Waterstones & Gender Equality. The good, the bad & the business case for doing better.

First, some context. Over the past year or more, I’ve repeatedly highlighted instances of all or majority male bookshop displays for SF&Fantasy. Back in May, I flagged up the monthly promotional email from Waterstones which featured the Everyday Sexism book. It was the first readily identifiable book by a woman in that email, half way down the page, and one of only five titles by women compared to eight featured men. That post prompted a lively exchange on Twitter and in comments on the blog with Jon Howell, PR chap for Waterstones. Check back here if you missed that or wish to refresh your memory.

In discussions elsewhere on this issue with concerned writers and readers, we soon realised that we need more data. Especially if Waterstones don’t keep records of how many women they promote compared to men, as was stated at the time. So I went away and searched my Gmail archive and managed to retrieve 23 of those monthly emails, from March 2012 to June 2014, while pals around the country went to do a promotional table count in their local branches of Waterstones. I got 20 surveys in all. Given Waterstones has 275 branches, that’s less than 10% so this cannot be considered definitive data. However I consider it strongly indicative and certainly a sound basis for discussion.

Because as Managing Director James Daunt has been saying, offering discoverability to readers will be the key to Waterstones’ survival. What all this flags up to me is key areas where that discoverability is seriously lacking and where Waterstones could improve, to offer customers something they will not get from Amazon whose ‘if you like, try..’ algorithm pretty much only offers clones, or from WHSmiths or the supermarkets who only offer a narrow choice of already high-selling titles.

One last note. I don’t propose to identify the branches, since the object of this exercise is absolutely not to name and shame, especially since quite a few booksellers expressed their own exasperation at the narrow and narrowing range of books they’ve been told to promote. I also won’t identify those who sent me data, since quite a few are either involved in the book trade or related to writers (except to say thanks, Mum!) and I don’t want to cause inadvertent hassles for anyone. I am, needless to say, hugely grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to send me their findings.

So what do the numbers tell us? Firstly, those monthly Book Shelf emails, sent to loyalty card holders. As Jon Howell indicated back in May, Book of the Month choices are equally shared between male and female authors – with the proviso that women are over represented in children’s and romance choices, where men dominate other areas. In the emails I received personally, every single non-fiction History choice was by a man. That’s no reflection on some excellent books but an early warning that statistics don’t tell you everything.

Jon Howell pointed out that I would be seeing more titles by women if I’d ticked the Romance, and Children’s selections for the system to tailor my emails, whereas I have opted for SFF and Popular Fiction, along with History in non-fiction preferences. Well, all that offers me is further proof of the increasingly narrow assumptions about what women authors are being expected/encouraged to write.

The monthly email format is fairly consistent. Some sections come and go and I’ll indicate those. The sections that always appear are the New Books and the Books You Love. 75% of New Book titles appearing at the top of these emails are written by men. Of the Backlist promotions beginning in January 2013, 70% are for male authors. Once again, this section is at the top of the page, as are the promotional banner adverts beginning in January 2013 which offer 60% books by men.

However looking at the Books You Love section which is right at the bottom of the email, thus far less prominent, I find 48% by men, 46% by women and 6% gender neutral by virtue of initials or an unusual name. Click through on any of those titles to the main Waterstones site and you’ll find yourself on the Bestsellers page. This strongly suggests to me that Books You Love is driven by actual sales. So people are going to buy books in roughly equal numbers by male and female authors alike. So why aren’t they offered headline choices that reflect that rather than such a strongly skewed selection?

Similar skew is apparent in the ‘Coming Soon’ selection, appearing below New Books from September 2013 – 65% male – and before than in the Books in the Media – 76% male – and Reviewed in the Newspapers – 70% male – selections, running up to July 2013. This incidentally offers further proof of the established gender bias in the wider media, thus making the ‘but we’re promoting the books people are interested in, just look at the papers’ defence meaningless.

However looking at the Staff Picks and What We’re Reading selections, where I’m assuming staff have some input, those choices are 53% male, 47% female. Once again, this would indicate a lack of gender bias among actual book lovers, as bookstore staff invariably are.

So setting aside issues of natural justice between the genders, the significant thing here from a business point of view is surely the disconnect between what people actually choose to read and what they’re being offered. So where is the possible downside in offering readers a more balanced choice – and with women writers being more visible at the top of these emails rather than being relegated to the bottom?

Now to the promotional tables in the shops. Given the variation in size and layout of different branches, this data can only offer a broad brush survey but as I say, I still think these findings are strongly indicative of areas for improvement.

