“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.

Gender 401 For The Writer

Next up at World Fantasy Con was “Gender 401”. Having attended 101 and 201 panels in the past, I was ready for the discussion.

NOTE: I recognize that as a cis-gendered female I can listen and do my best to promote understanding and inclusion, but I am by no means an expert. If I’ve misrepresented anything in this panel write-up, don’t hesitate to call me out on it.

Also, I recognize that my notes are aimed more for the cis-audience– in part because I know I’m the wrong person to explain gender identity to anyone who isn’t cis. But, hopefully, the book suggestions are at least helpful for everyone.

[For those who aren’t familiar with Gender 101:

  • A transgendered individual has determined that the gender that they were assigned at birth does NOT match their personal identity.
  • A cisgendered individual has determined that the gender they were assigned at birth DOES match their personal identity.
  • Non-binary (nb or enby) people can run the gamut: [EDITED: I originally stated what the expression was, rather than the identity.]
    • Identify as multiple genders at once
    • Identify as different genders based on how they’re feeling on a particular day (also said to be ‘gender fluid’)
    • Identify as non-gendered
  • An intersex individual is one who was not easily assigned a single gender at birth ]

So, now you’re familiar with the cornucopia of gender identities, let’s get back to writing and figuring out how to use this knowledge to enhance our worlds.

Ways That Genre Fiction Can Improve

  • Remembering that cisgendered people aren’t the only ones out there and including all kinds in our stories.
  • Making sure the existence of transmen isn’t completely ignored when revisiting the overdone “What if men could get pregnant?” trope.
  • Thinking through the world. There are plenty of stories about gendered magic or cities that ignore where transpeople or non-binary people live.
  • Avoiding Scooby-doo style reveals, where the bad guy is transgendered — or just dressed up as the opposite sex to avoid suspicion.

TIP: You can acknowledge, then add a few details about how those cases work. You don’t have to make your story about gender identity, you just have to let people outside the binary exist in your world.

TIP 2: For gendered magic, you have to decide how to handle it. It can be influenced by whether magic is assigned at birth or something that happens when you hit puberty (or some other sort of ritual). And if someone changes their gender identity, does their magic change with them?

So. How do you decide what’s best without playing into stereotypes? And if you’re trapped in the gender-binary, how can you make sure you’re properly portraying these characters?

The best way to figure out how to handle non-cisgendered characters is to read stories by non-cisgendered writers.

Genre Writers Who Have Handled Gender Well

  • Austin Chant
  • JY Yang
  • Akwaeke Emezi
  • Charlie Jane Anders
  • Ursula K LeGuin
  • Octavia Butler

And collections of stories:

  • Transcendent Anthology – Edited by KM Szpara

There was a shout out to LeGuin for first introducing genre fiction to gender exploration.

Another place to explore is the Tiptree Awards. Begun in 1991, it started off just giving credit for having a woman as a character in an sf/f novel. But each year, the bar raises.

According to Ellen Klages, a Motherboard member of the Tiptree Awards for over 20 years, if a bar fight doesn’t break out when the winner is announced, clearly, the novel selected wasn’t cutting edge enough and shouldn’t have won.

What Our Panelists Would Like To See

  • Middle-aged and older women that aren’t witches
  • More stories that start off ‘beyond the pale’, to start to normalize their existence
  • Diversity in representation – not all perfect or all villain. If you have one person outside of the gender binary in your story, how you represent them will be a huge focus. If you have many, in multitudes of roles, it goes a long way toward fighting stereotypes.
  • Writing outside the box

Writing Worlds Outside The Box

If gender is so enigmatic now, how diverse could the real future — or your fantasy worlds be? Why even stick to binary genders in fantasy?

One can find inspiration from the common garden slug for new ways of handling gender identity.

TIP 3: If everything is different, it’s hard for your readers to follow. They’ll need a handhold of familiarity. Just remember that different audiences will need different handholds — what alienates some readers, will allow you to reach others. Decide who your story is really for.

TIP 4: Well. I guess this is more of a warning. These worlds can be very difficult to get the balance right, to bring the reader into a strange new world, without losing them. It takes a lot of skill to do something experimental, successfully.


Hopefully, if you weren’t already exposed to these concepts, you’ve got a better grasp of ways to fill your world with more gender diversity. If you were already familiar with them, I hope you found something of value from this write-up.

Go out and remember to include transgendered and non-binary people when filling your worlds. Plus, join the fight against gendered stereotypes and cis-gendered assumptions.