If you walk into the fiction section this month at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, Ohio, you’ll see a whole lot of white staring back at you.
And that’s no accident.
Store owner Harriett Logan — with the help of her employees and a few volunteers — deliberately flipped around all the fiction books written by men, hiding their colorful spines from view.
“I wanted to do something provocative and interesting for Women’s History Month that also displayed the disparity of women working in a certain field,” Logan explains. And that field, naturally, was book publishing.
Logan estimates that of the approximate 10,000 fiction works at her used bookstore, nearly two-thirds were written by men.
The gender gap in book publishing isn’t limited to the fiction section at Loganberry, of course. It’s reflective of a much bigger pattern.
Female authors still face hurdles getting their work published — hurdles that their male peers often don’t encounter.
Although it might seem like there are just as many women as men writing books and working in publishing overall, power structures and implicit bias still influence which books get published and reviewed and, as a result, reach commercial success.
A 2011 study by VIDA, a women’s literary group, found many more men were writing book reviews for major publications, such as The New York Times, and (maybe unsurprisingly) the significant majority of the books reviewed in these same publications were written by men too. In other words, book publishing, the study found, tends to be a boys’ club where women’s work is more easily overlooked.
One anecdote that puts this reality into perspective is author Catherine Nichols’ shocking 2015 experiment submitting her novel to be published: After sending identical queries to dozens of agents under both her own name and a fictional male-sounding name, Nichols found her fake male counterpart was 8.5 times more likely than her to get manuscript requests from agents. Or, as Nichols put it, he was “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”
Stories like Nichols’ illustrate why many female authors choose to publish their work under male or ambiguous-sounding pseudonyms (J.K. Rowling’s publisher, for example, was afraid a woman’s name on the cover would hurt book sales).
This inequality gets to the heart of why Logan is honoring Women’s History Month the way she is: by challenging booklovers to think more critically about the titles they choose to read.
It’s damaging to all of us when books only reflect a certain perspective, Logan explains. But when we read books by people who’ve lived different experiences than our own, it challenges us to grow.
“Reading — and especially reading fiction — is a wonderful tool for building empathy, for building an understanding and awareness of places and times and people who are different than you,” she explains, noting it’s not just important to read more works by women, but from other marginalized groups as well. “That’s an important educational tool, no matter what your age is.”
She made sure to point out her store’s book flip certainly doesn’t mean it’s opposed to celebrating male authors — “We still buy and sell, read and love, novels written by men,” Logan says — but Loganberry is simply taking the opportunity to do its part in righting an industry-wide wrong decades in the making.
The response to the book flip has been very positive thus far, Logan says — although she has seen a few bewildered faces upon entering the fiction section.
If you’re wondering how to help solve the gender gap in publishing, you can start with your next trip to the bookstore.
Logan encourages all of us to “look at your own shelves at home” — both the titles you’ve already finished, and what’s coming up next in your to-be-read pile — and make sure to read more works by women and other groups whose stories have been overlooked too often for too long.
“You learn empathy by listening to other voices,” she says of why reading diverse books makes a difference. “You learn to have constructive criticism about the world and your place within it when you realize you’re not the only person in that world.”