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Gender and Publishing

There's all sorts of awesome discussion going on at the moment about gender and race in publishing. Discussion is always good, especially when it makes you think about things more carefully.

For instance, all this talk about invisibility has me rethinking something. I've been seriously reconsidering my involvement in the ASif! review site project. I've been mulling things over for several months now. And when I went to Tasmania, I talked it over a lot with both cassiphone and flinthart and at great length. I'm in two minds about it and I haven't really decided where I stand. The project requires a lot of time, energy and money. By and large, I do a lot of the behind the scenes administration - liasing with publishers and reviewers, assigning the reviews and sending the books out to reviewers. electricant came on board, what two years ago now?, and has taken up the workload of tracking review assignments and review copies and editing and publishing the reviews online. Both these roles are very time consuming. And neither of us has much scope for giving more time to this project.

The problem is, the project in its current form isn't what we would like it to be. And for it to realise our vision, we'd need to invest more time. Much more time. And we'd need more reviewers on board. And there's also this question of money - the community generously donated to the running costs of this project in 2006 and 2007. I've been running the project using this money since then and I still have some left in the kitty. Probably for this year's budget. But after that ... what happens next is the question.

I've had a lot of difficulty selling advertising space on the site - publishers aren't that interested and I think see their contribution to the project as the free review copies. I also know that we get a lot of web traffic to the site and we have consistently won fan awards (Tin Ducks and Ditmars) recognising the achievements we have made and emphasising the support we have in the community.

What, then, are my thoughts? A while ago I re-evaluated my personal focus and realised the direction that I would like to go, personally. And ever since then, I've begun streamlining my commitments so as to be able to funnel as much time, energy and enthusiasm into the direction I want to go to achieve my own goals. I created ASif! to be a review website that would focus on Australian speculative fiction, for it to be a place where Australian writers could be critically reviewed and for Australian readers to find out what new local publications there are. However, I've had a lot of trouble finding reviewers interested in reviewing this material, especially for small presses (both local and international), and in fact cannot even entice them to read and review my own products.

It feels as though the site is moving off in a different direction, which would be fine except that I've also been thinking about how I think we are viewed by the big publishing houses. I suspect that we would be in a better position (in terms of how early we received review copies and what review copies we received) if there were more buzz surrounding our site - if our reviews of new books came out sooner, if we reviewed the more high profile books and if there was more discussion about the content of reviews we publish. And I've been mulling this over for a while now. Because it seems in some ways to be a chicken and egg situation. What's more, I'm personally receiving requests and review copies to review books here, on this blog. And that's made me think a lot about where I should be focussing my own energy.

This occurred to me today - this month (week), we've published 6 reviews - all of books written by women and reviewed by women. Respectable, well considered books by women including Gwyneth Jones and Kylie Chan. We review a lot of fantasy and paranormal romance. We tend to review the books that come in that our reviewers are interested in reading. And the kind of books that these are ... tend not to be the "high profile books" that I was referring to in the previous paragraph. For example, I have received no less than SIX COPIES of Raymond E Feist's latest book. We've reviewed it on the site already yet more review copies of it keep coming in. And I've been wondering why the heck why?

We publish nearly 200 reviews a year on our website - we're about 10 shy of hitting 800 reviews in total. That's an enormous achievement. I haven't counted but I'm very confident in saying the vast majority of these reviews will have been written by women (our most consistent and prolific reviewers are Lorraine Cormack, Tehani Wessely and Alexandra Pierce). There are also some really interesting reviews by David Buchbinder on the southern gothic paranormal subgenre (male reviewer talking in depth about books written by women, for women). Our reviewers choose their own assignments, picking the books out of the review pile that they prefer to read. I'd be interested to look and see what the genre breakdown is but I suspect we review far more fantasy than science fiction. I also suspect we review books written by more women than men. But again, I'd need to check. And also, more novels than short stories.

Perhaps one of the problems I'm having in increasing support from big publishers has more to do with our content? Is it possible that a review site that heavily features female reviewers reviewing big fat fantasy written by female writers is of lesser import? Given that that is such a huge chunk of the market, it does sound preposterous. And yet ...


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2010 08:32 am (UTC)
I know, somewhere in my head, I have a coherent thought about this (important) post. But right now, all I'm coming up with is: wahey! Which isn't very helpful, but hey...

Oh, also: better get me some reviewing done, if fantasy is pushing out SF. Can't be having that!
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
yeah you took last year off, slacker.
Jan. 20th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
I still wrote a few reviews though!!
Jan. 21st, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
You did!
Jan. 20th, 2010 09:35 am (UTC)
That's a really interesting thought.
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
Not quite sure what to do with it, either.
Jan. 20th, 2010 10:07 am (UTC)
Hrm that's weird, I've gotten about 4 copies of Raymond E Feist's last one...and we had already reviewed it before getting any of them as well! I'd much rather read, say, Glenda Larke or Karen Miller's latest than another Feist which has the plot of all the others. The best work, and most original, he ever did was with Janny Wurts with Daughter of the Empire. I loved that series.

