Episode 121: A Book of Her Own

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…why don’t more women turn their expertise into a book?

Writing a book is deep work and it’s so hard to carve out time, and we know women are still shouldering the bulk of domestic duties. The only way I was able to finish my book in the end was to go away from my family, I just left them.”

 Coming up, women as writers and readers of business books.

My second ever job in London was in publishing. The office was a handsome 18th century building; there were occasional mice and no air conditioning in the summer. There were a lot of women though.

Alison Jones started her career in publishing in England right around the same time, but she stuck with it. After many years in editorial jobs, she became director of innovation strategy at publisher Palgrave Macmillan – basically, her mandate was to work out how to keep selling content in a world that increasingly expects to get it for free. Then the company decided to move all its arms to London, where Alison did not want to live. She’d been thinking a lot about the future, and decided it was time for a change.

“And I thought publishing is broken, it’s not a viable model in the modern world. So I re-trained as a business coach…and it was hilarious because as soon as I started working with people all they wanted to talk about was publishing their book.”

Her coaching clients were all business people and they all seemed to have a book in them. So Alison decided to start her own company – Practical Inspiration Publishing.

“I partner with businesses to help them publish intelligently. A publisher just takes your manuscript and publishes the book typically, and they’re invested in selling as many copies as possible as that’s how they make their money. And I’m much more invested in making the book work for the business. Because when the business succeeds, when the two are aligned really beautifully we can make the book succeed and vice versa.”

She tends to work with businesses that offer services rather than products – so one of her clients is a customer service consultant, she has a guy who runs an outdoors school, a yoga teacher…

“I have an HR consultant, a menopause coach.”

AM-T: “A menopause coach, I didn’t know that such a thing existed, that sounds brilliant!”

“Well exactly and that’s part of her thing, let’ talk more about this. She runs a 10 day challenge, she goes into organizations, ‘this is what’s happening to your senior women, and if you’re not dealing with it properly you’re not gonna get as much out of them as you could and you’re gonna have people leaving and not performing well,’ so let’s talk about it because the problem is nobody talks about it.”

I feel a future show coming on.

Anyway, Alison loves her new gig, complete with challenges.

“The shift is, content isn’t scare any more, what’s scarce is attention. So the power balance has shifted from the author who has something valuable to impart to the reader, to the reader who has a plethora of stuff to look at and has to decide where they’re gonna put their attention. So what you’re doing as a business author is making a stake for that attention.”

One of the ways Alison helps them do that is through her podcast, the Extraordinary Business Book Club. She interviews the author of a new business book every week.  She talks to men and women but she says it’s harder to find women.

A couple of years ago she wrote a piece in the Guardian that I read at the time. In it she considered why books about business are so much more likely to be written by men than women. She said unless more women wrote business books, we’d never shake the perception that business is a man’s game. And women readers would continue to lack role models.

AM-T: “Is this still true from your vantage point in early 2018?”

“Do you know it’s funny, I went and looked at the research I did then, and this isn’t extensive, exhaustive research…but I did a snapshot, when I wrote that article in February 2016 I had a look at the Amazon bestseller list for business books and in the top 20 business books on Amazon, 17 were written by men and of the other three, two of them were about de-cluttering.  Two of them were by Marie Kondo.”

And today, two years on? Alison says not much has changed.

“And in the top 20 business books, 19 were by men and the one woman was writing on self-care…and it made me laugh, laugh or cry, somebody described her as Marie Kondo for the mind, and I thought there we are, we’re still in our box.”

Alison was looking at Amazon.co.uk. When I looked at Amazon.com recently there were a few books at the top of the business category by women who were not Marie Kondo. But it’s true the vast majority were written by men. And looking at some of the titles, it made me wonder…

AM-T: “Who decides what is a business book? For instance, Lean In, would you call Lean In a business book or a self-help book?”

“Well, and this is part of the problem, the boundaries are very porous, and particularly these days because you can put books in a number of different categories on Amazon, and because frankly there are so many books being produced, there’s a bit of a vogue for books that cross genres, it’s getting more and more difficult to classify them.