On the general Buy One Get One Half Price tables, in all but one instance the gender balance ranged from 45% male/55% female to 65% male/35% female and was evenly spread across that range, so for all intents and purposes, we can consider that a 50/50 split. This is very good news. More than that, my impression as a reader and customer is there’s a fair degree of rotation in titles in these choices, offering new books a chance in the sun alongside the guaranteed bestsellers.

The 50/50 split was even clearer in the Summer Reading promotional tables, in stores offering those. Though individual tables might be seriously skewed in larger branches, with one offering chick-lit and romance by exclusively female authors alongside another offering thrillers all by men. But that’s at least as much a reflection of what’s written and published as it is of marketing choices.

However different pictures emerge when we look at books by genre. Any preconception that Childrens and Young Adult reading is dominated by women doesn’t hold up. The gender spread is pretty equal over all though there were more individual instances of markedly skewed displays. One bookshop had a table with 85% male authors while another had one with 60% women writers.

Crime showed an even greater range of variation. There were as many tables with more than 50% female authors as there were with more than 50% men overall but these varied from 100% male (Euro Crime) to one with below 40% male authors.

No such luck in SF&Fantasy. There were no tables with less than 55% male authors with the single exception of one SF&F Buy One Get One Half Price table in a large, city centre branch with an established reputation for its excellent genre range. Of the 21 SF&F promotional tables counted, 17 were 75% male authors or more. 5 were 95-100% male, including one all-male Future Noir offering. Where stores are large enough to separate out SF from Fantasy, the bias against women in SF was even more marked than that in fantasy.

In most shops, Horror is folded into SF&F but in three instances where Horror got its own table (not included in that total of 21), those were all 95% male authors.

There were three instances, not included in the count of 21, of all-female SF&F tables in large, city centre branches. This is a mixed blessing. While it’s welcome visibility, it also makes women writers much easier to ignore and risks perpetuating the notion that female authors are somehow different and not integrated into the mainstream of the genre.

Overall, once again, there’s more to this than simply the numbers. As one respondent said, ‘I don’t actually bother looking at the SF&F table these days. It’ll just be this year’s books by men I don’t read anyway.’ Looking back at my own photos of displays over the past few years bears this out. The same names recur time and again – as is the case in crime fiction, though not quite to the same extent. This does as much disservice to those other male authors who rarely, if ever, benefit from this level of promotion as it does to the women writers who are so routinely ignored.

More than that, these invariably include the (few) SF&F guaranteed-bestseller titles that the supermarkets will routinely offer, and at higher discount than bookstores can afford. So the bookshop is competing for that trade at a disadvantage from the outset. Whereas the pattern used to be a best-seller would emerge from the bookshops as they offered a wide selection of midlist and WHSmith and the supermarkets would scramble to catch up.

Whereas the evidence elsewhere is that SF&F writers have no problem reading and rewarding books written by women. Just look at the recent tally of genre awards and prizes. Once again, there’s a serious disconnect between what the readership wants and what is offered in Waterstones.

Why does this matter, when serious fans can get what they want from Amazon anyway? For two reasons. If you’ve been following the current negotiations between Amazon and various publishers, you should be seriously concerned at the implications of ending up with a single retailer intent on securing a monopoly and more than that, by their increasing desire to dictate terms to both suppliers and customers, up to and including attempting to force Hachette to renegotiate contractual terms with their authors (even if only as a PR stunt). (Links to sound analysis on this in this previous post)

No, Amazon isn’t Evil and they’re not The Enemy. It’s a commercial company and this is capitalism. But capitalism only works in everyone’s interests if there is competition. We need bookshops to keep the system working. Does anyone with a scintilla of business sense believe Amazon will continue to offer free shipping, if there’s no one else for customers to do business with? Do we believe that they will continue to offer 70% royalties to authors, if there’s nowhere else for them to publish their books? Yes, that’s a worst-case scenario but irreparable damage will done well before we reach that point.

Secondly, in the current harsh economic climate, those high-volume, highly engaged SF&F fans are highly unlikely to prove a sufficiently large market to sustain the current and increasingly interesting and wide-ranging SF&F being written. We’re seeing new voices and new interpretations right across speculative fiction. This is excellent. This may also be a very short-lived flowering, if authors incomes continue to fall – something I can attest to from personal experience as I’ve seen my advances shrink, translation income vanish and backlist sales fall off a cliff in the last ten years. Some writers will be willing and more pertinently, able to continue working more for love than money. More won’t.

A sustained writing career relies on reaching beyond the core fans to the five-to-ten books-a-year reader. Offer those readers something new and bookshop may well increase purchases by such customers, to the benefit of their bottom line. Only ever offer them the same as before and that’s all the store will sell – assuming those readers haven’t already picked up those books along with their groceries at Sainsbury’s or Asda.

