Reading the statistic that close to three-quarters of the bylines in leading print and digital publications belong to me never ceases to astonish and confound me. That's one of the reasons I was so excited to hear about Shebooks, a new company that curates and publishes high-quality eBooks written by women.
I share a passion for helping more women become published authors with Shebooks co-founder and New York Times bestselling author Laura Fraser, and I was thrilled to interview her about the roadblocks for women writers, as well as what we can do to change the landscape and opportunities for all women.
What was the impetus for starting Shebooks?
My longtime friend and editor Peggy Northrop and I were at a journalism conference at Berkeley in 2012, where we were excited by the talk about the explosion of digital media, which is giving readers new ways to find compelling stories. And we were pleased to see writers find fresh ways to work and make money outside the usual channels. But it became clear to us that female authors, journalists, editors -- and ultimately female readers -- were being shut out of the revolution. (Our "aha!" moment came at a panel where there were all guys onstage announcing their new companies to an audience that was nearly all women. I turned to Peggy and said, "It's all the same guys." She nodded and said, "Someone should do this for women." Then she went back to her hotel and started registering website names.
So we decided not to wait for our invitation to the party. Shebooks was the result: a new media format, real money for writers (our writers all share in our profits),and engaging stories that women can't wait to read, that fit the corners of their busy lives. We also applied for and received an early grant from the New Media Women's Entrepreneurial Fund at the Journalism Lab at American University, which put us into business.
What were you doing before Shebooks?
I've been a journalist based in San Francisco for a long time, and have written for everything from Mother Jones and the NYT to Vogue and Gourmet. I've done a lot of teaching and have been a member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto collective for about 15 years. I've written three books -- an investigative expose called Losing It, about the diet industry and two memoirs, All Over the Map and An Italian Affair, which was an NYT bestseller.
Shebooks specializes in eBooks. Do you think that the end of the printed book is near?
Definitely not. I think the question is a little like, "Is Pilates the end of yoga?" They're different, for different moments and tastes. I love to curl up with a good hardback. But we are all increasingly on our digital devices with short spurts of time in which to enjoy a good read. Shebooks is a curated collection of high-quality reads that will take you only an hour or two--they're perfect for times when you have to commute, take a plane ride, wait at a doctor's office, sit through a swim meet, all those pockets of time where you'd rather have something great to read than troll around the Internet to look at top ten lists and cat videos. We're delivering smart content and great stories for any time, anywhere. They're also great for book groups -- because face it, most people don't finish the books! With Shebooks, everyone finishes them -- they're short and compelling.
I was at a book conference recently and we (our small women's publishing imprint) were approached by many men who want to get published, but very few women. Why do you think that is?
I think it relates to why there are so many fewer women being published in the media in general. It's a tricky combination of both socialization and sexism. On the one hand, we have what people call the "confidence gap," where women are reluctant to pitch to magazines -- they don't have the sense that their work is worthy. That's probably what you were experiencing at the conference -- women don't toot their own horns the way men do, and are less likely to come up and try to sell themselves and their work. And there has been some research that shows that if women do pitch, if they are turned down, they tend to personalize that, and think, "the magazine doesn't want me," whereas men might think, "They answered my email; I'll nail it next time."
But the other factor -- which obviously didn't play into your situation, but relates to magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and others that still publish 75 percent male bylines -- is plain old sexism. It's still very much a boys' club, where male editors tend to trust male writers because they're part of the tribe.
At the Grotto, for instance, and I've seen equally talented men and women approach male editors at top-shelf magazines, and guys get the upper hand. I've had many personal instances of sexism in my career. One recent one was when an editor on a panel was describing a story in Italy he was considering. I approached him and said I'd like to pitch him on it -- I speak fluent Italian and know Italy well. His immediate response was, "Oh, I was kind of looking for a science guy."
He automatically assumed I don't write about science -- which I have done, quite a bit -- which is not what he might have assumed about a guy. And well, a guy would have had the "guy" part of his remark down. Now, if you asked that editor if he was sexist and if he felt women should be equally published, he's a nice liberal guy who would have said "of course" and would have had no inkling of his deeper prejudices.
Now, maybe it had to do with me and my writing. That's certainly a possibility. But his answer seemed automatic. (I did persist and checked out the story, calling Italian journalist friends to get the scoop. It turned out to not be the story the editor thought it was.)
Shebooks wants to change inequities in publishing by giving great women writers a platform. We want to raise their visibility not only to our own readers but to other publications.
What can people do to support women writers?
We are doing a campaign called Equal Writes to raise money to fund and publish women writers. We believe that if more high-quality women writers have a platform, it will raise their visibility and they will be published more throughout the media.
How will having more women writers benefit our society?
For too long, history has been written by men, and it's been men's stories that have gotten the most attention. We want to bring more attention to women's lives and concerns. I don't want to stereotype what men and women care about, but let's just say that if more women were in charge, and more women's stories were heard, the world would be a better place.
What can women who want to become authors do to be more proactive and get through the roadblocks you mention?
Women need to be more persistent about trying to get published, and not take a "no" personally, but learn from the experience, evaluate what didn't work, and move forward.
Too often, we hear a "no" and take it personally -- they don't like us, not just the idea, or they don't think we're good enough. Men often take a "no" as an opportunity to try again to get it right, while a lot of women will just drop the whole thing.
The issue of not taking things personally applies to the work, too. As a writer for many years, I've become thick-skinned about critiques, and realize they are about my work, not about my or my talent, and that sometimes the person doesn't even know what they're talking about. We have to believe in ourselves and in our work, but also believe that we can always make our work better.
Finally, I think it's important to raise the issue on a wider scale, as Vida, the literary organization for women, has done, by counting bylines, and as we're doing with our Equal Writes campaign.