Business books are still a symbol of male power—here’s what needs to change

Having seen the business book publishing market expand and flourish over the last few years, I founded the Business Book Awards in 2017 to celebrate the dynamism and diversity of genre. When the shortlisting and judging of the inaugural awards was completed, the standard of winning books and authors was outstanding. But every category winner and the overall winner of the first Business Book of the Year was a white male author.

I tracked back: of the 150 books entered, from big and small publishers as well as self-published authors, one third were written by women to two thirds men. Fewer than a third of women authors had made it through to the shortlist and not one to the line-up of eleven winners. I analysed our list at Rethink Press, where authors approach us to publish their books—we don’t select them. Our 300+ titles also featured one-third female to two-thirds male authors. Several other business book publishers thought that proportion rang true but didn’t want to share actual numbers.

Research into gender discrimination in the publishing industry generally revealed some shocking statistics:

•    Women’s books are priced lower than men’s
•    Manuscripts by women authors get less interest from publishers and agents
•    Books by women are reviewed less often than books by men and far more reviewers are male
•    Successful women authors win fewer literary prizes than their male equivalents

A survey and interviews I carried out with 50 women authors of business books for my own book, A Book of One’s Own, showed that women face challenges at all points in the writing and publishing process. Most business book authors are entrepreneurs, coaches or consultants writing about their area of expertise. Less than half as many women as men start a business and those who do find it massively harder to get support and investment; the pool of potential female authors of business books is therefore reduced by structural inequity.

Just as the voices of women are heard less and considered less credible in business, my interviewees felt it was harder for them to find support and information about writing and publishing their books, for instance on programmes and accelerators that promote book-writing. They felt strongly that lack of confidence and fear of criticism held them back.

"Women have a tendency to be less confident and humbler than men, meaning that when they do achieve, they will put their head down and get on with the next challenge rather than shouting about it," says Fiona Murden, author of Defining You.

This may be because women are less comfortable about ‘putting themselves out there’ and actively promoting their books. At Rethink Press, our monthly Top Ten selling book lists are dominated by high profile male authors who constantly and actively promote themselves and their books.

"We need to teach women and quieter voices how to speak up, how to pitch, how to speak live on stage and on air, how to sell the idea of themselves first," agrees Pippa Malmgren, co-author of The Leadership Lab. "As it stands, business books are written by the loudest blowhards… women must learn to blow the horn harder, perhaps more elegantly, and without sacrificing their unique voice."

Women can also believe that publishers consider them less authoritative and their books less saleable than their male counterparts.

"If women don’t have their expertise published and celebrated, it is harder for them to be seen as an authority," says Harriet Kelsall, author of The Creative’s Guide to Starting a Business. "I think there is a link between gender inequality on boards and the fact that there are not enough business books written by women published."
In the second Business Book Awards, we made a concerted effort to counteract this bias. We added entry categories to attract more female-authored books; we reviewed the judging criteria; we raised awareness of the gender issue with an expanded judging panel; and we added an award for An Exceptional Book by a Woman.

The number and proportions of entries scarcely changed from the first year, with yet again twice as many male-authored books entered as female. However, nearly equal numbers of women as men authors were shortlisted, and some category shortlists—Leadership and Specialist Book—had almost exclusively women authors. In fact, this confounded some of our expectations (aka unconscious bias), as we had assumed that Leadership was an area dominated by male writers, and that the new HR and Management category would attract more women authors—where three out of the five shortlisted books were by men.

The winning books in our nine categories were by three women, five men, and a jointly-authored book by a man and woman. The Business Book of the Year, picked from the category winners, was very suitably the jointly authored book, The Leadership Lab by Pippa Malmgren and Chris Lewis.

To reduce the gender gap in business book publishing, affirmative action needs to be taken by all parts of the industry. Business accelerators, courses and programmes should actively encourage and support more women to write and publish their books. Women themselves need to become more confident about writing, publishing and promoting. Publishers must question their unconscious bias about women authors in general as well as subject-related gender stereotypes (eg, women write about ‘soft’ issues while men write about tech. And booksellers can also take affirmative action in featuring and promoting business books by women; there is a growing market for these titles, and by helping to open it up booksellers will gain long term and high return on their investment.

Personally, I’m on a mission to get 50 more women to write and publish their business book by the end of this year and submit it to the Business Book Awards 2020 (deadline 31st December 2019) to even up the entries. Aspiring women authors can join the challenge at http://www.abookofonesown.co.uk/challenge.

Lucy McCarraher is the founder of the Business Book Awards, the co-founder of Rethink Press and the author A Book of One’s Own – a manifesto for women to share their experience and make a difference.