GoodReads has done a lot of research on this, one person will tag a book self-help and another will tag it business…it’s difficult, if you’re a bookseller you have to decide which classification you’re gonna put it in, but given so few of us buy books at bookshops these days, we go on Amazon and it can be in multiple categories, so it’s become less and less important really. It’s interesting though, and we’re generalizing because if you don’t generalize you won’t ever say anything, but the books that tend to make the bestseller lists in the business classification by women tend to be either on the self-help side of things or specifically about women in business, which I think is interesting. It’s relatively rare to just find a straightforward business book on a topic that doesn’t say oh, it’s by a woman and it’s addressing the female side of things.”

She’s totally right, but I’d never really thought about it that way before. Even though since Lean In was published in 2013 I’ve received a torrent of pitches from PR people about this or that female author’s new book on being a successful woman in the workplace.

“The downside of it…it’s great we’re having this conversation, some of those books are fantastic, I’m a huge fan of Lean In, there’s definitely a place for them, but if we get to the point where we assume if a woman’s writing a business book, the gender defines it, then we’ve lost a bit of a battle there, haven’t we? We should be able to just write about a topic and it not necessarily be aimed at women. I worry we’re ghettoizing ourselves somehow.”

AM-T: “When you discuss this with others in your industry, and I presume you do, what do they say?”

“It’s interesting, there’s sort of a cultural blindness. Most publishers would strenuously deny there’s any bias going on, the ones I’ve talked to do. But it’s interesting, do you know the Catherine Nicholls experience? It’s a novel so it’s slightly different, but it’s just fascinating…she submitted a proposal to agents for her novel, to 50 agents…I think she had two people ask for the manuscript, take her up on it, and she got some really quite patronizing responses back, something about her character not being feisty enough, and whenever you see the word feisty you’re like, mmm, there’s a gender thing going on here, somehow. So she did an experiment, she created a pseudonym, George somebody…she sent it off again to 50 agents, mostly new but there was a little bit of overlap with the old ones. And this time she had 17 requests for the manuscript – and one person who’d rejected her first time round asked for the manuscript when it came from George. Same cover letter, same proposal. Just incredible. I mean that could be a freak but it sounds a bit suspicious, doesn’t it? And what was interesting as well was she said even those who rejected her provided warmer, fuller letters of rejection.”

AM-T: “That is fascinating…but as you were speaking, something I thought about, this idea of well, can’t women just write a book about business just as men do? But the flip side of that is – I mean part of the reason I started the show is that women have such different experiences in the workplace and corporate life than men do, for the most part. And I think when women are writing, many of them are motivated because they want to help their fellow woman. And they acknowledge we have to try different things to succeed, in many cases.”

“But I think what we need is a campaign to get more men to read more books written by women. The ghetto principal here is we know most books by women are read by women. And again, GoodReads did some really interesting stuff on this. It’s not just business books, again. In 2014 they looked at their stats and of the 50 titles most read by men, 90% of them were written by men…and they did the corollary and it was the same – the 50 most read titles by women readers, 90% of those were written by women, and I wonder how much of that understanding, even if it’s just subconscious understanding of how the market operates, is driving publishers when making those commissioning selections. Because if you’ve got a business market that is primarily male, then it’s commercial suicide to put out a book on a topic by a woman when you could put one out by a bloke.”

AM-T: “What do we know about the readers of business books, of the top 20 business books? Are women reading these books to the same extent men are?”

“No, no. We know almost nothing about the purchases, because that’s Amazon’s proprietary information and they don’t share it with anybody. Fair enough. Where we do have insight is places like GoodReads where people are recommending books. And there it’s pretty clear that – and that’s what I was taking about earlier, the way people classify books. There are books that a bloke would classify as a business book that a woman would classify as self-help, but it’s the same book. So it’s quite hard to get a sense of it. And I don’t know whether it’s because men prefer not to think of themselves as needing help, I don’t know, there’s probably loads going on underneath that, or that women prefer not to think of themselves as business book readers, I don’t know.”

And what about women as business book writers? It’s hard to do a complete tally of all the business books out there by women and men. But it seems fewer women want to showcase their expertise in a book. Why?

