• Judith Newton
  • She Writes/She Reads: Women and the New World of Publishing
She Writes/She Reads: Women and the New World of Publishing
Written by
Judith Newton
September 2014
Written by
Judith Newton
September 2014

The question of who gets to be a storyteller and of whose stories are read and acknowledged is crucial—not just for women, but for men and for the way civil society as a whole is constructed.

The “She Writes” in my title alludes to two things—my publisher, She Writes Press, and the fact that more women are writing for public consumption than ever before.  One factor in the surge of women’s public writing has been the influence of second and third wave feminisms, with their recovery and celebration of women and women’s voices from the past, their empowerment of women in the “present” of the last forty some years, and their ongoing revelations about how women’s lives and stories are as central to history and culture as those of men.


Another contribution to the boom in women’s public writing has been the development of new technologies. In 2011 there were 81 million blogs worldwide and women were writing 60% of them. As I can testify from personal experience, writing short pieces on line easily leads to writing longer pieces and to fashioning books, and it leads to thoughts of making those books available to a general audience. It leads to thoughts of publishing.

The “She Reads” part of the title is meant to evoke the fact that women are 57-58 % of the book buying audience. They are in the majority of those who buy fiction in all categories, and they buy 65% of the books sold. Although women are a minority among publishing executives, they do represent 85% of the employees in the publishing industry with less than three years of experience. Sounds like a promising for women writers—until one looks more closely.


In 2013 women authors constituted only 20 to 35% or those published in career-making and platform-building journals such as The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, and The Times Literary Supplement.  Astoundingly, in 2013, The Atlantic and Harpers published women at the same rate they did in 1884. (The Atlantic published 12% more women in 2013 for a total of 35%.  Harpers published 3% less for a total of 23.4 %.)  1884? This is not a long way, baby.


Women authors, moreover, published only 30% of the books that appeared with large traditional houses, and despite the fact that a handful of independent publishers maintained gender parity, many independent houses published only 10-20% female-authored books. It was the same dreary picture when it came to the top reviewing journals.  Reviewers and books reviewed in journals such as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were 84 % male or male-authored. Many other journals fell in the 75% range.


But that we even have these appalling figures, I am happy to report, is part of a formal feminist response to gender bias.  An online group of women, going by the name VIDA, has been gathering publishing statistics for four years and baking them into colorful pie-shaped graphs. In response to the same gender bias, support groups for women writers have been multiplying since the early 2000s. These include the global online magazine Women on Writing, the online communities of BlogHer and She Writes, and the nonprofit Hedgebrook, known for encouraging women writers by granting them writing residencies. These and other groups interested in promoting women’s writing are now consciously forming “new girl’s networks” to support women writers and address the inequalities being sustained by “the old boys’ networks that still dominate the world of print publishing.


She Writes Press is part of this feminist response. An off shoot of the global online writing community She Writes, with 23,000 members, the press began operation two years ago. She Writes Press is a conscious alternative to traditional publishing for women. It is a partnership press in that it vets its manuscripts just as independent presses do--its publisher, Brooke Warner, was an acquiring editor in traditional publishing for thirteen years—and it has traditional distribution, allowing authors access to major marketplaces. Authors pay for services such as copyediting, design, and printing, but they keep 70% of their net profits on print and 80% on e-books. The press is also known for its communal culture. Brooke Warner gives her authors close personal attention, and the authors, themselves, freely share information and support each other’s work.


The fate of women’s writing is no small matter. Since storytellers shape our culture’s values, its understandings of who and what count as history, and, inevitably, its political priorities, the question of who gets to be a storyteller and of whose stories are read and acknowledged is crucial—not just for women but for men and for the way civil society as a whole is constructed.

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  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    This is an eye-opening and important piece. Thank you, Judith.

  • Judith Newton

    Ah, Diane, my perfect reader!  Yes, I do think it's fun. Poisoned cornbread is the weapon (pigs, corn, sexism, greed, and a university tainted by corporate values.)

  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Having retired from the university, women's studies and political science, I shall want to read your mystery, see how you set it up. Though it sounds like it has serious purpose, OINK! sounds like fun, too! 

  • Judith Newton

    Diane, It's a political mystery that I'm still working on called OINK! It's set in a land grant university (the body is found in the hog barn) and is about tensions between communal and corporate values in the university.  The communal values are represented by a group of ethnic and women's studies faculty.  I had to rewrite the first part to make the protagonist's investment in this group come out of deeply personal and emotional investments.  My memoir made similar connections, but somehow I had not really made those connections obvious in the mystery.

  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Judith, very interesting. I'll check out Harlick, too. Meanwhile, which of your mss are you referring to -- the one in which you made social issues more immediate? The most recent SheWrites one? Thanks for the insight. 

  • Judith Newton

    Diane, I had similar experiences showing writing that dealt with race issues. I subsequently read a series of mysteries by RJ Harlick who deals with social issues in each book. I saw that she had brought family and love relations into the politics really early on.  I went back and changed my ms and I think the change made the social issues more immediate and compelling for other readers.  At least I hope that's so! 

  • Judith Newton

    Mardith:  Yes, and of course, we didn't just fall in to thinking men were cool.  Women writers were seldom taught in my American Lit classes.  I remember the curriculum for American Dreams/American Nightmares at a college I taught for in the early seventies.  We women teachers did a study of all the syllabi for that course. Here's what was taught:  58 different white men, 1 black man (Richard Wright), and 0 women!  Courses have changed and yet the idea that men's writing is cooler, more interesting, etc. still persists. 

  • Mardith Louisell

    Thanks for the post, Judith. We need to be reminded and do not forget these statistics all the  time (and in movies, the Bechdel test -   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLF6sAAMb4s). Don't ever think that the media hasn't done its job - I have women friends who don't read women: "I don't know any good women writers." There was a fad most of us fell into when we were young - that men and men writers were cool and we needed to read them to know what good lit was. Even now there's some of that. When I go to people's houses, I look at the bookshelves and if there aren't any books by women, I ask, "What about women writers?" Of course, if they don't read women writers, they won't read my book and that upsetting. The newer platforms are great but I would also like to see a sea change in people's sensibilities about what is "good" lit.

  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Thank you, Judith Newton, for saying that we need to write stories, even, especially when they are not about the usual subject matter of novels, at least, for example, in my case. In my writers' workshop not everyone gets excited about some of what I write subject-matter-wise when my pov character, a 25-year-old white woman, gets progressively more involved in the fringes of the civil rights movement in Memphis, Tennessee. Her involvement is going to intersect a huge change in her marriage and love life, but right now that is not uppermost in her being. Hence, apparently, the fall-off in interest among some of the others in the workshop. It makes me wonder if most people read novels for the sex! I know I don't, though I appreciate a good love story.  Thanks also for the statistics you gave us on women as writers and readers and reviewers and reviewed. We do still have a long way to go, baby.

  • Judith Newton

    Thank you, Brooke--for all the same!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for this post, Judy. I so appreciate what a vocal advocate you are for women's voices—and a trailblazer and risk-taker and leader. I couldn't agree with you more that the fate of women's writing is no small matter. Let our voices be heard!

  • Judith Newton

    Exactly.  And that our public policy on parental leaves is the worst among all the developed countries has a lot to do with the attitude that family life is not what history is about.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    I could agree more.  History is not just generals, presidents, and kings.  To publish stories by women shows us that each person matters.  Each one of us makes history.