• Gina Denny

Pen Names, Women, and Fantasy Fiction

I’ve decided I need to use a pen name. Well.. sort of. I’ve sort of decided I need to use a pen name. A big part of me wants to see MY NAME on a book on a shelf someplace, but as I get closer to being ready to query this bad girl, I’m spending more time researching actual sales trends. You know, as opposed to the “I wish this was true and it feels true because of what I have on my nightstand currently” sales trends I’ve relied on up to this point.

And I’ve noticed something that I thought was over, but apparently is not.

Sexism and speculative fiction is alive and well, folks. And not just in content (though that is getting better as each year goes by). No. I’m talking about the name on the cover of the book.

“But no! Nobody in their right mind thinks that a woman writes fantasy fiction badly! Not anymore! What is this, 1934?!”

But, alas. It is true. I did some internet searching and noticed some pervasive trends. Based on those trends, I deduced that there are still certain expectations in place out there. I’ve broken those trends and expectations into easy-to-read graphs.

First: The ratio of Male Fantasy Authors to Female Fantasy Authors. It’s not shocking in the slightest. Slightly more men than women, but that gap closes a tiny bit more every year. (The size seems unnecessary now, but later on, you’ll be glad the graph is so big. And I need them to all be the same size for my faux-CD.)

However, that picture is not quite fair. A large portion of women still use a pen name, and masculine or gender-neutral pen names (including initials) are the most common. Some women have a given name that is gender-neutral, such as Robin or Jaime, and I counted those in the gender-neutral name category for the purposes of this illustration. A few women, such as Tofa Borregaard use distinctly female pen names. You would know her as Gail Carriger, of course. And, yes, I know “Gail” has been a masculine name in the past, but it is primarily a female name today.

So a very small percentage of published fantasy authors are women using a distinctly feminine name, whether their given name or a pen name. Still, it’s a measurable number of women named Katy or Karen publishing fantasy, right?


Sort of.

That yellow sliver – approximately five to ten percent, so far as I can calculate – represents ALL fantasy-related writing. When you break it down into sub-genre and other categories, it looks a little more like this:

Published women with distinctly female names have written books across all fantasy genres. However, a measurable portion of them write mostly non-fantasy, and are only considered “fantasy authors” for the sake of making the genre look more progressive and feminist-friendly than it truly is. That is, they write mystery or thrillers or romance or literary fiction for a bulk of their writing and once wrote a fantasy-based short story, or incorporated paranormal elements into one of their mysteries once. They aren’t really fantasy writers, at least not to their readers.

YA Fantasy (and all its sub-genres) is dominated by female writers, and they make up the bulk of female fantasy writers overall. Female authors seem to be well-accepted as urban fantasy or paranormal writers, and (of course) they are well-accepted as romance and erotica writers. The fantasy-romance-erotica category seems to be overwhelmingly female, but again, the fantasy elements are secondary to the romance elements, and their readers wouldn’t say they are reading fantasy most of the time.

The number of women using a distinctly female pen name while writing high fantasy for adults is small. Combine those last two graphs, plugging the genres into the female-pen-name slice, and it looks something like this:

It might be hard to see, but that tiny dark purple sliver is women with female names publishing high or epic fantasy for adults.

So far as I can tell, the ability to succeed is proportionate across all these slices (i.e. – one percent of men publishing fantasy will sell well enough, and one percent of women with a feminine name writing high fantasy will sell enough … but since there are approximately two hundred times as many men writing fantasy as there are women-with-feminine-names-publishing-high-fantasy… there will be two hundred times as many male household names as female household names.)

Doing that math all the way, I have about one-hundred-and-sixty times the chance of selling well if I use a gender neutral or masculine pen name.

I feel it necessary to say at this point that these numbers cannot possibly be perfectly accurate. It is nigh on impossible to track every book that is released into the wild, so I’ve done my best to make these graphs realistic without knowing every piece of data. I did pore over lists and charts and actually do a lot of math to get to this point. And, trust me, these numbers are not what I want them to be, so there’s no way I would have fudged them to make them look like this.

I also feel it necessary to note that these numbers are only related to traditionally-published authors. I have no idea how to begin tracking the massive labyrinth that is self-publishing. Since my goal – at this point, anyway – is to be traditionally published, these are the numbers that matter to me.

I also want to be PERFECTLY CLEAR: I am not saying high fantasy is somehow “better” than fantasy-tinged romance, or anything of the sort. It’s just that I am writing high fantasy, so that’s the category that matters to me. I have a lot of respect for people who write genres and sub-genres other than my own, and don’t take these comments as another other than the observations they are intended to be. Thank you.


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