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Writing under a male name makes you eight times more likely to get published, one female author finds

Catherine Nichols received many more responses from agents as a man

Jess Denham
Thursday 06 August 2015 13:55 BST
Could unconscious bias be to blame for agents responding more positively to male authors?
Could unconscious bias be to blame for agents responding more positively to male authors?

JK Rowling opted against using first name 'Joanne' when selling her Harry Potter books, and now another female author has proven that hiding behind a male pseudonym can be the best way to grab publishers' attention.

Catherine Nichols had been met with disappointment after disappointment after sending letters to agents. Until she decided to use a man's name, that is.

Nichols contacted some 50 agents using her real name but only heard back from two. When she changed gender, however, she received responses from five out of six agents, including three manuscript requests.

It didn't take long for Nichols to identify the issue. "My novel wasn't the problem, it was me - Catherine," she wrote in an essay for Jezebel.

Nichols ended up with 17 manuscript requests from agents believing she was a male author.

"He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book," she said. "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 most interesting results came when Nichols sent the same agents letters using both her real name and pseudonymn.

"One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George's book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent," she said.

"Even George's rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren't to the real me."

Nichols found that agents described George's work as "exciting" and "clever", without mentioning "whether his main characters were feisty" or "his sentences being lyrical".

Possible reasons why agents preferred her novel under a male name included the idea that it was easier to sell, that it is "unusual for a man to write a book with a female protagonist" and that with Nichols' real name, the book could have been considered "Women's Fiction" when that wasn't the genre she was writing for. Or, simply, unconscious bias.

Nichols has now found an agent and has edited her work using critiques she received as George.

Sadly, it seems Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot, Middlemarch) and the Bronte sisters were onto something when they wrote as men and not enough has changed in centuries after all. Sigh.

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