Gender Bias in Publishing: Yes, It's a Real Thing

Catherine Nichols wrote a book. She sent a cover letter and the opening pages to 50 publishing agencies. She got two requests for a full manuscript.

George wrote a book. He sent a cover letter and the opening pages to 50 publishing agencies. He got 17 requests for a full manuscript.

Catherine and George wrote the same book.

Catherine Nichols'  Jezebel article exposes the gender bias of the publishing industry in the most infuriating way. Nichols wasn’t getting much of a response to her queries so she decided to see if sending the same queries under a male pseudonym, George, would garner better results. Nichols came to the following conclusion about George: “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

It wasn’t just the number of responses, though. The quality of response the George received was vastly warmer and nicer than those sent to Catherine. Most of the agents either received the book from Catherine or George, but there were a few that were sent the same queries under both names. One of those agents sent a rejection to Catherine and “not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent.” Nichols goes on to note that: “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was 'clever,' it’s 'well-constructed' and 'exciting.'”

In the end Nichols acknowledges that sending her book under another name is an ethical grey area, but she in no way regrets her experiments. She used the critiques that George got to make Catherine’s book better. “The edited draft went to the agent who now represents me, after she got in touch about a nonfiction piece I had written under my own name. Patience, faith, playing by the rules—the conventional wisdom would never have brought me here.”

Bonus info: Women writing under male pen name is nothing new. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were respectively Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell for the publishing of Jane EyreWuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Mary Ann Evans published Middlemarch under the decidedly male name George Eliot. Even Joanne Rowling’s publishers asked her to go by J.K. Rowling to attract more boy readers to Harry Potter.