“But I’m Not A YA Writer” – Gender Biases in the World of Books

I was raised thinking I was in a post-feminism world. We had the vote, we were out there earning our own money, with our own credit cards, standing equal to any man. But, the older I get, the more I realize that the biases are still out there. They’re just softer, well-intentioned, and far more insidious.

At Balticon 53, I attended “But I’m Not A YA Writer”, with panelists Sherri Cook Woosley, Gwendolyn Clare, and Julayne Hughes, moderated by Laura Nicole “Spence” and we discussed the modern trend of calling speculative fiction books written by women “young adult” (YA).

What’s the Difference?

I have a full set of panel notes on the difference, that I’ll be sharing later, but let me sum up.

Young adult novels typically center on teenage characters, often coming-of-age, and learning how to be independent. Thinking for themselves. YA is often told in first person, and sometimes in present tense. And YA has hope.

Adult novels can have teenage characters and can be coming-of-age stories, but the characters are typically a little older, or a decent portion of the book covers their adulthood as well. The solutions are usually more nuanced and complicated, the world building is often more fleshed out, the politics and economics are more complex, and the violence can be darker. Third person point-of-view is more common and it’s typically told in past-tense.

Now, these are all trends. YA is by no means a lesser skill and certainly can deal with dark themes and violence. When trying to categorize a book, think about a 9th grader, would you recommend it to them? Or not. The line often comes down to the voice.

Who Is Misclassifying Authors’ Books

When you hear about this misclassification, many of us think we know exactly where the problem is. But. It’s not what you might think.

Is it the lack of women in the upper echelon of publishing companies?

Nope. The publishers and editors are properly categorizing them.

Is it the marketing departments?

Not really. Their marketing teams are starting off targeting the right markets…

So where is the problem?

It’s when the book blurbs hit the internet that the real disconnect comes out. The book bloggers and good citizens of GoodReads are where a large percentage of the misclassifications are made.

How is this happening?

Clearly, there are tons of factors that go into this, and no amount of speculation can encapsulate each individual’s decisions.

And? Sometimes the line can be nebulous. But not that often.

Even if one starts off looking at the book blurb, with the proper classification, and comparing it to other books in the appropriate genre during a review, these books are often getting ‘shelved’ with YA.

And the only thing that might even suggest the novel is YA? Is the author’s name, reading as feminine. Or, the author becoming widely known as female.

The 2018 critically acclaimed novel, The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang was marketed as a drug filled, grimdark fantasy take on the war between China and Japan during World War II. The themes were dark, the voice was adult, and the book was marked down as being too violent or graphic for YA. It got tons of 1-star reviews, because the book wasn’t what the readers were expecting.

Which leads us into:

The Consequences of Being Misclassified

  1. You get marked down for not meeting expectations
    • 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads greatly affect your sales
  2. Your audience can’t find you.
    • If the real audience thinks the book is for their kids, they’re not as inclined to read it
    • When a story about a mother gets handed off to teen girls, the voice won’t resonate as strongly as it would with a mom

The LGBTQA community has gotten good at finding allies. At standing up for each other. There’s still push back, but they’re fighting hard to make sure their books are properly classified, not just shoved off into ‘special interest group’ or ‘adult’ sections simply because it contains characters that aren’t cis-gendered and/or heterosexual.

We can learn a lot from them.

So, how do we get around this?

The Call Of The Pseudonym

Publisher and audience biases have had women writing under pseudonyms or initials for centuries – from the Brontë Sisters, to George Eliot, to J.K. Rowling herself — women have used pen names to be more marketable. And? It seems to work.

Studies indicate, even Harry Potter might have had a harder time reaching the right audience if it came from Joanne Rowling.

Women these days, and others that don’t fit into the gender binary still succumb to these pressures. Because that’s how they make the sales to the right audience.

How Do We Fix This?

The sad news is, this isn’t something we can fix overnight. It’s not like we can print a correction in the paper and people will instantly stop. Instead, we have to help make the cultural shift. Here are some ways you can help.

  1. Pay more attention to how the books you read are classified by the publisher
  2. When you see a book improperly listed, think about reaching out to set the record straight
  3. Stop assuming boys won’t read female main characters. Or female authors. Teachers, parents, librarians: If you make it a non-issue? Often, they will too.
  4. Maybe you’re the target audience for books you’re not reading. Look at who you’re reading.
    • If you haven’t read a book recently by a female author, ask the internet (or me, in the comments below) for recommendations, based on your favorite male authors.
    • NOTE: This works for other markets – writers of color, writers of disability, LGBTQA writers, non-american writers. Branch out and see what you’re missing. Great writers can come from anywhere, but they only get the chance to shine if they can prove they have a market.

Any stories about gender bias happening to you? In any direction! Clearly, men writing in certain genres face similar issues. As, obviously, do people of other genders!

Any other suggestions on ways to help people move past their assumptions, and allow books to be enjoyed on their own merits.
With marketed expectation management NOT getting overridden by cultural assumptions?


As always, thanks for tuning in, and join me again next week as I share more writing tips and writerly musings from the over 24 hours of programming I attended at Balticon53.

I attend panels, so you don’t have to.

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