhi on April 27-28, 2019 not only had an engaging audience but also many popular authors from the literary world as speakers. Curated by Altima Mankotia, the two-day CSOI LitFest had literary discussions, interactive sessions, art and book exhibitions, cultural events and food festivals organised for the audience.

One of the interesting panel discussions on Day 1, which is quite relevant in our times was about the growing trend of prolific women writers in recent years and the gender bias in the publishing world. The panellists of this session, titled ‘In Her Own Write, were TOI Write India Director Vinita Dawra Nangia, journalist-author Shaili Chopra and translator Gillian Wright who were seen in conversation with Readomania Publisher, Dipankar Mukherjee.

Mukherjee started the discussion by asking the panellists about their take on the surge of women writers in recent years and if there is any bias in the books published by men to women. To this, Ms Nangia said, “There is a surge in women’s writing. I spoke to a few bookshops about the number of books that are written by male authors and how many by women authors, and there was a very confused response from three bookshops. The first one said 70% men, 30% women; the second one said 50-50%; the bookshop said that they can’t give us the numbers but since women authors sell more, they put their books on display more. So nobody really knows… I did ask a few publishers as well if there is any prejudice against manuscripts received by women and they all said ‘of course not, we receive a large number of manuscripts from women and there is an increase in this number in recent years’”

Ms Chopra answered this question on the basis of her assessment of the last 3-4 years. “Three years ago, we started the Women Writers’ Festival to put the spotlight on what women write and also the issues that women bring about. They are very different from male authors in general… Three years back, we saw that in India there are about eight women who circulate at various festivals! So, it was evident to us that most of the times the discussions around women would be something about clubbing all women writers in the women’s panel and not much about their individual works.

“I have noticed two things—firstly, women’s writing has gone up, not because someone wants to promote women’s writing but because ‘Me Too’ happened; globally people were talking about women’s issues, the Women’s March happened in the US. Suddenly women took charge of their lives and started speaking-up which made the headlines. I think that was part of the reason why more women authors are being published. Otherwise why J.K. Rowling is J.K. Rowling and not her full name? Why most women authors have gender agnostic or almost male names when they went into publishing in the last 15 years? That wouldn’t have existed… that’s a reality. Secondly, a lot of women’s issues suddenly came in the limelight because women wrote, but their ratios weren’t too much. Suddenly they have been put in the forefront because it has become fashionable to do that.”

Agreeing to this, Ms Wright added, “I feel this is something that has been highlighted over time. My understanding of North-East India is shaped by the writings of contemporary Indian writers. People like Temsula Ao have talked about Nagaland and the insurgency in her first book of short stories; Mitra Phukan has also written about Assam. So, I agree that things are changing over time and more women are writing now.”

But while more women are writing now than ever, there are more male authors on the bestsellers’ list. Highlighting this and what could be the possible reason for it, Mukherjee then asked the panellists for their opinions. Ms Nangia responded to it first by saying, “When I go to a bookstore and tend to pick up a book I don’t tend to go in for male or a female author. I do distinguish in certain genres in the India and foreign authors because there are some genres which in India we haven’t been able to deal well with, I believe. But there is a gender bias (in the publishing world) I think. For instance, the HT-Nielsen list which comes out for the bestsellers in India mostly has male authors except for just one or two women authors. When I compared it with the NY Times’ list to check the gender divide, I noticed that it has all women authors with just one-two male authors. How can things be so vastly different? You cannot say that Indian women cannot write as well as international writers. So the bias does creep in somewhere.”

She then questioned that the gender bias in the publishing world either comes in at the publishers’ end, or it is in the market where the books are displayed or maybe it is in the readers’ mind. Pondering over this line of thought, Mukherjee who is a publisher himself shared his insight and an assumption on why the books by male authors do well as compared to the ones by women authors. “In the Indian book industry, there is a saying that goes—’jo dikhta hai vo bikta hai’. It simply means whatever is in front of your eyes will attract the majority of buyers. For someone to do that, either the author or the publisher needs to spend money and buy space from these retail units. Now the irony of the whole game is that probably there is a situation in which right now the male authors have a more commercial power in promoting their books; maybe they are spending more money to market their books, as compared to women. And hence the women authors are not getting due visibility. But this is just an assumption.”

Sharing her thoughts about this argument, Ms Chopra said, “Talking about my own example, I am the author of four books. My last book ‘Feminist Rani’ has officially entered the bestsellers’ list. My co-author and I had to be supremely aggressive to market it.” To which Ms Nangia promptly added, “Most women are so shy about marketing their work. That could be a large reason why these women are not on the bestsellers’ list.”

At this point, Mukherjee asked Ms Wright if the original author’s gender and the translator’s gender matters when it comes to translation works. Ms Wright responded that this is something which has become an issue recently. “My first translated book ‘Raag Durbari’ was published 50 years ago. Once when the author and I were in a seminar when the book was released, we were asked this question. Back then we laughed about it because it is something that didn’t even occur to us! But this is now something which does occur to people. Back then the thing that mattered was that the author and translator should have the same sense of humour. Generally speaking, publishers and authors want someone who can give them a good translation,” she replied.

Sharing his own experience, Mukherjee added, “Being a publisher, I thought about this too and my answer was ‘no, the gender of the author doesn’t matter to me’. But then I realised, when the process of evaluation happens somewhere the information of the author’s gender creeps in and this starts another process of evaluating the commercial viability of their work. At the end of the day, it’s the author who is being sold in the market. Publishers have to ensure that the authors themselves are out there. Of which women are more shy and reserved to go all out there for multiple reasons.”

Taking Ms Chopra’s point ahead about bestselling women authors being “supremely aggressive” for marketing their books, Mukherjee then asked her if there is any difference in the marketing strategies of women authors who are also working and those who are home-makers. She disagreed with the question and said, “I don’t think there is any such distinction. The only distinction that can be is between full-time authors and part-time authors. I’m told by full-time authors that when you write for a living, there is a completely different approach to your writing.”

Ms Wright added, “In the old days, the author didn’t have to do anything after writing their books. That was not your responsibility. Now of course there is a lot of digitalisation. One thing I have noticed is that most books sell because of them being written by known personalities.”

Mukherjee then asked the panellists their thought on whether the writing is empowering and if that’s the reason for women trying to find their voice through writing. To this Ms Nangia replied, “Most of the people who participated in Write India (a short story writing competition) are students, engineers, doctors, scientists. This shows that these are the people who probably don’t get much time in their everyday professional lives for creative outpouring and so they indulge in writing to pour out their creativity as a stress buster. It is also a process of creating something and today you have so many means of getting it out to the world.

“Also the proliferation of celebrity authors… today I think media is creating brands out of authors and writers. When you see Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi—people feel that they can also do that. A lot of women feel so. Perhaps the women who have lesser avenues of expressing themselves and being empowered, go into writing,” she explained.

While Ms Chopra said, “With digitalisation, you can have your own blog and get yourself a wide readership. That ability to be read and be validated has deepened the ability of women to use writing as a tool for empowering themselves and also to get that circle of support.”

And agreeing to both the point of views, Ms Wright ended the discussion by adding, “The fact is that women now have the ability to do it (writing). Empowerment is a part of it. But it is not for everyone, as everyone is different.”

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