Member Monday: The Children’s Book Industry, A gendered affair

A disclaimer is always at the bottom of this blog but before today’s post I just want to make sure it’s seen:

Disclaimer: As always: Any opinions expressed here are entirely my own and not the views of the SCBWI. FMI

Phew. Done.

Yesterday, as you probably know, was Mother’s Day here in America. Google made a super-cute, animated logo that jumped to the Wikipedia explanation of the founding of Mother’s Day by Anna Jarvis in 1908. Earlier though, in 1870 at the end of the bloody Civil War, Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day in honor of Peace. She, who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, also wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation. In the spirit of activism and women– today’s post.

What does Mother’s Day have to do with the Children’s Book Industry? Well, I’d bet money that a lot more than 50% of my (small) readership is women. How do I know? Go to any SCBWI conference and check out the bathrooms. We always switch one men’s room to a woman’s room in order to handle the demand. It’s not only the writers either. A large number of the editors and other industry professionals are women too– strong, intelligent, wonderful women.

In the illustration department the numbers start to sway. More men tend to be illustrators we know. Of the 12 illustrators in the “Bookmakers Dozen” only three are women. 

Now think about the people you see keynoting at national SCBWI conferences. The folks we know have really made it. Often men. I have nothing against these strong, intelligent, wonderful, men and I have to say that the tide IS changing. At the last few big conferences I attended, the podium seemed much more balanced. Nevertheless, one might ask… no, I ask… Why is it that we have an industry that is primarily female but whose big money makers are mainly male.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and have stitched together some thoughts on the issue. Below are four mistakes that women often make and men often don’t. (Let me mention that I do all of these things, all the time.)

1. Women often give away, that for which they should be compensated.
Think of your calendar, or list of things to do. How many times have you scheduled volunteer activities? Certainly there is nothing wrong with that, but all of those duties (often in service to our children) take away from time that you might do the work.  Further, how many times do you go into classrooms, or libraries to do readings or writing workshops for free? How much do you give away your Children’s Writing/Illustrating/or Publishing expertise?

Tip: Some pro bono work helps us get quotes and recommendations for our blogs, and helps us market ourselves, but have some sort of rule about how many or what kind of visit you will do for free and when those are done, say no to free visits.

2. Women often settle for compensation that is below the market value.
Our work and our knowledge is worth something. What is it worth? That is harder to determine. Some of us are published in magazines, some have books, some have awards. The Graphic Artist Guild has a Pricing and Ethical Guidelines publication that pools payment info and organizes it according to job and region so that illustrators/graphic artist have a better idea about the going rate and therefore know what to charge. Alexis O’Neill has this PDF entitled “What do I charge?” at her School Visit site. I think it would be interesting to have a survey of all SCBWI members about their visit and conference fees and to publish the results. Even if we knew what to charge though, women often settle for less. If you don’t believe me take a look at this book, or this book, or this article, or this one, or this one.

Tip: Do some research and ask people you respect how much they charge. I know, it’s scary. Ask anyway. Try to zero in on your worth and stick to it when a school starts telling you they don’t have any money. Research outside funding sources or grants that they could apply for in order to pay you your stated price. Ultimately, you are trying to sell books. Could they schedule a book signing event for the school where they contract with a local indie bookseller?  In terms of book contracts– get an agent. It used to be that those in the Children’s Industry didn’t need one. Those days are gone. Most publishing houses are closed to unagented manuscripts and the extra money you will get with an agent who knows editors and their contracts is significant.

3. Women often over-schedule outside events which leaves less time to do the work.
Anytime you are not writing, illustrating, sketching, revising, reading critically, you are not doing the work. Ultimately, your teaching or your school and conference visits depend on your publishing calendar. New books, mean new visits.

Tip: Be deliberate when scheduling visits. Budget out your year. Say to yourself, I want to make this much money from visits this year. I’ll need to do this many visits to make that happen. Try breaking your year into school visit season and writing season. You probably know your own work rhythms. Are you unproductive in January and February? Schedule all your travel and visits then.

4. Women have a lot they are responsible for and this keeps us from doing the work.
Many of us have a ton of domestic responsibilities. We drive children, do laundry, take care of our parents, and on, and on, and on. Ultimately, we will not get the book contracts if we don’t do the work. We can wait for another more favorable time (which may never come) or we can “write in the cracks,” a term I’m borrowing from Eileen Spinelli. Further, at-home loneliness often drives people (read: me) to social networking sites where we convince ourselves that we are building an online platform for the magical day when our book is purchased.

Tip: Value yourself and your work enough to get a babysitter, then run away and write or draw. If you have a spouse, negotiate time on your own and schedule it in the family calendar. Take a pen and notebook and write on the road. If your kid is in baseball practice, stay in the car and write or sketch. You don’t need a laptop and you especially don’t need the internet. If you are not published and that is your goal, I challenge you to find one hour each day when you are “building your online platform,” to do the work.

In closing– Value your time. Value your knowledge. Do the work. 

19 thoughts on “Member Monday: The Children’s Book Industry, A gendered affair

  1. Like it was taken directly out of my head Anna! I’ve been feeling the pressure from all sides lately (and an agent is waiting for my rewrite!), it’s about making me ready to explode. Today I’m not cleaning, volunteering, shopping, doing laundry, or anything else but write. Thanks for the reminder that I’m not alone in this crazy world of writing pushes and pulls.

  2. Love this post and the ideas in it, but also have to say there are some more nefarious reasons that men dominate than individual women can control — so when you have set time aside for socializing, consider hosting a “Miss Representation” party ( and then take some political action to push more women into center of our cultural production. Also, check out the op-ed project working to increase women’s by-lines, the Geena Davis institute or other organizations working to address discrimination against women… we need to kick-start a change!

  3. Thanks for this post Anna.

    I often wonder the same thing when I am at a conference.

    Your points about working hard and treating it like a job do ring true.

    There may be more going on that a sociologist could explain better than me.

    Keep working hard and hopefully the future will be more balanced in our field.

    1. As ethicsmeca and many others point out, there is only so much we have control of as women. Public policy around budgeting for children, child care, arts, teaching, health care, and societal representations and expectations of women are certainly at play. In addition to what is listed above, we should all be voting and voting our interests. I love the discussion, keep these comments coming!

  4. Late to the party here, but this is a fabulous post, Anna, and such great food for thought. At last year’s SCBWI LA conference, I went to a session led by Laurie Halse Anderson on how to be a professional writer (essentially) and a big item on her list was “stop volunteering,” which is to say, stop giving your time away for free. Yet we are socialized as mothers that if we don’t selflessly volunteer our time, we may not love our children as much as those who do. Talk about messed up! So hard to try to find a balance here, but these are great thoughts.

    1. Shelby, so good to see you here post MFA! I think the other thing that plays into this is fear. Fear of putting ourselves forward as professionals in a business where one works so long for free- on speculation. To be brave enough to own the introduction– Hi, I’m Name Here, and I’m a writer– when we might not actually have any contract in hand. I think that might be the first step.

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