It takes courage to put words to paper with the intention of seeing it through to a finished book. In essence, fledgling authors are seeking to join the company of Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and other giants, and those are some big britches to fill, grasshopper. So, yes, if you want to be published, it’s only natural that you have some doubts about whether you’re up for the task. You wouldn’t be reading Foreword This Week if you didn’t hold the written word in highest regard. To those of us in the business of books, authors are superstars.
Women writers, unfortunately, face obstacles that their male colleagues don’t. (Sounds like just about every other industry, doesn’t it?) On average, not nearly as many women as men are offered writing contracts, for example, partly due to the fact that most acquisition editors at publishing houses are male.
But as we learn in this week’s interview, things are getting better. Meet Brooke Warner, the founder of She Writes Press, as well as the new author of Write On, Sisters!, a superb resource for women writers seeking support. Melissa Wuske praises the book as “a detailed study of gender in writing and publishing and an inviting call to action for women who write” in her review for the July/August issue of Foreword Reviews. We sensed Melissa had much more on her mind than she could cover in the review, so we reached out to Brooke via She Writes to put this interview together.
Melissa, take it from here.
Is the problem of gender disparity in writing and publishing something you’ve always been aware of, or can you describe a particular moment when your eyes were opened?
My eyes were opened when I started working at Seal Press in 2004. It wasn’t immediate, but within the first year there, working with only women authors, I started seeing some of the unique challenges women authors faced. I think the big aha moment I had was working on a book with Jessica Valenti called He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, which was published by Seal Press in 2009. While the book wasn’t about publishing per se, it opened my eyes to the many double standards women face and I started applying them to various arenas of my own experience. I included a double standards section in my new book, Write On, Sisters!, actually, because I wanted to showcase the many double standards that are present in this industry that women writers have to deal with. Another big eye-opening moment for me was the VIDA count, which started in 2010 and tracks the number of women’s bylines compared to men’s. There have been a lot of efforts in the past decade to expose inequalities in publishing, and that’s served to put numbers to truths that many of us already knew.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running She Writes Press? How has your combined experience as both a writer and a publisher challenged and equipped you to work for change?
The biggest impact of She Writes Press, for me, has been the validation that we have created a space for women’s voices. I left traditional publishing because the barriers to entry for authors were around marketing and whether the authors had a big enough platform. As a person who came up on the editorial side of publishing, I could never reconcile the idea that an author would be rejected because she didn’t have a big enough fanbase or because she wasn’t famous enough. I understand it logically, but I couldn’t reconcile it. I wanted to be able to publish books that deserved to get published—and now that’s what I have the freedom to do, because of our non-traditional business model. And I’m uniquely equipped to fight for my authors because I’ve been on the traditional side of publishing, and I know firsthand that the books She Writes Press publishes are as good or better than any traditional press. I have the perspective and the language and the publishing understanding to tackle the critics who try to say that a non-traditional model in which authors subsidize their own work is somehow less valid. To the critics, I say let the books speak for themselves. The women authors who publish with us are most certainly proving that this model works. And it’s those women who have claimed a place at the table who inspired me to write this new book.
There’s evidence of inequity everywhere, but what are the biggest signs of progress you’ve seen?
Yes, there’s progress we can point to, but the problem is that women writers and authors started in such a deep hole, so if you’re talking about getting to equity, then we aren’t even close. This idea of progress is sometimes frustrating, because it’s predicated on the idea that we should be grateful that it’s better than awful. So yes, due to the hard work of organizations like VIDA who are exposing inequities, and due to many awards programs being taken to task for not acknowledging women authors, and mostly due to women themselves insisting that their voices be heard, we are seeing more female bylines and more women writers winning prizes and awards and more women writers and authors making gains in the publishing world. These are all positive things, progress that should be acknowledged. And it’s important to note that women have fought these same kinds of battles across industries, and in broader contexts—for the vote, for reproductive rights, for equal pay, for representation in politics, and much more. It’s right to celebrate our wins, our steps toward equality, but it’s offensive to women to suggest that anything less than parity and equality is enough, and that’s why we have to keep speaking up and out and continue to engage in these conversations—and oftentimes fight for what’s right.
Women’s lives are messy, complex, and busy. What are some tips for women who want to make time to find support for themselves and their writing? Why is it worth it to carve out time to connect with others instead of devoting every spare moment to writing?
