Tag Archives: Stella Count

2016 – the latest Stella Count

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Women write about two thirds of all the fiction books published in Australia. Yet books written by men are still more likely to be reviewed in the Australian mainstream media. The situation is changing, but very slowly.

The 2016 Stella Count surveys twelve Australian publications – including national, metropolitan and regional newspapers, journals and magazines – in print and online. The Count assesses the extent of gender biases in the field of book reviewing in Australia.

In order to do this, it records the authors, book titles and book genres reviewed, as well as the gender of reviewers, and number and size of reviews published.

For the first time, the 2016 Stella Count also surveyed non-review literary coverage, broadcast reviews on radio and television programs, and cover-to-cover bylines in leading magazines and journals.

For the first time, all twelve of the publications surveyed in the 2016 Count either increased or maintained the percentage of women authors they reviewed compared to the previous year. But the good news ends there.

  • Across all publications in 2016, books by men were more likely to be reviewed by men, and books by women more likely to be reviewed by women.
  • Gains in the reviewing of books by women have been made mainly in relation to small- and medium-length reviews. The long reviews, the feature reviews, are still largely written by men.
  • Of all the titles reviewed in 2016, nonfiction books by men were reviewed more often than any other gender/genre combination – at 28% of the total reviews.

I’ve seen articles where the editors of these publications try to justify their decisions. We have to review the important books, they say. Which of course begs the question – What makes for an important book? Who decides that? It’s too hard to find women book reviewers, they say. Which is one of the reasons behind the establishment of the excellent Australian Women Writers Challenge. Men pitch their reviewing ideas to us more often, they say. Which is just one more instance of putting the onus on women to change their behaviour, instead of thinking about how to change an unfair system.

While the overall figures may be trending in the right direction, unfortunately it is the biggest players in the market who are making the least progress.

  • The Saturday Paper and Weekend Australian magazine routinely favour male writers over women, with women writers accounting for only 35% and 37% of these publications’ total number of bylines respectively.
  • The Monthly’s book-related essays were dominated by coverage of male authors (75%).

Kudos to the Stella Count for tackling this issue. You can read their full report here. The Stella team are also looking at the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) in Australian publishing. See this article in The ConversationDiversity, the Stella Count and the whiteness of Australian publishing.

Book Reviews – where are all the women? Stella Count paints a depressing picture.

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For five years the nice people at the Stella Prize have been counting who receives (and writes) book reviews in Australia.

No prize, even a stellar one, for guessing who does: men.

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Reviews that were of books by women, tracked over the past five years. Source: http://thestellaprize.com.au/the-count/2015-stella-count/

Despite men writing only 28% of all Australian books published in 2015, books by men received well over half the published reviews.  Men’s books were consistently the focus of longer reviews and male reviewers had more reviews published than did women reviewers – and those male reviewers usually reviewed books by (you guessed it) men.

When you look at those figures over a five year period (see chart above) there’s not even a trend suggesting that publications are actively addressing the issue.  What about the Sunday Age, you ask? It stopped publishing book reviews in 2016.

Whether by accident or design, a cause or an effect of reviewing processes, the tendency across review publications for male reviewers to review male authors rather than female authors perpetuates cultural biases that suggest that writing by men is universal, and writing by women is for women only.

Yes, the counting people took into account those books co-authored by a man and woman (about 1% of the total and not included in the figures). And yes, the counting people confirmed that female reviewers tended to review equal numbers of books by men as they did books by women. But men consistently only reviewed books by men.

At the Monthly, for instance, just 5% of reviews published were written by male reviewers about female-authored books. The proportion of other reviewer–author gender combinations was 30%, 30% and 35% (for females reviewing male authors, females reviewing female authors, and males reviewing male authors respectively).

It gets worse. Of non-fiction books reviewed, only a tiny percentage were written by women. Yet women write around two-thirds of all published non-fiction.

The fact that an imbalance in critical coverage persists, despite there being no underlying imbalance in authorship, creates and perpetuates the perception that nonfiction by males is more worthy of critical attention, in that it frequently deals with typically masculine topics such as war, history, economics and so forth.

