Publishing · writing

Finding an Agent: When Gender Matters for a Writer

Beth Kanter, “Laura Allen,” July 29, 2012, via Wikimedia.

In a perfect world, agents and publishing houses would judge authors based solely on syntax, characterization, plot, and other aspects of writing. But our world is far from a perfect one, and an author’s race, gender, and sexuality can still play a role in who is published.

In particular, some of the recent discussions about gender have made me revisit an article about the way that literary agents react depending on how they perceive a writer. In 2015, Catherine Nichols was an aspiring writer who was busy querying agents about her most recent manuscript. Though only a few agents responded to her queries, she assumed that she was just paying her dues. All writers have to be rejected before they can succeed after all. On a whim, she decided to taken on a masculine nom de plume, George Leyer, solely for the sake of querying.

The results of her experiment, however, shocked Catherine:

“…I copy-pasted my cover letter and the opening pages of my novel from my regular e-mail into George’s account. I put in the address of one of the agents I’d intended to query under my own name. I didn’t expect to hear back for a few weeks, if at all. It would only be a few queries and then I’d close out my experiment. I began preparing another query, checking the submission requirements on the agency web site. When I clicked back, there was already a new message, the first one in the empty inbox. Mr. Leyer. Delighted. Excited. Please send the manuscript.

…I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

The manuscript and queries were all the same except for one thing: the supposed gender of the author. The Georges of the world, it seems, are more likely to receive responses than the Catherines.

The assumed gender of the writer also resulted in different types of feedback. Catherine received comments about the “lyrical” and “beautiful” nature of her writing and the observation that “…your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?” Responses to George, however, didn’t focus on pluck. No, his writing was “exciting”, “clever”, and “well-constructed”. Beauty vs Brilliance.

Of course Catherine’s experiment was not particularly scientific. There was no control for who the agents were, and most of the agents did not receive queries from both Catherine and George, so it was difficult to make a direct comparison. The experiment also did not account for the way that agents perceived “foreign” (i.e. not Western European) names.

But what should writers do with information like this? Should women write under men’s names? Should all authors query agents using English or Irish surnames? Those suggestions all rankle. The idealist in me believes that people should not have to fundamentally change who they are, their gender, their family of origin, in order to succeed. But that is also a naive perspective on my part. As the saying from George Orwell’s Animal Farm goes, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Despite all of this, I am not going to start writing under a masculine or gender neutral name. I already have an online identity and hope that the presence of more women and people of color will help diversify who is published. Obscuring those identities won’t help matters.

Despite the experiment’s dismal results, there is a happy ending to the story. An agent who read Catherine’s nonfiction writing (and who was not part of the agent experiment) now represents Catherine, and together they are in the process of getting that long ago manuscript published.I encourage you to read the article in its entirety. It is a fascinating look at the way that unconscious biases can influence the success of authors.

Feel free to let me know your opinions on writing under a masculine or gender neutral name as well. (J.K. Rowling isn’t the only woman to use initials in place of her full name after all.)


47 thoughts on “Finding an Agent: When Gender Matters for a Writer

  1. What kept running through my head is that the agents were impressed that a man could write something that might been so decidedly feminine. For a woman to write something feminine is not news. Like the old quote, Man bites dog.. now THAT’S news

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with sjhigbee, its depressing! I read somewhere that agents and publishers receive more submissions from men than women…how many reasons why, I have no idea, but it probably won’t be because many of those men are ‘posing’ as women. We shouldn’t have to employ these techniques. I never considered it for a moment, maybe I am naive!

      As an artist and someone who has studied art history, I also believe in the fine art world men are taken more note of than women, for very arcane historically adopted reasons, where women were deemed to be less committed (due to family, children etc), less devoted, and yes, less clever, than male counterparts. I’m sure this legacy overlaps into the writing world too. And of course the Bronte sisters had to pose as men. Nothing changed then??

      Liked by 2 people

      1. These things definitely have a long cultural and social history, which is what makes them so hard to change. It is also related to that saying that I’m going to massacre. “When a woman cooks, it is her duty. When a man cooks, he is a chef.” That mindset is difficult to overcome.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not entirely surprised by the results of the experiment. But in this century, I’m disgusted and saddened by it. We should have left such bias behind in the distant past.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is, of course, nothing new to minorities, who for untold time have changed their names to more Anglicized versions. I first became aware of the practice in college, and quickly realized that there are preferences in the world of employment (and entertainment) for white males. As a man you’ll command more immediate attention, and double points to you if you’re a white man. There are many stories of people’s businesses and employment opportunities that improved after switching to an Anglicized name, and so I am not surprised that switching to a male presentation benefits query responses.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this article. It’s insightful. I wonder if this will be the case for screenplays as well; mine isn’t finished yet but it will be interesting to see if my gender is an issue when i do go a-knocking on agent doors!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. P.s You could shorten your name to Kris and experiment to see if your reply rate changes? You’re not deceiving them after all! Just a mere shortening; not your fault if they were to assume you were of different gender…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! I wrinkle my nose at that sort of thing too. But I suppose, by trying such things, women can help show agents their own bias? They may not all realise they’re doing it…or is that my optimism getting the better of me?!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. With your name, it could be like the Bronte sisters. Not really saying you’re a man or a woman, just assuming they know. Then you turn up to meet them and they’re like ‘oh! You’re a female human!’ Their agent didn’t know at first that they were women, I don’t think.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m disappointed but not especially surprised to hear about this. Oddly enough, I found myself gravitating toward female agents when I started my query process recently. Somehow, I can’t help shaking the nagging feeling that perhaps another woman might give female writers a fairer opportunity. Perhaps this is gender bias poking up the other way; I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s so funny; I just realized I was doing it partway through sorting out which agents to query next. I don’t normally gravitate to women so much more easily than men in professional settings.


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