Barbara Fister ♦ Monitoring Project Coordinator ♦ January 9, 2014
Sisters in Crime, founded in 1986 to address unequal treatment of women in the world of crime fiction, has monitored the recognition of women crime writers by tracking review coverage of male and female crime fiction authors’ works. Continuing that tradition, our team of volunteers has compiled data from 2013, examining reviews in wide variety of publication, including newspaper reviews, pre-publication review sources that strongly influence booksellers and librarians, reviews in mystery-specific magazines, and born-digital review sources. This year we expanded our born-digital coverage to include selected blogs from the UK and Australia.
We also expanded our examination of gender and the genre by examining the presence of women writers on “Best of 2013” lists and took a look back at major mystery awards over the years.
Reviewing the Reviews
The good news is that women writers gained in their share of review coverage in every category over last year. As we saw in previous years, newspapers were the least balanced in their review coverage, with national newspapers favoring male authors more than local papers overall. Of the four main prepublication review sources, two – Library Journal and Kirkus – devoted over half of their mystery reviews to books by women. However, both Booklist and Publishers Weekly reviewed more mysteries, and both gave male authors the edge. The two genre-specific magazines, Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Scene gave more a majority of space to male authors, though Mystery Scene approached parity, with 45 percent of their reviews covering books by women authors.
For the second year, we monitored a selection of born-digital review sources. Edited multi-author websites that provide mystery reviews (Bookbitch, I Love a Mystery Newsletter, and Reviewing the Evidence) all gave male authors an edge, with 42 percent of the reviews going to books by women, an increase over last year. Where women have received the greater share of review space is, once again, in book review blogs. This year we monitored a dozen of them, including some from the UK and Australia. Collectively, these blogs published over 1,000 reviews, with 54 percent of those reviews covering mysteries written by women.
Who is Getting Published, and in What Format?
Though there is no complete list of mysteries published in a given year, submissions of mysteries to be considered for Edgar awards gives us a sense of the annual gender breakdown in published mystery authors. This year, over half (52%) of submissions to the Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Paperback or E-Original, and Mary Higgins Clark awards were by women, but as in past years, the Best Novel submissions (which must by US-born authors and appear in hardcover) were disproportionately male authors (42%). The Best Paperback or E-Original category was dominated by women authors (68%). If hardcover publication is a badge of prestige, it appears to be disproportionately is conferred on male writers.
Self-published works are not eligible for Edgar award consideration. The self-published sector now accounts for a greater number of titles than traditional publication. However, since there is no list available of self-published mysteries to analyze, we can’t speculate whether more women than men are choosing that publication route.
Lists of Best Books and Bestsellers
Another influential metric for mysteries is the gender breakdown on lists of the best mysteries of the year. In examining eight such lists for the first time, we found a great deal of variation. The Milwaukee Journal and NPR included an equal number of male and female authors on their lists. Publishers Weekly gave women authors a slight edge, with seven women and six men making their list of best mysteries. Library Journal gave the nod to three men and two women authors. Kirkus, which offers over half of its review space to women, was less generous when it came to their best of the year list, which included five women and sixteen men. Booklist’s Best Adult Genre Fiction list, chosen by librarians, names a single best book for each genre. Women authors fared well. Gillian Flynn and Lyndsay Faye snagged the honor for “adrenaline” (which combines thriller, suspense, and action/adventure) and “mystery” respectively. However Bill Ott, the magazine’s mystery reviews editor, favored male authors on his list of best mysteries, naming books by fourteen male authors and only five women authors. The most male-centric list of the best mysteries of 2013 examined was published in January Magazine, which included only four books by women and 22 by men.
It’s difficult to compare sales for a variety of reasons, but we can at least take a look at how many women authors have appeared on the list of bestselling fiction that Publishers Weekly compiles annually. These are not all crime fiction, though many of the titles that make the list are. In the 1980s, 26 percent of the top ten books on the list were by women. In the 1990s, that percentage rose to 43 percent. It fell back to 32 percent between 2000 and 2010. In 2011, three out of ten authors were women. Women authors were eclipsed in 2013, with only two women among of the ten bestselling fiction authors. The banner year for women on the bestseller list was 2012, when only two of the titles on the list were by men. But this anomaly also provides a cautionary note about how distorted bestseller lists are. Few authors have a chance at the top, and they tend land there repeatedly. For example, Danielle Steele and James Patterson are regulars on the list. In 2012, E.L. James captured four of the eight female spots on the list with sales of her Fifty Shades trilogy, both single volumes and the boxed set.
Who Reaps the Awards?
Finally, this year we took a look at mystery awards over a decade, focusing on the best novel category or its equivalent. Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of variation among awards, with the Agatha recognizing books by women authors the most, with ten women winning in ten years. The Australian Ned Kelly award was the least hospitable to women writers, with only one woman author’s mystery recognized as best of the year between 2002 and 2012.
Total Number of Women Winners of Major Awards, 2002-2012
The Thriller Award, started in 2006, does not have a decade’s worth of data to examine, but between 2006 and 2012 it was awarded to only one woman author, which would put it on the lower end of the chart.
The following charts show the percentage of women authors short-listed for major awards annually from 2002-2013. The darker color represents the percentage of women nominees. Since the Thriller award was started in 2006, in half of the years not a single woman was nominated and only one woman was nominated in the other half, yielding an average of 10 percent of nominees in eight years. Compared to all of the awards analyzed here, within that eight-year period this award was the least likely to recognize contributions of women authors.
The good news is that in 2013 women crime writers claimed a greater share of attention for their work compared to male authors than in past years. The situation for women writers in this genre is far better than for higher-status literary publishing as measured by the annual VIDA count which, over the past three years, has found both book review sources and literary magazines highly prejudiced toward male writers. The crime fiction genre is more hospitable to women writers.
It is interesting to note, however, that even in the crime fiction genre, prestige and masculinity tend to correlate. More books by men than women are nominated for and receive high-prestige awards. More men than women are reviewed in publications that are both selective and widely read by the general public, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Globe & Mail. Women appear to be more likely to be published in paperback than hardcover and find the warmest review reception among book bloggers, who are increasingly important contributors to book criticism but are often characterized as less authoritative or discerning than “professional” reviewers. Taking the genre as a whole, things are improving for women, but inequality remains and is particularly noticeable when prestige within the genre is factored into the analysis.
Factors that go into choosing whether or not to review a book or give it an award are far too complex to reduce to any one element. This report is not seeking to assign blame. Rather, it is intended to raise awareness about the status of women writers in the genre, to track changes in that status over time, and to encourage recognition of their contributions to crime fiction.