Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Big five poetry publishers in the UK: a gender audit

This post follows on from the last one.  Seeking an explanation for the gender imbalance in the Saturday Guardian Review’s poetry reviews, I’ve done a much bigger exercise, an online gender audit of the big five poetry publishers: Bloodaxe, Cape, Carcanet, Faber, Picador.  Plus a very quick count for Salt and Seren. 

It’s more complicated to do than you might think.... Instead of putting the results up front, I’m going to explain the methodology first.  In detail! 

The audit is based on information from the publishers’ websites,  occasionally supplemented by Amazon searches when data was missing or unclear. 

It covers books published between January 2010 and end April 2013.  (I chose Jan 2010 because it’s far enough back to give plenty of results, and happens to be the start date for the first Guardian audit, though of course publication and review dates don’t coincide.)  It counts books published, not poets.  So if one poet has had 2 books out in that period, he/she gets counted twice.

Reissues and reprints are included (alternative: spend endless hours identifying them!) but not Kindle-only editions or hard/paperback duplicates etc.  No title should be counted twice. 

I excluded poets who died before 2000 (may have missed a few), notably Faber’s backlist, apparently all-male since Jan 2010 apart from Sylvia Plath.  I included contemporary poets who have made versions of something old (whether Rimbaud or the Anglo-Saxons).  Contemporary translations are counted for the originating poet.  Straight translations of dead-before-2000 poets are omitted (yes, there’s a grey area).  Anthologies are not included. 

I would expect the results to be broadly accurate, say within a couple of percentage points either way.  Maybe they’re better than that, but I have almost certainly missed things out, and counted things I shouldn’t have (such as the occasional book from Carcanet or Bloodaxe that isn’t poetry, though I tried to weed these out).  Publishers’ websites may not always be accurate; the first Faber search I tried left out two recently published first collections. 

If any publishers would like to get in touch about their results, I’d be delighted to hear from them.  I’m particularly unsure about the results for Cape as I couldn’t find a full list of their poetry books on their website and have had to rely more on Amazon.  The Random House website has been down for hours, so I haven’t been able to check the figures again as I have for the others. 

Total books published
Male authors
Female authors
41% (41 books)
59% (60 books)



64% (14 books)

36% (8 books*)
69% (62 books)

31% (28 books)
77% (36 books)
23% (11 books)

89% (16 books)
11% (2 books)


61% (169 books)
39% (109 books)

Bloodaxe are so far in front with their remarkably strong female representation that it seems unlikely any of the others would come close, even with revised figures.  I had no idea they’d come out this strong.  Is it deliberate editorial policy?  Are they snapping up a surplus of good women poets, who aren’t getting picked up by the other majors?  Because Bloodaxe publish a lot of books, they have a large and positive impact on the total figure for the big five.  All hail to Eric Bloodaxe! 

Picador are the only other publisher to score over one-third books by women.  Picador’s website has a page listing their current poets – 13 men and 8 women (62% and 38%), well over a third.  Not bad at all.

I’d expected Carcanet to do better – they don’t quite make one-third.  I recognised a much higher proportion of the Carcanet women’s names, which made me wonder whether their list includes some male poets who have been with them for many years.

I was shocked that the percentages of women are so low for Faber and Cape – under one-quarter.   Faber’s 11 books by women are by only 8 poets.  I don’t have the same name recognition issue as with Carcanet, either.  Cape’s figures look appalling, but I don’t trust the data.  Cape do have other women poets on their list who haven’t published in this period (and other men, of course): I found Jean Sprackland, Anne Carson and Vicki Feaver. 

I’m sure people with more knowledge of poetry publishing than me will have views on how to interpret the figures – please comment. 

As for the Guardian Review, whose reviews’ gender imbalance started all this off…  Even if one accepted (most unlikely) that it was OK to review poetry books mostly from the big five, the Review would still be in the doghouse for having a gender ratio (25% books by women in the last year) that reflects the bottom end of the publishers’ table.  Why??  

To cheer myself up, I had a quick look at Seren and Salt. 

Salt’s ratio over 131 books (poorly date-sorted by their website) came out at 64% to 36% male to female, same as Picador; not bad, but I’d expected better.  

Seren did cheer me up, though; 30 books, 53% by women, 47% by men.  Hooray!  This is how things are in most poetry magazines, etc: roughly 50/50, so that no-one need waste time and energy thinking about it.     

The Guardian Review didn’t run any reviews of Salt or Seren books last year. 

I didn’t try to audit UK black and Asian poets; I don’t think I could do this with enough accuracy to make the results credible.  From the work I’ve just done, I’d guess that Cape and Picador have published none in that period; Faber only Daljit Nagra; Carcanet a handful; and Bloodaxe quite a few.  Maybe the Arts Council does an audit of those poetry publishers it supports.

As some commenters on the last post pointed out, various other areas of the poetry world are worth auditing for publisher, gender and racial bias.  It can be difficult to disentangle these; having gender figures for the main publishers ought to help, as in the case of the Guardian Review above. 

But my inner geek has had enough of this for now. 


