Waterstones & Everyday Sexism – the book & the problem in action

So, I got the Waterstones ‘Books to Read in May’ email this morning.

Laura Bates’ book, Everyday Sexism was the first featured title by a woman writer, below books by six men, including three of William Boyd’s backlist, so below a total of nine featured titles, three of which are not even new books.

Of the five titles by women writers, three were in the last four at the very bottom of the email – and one of those is going by initials only so I had to google to establish if this was a male or female author.

With the most generous analysis that’s eight men being promoted against five women. Before we consider the relative prominence of their promotion and the fact that one woman is (understandably) presenting as gender neutral.

Bu does this stuff really matter?

Consider the all male-and-pale Gemmell Award shortlists this year. No one will convince me this doesn’t stem from the last few years of almost invariably all male-and-pale promotions of epic fantasy on the ‘If you like Game of Thrones, try this’ model.

Because that’s a fan voted award. And if all the reading-5-to-10-books-a-year fans (who are a significant sector of the market) ever see promoted is books by men, that’s going to seriously skew their reading. Lists like the 2014 Gemmells are a direct result.

This was a particular slap in the face for me this morning, after attending the Women in SFF event at Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road yesterday evening. Professor Edward James (a stalwart ally of good writers who happen to be women for decades) chaired the discussion between Karen Lord, Stephanie Saulter, Naomi Foyle, Janet Edwards and Jaine Fenn. All excellent writers by the way, highly recommended, and who have first hand experience of the issues and are intent on finding solutions rather than just sitting there wringing their hands.

All in all, it was an excellent event, with all seats taken as well as folk standing at the back – men and women and encouragingly diverse in ethnicity and origin. And one of the issues that came up several times was the cumulative effect of the little things – like not being promoted as often or as visibly…

Well, Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road were assuredly doing their bit with this event (sponsored by Jo Fletcher Books) and with a nicely prominent table of women SFF writers in the main selling floor. Though when I asked if other Blackwell’s branches round the country would be running the same promotion, the bookseller I spoke to didn’t think so. Perhaps if there’s a Blackwell’s close to you, you could see the next time you’re in there? If not, perhaps you mention the possibility of contacting their Charing Cross branch for information and suggestions?

Anyway. I came away from the event with pages of notes. Looking at them this morning, I don’t think there’s material for a single blog post – but for a series of posts highlighting and debating different aspects of this ongoing issue. Watch this space.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

12 thoughts on “Waterstones & Everyday Sexism – the book & the problem in action

  1. Hi Juliet,

    I have to take issue with your points about the Waterstones email. First of all, the content is dynamic and based on registered reading preferences. So, for instance, if you were registered for kids books, you’d have seen the Children’s BOTM (Eva Ibbotson) instead of one of the others. Other titles would also have changed.If you’ve not registered preferences, you’ll get a generic one that tries to cover a lot of bases – that might be the one you got.

    If it is the one you got, then the first book by a female author is not Everyday Sexism, but Red Fortress, the winner of the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize (sponsored by Waterstones – and by the by, it was also won by a woman last year).

    I’m not sure what your problem is with us promoting William Boyd’s backlist. He has a new title (Solo) out and every month we run a points offer on an author with a new title out, to encourage people to discover their earlier books. Last month Hilary Mantel was in this slot. The month before it was PD James.

    We are trying to reach readers of both sexes and of all tastes with these emails, and I think you will agree that you can never please all of the people all of the time. But in our opinion this is a well balanced email showcasing books that will, for the most part if not completely, appeal to male and female readers.

    With respect,

    Jon Howells, Waterstones

    1. You’re correct – I didn’t realise that Red Fortress was written by a woman because the thumbnail shot of the cover in the relevant email is so small that the title’s barely legible, never mind the author’s name which isn’t mentioned at all in the accompanying text. So that’s not actually doing anything much to promote a female author.

      The point about registered reading preferences is useful and interesting, thanks for that. And yes, I can see that promotional efforts attempt to reach a wide range of tastes and yes, male and female readers enjoy books written by men and women.

      But the fact remains that if readers are routinely offered disproportionately fewer books by women to choose from, that will – and does – skew sales. It’s great when Hilary Mantel and PD James are promoted at the top of a list, but if the majority of the other writers offered along with them were men, any such promotion will still have limited value in addressing the ongoing inequalities in visibility which female authors experience.

      I don’t have those month’s emails to hand so cannot check. If you could provide details of exactly which authors have been featured in these emails over the past year, for the various categories, that would be very useful for a full analysis.

      Incidentally,I have no problem with William Boyd or his backlist – he’s a fine writer and was very well received as a speaker at the St Hilda’s Day programme at the Oxford Literary Festival a few years back – something I’m involved with on an ongoing basis.


  2. Re: Red Fortress – surely the sex of the author is not relevant to the subject of the book or to the reader? We have a limited amount of space in these emails, and the message here is that a biography of the Kremlin won a literary award for writing about Russia.

    It would be nigh on impossible to get stats for all those emails becasue, as I said, they change according to preferences: so there would be many permutations to add up. I suspect – as is shown with our Book of the Month stats (17 by male authors, 17 by female authors since Jan 2013), things would be pretty even.

    Other things bear this out. In this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, 16 of the 18 authors and illustrators were women (and previous years have shown similar numbers). Over the 3 years we ran the Waterstones 11, 17 of the chosen authors turned out to be men, 16 women. That wasn’t by design (one year there were only 3 men, another year only 3 women) but happened naturally – thee things even out.

    Last time I looked (a couple of months ago), our top 150 sales were 55% by female writers. I don’t receall whether Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling was counted as male or female, but it was prior to the pb and in the grand scheme of things would not have changed the stats by much.



    1. You can’t have Red Fortress both ways – if the author’s (invisible) gender isn’t relevant, then for all intents and purposes Everyday Sexism remains the first book by a woman promoted in this month’s email – half way down.

      Selective statistics don’t add much to this debate. If 1 woman gets 41% of female sales and 9 others each get 1%, while 10 men each get 10% – that still indicates something awry, even when the gender split is 50/50. And obviously that’s a theoretical example to make the point.

      Just as equality of review coverage is not 5 women reviewing 5 urban fantasy titles by female authors and 5 male reviewers picking 5 grimdark epics by men.

      This debate needs fuller data.

  3. I don’t want Red Fortress both ways or any way – I am saying that we were informing people that a serious book had won a serious prize.

    I’ll leave you withnone final stat, which you can decide if it is useful or not. Our biggest ongoing promotion is Waterstones BookClub. For this we select (usually) a dozen books every 3 monbths, then highlight them one a week. You can’t miss it in shops, we email about it, tweet and everything else. These are fine books from a range of genres, subjects, authors – debuts and better knbown people. It’s an eclectic mix. We choose the books purely on how good we think they are and how we think they will appeal to our customers. Since last July 29 of those books have been by women, 29 by men. And that happened naturally. Things even out.

    1. good to know, and yes, you may be certain I check out the Book Club selection every month. Though my impression is that titles by female authors are primarily ‘women’s fiction’ and the majority of crime titles are by men. That’s only an impression though, I will have to start making notes for a more accurate analysis.

  4. You have a *very* different view of what “women’s fiction” is – though to be fair it’s not a term we use widely here. Also, very little crime of any description is included, so not sure what is giving you that impression. Anyway, so you and others can decide, here are the choices since last July:

    By women
    The Interestings Meg Wolitzer
    Almost English Charlotte Mendelson
    The Hive Gill Hornby
    Bone Season Samantha Shannon
    The Carriage House Louisa Hall
    Lying Under the Apple Tree Alice Munro
    Burial Rites Hannah Kent
    Love, Nina Nina Stibbe
    The Shadow of the Crescent Moon Fatima Bhutto
    The Hen Who Dreamed she Could Fly Sun-mi Hwang
    We Need New Names NoViolet Bulawayo
    Perfect Joyce, Rachel
    BIG BROTHER Lionel Shriver
    The Engagements Courtney J Sullivan
    The Woman Upstairs Claire Messud
    The Library of Unrequieted Love Sophie Divry
    Rubbernecker Belinda Bauer
    The Flamethrowers Rachel Kushner
    Red Joan Jennie Rooney
    The Other Typist Suzanne Rindell
    Middlesteins Jami Attenberg
    Twelve Tribes of Hattie, The Ayana Mathis
    Seating Arrangements Shipstead, Maggie
    Where’d You Go Bernadette Semple, Maria
    Patrick Leigh Fermor Cooper, Artemis
    Binocular Vision Pearlman, Edith
    Unexpected Lessons in Love Bernardine Bishop
    Penelope Harrington, Rebecca
    Our Spoons Came From Woolworths Comyns, Barbara

    By men
    An Englishman in Madrid Eduardo Mendoza
    The Circle Dave Eggers
    The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman
    List of My Desires, The Gregoire Delacoure
    Reason I Jump, The Higashida, Naoki
    Death in the Family, A Knausgaard, Karl Ove
    One Night in Winter Simon Sebag Montefiore
    The Infatuations Javier Marias
    Three Graves Full Jamie Mason
    Mr. Penumbra’s Book Club Sloan, Robin
    Cruel Crossing Ed Stourton
    Son, The Meyer, Philip
    The Fields Kevin Maher
    The Rosie Project Graeme Simsion
    Mad Girl’s Love Song Wilson, Andrew
    Norwegian By Night Derek B. Miller
    On the Map Simon Garfield
    This is How You Lose Her Junot Diaz
    Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner
    World Until Yesterday, The Jared Diamond
    Accidental Apprentice, The Vikas Swarup
    Bad Pharma Goldacre, Ben
    A Hologram for the King Dave Eggers
    Thousand Pardons, A Jonathan Dee
    Augustus John Williams
    Honey Guide, The Crompton, Richard

  5. Am interested: which of those titles would you describe as ‘women’s fiction’ – when I think of that term I think of light romance, family sagas, clogs and shawls. Nowt wrong with that if it is what people like but it’s not what we are going for.

  6. To clarify the above: “Women’s Fiction” is a term that was used back in the old days (80s/90s) to describe mainly light romantic fiction in all its subgenres. It’s an outdated phrase, no one really uses it anymore. I’d describe the books by women in the list above as ‘books by women’.

    1. you may not use ‘women’s fiction’ (in whatever terms) these days but let me assure you it’s alive and well in wider online discourse, especially in conversations looking to dismiss female authors…

      as in ‘ah, yes, written by a woman, oh then it’ll be all that women’s fiction stuff, light romance, family angst – even if it’s allegedly a crime novel/space opera/techno-thriller/epic fantasy’

      which then becomes one of the tired old excuses wheeled out when magazines and newspapers are called to account for not reviewing equal numbers of books by men and women.

      Not sure if it’s been used (yet) in the ongoing London Review of Books debate but pretty sure that’ll be in the subtext of their current ‘we don’t review books by women because they don’t write books of interest to our readers’ stance…

      You’ll have to bear with me on looking through that list of Book Club titles. I’ve already lost an afternoon’s work to this – which I don’t begrudge as such because this is an important debate. But now this is as much time as I can spare today.

      till later…

  7. Jon; what term do you use to describe those tables and tables of stuff at WS which are characterised by pastel covers, titles in annoying cursive scripts and 50s-style cartoon art?

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