The Invisible Woman

The issue of the 'invisibility' of middle aged and older women seems to be everywhere, the word itself cropping up with disturbing regularity. I know the feeling. For a writer it's sometimes an advantage to be able to lurk quietly, watching what goes on, making mental notes, unheeded and unnoticed. At others, it can be deeply frustrating. But here's the thing. We aren't invisible to other women and especially not to middle aged and older women. Often, you'll catch a faintly jaded eye across a crowded room and know that she is feeling exactly the same as you: a mixture of indignation and amusement. That prickly sense of identification will pass between you like electricity.

To some extent, this disregard of the ‘other’ happens all the time and to everyone. It's the cause of many crass political and business decisions: this inability to put yourself in another's shoes, the assumption that just because you feel a certain way everyone else feels that way too. There was a scene during the last series of The Apprentice which neatly illustrated the problem. One of the contestants, an intelligent, determined and talented young woman, was unable to fathom why anyone might want to buy a back pack which would convert into a child's car seat. I can remember a time before motherhood when I might have felt exactly the same. But as it turned out, she was wrong, because it was a mega order for these same back packs that won the opposing team their treat. We all do it, making the assumption that everyone feels and thinks the way we do. But I suspect we do it more relentlessly when we're young through sheer lack of experience. One wrong business decision, based on a mistaken generalisation, needn't be a disaster. But this state of mind can have wider implications and the one that concerns me right now is my own field: writing and publishing.

Earlier this year, a colleague called Linda Gillard published to Amazon’s Kindle Store a beautifully written novel called House of Silence which was proving – as she herself says – ‘impossible’ to sell in the conventional way. ‘We actually ran out of editors to send it to!’ she says. Now this is no beginner we’re talking about. Linda is a talented and experienced writer with a successful, award winning track record and a good agent. The book in question was widely praised, but met with what another fine writer, Maggie Craig, calls the ‘rave rejection’. The problem with these – and I’ve had plenty of them myself – is that there’s nowhere to go with them. More often than not, they will say things like ‘This is a wonderful novel’ or ‘I just love this!’ And believe me, editors don’t lightly admit to loving something. If they don't like your writing, they won't pull their punches out of consideration for your feelings. But the problem invariably lies with the perceptions of those doing the marketing who may not even have read the book. Linda’s novel didn’t slot neatly into any narrow genre. Worse, as far as they were concerned, a significant percentage of her readership (although by no means all) consists of middle aged and older women in search of a thoughtful, well written novel: books that used to be called ‘midlist’ and were deemed to be eminently publishable. Now these same books, their writers and their voracious readers seem to have become largely invisible to conventional book marketing. But these are so often readers with the incentives of time, intelligence and a certain amount of disposable income. Now, in ever increasing numbers, they also have e-readers. And more will be acquiring them for Christmas.

Recent experience would suggest that an older woman in possession of a Kindle or a Nook, wants a more varied choice of reading matter than that generally on offer in your average supermarket. And that’s in spite of the mountains of paper books published every year. Those of us who love reading can identify with the demoralising experience of visiting a big book chain and – in spite of the many exclamatory promotions – finding nothing we really want to read. Inevitably, the marketing departments of publishing houses have become concerned with selling to big stores rather than selling to readers. But the buyers for those chains of stationers and supermarkets with a sideline in books will be focussing on a narrow demographic. Happily for Linda, there is a much bigger market out there. Her novel has become a great success and continues to sell widely and to be received enthusiastically. She sold more than 12,000 downloads of House of Silence, (and counting)  in approximately 4 months and she is already building on that success with another eBook called Untying the Knot.

She is not alone. With the collapse of the mid-list, there are many experienced, professional writers who are struggling to find publication for widely praised and properly edited work, writers, moreover, who already have a significant following among the reading public. My agent is currently sending out a new historical novel for me, in the usual way, and I'd be happy to find a publisher with whom I could work in the long term. But we aren't exactly being knocked down in the rush. Besides that, I have numerous pieces of good work including novels, which don't quite fit the mould of what he is currently sending out. Most of it is, I believe, work of quality, writing that a significant number of people would enjoy reading. And there seems little point in hanging onto it in the hope of some hypothetical jam tomorrow. That's the other thing about reaching a certain age. You become braver and more confident in your own abilities. (Maybe the invisibility helps.)