Yes, gender equality is a feminist issue. When it comes to bookselling it is also a commercial issue. If Waterstones wants to offer customers the discoverability which they’re not going find elsewhere, surely extending the range and rotation of books promoted in their genre sections, by male and female authors alike, to equal the choices they already offer in general fiction, is simply good business?

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.

8 thoughts on “Waterstones & Gender Equality. The good, the bad & the business case for doing better.

  1. This is really interesting, and I say this as someone who runs a genre section in Waterstones.

    There have recently been (quite heated) debates on the subject of diversity (both gender-based and otherwise) on our intranet system and I’ll make the same point here that I made there.

    There is an obvious responsibility with booksellers to actively reflect diversity in the books we present on feature tables and displays (although crucially not at the expense of quality, a bad book doesn’t help anyone). Some could certainly do better. The front-line booksellers only have limited powers. The days when we could order the stock we wanted to order on a store by store basis have gone, for better or worse. Book ordering is now done by regional buyers who won’t have the depth of specialist knowledge as a section-owner might, especially with regards newer releases. I’m lucky, my buyer listens to me so my overall control remains quite high, some are not so fortunate.

    These buyers, and to a lesser extent the booksellers themselves, are reliant on information from publishers about what the new releases are and which are likely to sell well. This information is often absent (resulting in reliance on big old names) or contains similar biases to those mentioned above. This is compounded further by edicts from head office about which books are to be placed on money-off promotions, these offers are normally based on negotations with publishers and are the result of them wanting to push a book for bigger sales figures as much as us wanted to put on a good offer to compete with rivals.

    I would therefore argue that the problems of diversity are something which needs to be addressed by the industry as a whole. Agents needs to be picking up more female authors, publishers need to publish them, and then invest in them* and promote them, and then finally on Waterstones to place them well, be enthusiastic about them, and promote them through mailouts and promotions.

    *by invest I mean advertising, placing on newsletters, supplying free proofs to frontline booksellers, but also spending the money of better editing and particularly cover art – I’d be interested to see the results of a survey of awards for book jackets split by gender of the writer. A lot of tables are just of “pretty books” because despite the maxim, people still judge books by their covers. Possibly more so in the new digital age. I don’t *know* that this is a gender problem but off the top of my head, the covers of books that have most excited me and made me want to own the arteface – of late – have been almost all male authors.

    I agree there’s a problem, I agree that something should be actively done, I’d suggest your article places slightly too much blame in Waterstone’s court.

    (sorry for the rambling nature of this long reply – it’s been written whilst I man the till…! 😉 )

    1. Thanks for your contribution and your perspective. Constructive engagement is the way forward for us all.

      At the moment, there *is* plenty of good stuff being written by female authors – we’re just not seeing it in the shops. Check out the recent genre awards and shortlists in this post for some ideas 🙂

      That said, yes, you’re absolutely correct – publishers and marketers cannot simply throw up their hands and say there’s nothing they can do to get these books into shops There’s plenty they can contribute.

      At the moment, there seems to be very much a chicken-egg situation established. Male-dominated SFF sells so that’s what’s offered so that’s what sells most – and so the circle continues. I’m trying to find a point where we can stick a spoke in that wheel and see some change…

  2. Oh, and I should add – these branches ranged from Scotland to the South Coast of England and from North Wales to East Anglia, so there was a good geographical spread. And these were shops of all sizes, from city centre, multi-floor stores, to small single-shop-front ones.

  3. Juliete, I in no way meant to imply the material wasn’t there. Some of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years have been new works by female authors. I pride myself on the representation in my own section, and this is appreciated by the bookclub we run in store which is 50% female and reads at least 50% female authors. Other booksellers may find your link useful however, so I’ll direct them to it – just as I have with the mistressworks etc.. – and as you say the prizes reflect diversity better than the bookshops and the sales. Ancillary Justice sweeping all before it being a case in point (and getting my Hugo vote).

    I simply wanted to remind other commentators that – as you say – it’s a chicken and egg arrangement and requires action from all parties, there’s only so much Waterstones can do on their own, especially with regards promotions (and most tables, especially in smaller stores, are pushing promotions: buy-one-get-one-half price etc…).

    1. Oh no, I didn’t take your comment to mean that – and yes, you making that observation as part of the general discussion is fine by me.

      And there are truly excellent genre sections in some branches of Waterstones – whenever I come across one I make sure to flag it up on Twitter etc 🙂

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