* I removed 3 Christmas publications by Carol Ann Duffy from Picador’s count; she’s still got 2 books in there.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review: update

Shouldn’t the Guardian’s Saturday review be challenging literary hierarchies, not strengthening them?  In the case of poetry it is doing the latter.  Why do I care?  Because I read it every Saturday, enjoy most of it, but get regularly annoyed by the poetry reviews.  And because the Guardian is mainstream, reaching a far wider audience than any poetry magazine.  People whose acquaintance with contemporary poetry goes no further than skimming the Review’s reviews will have no idea of its diversity. 

One aspect of my annoyance is gender.  In the spirit of VIDA (and first inspired by a piece on the Magma blog a couple of years ago), here is Displacement’s annual gender audit of poetry coverage in the Guardian’s review section on Saturdays.  It was easier to do this time, because they seem to have stopped doing short reviews.  You can access their index of poetry reviews here.  

I am also going to touch on ethnic minority representation, and on which publishers get reviews.  More on the latter next time.

*  Three-quarters of books reviewed are by male poets.  The gender imbalance among poets reviewed has got worse.
*  Slightly more than one-third of the reviewers are women. The gender imbalance among reviewers has lessened. 

Now for the detail.  NB: because all the reviews this year were long ones, I’ve used previous years’ figures for long reviews as the first comparison.  Then I’ve done a second comparison, of this year’s figures with the totals (both long and short reviews) for previous years. 

Figures from January 2010 - early February 2011 are in blue.  Figures for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 are in green. Figures for mid March 2012 to end April 2013 are in purple.  No they’re not, they’re in red – I’ve just worked out the results and changed the colour! 

A.  Books reviewed

Books reviewed in long reviews  

27 books by men, 11 books by women.  That’s 71% and 29%. 
30 books by men, 16 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
36 books by men, 12 books by women.  That’s 75% and 25%.  

Total - all books reviewed  (includes both long and short reviews from previous years)

67% books by men, 33% by women.
65% books by men, 35% by women. 
75% books by men, 25% by women.

Only a quarter of the poetry books reviewed in the Guardian Review in the last 13 months or so were by women.  Down from the previous two years’ approx one-third.  Last year’s slight improvement has been more than reversed.    

I could only find two books this year that were by UK black or Asian poets.  It’s possible there are more that I haven’t identified.

See last year’s blog post for an analysis, and an extremely unfavourable comparison with the reviews in most poetry magazines, where this simply isn’t an issue.  My conclusion then was that the range of male poets covered in the Guardian was much wider than the range of women. So when a decision on whom to review was taken, different criteria were being applied to male and female poets.  This year, that is less the case, with collections by Jane Yeh, Anne Carson and Tishani Doshi being reviewed, plus retrospectives on Hope Mirrlees and Elizabeth Jennings.  But the total number of women reviewed, already very low, has shrunk still further.  Why??

B.  Reviewers

Reviewers: long reviews

28 men, 10 women.  That’s 74% and 26%.
32 men, 14 women.  That’s 70% and 30%.
31 men, 17 women.  That’s 65% and 35%. 

I think that all the reviewers were white, but can’t be certain.  There were also 4 anthologies, not included in the figures, all of whose reviewers were male.  And there was one review (by a man) of half a dozen pamphlets, also not included.  Oh, for more such!  The tendency to assign women to review women seems to have died back; of the 12 books by women, 5 were reviewed by women.

Total: all reviewers  (includes both long and short reviews from previous years)

82% men, 18% women. 
73% men, 27% women.
65% men, 35% women. 

The percentage of women reviewers has nearly doubled – from a low base, and there’s still some way to go.  But the trend is strongly positive.

C.  Publishers

Faber, Carcanet, Picador, Cape, Bloodaxe: these big five get nearly all the reviews.  I counted eight books from small publishers (two of them from Enitharmon), plus a couple from mainstream publishers who occasionally publish poetry.  There wasn’t a single Seren or Salt book reviewed.

An editor told me that the Guardian mainly reviews books from the big poetry five because they pay for advertising space.  Whether or not this is true, the Guardian can hardly complain at it being said, when their reviewing is so biased – which is why I have no compunction about repeating it! **update: see Neil Astley's view on this, at the end of the comments.

Last year, someone asked if I had any figures on the female/male breakdown of poets published by the big five.  Because of course that would be one explanation for the gender imbalance: the Guardian reviews books from publishers who publish fewer women than men.  This year, I’ve had a go at auditing the publishers too.  It’s a bit of a rough exercise, which I’ll finish off and post in a few days. 

D.  Saturday Poem
(NB: not to be confused with Carol Rumens’ admirable online poem of the week.)

[I didn’t work this out for 2010.] 
33 by men and 18 by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
23 by men and 13 by women.  That’s 64% and 36%.

Negligible change.  Slightly over one-third of the poems are by women.  The Saturday Poem appears to be on the decline, anyway – no longer a weekly event.


That’s more than enough statistics for one blog post.  Watch this space for a gender audit of publishers – next up.  I’m far enough on with it to be able to say that the results will be interesting.