So I’ve started my own Kindle business with a trio of short stories, one of which rejoices in the title A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture and a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet which was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, published in the conventional way, sold out within the year, was well reviewed, widely praised, but never reprinted, and which Scottish poet and novelist John Burnside called 'a powerful story about love and obligation... a persuasive novel very well written.’ I'm following it up with three professionally produced but unpublished plays. Some of my plays are in conventional print, and continue to sell well. I know that eBook readers are not the most effective way of dealing with plays, but the three I'm planning to publish in this way are - I think - a 'good read' as much as anything else. After that, there will be more short stories and a new novel called The Summer Visitor in time for Christmas.

There are no easy answers to any of this, but I sense that a great many writers are exhilarated by these new opportunities. As a Canadian friend remarked ‘You have a great inventory there. You should be doing something with it.’ Perhaps most of all, we need to become much more businesslike in our dealings with the industry that surrounds us, becoming proactive partners. Some of us feel that the answer to our perceived invisibility may well lie in what we can do for ourselves and for that seemingly disregarded group of 'people like us'. Because although it's wrong to assume that everyone feels the way we do, it's also true to say that there are lots and lots of people out there who do. And if the needs of that group are not even being acknowledged, still less met by the current business model, it's now open to us to seize the initiative and do something about it ourselves.

Comments

I think going the Kindle route makes perfect sense - I was at a 'Getting Published' event in Stirling last weekend, and an editor from Hachette Scotland said that currently women over forty make up the biggest group of Kindle/e-reader purchasers, as well as accounting for a sizeable chunk of all book sales in the UK.

This is definitely my target market, so I can't help feeling a little optimistic about that.

Very best of luck with your Kindle list!
You put this excellently, Catherine! I feel exactly the same - publishers are not publishing the books I want to read! I need more depth, more spirituality, and books with older heroines where women over 50 are not simply grannies sitting at home doing the knitting! None of us are going to be able to retire with the knitting until we are in our seventies (maybe not even then), so what about those 20 years inbetween?

We might be invisible, but we are the majority, and we haven't stopped reading. No wonder Kindle is so popular.
dirtywhitecandy said…
I'm another of the rave rejected - and a co-blogger with Linda at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books. I just published my novel in an experimental four parts - 4 chunky episodes of 25,000 words a go. I'm releasing it like a TV series, every Monday, and it's been great fun.
Readers are enjoying the ride and talking about what they think might happen. More are buying episode 1 every day.
Because of Kindle I was able not only to get my book out to readers, but also to try an exciting new way to publish it. Meanwhile, my agent is watching this experiment with great interest as his agency is exploring options for epublishing. Times are changing.
My interesting Kindle downloads are stacking up and all of yours will be next on the list!
But the sense that women over forty have seized upon Kindle as the answer to their prayers is certainly very cheering, isn't it? And how right you are, Katherine! We're definitely not ready for the knitting yet!
Linda Gillard said…
I've read and enjoyed a lot of brilliant female authors over the years who I think might have struggled to find a publisher today...

Susan Howatch ("But your characters are so unsympathetic!")

Dorothy Dunnett ("No one likes a smart-arse. Readers won't be able to follow your plot and quotes in foreign languages will just put them off.")

Margaret Forster ("Er, what genre are you exactly?...")

Thanks for the mention, Catherine. Marvellous piece.
Michael Malone said…
Sisters are doing it for themselves - might have been your title, Catherine.

Well said that wummin! A considered and thought-provoking post as usual.

These are exciting and interesting times and as you so rightly said, it is up to us to seize the initiative. There are a lot of things in the publishing world beyond our control but if we use the new medium in the right way the sky really could be the limit.
Great post, Catherine. Well done for getting on and doing it yourself. You have the product and the audience, and Kindle has made it all possible for you to reach your readers.
Donna McDonald said…
Most of rejections I received from the traditional industry were not about my stories, but rather about the perceived lack of audience for books containing older characters. This was combined with some confusion, and probing questions from young acquisition editors, about what was even interesting to persons over 40. From the most positive of my rejections, I received a list of changes to make and most revolved around how older people would or would not behave, think, or feel.

Nine months ago I self-published my first novel. At this point, I can definitely tell you that a large audience exists that is VERY interested in positive, older role models who live life to the fullest.

Perhaps the time is finally here for older women (and men) to become more visible. My sales reflect similar results to those of the other authors listed here. I have no regrets for self-publishing my work.
Donna, this sounds so like my experience. The young editors simply don't get it. But I think there is a market for positive, mature fiction and you've proved it, as have so many of my friends.