Imagine my Surprise

I’m not a crusader. I’m an observer. When I get involved in an issue, I usually try for reason, persuasion and incremental change. Often I just stay on the sidelines and watch with ill-disguised amusement.

That’s where I started during the last Science Fiction Writers of America dust-up. The Petition Affair started as a meal of poorly reheated leftovers from last year’s scandal. One quick skim of the “chef’s” eight-page treatise was enough to convince me that he was the kind of person I’d dealt with way too many times in my job; a person desperate for attention and relevance with no way to get it except try to fluff up a fight about an issue already resolved.

Then a male employee from MacMillan Publishing weighed in on, attacking one of the women members of SWFA (a former board member); referring to her as “nobody you need to have heard of.”  Well, there are lots of writers, and lots of science fiction/fantasy writers, and you may not have heard of all of them, it’s true. This particular one, Mary Robinette Kowal, in addition to being an articulate assertive woman with strong opinions about equality, fairness, and openness, also happens to be a Hugo winner and Nebula award nominee.  If you read the field or plan to write in the field (especially, but not only, if you’re female) it wouldn’t hurt to have heard of her.

When I read his comments I felt that old, all-too-familiar pinch in my gut. Honestly, I haven’t felt it in a long time, like maybe a couple of decades, but you never forget it. It means it’s personal.

He said a lot, but here’s what he meant; “She’s a woman. She dared to disagree with me. She should be silenced, her work shouldn’t matter.”

So, in 2014, when I carry a Star Trek communicator in my purse and can watch the crazy antics of cats from as far away as China, we’re back to this.


sebastopol sff section

All of this is a long way of saying that I decided in March I would focus my science fiction and fantasy reading on women writers. I know, I know, why not writers of color, immigrant writers, gay writers, etc? Because I have a short attention span and can pretty much only focus on one group at a time, that’s why.

I thought about recent award winners and good writers (and sellers) in the field and decided I’d go looking for the following:

Rachel Swirsky

Aliette de Bodard

NK Jemsin Jemisin

Mary Robinette Kowal

Catherynne Valente

I added a few more names to my list as backup and walked down to my local independent bookstore, Copperfield’s, to buy a few books.

Imagine my surprise when I could not find a single book by any of those writers.

They did have a reissued edition of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a book so dated it would probably read as a parody now. They also had the omnibus reissue of The Man Who Sold the Moon and The Sky Orphans, which is ranked at 51,515 on the Amazon Best Seller ranking.

So, classics then, right? No problem. I’ll just go over here to the L’s and see how many Ursula LeGuin classics they have. Oh. Well, there’s one, Wild Girls.  Left Hand of Darkness, ranked 14,973 at Amazon, not here. The Dispossessed, ranked 14,370 on Amazon, not here either.

The impression a person might have, browsing the Sebastopol store’s SFF section, is that not many women write fantasy or science fiction.

(Wild Girls, LeGuin’s Nebula-award winning novella, (thank God for PM Press, a small San Francisco based press that keeps things alive), was faced out. This is a bookstore merchandizing ploy and it means someone at Copperfield’s knows how important LeGuin is to the field and to readers. Connie Willis’s award winning novel Blackout was also faced out. The store has at least one fan on staff.)

Those Amazon rankings are based on Amazon sales of total books, not by genre. For example, Fifty Shades of Gray is ranked 55. The King James Version Study Bible (leather cover) is ranked 8,650. The Land Across, by Gene Wolfe, is ranked 452,829. It is a long way from a complete picture, but it is a handy snapshot.

Let’s look at those classics, though, especially this nostalgic desire to sell us Heinlein books. Heinlein was a SWFA Grand Master. So was LeGuin. Heinlein won 3 Hugo awards and 1 Nebula. LeGuin won 1 Hugo award and 4 Nebulas. LeGuin’s book are ranked higher than Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, which Copperfield’s had on the shelf. They are not ranked higher than Stranger in a Strange Land, but I didn’t include Kindle rankings, so actually, that could be closer than I thought. (Stranger came in at 8,300 on Amazon.) Anyone who thinks that LeGuin and Heinlein were equals at their art should re-read both of them. Heinlein was great fun, especially his juveniles. LeGuin created realistic, exquisitely crafted worlds and asked questions about the human experience that we are still pondering.

