Guest Post: "I Don't Read Books By Women"
On starting a feminist literary press.
My old friend and former colleague is starting a literary press for admirable reasons. --Churm
"On Starting a Feminist Literary Press"
by Rosalie Morales Kearns
“I don’t read books by women.”
This from a male friend, over lunch. He was matter-of-fact, unapologetic.
The details are hazy after a dozen years or so, but I must have been mentioning authors I had read recently. He brushed them aside. (Toni Morrison? Margaret Atwood? Meh.)
Yes, he’s a dear friend. Brilliant and bookish and hilarious. Not an evil person. Doesn’t hate women.
I hope I replied, “You’re an idiot,” but more likely I seethed in silence. Words often fail me like that.
I do remember that I thought about his little daughter, wondered how I would feel if my father had so casually dismissed the idea that anyone like me could write something significant and memorable. Something worth his time.
And here I am, in 2013, starting a small press to publish literary fiction by women.
In the intervening years I would see an occasional essay, mostly in feminist publications, about gender bias in the literary world, men lionized, women sidelined, but there seemed to be no sustained discussion of the problem.
Then came an organization called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, which actually tallied the numbers: the percentages of women and men published in literary journals, percentages of books by women and men reviewed in places like the Atlantic, the New York Times. VIDA published the dismal results in brightly colored pie charts—big slices of red (the men), slivers of blue (the women).
Ruth Franklin at the New Republic counted the authors of books of literary fiction, and found that the ratio of women almost never rose above 30 percent. At some publishers, she found, the figure was as low as 10 percent.
So now people are talking about it.
It was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one to notice this, to be bothered by it. Last year, when I had a novel manuscript ready to submit to publishers, I compiled a list of reputable small literary presses. I went down the list, studied each publisher’s submission guidelines, mission statements, descriptions of new titles. I made notes on each one: “worth a try”; “agented only”; “closed for submissions this year.” But for some publishers my notes read: “almost exclusively male”; “wow, ALL male authors.” Eventually I simply wrote “no” after some publishers’ names. Shorthand for “don’t bother.”
Starting a feminist press wasn’t part of my life plan. I didn’t want to learn about distribution contracts and digital rights management. Nor do I have any startup capital. But those numbers are just too bleak.
I’m lucky to have experience in the editorial and production ends of this. I’ve been a freelance copyeditor of scholarly book manuscripts for years; before that, I coordinated both editing and production for a small research institute. I’ve taken courses in typography and book design, read classic reference works like Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking and the Chicago Manual of Style cover-to-cover.
For me, the challenge is on the business end: marketing, promotions, accounting, contracts, fundraising. This has meant a year or so of intensive reading. Well worth the annual $129 is membership in the Independent Book Publishers Association, whose monthly magazine, the Independent, along with its archived issues, is a trove of information much more detailed and technical than anything I see in writers’ magazines. Joel Friedlander is generous with his expertise on his website The Book Designer, and Guy Kawasaki’s book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, while intended for self-publishers, is a lively, hands-on guide.
Learning to manage metadata and amortize fixed expenses may not sound exciting, but there are rewards to any kind of challenge, including mastering unfamiliar subjects. It’s important to me to make beautiful books, and it’s important to get them into the hands of people who will love them. If I need to read IRS publications cover-to-cover (and I do intend to), then so be it.
In terms of networking, I’m sure I’m not as well-connected as other writers, but I’ve established some nice contacts and friendships by going to writers’ conferences, teaching creative writing, getting my stories and poems published in literary journals, and writing book reviews (a new project for me, this past year or so).
This means there are already publishers and editors willing to give me advice. There are great writers out there for me to tap for my first year’s titles, and other great writers who know I can’t wait to see manuscripts from them when they’re ready. Cynthia Reeser, whose small press, Aqueous Books, published my story collection last year, has been a godmother to this project, graciously answering my questions and supplying crucial details like the cost of renting a postage meter or sending out a mailing to independent bookstores.
Part of the joy of reading literature is the chance to spend time inside someone else’s head, see how someone different from yourself experiences the world and comes to terms with it. But if one category of author is published out of all proportion to their numbers, what perspectives and experiences are we missing out on?
Please take a look at those unappetizing VIDA pie charts. They document my own reality, as writer, as a friend to writers who have simply given up, and as a reader who is deprived of what those women would have written. I’m tired of asking writer acquaintances, How’s that novel manuscript? What happened to that wonderful story? and hearing in response, Haven’t thought about it for years, or, worse, I don’t see myself as a writer anymore. Women are writing brilliant things and putting them in desk drawers, literal or digital.
That’s what has made me take on the role of book publisher, with its attendant learning curve and the stress of an Indiegogo campaign to help with startup funds. This is no get-rich-quick (or slow) scheme. I’ll be happy to break even, to make enough money each year to put out the next year’s books. I’m not quitting my day job.
Don’t you wonder what you’re not seeing? What’s still in those desk drawers?
Rosalie Morales Kearns is the author of the short story collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012). Her Indiegogo campaign for Shade Mountain Press will run through November 20.
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