I write about community in the book, and I think connecting to others is a way for any writer to not feel so alone. Writing brings with it so many challenges, not the least of which are emotional triggers and inner critic voices telling us we’re not good enough, encouraging us to give up the pursuit of our dreams. Drinking from the well of inspiration, therefore, is one way to feed the part of you that drives what you love about writing. I encourage writers to go to author readings or conferences, to listen to podcasts. (I have a writing podcast called Write-minded that I co-host with Grant Faulkner of NaNoWriMo.) There are a lot of things that we can do to support our writing that is not actual writing—things like being in conversation with other writers on social media, taking classes, reading books by authors you love. I think all of these things contribute to the writing life, and in my experience those authors who are connected to community generally do better embracing their identities as writers and later as authors.
Community among women who write is critical to progress, but it’ll take broader connection to fully end disparity. What advice do you have for male allies? (Or for white women writers who want to support women writers of color, or for women who don’t write who want to support those who do?)
Great question, and one we should be asking more often and talking about more. I recently interviewed Eve Ensler in Berkeley for her new book, The Apology, and she talked about how important it is that men have space to talk, to share, to have their own reckoning. She said that in order for us to have a revolution, we just need 10 percent of men to be on board. And what that means is that men support women, that men not only believe that women should be fully equal, but that they fight for it and speak up for the women in their lives. I meet these men all the time. They’re the fathers and husbands and sons and friends of my authors, they’re men who show up at majority-women events, they’re men who not only tolerate difficult conversations about inequality and privilege, but also who are willing to tackle that head on and acknowledge how they’ve benefitted from the system as it exists (and as it was designed) and not feel threatened by those conversations. It’s not an easy ask, but there are men out there who are ready and willing and even energized by these conversations and who want the same vision of the future that women want.
So we have to not be afraid to vocalize what we want in front of men, and to say why it matters, and to be open to their feedback, and to include them in the conversation and in the fight. So I guess what this is, really, is advice for women about how to include men, because I think a lot of times they’re looking for opportunities, but they don’t know the access points. That said, there are plenty of men who are threatened by women’s progress. I write about a man who offered a blurb for one of our books, and later revoked it in protest over our being a women-only press. This kind of punitive behavior, or men suggesting that women-only spaces are to the detriment of men is common, and I would hope that men who feel this way read my book, that they consider the history that women are up against, and that they see how healing it can be to support women for the sake of supporting women, for the goal of true equality.
And everything I’ve said here can and does apply to white allies supporting people of color, whether that’s white women writers supporting writers of color or even more generally. Having the capacity to have conversations about all of this is an important first step, and then there has to be genuine support, not just paying lip service. So for white people supporting writers of color, that means reading writers of color, recommending writers of color, supporting writers of color on social media, giving writers of color reviews, going to events. True change is effected by our actions and how we show up.
What’s the most awe-inspiring moment you’ve seen of a woman overcoming odds or of a woman helping another woman succeed as a writer?
I honestly see this nearly every day with my own authors. We have a secret Facebook group for our authors and the way the She Writes Press authors support one another is incredible. It’s both in their heartfelt support of one another—through giving advice and tips and sharing vulnerable moments—and also in the real world, showing up for each other that happens when they attend each other’s events. Our authors were the ones who suggested that we start a contest to award a writer of color a publishing contract each year because they saw the lack of diversity on our list and wanted to support us to do something to improve that. I see a lot of generosity among authors I work with, and that’s such an important thing to witness, because there can be a lot of jealousy and competition in writerly circles. I’m always inspired by well-known authors who offer their words of support by way of blurbs to beginners.
We’ve had several cases where a friend or supporter of the authors has contributed financially to support an author to complete their books. And women every single day are overcoming the beastly inner critics telling them their writing isn’t good enough. This is so central to women’s narratives that I’m just never surprised anymore. I’ve talked to women who want to pull their books at the eleventh hour, who are being crushed by their own self-doubt—and oftentimes I’ve been in a position to support them to uncover the truth of those old messages, to see how the “not good enough” message that originated so long ago is derailing their current ambitions. It’s a complex and bumpy terrain that writers have to navigate, and so to be awe-inspired, which I often am, keeps me well-armed with encouragement for others. Sometimes knowing you’re not alone in the struggle is all you need to pick yourself back up off the ground and keep going. I know this because I’ve experienced it myself.