Sebastopol is a great town for books, but not a great town for science fiction, so perhaps it wasn’t the best sample. Copperfield’s has seven locations: Calistoga, Napa, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol and San Rafael. I wasn’t going to visit all of them. This is a rant, not a piece of investigative journalism. Next stop, though, was Petaluma.

petaluma leguin

Petaluma is the book chain’s flagship store. Where Sebastopol’s SFF section is two gondolas, Petaluma has four. Their large graphic novel section comprises another two gondolas. Because the section is better in general, women writers do better here. For example, I could buy The Dispossessed, Left Hand of Darkness and Lathe of Heaven at the Petaluma store. (I bought The Dispossessed; definitely time to re-read.) I couldn’t find the Earthsea Trilogy in this section, though. There was one Kowal book; Glamour in Glass.

No Swirsky, no Valente. They did have Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois Macmaster Bujold. They had a recent CJ Cherryh novel. Petaluma also had Ilona Andrews, the pseudonym of a husband-and-wife writing team, so that’s 50% of a woman writer. No Jemsin. No Aliette de Bodard. They had the third book of Anne Lisle’s fantasy trilogy set in Elizabethan England. They had those same two Heinlein reissues.

They had Wesley Chu’s fun techno-fantasy, The Lives of Tao.  So did the Sebastopol store. The Lives of Tao is ranked  27,187 on Amazon. That’s pretty good. There’s a science fiction novel called Ancillary Justice that’s getting a lot of buzz right now. It’s nominated for a Nebula. It’s ranked 7,800 by Amazon. A woman named Ann Leckie wrote it. None of the three stores I visited had it. About this time I dropped Aliette de Bodard out of the list, not because I’m not interested in reading her, but because the list was getting unwieldy. And her books did not show up anywhere. If they had, I would have included them.

My last visit, since I had to go to Santa Rosa anyway, was the Copperfield’s in Montgomery Village. This is a small store, and the SFF section is no bigger than Sebastopol’s, with almost identical results. No Cherryh, no Swirsky, no Kowal, no Valente, no LeGuin. They had the Heinlein books, though. They get bonus points for having one Caitlin Kiernan book, under her pseudonym of Kathleen Tierney.

I wasn’t going to drive all the way to Healdsburg in the rain, but I did make a call. Katie was very helpful, running down a list of books I requested. Because she can look system-wide, she could tell me if any store had the books I was looking for.

Here’s my list and her responses:

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. No, but they’ve had it in the past.

The Bread We Eat in Dreams, by Catherynne Valente. No, no one in the chain had it.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois MacMaster Bujold. No, but the Petaluma store had it.

How the World Became Quiet, by Rachel Swirsky. No, no one has it, and it’s not a book they would carry, although they would special order it. Thus the mystery of why this smart young writer’s books aren’t showing up in my home town is solved.

Anything by Mary Robinette Kowal? Why, they just sold Glamour in Glass and she could get it for me from another store.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin. Yes, they have it.

Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. Yes, they have it.

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu. Just sold the last one.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Yes, they have it.

I’m not picking on Copperfield’s. Copperfield’s is still an independent bookseller. They do better than Barnes and Noble, which is the other choice in our county. B&N has an entire row of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy, which seems to be where they think women writers belong. Ancillary Justice and Glamour in Glass are Nebula nominees, written by women, and you won’t find them if you drop into these bookstores and just browse the shelves.