Jan. 20th, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah we got about that many too of the Feist. I don't know why.
Jan. 20th, 2010 11:01 am (UTC)
It sounds as though you're having the self-same probs as we have at The Specusphere. I don't know what the answer is - if there is one. Getting the right books to the right reviewer is far harder than one might imagine! I get the feeling the publishers just blanket the zines with books, with no thought as to who might be interested in reviewing what. Nyssa's experience with the Feist book is not at all uncommon, I fear. Yet I've been asking for a couple of other books for months and they keep saying they're sending them - but something goes wrong between the order and the mailing room, obviously. Not just one publisher, but all the big ones are guilty of this.

And the time factor is a huge bugbear. I really need an off sider to take over some of the roles you've delineated in your post, but every time I ask for volunteers there is a resounding silence. We did get one publisher to take out an advert, but they never paid the bill, despite being billed every month for ages:-(

Ah well, plod on:-)
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:27 pm (UTC)
Why plod on though? To what end?
Jan. 20th, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC)
For me, it's a way to pay back - and forward - for the wonderful help and friendship I've had from the SF community, and perhaps, even, to justify my place in that community. In addition, there's the team thing - I'd be letting the side down if I stopped. If the team decided to can the whole enterprise and kill off The Specusphere, I'd be relieved in a way - and I'd think very carefully before sticking my hand up for a similar gig in future. But as things stand I'll keep struggling on with what is really a job for at least two people and hope that sooner or later someone will volunteer to take over some of the tasks.
Jan. 21st, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
And those are good reasons. I'm sure I will too and for the same ones. I just feel a bit grumpy and overwhelmed by it all at the moment.
Jan. 21st, 2010 05:05 am (UTC)
Ah, well do I know that feeling. Thank heaven it doesn't usually last long!
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:10 pm (UTC)
Publishers would have 567 reasons for not advertising on ASif before they get to that one - and most of those reasons probably aren't any different from why they don't advertise on other similar sites.

First off, publishers don't do a lot of review-based advertising in existing Australian media markets anyway. The Courier-Mail and the Sunday Mail in Brisbane sell about 750,000 copies a weekend. Both review books but they don't get a lot of advertising. But ads there cost a bucket, so let's use a different example - the Huffington Post's book section.

The Huff Post is one of the most popular blogs on the planet. I don't know how many hits they get a day but Wikipedia says they get one million comments posted a month. Their book review section has zero adverts from any publishers on its main page. Ditto the New York Times books website - zero publisher adverts (though they do have some bookstore adverts served up by Google Ad Sense). Closer to home, the Sydney Morning Herald's book website is the same - zero publisher adverts.

Have you asked publishers why they don't advertise? What did they say?

Part of the reason may be that your site is dedicated to reviewing and from their point of view if you're doing your job well then you're doing their promotion for them. But mostly, it's because they don't have the budget for that sort of advertising.

But how creative are you in searching out revenue streams? Eg - are you an Amazon Affiliate?

And don't discount the notion that niches work. Having a site dedicated to reviewing works by female writers and adding some more engaging content - interviews, feature articles etc - may actually encourage advertisers if it encourages a wider audience.

- Robert
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)
The final point you make is the kind of direction we'd like two take the site but I already work to full time jobs and don't have the time required to get this up and running and manage it.

So as for the rest of it, you're basically backing up my current position which is - what's the point in continuing the site? Its of no use to the publishers. It has little appeal to potential reviewers to get free books (that they don't want). Its a lot of work for me for what I'm not sure what payoff.

I have asked publishers about advertising and they are not really interested. I was an amazon affiliate but that did not seem to actually generate revenue - nor does google advertising, which is on the site. Again it comes back to the fundamental question - why? What is the point in the site?

Edited at 2010-01-20 12:27 pm (UTC)
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
It's valuable because it's comprehensive. And I'm sure there's a payoff for readers.

It's a bit chicken and egg, isn't it? If you collectively don't have the resources to put into the site it doesn't matter what you do with it. But you can't get more out of the site without putting more work into it. But everyone's gotta have a life and focus on the projects that matter the most to them.

- Robert
Jan. 20th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah it is the chicken and the egg and you're right about focusing it a bit more and maybe offering some different things. I need to figure out how I can do that without it taking more time than I have to offer. Because I'm not *quite* ready to walk away from it yet.
Jan. 20th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
This is very interesting. I like the potential direction you're heading in :)

Also, I know I still owe you a review - sorry :( I'll get it done soon, I promise!
Jan. 21st, 2010 02:48 am (UTC)
I'd appreciate the review as urgent, it's for a big name writer that would be good if we featured on the site.

Jan. 21st, 2010 06:47 am (UTC)
I'll make it a priority!
Jan. 21st, 2010 07:05 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Jan. 21st, 2010 07:14 am (UTC)
If you decide you still need reviewers, I will put my hand up!
Jan. 21st, 2010 07:43 am (UTC)
I always need new reviewers!
Jan. 21st, 2010 09:29 am (UTC)
Cool! Sign me up then!
Jan. 21st, 2010 10:41 am (UTC)
Em, we can share books too! Saves GJ postage...
Jan. 21st, 2010 12:14 pm (UTC)
oh really!
Jan. 21st, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
Sounds logical and economical!
Jan. 22nd, 2010 03:53 am (UTC)
yes but the bit that's not is that she's not really gonna review books!
Jan. 22nd, 2010 03:58 am (UTC)
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )

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