I may be one of those people who sees the world through rose-coloured glasses, but when I stumbled across this experiment by Catherine Nichols, I almost fell out of my chair. Partly because my name is Catherine, but mostly because for a grown woman, it appears that I’m as naive as a toddler. I assume individual equality, and I always play by the rules. (Ahem, fortunately, they’re my rules.)
Catherine had been sending out queries to literary agents for a novel she had written, and was receiving minimal responses. Now, this in and of itself is not unusual, however, it wasn’t her first novel, and she (along with her published writer friends) knew this novel was good. It had that something, and you just know. After some 50-odd sends to agents, she had two requests for a full and an inbox full of form rejections.
And so it was on one fine Saturday morning, feeling discouraged and perhaps low on java, she created “George Leyer” and gave him his own bare-bones email account. She copy/pasted her query and used all the same language, only now the queries came from George instead of Catherine. (And because my dog’s name is George, I figure her story is a sign from the universe.) She sent out one query, and as she prepared the second, there was already a response from the first in the empty email account. What the… on a SATURDAY? It read: Mr. Leyer. Delighted. Excited. Please send the manuscript. She sent a total of six queries that Saturday, and she received five responses before the end of the weekend. Three requests and two personal rejections praising “his” abilities. By Monday morning, she had deduced that the novel wasn’t the problem, it was her as the author.
In a puff of slighted rage, Catherine rolled her experiment out to 50 agents, some of them she had already queried under her own (female) name. “George” received 17 requests for a full manuscript. He was eight and a half times better at writing the exact same novel. Not only that, his rejections were personal, warm, and full of compliments and advice.
Now, for new and budding authors that send out queries, our name is likely the last thing we’re thinking about. In fact, it’s usually the only thing we figure we got right. The query itself is a fierce animal that often takes longer to write than our precious novels. We brood, we re-write, we take critiques, and then we spend large parts of our days curled up in the fetus position licking our critiqued wounds. There are as many authoritative types telling us the ‘correct’ way to structure a query and send our proposals as there are writers trying to get noticed. With all of this complex publishing science to navigate, now we have to worry about the name we attach to our work?
And if you do lie to 50 agents, 17 of which ask for a full, and let’s say a handful of those want to represent “George”, what’s that awkward conversation going to sound like when they find out that he’s a she?
I don’t know how to feel about any of this. Is this an anomaly? Tell me what you think.
2 responses to “Do literary agents suffer from gender bias with authors?”
Surprisingly, I was thinking of querying as a woman. Agencies are dominated by women and quite a few, no more than that, hint and sometimes state that they favour submissions from female authors.
This may reflect buying trends. Do women buy more books than men? I’m not talking about genre but sales volume.
From this story, maybe it’s not true that more female authors get signed than men.
Some hard and fast facts and figures and stats would not go amiss.
Good questions. We had this very discussion recently in a writer’s group of mine.
I did find the following stats (although they are slightly dated) to show readership. According to surveys conducted in the US, Canada and Britain, men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market. (Things change dramatatically when we’re talking about History and Biographies.)
Another interesting study says that with that stat in mind, men, both as authors and as critics, continue to be given way more authority in the world of book reviewing. This “perceived” authority may lend itself subconsiously to other areas of publishing.
The truth is, we may never know anything for certain. Thanks for the note!