But it’s just market forces, right? Apparently not, not when the male writers who are represented are outranked on Amazon by the women who aren’t represented. No, it’s not market forces. It’s bias. It’s probably unconscious bias, but bias nonetheless. Subconsciously, men and women both feel that the space for SFF, already tiny, belongs to certain men, and that only token women (or anyone else) should be allowed in. The name of this unspoken assumption that men are entitled to the space is actually called “entitlement,” and it explains why certain men get so angry when a woman in SFWA dares to suggest that all writers in the organization should be represented.

If some daring Copperfield’s clerk secretly back-roomed a few  of the multiple copies of a George RR Martin novel, or some of the Jordan pastiches, and added enough women writers so that the percentage was, let’s just say, 30%, how do you imagine customers would react? I have a pretty good idea. It would not be positive.

Who does this hurt? Well, it hurts bookstores.

Yes, of course it hurts women and anyone else who has been designated as “other” by the entitled few. Yes, of course it hurts young writers, and readers. More about the readers in a moment. Primarily, it hurts brick-and-mortar stores and I’m not sure why they don’t see that.

I’m a woman who wants to read women science fiction and fantasy writers; maybe just the ones who are nominated for awards; maybe for political reasons; maybe on a lark, like, “I loved Patricia McKillip when I was in college, do you have anyone like her?” My bookstores do not, although they’ll gladly order something for me if I already know what it is. If I’m going to go home and check around online, browsing review sites and Amazon instead of walking through my bookstore, which, by definition isn’t a “community” bookstore, since it has excluded such a large part of the community, why wouldn’t I just order the books that intrigue me online? Why go back to a store that doesn’t offer what I want?

How does it hurt readers? Because you’re being cheated out of good books. If you enjoy military science fiction or space opera, why shouldn’t you have a chance to read the Miles Vorkosigan series by Bujold? If you love epic fantasy, shouldn’t you be able to find Paladin of Souls, by the same author, or The Killing Moon by NK Jemsin  Jemisin?

If you love China Mieville’s playful juggling of language, you owe it to yourself to read Swirsky or Valente, if you can find them.

If you liked Mark Hodder’s alt-Victorian steampunk adventures, you should get to read Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, which combines crackling adventure with a study of the real social, political and economic changes that flow from one simple change in history; the length of the American Civil War.

Speaking of Priest, if I can find Chu’s The Lives of Tao in every Copperfield’s I visit, why can’t I find Priest’s urban fantasy, which blends the action and banter of Chu’s books with well-defined characters and good prose?

Guys – and by “guys,” in this context, I mean males – this is about you losing out. Why are you putting up with this?

I’m sure if I took this question public I would get all kinds of explanations about 1) how my experience is wrong, and 2) it’s all market forces, and 3) Amazon is not a valid source (well, duh!), and 4) publishers/distributors/booksellers are just giving people what they want, and 5) women don’t want to read/write SFF anyway… or the books aren’t science fiction, or they aren’t good, or something. None of that is true. By all available yardsticks; awards, sales, and reviews, women’s science fiction and fantasy books are as good as men’s. They still don’t get on the shelves.

But the books were there, they just sold! They just all sold out. Maybe that is true. If I go into one of those stores next week and find the shelves in the teeny-tiny SFF section stocked with women award winners and nominees, I will be sure to update my blog.

What’s the solution? For me, maybe the solution is a local one. Maybe it’s an e-mail to Copperfield’s, asking them why women SFF writers don’t get shelf space.

Or maybe we could do more. Maybe in March we could make more phone calls like the one I made to the Healdsburg store. Maybe several clerks in several stores, having to say, “No, we don’t have that Ursula LeGuin title,” will make an impression.

Of course, as part of my three-store quest, I bought books. Two were by LeGuin. One was by Anne Lisle. One is a short story collection edited by John Scalzi. One is by Richard Kadrey. I’m not an absolutist. I’m asking a question. I just want an answer.


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3 Responses to Imagine my Surprise

  1. Chad Hull says:

    It’s with great fear and trepidation that I reply. Not defend or take sides; merely reply.

    Your last phrase, “I just want an answer;” not because you’re closed-minded or a bigot, but I don’t think you’ll ever find an answer any different from the truth you’ve already uncovered. (Even if you did find an alternate explanation I think you’d reject it; and rightfully so.)

    I do think there are some problems with your shopping list. Heinlein (I’ve never read him) and Le Guin (love most of what I have read) are kind of staples; authors or the classics, so I think we can disregard them; gender or otherwise. In regards to the specific books by Valente and Swirsky, both are published by Subterranean press.

    Subterranean does really fancy stuff, focusing a lot of production values of the physical book itself, limited editions, illustrations by big names artist and other ‘wows’ that have absolutely nothing to do with the book. (The need to pay A LOT more attention to typos! I have six of their books and for the price you’d think they could afford some copy editing…) Swirsky was a limited edition of only 750, the publisher is sold out, Amazon–as of writing this–has 16. 750 was the maximum number of books that you’re calling out an independent book store for not having. When those are gone, and B&N’s are gone the only copies will be on the second hand market. Guess what price those copies will be selling for? More than you or I would pay most likely. Amazon has 19 copies of Valente, the publisher has none of the trade edition and a few of the limited edition.

    The I sent an email to their editor in chief, he replied quite promptly I might add, that they don’t release the quantity of their trade editions. I guess my point in stating these figures, and these particular examples chosen as opposed to Mieville who is published by one of the New York’s six sisters with some Subterranean limited releases as well, Subterranean sells a lot of hype, they market to collectors and rare book buyers; hence the limited editions. (Subscribe to their newsletter if you don’t already. It’s fun to read for some reason.) It looks great on their website when they can say the trade print edition is ‘sold out.’ With that in mind, and considering the segment of the market they cater too, (collectors in general nothing to do with gender of buyers or authors) I can’t imagine that the initial trade print run for either of those books was in the tens of thousands. Nor will their be publishers remainders in a bargain bin in three years for $3. (The publisher is sold out…)

    This isn’t a knock of Subterranean or the authors they sign. Except it kinda is on both coming from me because they have had numerous releases that I’ve been interested in but refuse to pony up the cash for. I don’t know who misses out more: me or the author. (Hint; the author. Very limited exposure.) Subterranean sells exclusivity. The chances of you walking into an independent or mega chain book store and find a copy of something that is 1 out of 750 are what? Non existent?

    Did any of that make sense or am I way off base and on the crap list? I agree with everything else you’ve said, I’m just not sure if those examples hold up for the point you’re already making so well. Shamefully, I’d hadn’t heard of the other authors on your shopping list to have enough of an interest to do similar pitiful research into their publisher.

    I feel like I’m gonna be branded the bad guy now.

    The dude who said that about Kowal should be asked to resign. He should be embarrassed.

  2. Marion says:

    Chad, I didn’t moderate or block your comment, sorry! I didn’t see it sitting there.

    I’m in total agreement with you about Sub press. It’s obvious that the independent and “small” presses suffer, even with so-called “independent” bookstores, because distributors won’t carry them or are prohibitively expensive. This is a stumbling block for people who self publish, too (witness Linda Nagata). I am wondering, after an enlightening e-mail exchange with Copperfield’s, whether consumers could make an impact. (Of course, with a limited print run, if the publisher’s out, that’s another problem.)

    The reason I tried to be clear that this was a rant, and anecdotal, rather than some in-depth exploration of the problem was precisely because of these factors, and the nature of the publishing system (and distribution system) in general. It still rankles when I’m staring at the spines of eight copies of *A Dance of Dragons*, or something, and can’t get *Left Hand of Darkness.* though.

    I do not think your points get you labeled “the bad guy.” I think this kind of information is helpful when I’m countering the argument, “Well, women don’t choose to write SFF and that’s why you can’t find them.”

    And I’ll be better about checking my Comments, so that they don’t languish, in the future!

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