We were always taught to never judge a book by its cover. But perhaps the greatest hurdle in literature is not judging a book by the author's name.
A female writer's pseudonym experiment is fast gaining attention in the publishing industry after she received almost nine times more manuscript requests when sending her query under a male name.
When American author Catherine Nichols found herself suffering from writer's fatigue - “I wasn’t feeling like a writer, and I hadn’t written in weeks,” she writes on Jezebel - and feeling crestfallen about studies on gender biases that favour men's names over women's, she decided to test the waters herself.
She created an email address under the male name George Leyer and sent her cover letter and the opening pages of her novel from the new account to six publishing agents whom she planned to contact that day. Within 24 hours she had five responses, three of which were manuscript requests and two which were “warm rejections praising his exciting project”.
“For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests,” she writes. “The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad...The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.”
To make a direct comparison, she then sent out a total of 50 queries under George's name. Can you guess how many manuscript requests she received? Seventeen. “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” says Nichols.
She explains that publishers only accept submissions through agents, which makes them essential gatekeepers for anyone hoping to sell a book. Most of the agents Nichols contacted from her and George's account were different, but they did overlap on some occasions: “One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine 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.”
“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.' No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty. A few of people sent deeply generous and thoughtful critiques, which made me both grateful and queasy for my dishonesty.”
If we had to stack the number of books in history where female authors, from Louisa May Alcott to the Brontë sisters, adopted male names to combat sexism and prejudice at the time, they'd be collapsing over us, which is what makes Nichol's findings even more dispiriting. Has really nothing changed in the last two hundred years?
In 1837, when a 20-year-old Charlotte Brontë sent a few of her poems to England’s poet laureate Robert Southey, he responded, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be.”
Fast forward to 1997, when J.K. Rowling was told to use her initials instead of her name Joanne to attract more boy readers. In 2013, the author decided to pen her first crime fiction novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith instead of her own “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback,” she said at the time.
A 2011 study found that the works by the four major publishers of literary fiction - Knopf, Crown, Little, Brown and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux - were overwhelmingly male, apart from Crown, publishers of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl which had an even divide between the sexes.
“Unconscious bias is difficult to overcome,” writes Nichols, “But I feel furious at having spent so much time in that ridiculous little cage, where so many people with the wrong kind of name are burning out their energy and intelligence.”
Read Catherine Nichol's full piece at Jezebel.
Words: Sejal Kapadia, Images: Thinkstock