Literary writing is no longer the middle-class occupation it once was during the 20th century. An Authors Guild survey revealed that the median pay for full-time writers in 2017 was $20,300 and including part-time writers, $6,080 (NYT, 2019). These figures represent a 42 percent drop since 2009, and also reflect declines in journalism. Today most writers’ salary is supplemented by a partner or another occupation. This need to subsidize income, according to the Guardian (2019) experts say, is directly linked to the survey data indicating a 94 percent Caucasian demographic.
Written by: Berti Walker
Do genders still play a prominent role in society in regards to writing? Or, with the epoch of gender fluidity and diminishing pronouns upon us, has society finally moved on from pigeon-holing genders and genres? There have been countless arguments, articles, and papers written on the subject, so I’m going to focus on my experience and what advice I would give now to someone who may be choosing their own pseudonym.
Seven years ago, my first short story was published in a controversial magazine. The editor informed me that there were cases of hate mail addressed to the contributors, so I decided a pseudonym would be best to make it harder for the crazies to track me down, should they feel so inclined. Choosing a pseudonym is a big commitment. It’s your new identity, your alter-ego, your brand. I could be anything. Anyone. Total anonymity. So, I thought long and hard. I researched. I asked other authors. The advice I received was that genre, audience, and expectations mattered. Women wrote romance. Sci-fi and fantasy genres were predominantly male readers and authors. So were horror, crime, and graphic novels.
Fantasy writers used initials, like J.R.R. Tolkein. You would think, “Well, initials are not gender-specific. That seems safe. The gender isn’t important. It’s just initials and a surname.” I think so, too. But people still assume that the author is male when presented with a pseudonym consisting of initials. That’s on them. You just need to be aware.
Joanne Murray (J.K. Rowling) was influenced in choosing her pseudonym. She spoke about it in an interview with CNN. “Oh, because my publisher, who published Harry Potter, they said to me, ‘we think this is a book that will appeal to boys and girls.’ And I said, oh, great. And they said, ‘so could we use your initials?’ Because, basically they were trying to disguise my gender.” She even went on to write a crime novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
After looking at the genres I was interested in (horror, fantasy, sci-fi, Bizarro), I decided on what I thought was a gender-neutral pseudonym, leaning toward the masculine. I chose Berti Walker. Berti (could be short for Robert or Roberta) and was a nod to P.G. Wodehouse’s character, Berti Wooster. Walker, in recognition of my first published short story, Zombie Lovers Anonymous. As to be expected, most people did believe I was a male. I was, however, using my own photo on social media profiles for Berti and in book bios. So I didn’t hide my gender, necessarily, though I did use intentional deception in hopes of better sales and more publications – as I was operating under the assumption that more people still preferred male writers in those fields.
I mean, take a look at the Hugo Awards winners. Once again, last year, its organizers were in the spotlight due to controversy surrounding the gender imbalance. James Davis Nicoll was kind enough to do the numbers for us, tallied over the last 65 years of Hugo Awards in his Tor article Gender and the Hugo Awards, By the Numbers. These were his findings: