The Portal


By Lucy Smee

Gatekeepers decide who and what is going through their gate. Continuing on from Laurel’s essay on the number of women writing and submitting speculative fiction, we wondered what it was like for women who work in the speculative publishing industry. Probably magical, fun and dragon-filled, right? Just to be sure, we spoke to four women who work in it to see what they get up to each day, what they enjoy about their jobs and what the landscape looks like for them and their female clients.


Agents are often the first gatekeepers. They are the first port of call for many writers taking the traditional route to a publishing deal. The two agents we spoke to, Juliet Mushens and Lucienne Diver, both love their jobs and represent primarily genre authors from SFF, mystery and romance.  Juliet explained that she helps “manage everything from translation rights deals to whether the author is happy with their book cover.” They work closely with their authors, help critique and edit work, negotiate contracts and act as liaison between author and publisher. Juliet, already a fan of genre writers such as Robin Hobb and Tad Williams, began work as marketing and editorial assistant at HarperCollins and read a lot of what was produced by the HarperVoyager team, giving her fantastic exposure to some great genre writers. “This was a really good grounding in identifying talent within genre”. Lucienne worked her way up from an assistant at Spectrum Literary Agency. “I have so many favourite authors! Everyone I work with of course: Rachel Caine, Susan Krinard, Chloe Neill, Faith Hunter, Ramez Naam, Carol Berg, Lynn Flewelling, Kalayna Price, David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, Rob Thurman, Vicky Dreiling just to name a few.”


Editors commission novels and work closely with authors to make their books the best they can be, helping shape and refine the work. Rachel Hore was a Senior Commissioning Editor in fiction at HarperCollins and left in 2001 to focus on her writing. Her experience in the publishing world was invaluable: “Most importantly it taught me the awareness of the craft of writing: how to structure a novel, the importance of building rounded and believable characters, the dangers of overburdening the story with one’s research.” It’s also helped with the writing process: “I also knew the value of self-editing and what to expect from working with my editor.”


Publicists make sure that the right audience hears about the fruits of all the hard work that the writer, agent, and editors have put in so far. Caroline Lambe is a publicist who works with three imprints: Angry Robot, Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A. When she moved to England from Northern Ireland last year, she changed genres too, having initially worked with non-fiction, literary and crime fiction. “When I saw Angry Robot were looking for a publicist, it made sense to apply. Whilst I had no professional experience within SFF or YA, I was not going to shy from the challenge of a new book world.” The imprint as well as the challenge of these new genres also encouraged her to apply for the job. “The draw towards Angry Robot Books was simple: they’re fantastic, innovative, strange publishers who can at any time publish all sorts of books, and that’s enough to keep any publicist on their toes!” Day to day, Caroline links authors and books with various media outlets and is currently reading the Game of Thrones series. “I’m utterly addicted…I am oft left flabbergasted and upset”.


Having crossed over to SFF, Caroline notes that there are far more women working in various publishing roles within this genre, compared to the non-fiction world that she used to work in: “They inhabit various roles: editors, authors, agents”. She counts herself lucky in being able to deal with equal numbers of men and women in her job, saying “it’s refreshing to deal with as many women as men”. Interestingly, Lucienne also remarked upon the difference between SFF and another genre in terms of sex equality; when working with male thriller editors they would assume that she wouldn’t “get” the kind of books they acquired. “I am a huge reader of Ken Follett, Eric van Lustbader, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Robin Cook and others. I really enjoyed seeing the editors have to readjust their thinking when I could reel off all those names.”


If we start at the beginning of a book’s journey, as agents, Lucienne and Juliet often read manuscripts first. Lucienne reckons she receives more submissions from women than men, although, “mostly because I handle romance in addition to the other genres, and that’s definitely a female-dominated field.” Juliet isn’t sure how the numbers work – first she reads the submission and then finds out who the person is. “When I’m reading a submission, it’s just ‘is this really good or not’, and then I notice when I decide to call and offer them representation.” Of her authors who have publishing deals, 16 are women and 10 are men, and within the SFF genre, 6 are women and 2 are men, which is a refreshing ratio.


As an editor, Rachel also received more female submissions than male – however, her department was intentionally publishing fiction for a female audience. “Agents sent me many more female submissions.” The marketing of books is also interesting – to what extent are books by women marketed towards women instead of to everybody? Of course, based on Lucienne’s experience with thrillers, the same question seems to apply to male genre authors too. Caroline believes that of course there should be no difference as to how female and male authors are marketed but acknowledges that there is in fact, a difference. “I say should, as ‘women’s mags’ are always going to want to hear about female writers, eg Lauren Beukes and her titles. Are those same mags going to want to know about Mike Shevdon or Adam Christopher? And that’s nothing about those authors in particular, it’s simply the way those media, in particular, work.” For instance, YA books will often be targeted at parents as book-buyers rather than teenagers. And the way to target parents is apparently through women’s magazines – to target mothers. Although this seems odd, as mothers can’t be the only parents who care what their children read. Maybe it’s once again the assumption that mothers do most of the parenting that drives this particular marketing approach.


All four women we spoke to were positive about their jobs and the industry of genre publishing. If we go back to the idea of the portal and the gatekeepers that guard it, then it is wonderful to know that the guardians of speculative fiction are smart women who are passionate about the genre. In the not so distant past, men made up the majority of both writers and publishers and thus female writing tended to be viewed as inferior. What’s exciting about publishing now is that the people choosing the manuscripts and telling the world about this fiction share the experience of being women. Caroline gives the example of Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A, two imprints that she works with. Strange Chemistry have a woman, Amanda Rutter at the helm and publish 18 female authors to 3 males, and Exhibit A have a man, Emlyn Rees, and they publish 15 males to 1 female. Does gender have an unintentional bearing on their choices? Caroline assures us that both believe that the best writing should win out, no matter who has written it, but we can’t help noting that the numbers are certainly interesting.

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Rachel Hore's new novel, The Silent Tide, is out now.


Juliet Mushens is an agent at The Agency Group. Follow her @mushenka


Caroline is the publicist for Angry Robot Books, Strange Chemistry Books and Exhibit A Books.


Lucienne Diver is an agent at The Knight Agency. Follow her @luciennediver

The female gatekeepers of the publishing world

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