The problem is, of course, what do we actually DO about it?

The Australian Women Writers Challenge is one excellent response, and trade publication Books & Publishing – the only Australian publication to reach something likely parity in book reviews – is certainly to be praised.

But how do we make a dent in the male-focused bastions of Australian books?  I’d love to hear your ideas…

For full details about the statistics I’ve quoted above (with an easy-to-read overview and lots of useful charts) go to the source: 2015 Stella Count

Is this also a problem for Britain and the USA?  Yes – read more about the VIDA count (upon which the Australian Stella count is modeled):

Popular history writing remains a male preserve, publishing study finds

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Man readingHere is a fascinating, and depressing, article showing publishing’s overwhelming bias towards male historians and male historical subjects.

Slate magazine studied 614 popular history titles published last year in the US and found a genre dominated by generals, presidents and male authors.

Of those 614 titles, three-quarters were written by men.  Of the published biographies, nearly three-quarters were about men.  Only six percent of male biography authors wrote about women.  Sigh.

Slate argues that the persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, “seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians.”  I would argue that it also reflects the publishing industry’s views about who buys what.  Publisher Lara Heimert thinks so too.

The conventional wisdom has been that men read more non-fiction and women read more fiction, though as with most conventional wisdom in publishing (and life) I’ve never actually seen a study proving that to be true.

Slate coins a fantastic new term – uncle books – to describe the “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.”  These predictably include naval battles, grand adventures and biographies about ‘great men’.

Our data set revealed some answers about the publishing of popular history that we expected: Authors are largely male, biographical subjects too; “uncle books” make up a third of the total titles published. But the data also raise interesting questions. Is it possible to sell biographies of unfamous people? Why are some historical episodes that fit some of the criteria we outlined above, like the Vietnam War, so absent? And when will World War II ever stop being interesting?

There are glimmers some glimmers of hope.  One of the publishers Slate spoke to provided a useful list of women (presumably US writers) who write popular (presumably US-focussed) histories: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stacy Schiff, Drew Gilpin Faust, Karen Armstrong, and Pauline Maier.  Others listed Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Megan Marshall, Maya Jasanoff, Susan Pedersen, Sara Lipton, Linda Colley, Judith Thurman, Jennifer Homans, Patricia Limerick, and Mary Beth Norton.  I confess I’ve heard of only a few of these women but this list should keep the TBR pile going for a while.

But overall the stats mirror those collected internationally by the VIDA Count Project and here in Australia by the Stella Count.

While a longitudinal analysis of trade history publishing might reveal a swing toward female authorship and diversity of subject matter, and anecdotal evidence points to some improvement, our data for 2015 still look grim. “We have a real problem in publishing, but it’s not just a publishing problem,” Heimert wrote. “What is it about the way we educate our children that channels women toward literature departments and men toward history and politics departments? What are our assumptions—and by ‘our’ I mean publishers, booksellers, book reviewers &c—that lead us to publish history books for Father’s Day and fiction and memoir for Mother’s Day? Are these based on data or merely stereotypes?”

The Guardian builds on the Slate piece with some insights into the UK scene.  Spoiler alert – it’s pretty much the same depressing picture.

In the UK, the skew is just as dramatic. Figures from Nielsen BookScan show that last year, there were just four solo female authors appearing in the top 50 bestselling history titles … in 2014, all top 10 bestselling military history titles in the UK were by men. Two women make the top 10 in general history, Beard and Catherine Bailey, while three make the top 10 in history and political memoirs. The book trade magazine’s preview of 2015 titles in history, politics and war highlights 57 books. Thirteen are by women, with one other having a female co-author.

The Guardian article goes on to explore the bias in interesting ways, looking at why there’s still very much a sense that serious history is written by men – books about war or politics – and that women are more likely to tackle fashion, or biographies of queens or mistresses.  And why are there so few women historians on tv, given the huge boost in sales provided by such exposure?

As usual there are plenty of questions, not so many answers.