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Mining the Data: Genre and Gender

JaneA few weeks ago, publishing savant and all-around Wonder Woman Jane Friedman shared incredibly interesting data she’d collected about debut authors, by genre and gender. Her intent was to examine the question of whether gender was linked to the type of advance a debut author earned. While the insights in that respect are certainly intriguing and eye-opening, I think the data also reveal other important trends that should make fantasy fans sit up and take note.

The data

First, a quick recap of what Friedman found. Inspired by a Twitter conversation where authors wanted to know if gender affected a publisher’s advance, Friedman analyzed the numbers from actual deal reports at Publishers Marketplace over the last three years or so. You can read her full original post and view the data charts here.

Some highlights:

  • 392 debut novels met Friedman’s criteria during that three-year timeframe. About 13 of those were science fiction or fantasy titles.
  • Women dominate in debut deal reports, approximately 70% to 30%.
  • In general, men and women authors had relatively similar chances of achieving each level of advance. The highest earning potential across all genres and both genders was for women writing YA. The single genre that raised a question was science fiction and fantasy, though Friedman notes it also could be limitations in her data set.

After reading her post in full, three things jumped out to me.

Impact of gender

Women-Destroy-SFF-IssueThere’s been a lot of fascinating discussion and movement in this area lately. From Lightspeed Magazine’s Women Destroy Science Fiction issue (If you want the backstory, go here) to studies on short SFF by author gender to countless conversations on Twitter.

Without rehashing those debates, I will say this: Of the series on my shelf that I can see at this moment—37 in total—20 were written by women. I just counted.

Here’s where I have to pause and truly thank the ladies who came before me, because as a reader and writer of fantasy, I’ve never, never, NEVER felt this genre offered anything but a multitude of smart, loyal, strong women with incredible aspirations. And I mean that both on-page and in the real world. I grew up with shelves teeming with Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sherwood Smith, Kate Elliott, Kristen Britain and more!

With women characters who excelled at math, science, tactics. Who didn’t shy from wielding weapons or ruling kingdoms. I say this not to diminish the issue, but to acknowledge that because of their tenacity and leadership, I never noticed any barriers. And for that I am immeasurably grateful.

I owe them my dreaming and my inspiration, so if there’s one thing to encourage as a takeaway from the whole gender discussion it should be a commitment to keep that going! I want readers of the future to have those same strong roots I did.

Dearth of debuts

Though not a total surprise, this is actually the aspect of Friedman’s findings that intrigues me most. I mentioned earlier that, over a three-year period, there were only 13 self-identified science fiction and fantasy debuts. That’s about four a year. Four!

Point of contrast, here are estimates for other genres: YA-about 90 total, MG-about 30 total. Now, before we go too far down the rabbit hole, let’s remember that the “General Fiction” category in Friedman’s research could very well include several additional spec fic debuts (it accounts for close to 200 debuts overall). In the same breath, romances and thrillers had debut numbers on par with science fiction and fantasy.

1111600Fantasy thrives on series, so many of the great books in a year didn’t make Friedman’s data mix simply because they’re not debut. But…for a genre literally built on pushing the envelope with new ideas and new worlds, the fact that only a handful of freshauthors were published over three years is a little alarming. One, by default it constrains (at least minimally) where the genre can go and what it can explore. And, two, it means fewer up-and-coming authors are getting into the mix.

Thankfully, in today’s world, there’s more than one way to make a debut.

I love to hear about publishing options that foster more fantasy, and there’s been some great recent news here. Tor.com’s new imprint is leading the way and opening the doors to novellas and shorter fiction as well. Serials like Hugh Howey’s Wool are finding commercial success, and self publishing is giving readers access to hundreds of authors who wouldn’t be listed among the traditional deals in Publishers Marketplace.

Bridging the reader chasm

One way to put more fantasy debuts on the shelves AND create broader appeal is via genre-blending or, books that cross multiple genres or age classifications. Sci-fi and thriller, for example, or YA spec fic. If you look back at Friedman’s numbers for YA, they’re off the charts. Again, not a surprise, but the question it raises for me is, are at least some of those readers willing to make the leap to adult SFF?

SpiritwalkerSpec fic, sci-fi and magical realism in particular are on the rise as sub-genres within YA, and several well-known adult authors have also published YA titles: Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy come to mind. So, we know the concepts and the basic genre elements are finding interest, even appeal among YA audiences. What I wish we could see more of is a pull that helps those readers cross the bridge to adult SFF. Wouldn’t it be awesome if a high schooler who just finished Steelheart picked up Mistborn or Way of Kings next? (This definitely would have been me, by the way.) Or, if people who fell in love with These Broken Stars (YA sci-fi) went right into The Darwin Elevator or The Daedalus Incident?

Now, we all have a general notion of why that hasn’t happened in spades yet—edge-of-your-seat pacing, romance elements, a penchant for first person. They’re certainly parsed out in different proportions in adult fantasy vs. YA. Yet there are fantastic adult books that incorporate those aspects too.

It makes me want to draw up a chart of recommended bridge books to ease the transition, because YA readers are out there in bulk and I want ‘em all falling in love with fantasy! Besides, I love cross-reading. I read Sherwood Smith’s Wren to the Rescue as a kid and followed her right up through her Inda series. I AM that reader, and I know I can’t be the only one.

How about you? What are your thoughts on Friedman’s post or the three findings called out above?



  1. Avatar Mark Lawrence says:

    Some of these samples are very small and the statistical significance of them is not high. The SF & Fantasy chart for example with just 13 data points (or the Thrillers with 12).

    It’s worth noting that if Elspeth Cooper’s deal had come a couple of months later and mine a few weeks earlier then you could remove the green stripe from the men’s column and add an orange or green stripe to the women’s column – which just demonstrates the volatility of such small samples.

    Also, I would expect Erin Morgenstern to be represented in the SF & Fantasy chart:

    and her advance (reported in the link as a good six figures, was in fact seven figures) requiring a magenta stripe atop the women’s column!

    • Avatar Nicole says:

      Thanks Mark! It’s always fascinating to hear new stats. I’m sure there are many more deals than listed in this particular slice of research, which is definitely good news for us readers.


  3. Avatar Erica says:

    I wish the numbers had broken down the actual amounts a bit more tightly in the 0-49,000 range. An oft cited number for SF and F debuts is 5-10k, but I’ve no idea if that’s accurate. It does appear that every female writer who debuted in that time period was under 49k, however, as were many of the men. It would be interesting to know how many people were closer to the $0 end of the spectrum and how many were closer to the 49k, and if there was even more gender stratification in there.

    Hard to get statistically significance for only 13 books, though 🙁 I think that’s the most depressing part of this. It really hits home how rare it is for new writers to get published in these two genres, though this one focused on US-only deals, so there were doubtless at least a few more in the UK, Australia, Canada and so on during this time period.

    I’m curious about another thing. Are the agents and publishers who report to publisher’s marketplace only from big 5 publishers, or does this include all the small presses too? Are there editors and agents who don’t bother reporting when their clients get a deal?

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