“Well, you are begging the question there in a sense because it could be that women don’t write as much as men, or that they aren’t published as frequently as men, or they’re not bought and not appearing in the Amazon bestseller list. There’s a number of different places this could fall down. But I think there is something at that ‘choosing to write a book’ moment. It seems to be more fraught for women. I talk to a lot of people and I coach men and women. There’s imposter syndrome and fear with men and women but it seems to be stronger as a rule with women, standing up and being counted as the expert, naming yourself as the expert, naming yourself as the authority in your area seems to be a bigger deal generally for women than it is for men. And that’s reflected in the workplace too. A woman is much less likely to apply for a job if she doesn’t fulfill all the criteria than a man is.”

AM-T: “And, I mean you talked about this in your Guardian piece 2 years ago, this idea of ‘who am I to write a book?’”

“Which almost everyone feels but it’s somehow more crippling to women. The other thing that is very real is time and focus. Writing a book is deep work and it’s so hard to carve out time, and we know women are still shouldering the bulk of domestic duties. The only way I was able to finish my book in the end was to go away from my family, I just left them. I went to an Airbnb cottage and just wrote and ate and slept and ran and my husband was like, go, do it, come back. I just could not do it while I was at home, because there was always something needing doing and it’s incredibly distracting. And I don’t know whether that’s just me. I don’t think it’s just me. I think women generally tend to have about 15 tabs running in their brain at any one time, and sitting down and writing their book feels selfish somehow. I mean I felt guilty leaving my family and going away and doing this work. I did it but I had to sort of fight the guilt.”

And when women do complete a book, they may be more reluctant than male authors to publicize it.  Coming up in a minute.

So Alison is a big proponent of men reading more books by women just so they can get a peek into our world, how things look from our perspective. After all we live in a man’s world for the most part. It’s like with this podcast. I have some male listeners and I love having them but they’re definitely in the minority. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised…

AM-T: “You put women in the title of something or make clear it’s about women, and you are most unlikely to get anything other than a small male audience.”

“Yeah, absolutely. My podcast is the Extraordinary Business Book Club and one of the reasons it’s extraordinary is that it is gender balanced. So I alternate male/female guests which is harder than it sounds and should be, for all the reasons we discussed – it’s absolutely baked into the principals, premise and structure of the show and what’s good is, well I probably still have more women than men in my community, but there are lots of men who listen. And I hope they are getting blind…I am pretty sure they don’t listen on alternate weeks, they haven’t sussed that they only get a bloke every other week, so hopefully by consistently delivering that 50/50 balance of men and women I’m achieving in my own little way something to forward gender parity.”

AM-T: “I’m still thinking of who reads what, and why, and it seems to me a lot of women are drawn to business books written by other women.”

“Yes, I think that’s true and the GoodReads research tends to build that out as well. You go for a role model, someone you can relate to, and one of the powerful things about a book is you grow to almost know the author and like them and trust them. And maybe we feel we have a head start on that if it’s written by a woman.”

AM-T: “I presume you’ve read a lot of business books written by women?”

“Yeah, of course, I’ve read some terrific books by women. If anyone wants any recommendations…one of my all-time favorites is Angela Duckworth, [she wrote] Grit, which is fabulous. Bernadette Jiwa is wonderful as well, she’s Australian, she writes beautifully short readable books, they’re not women’s books, they’re just books about business and marketing and so on…she just writes them beautifully, she blogs at the Art of Storytelling, I think that’s right. Who else? Oh, Dorie Clark is fabulous as well. She writes stuff on the new economy, if you like.”

Dorie Clark has been a guest on this show twice and her newest book is called Entrepreneurial You. And if you want to check out Bernadette Jiwa’s site, which I did, it’s actually TheStoryofTelling.com. I’ll link you to her and the other authors Alison’s mentioned today under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

And then I asked Alison how easy she found it to book illustrious female guests when they had a new book out.  I told her I’d always wanted to get Anne-Marie Slaughter on this show, but she is tough to book for anyone who isn’t a national network. So I hadn’t managed to get her. Alison hadn’t either. 

“And maybe that’s worth a conversation. I find it harder to get the top women writers to say yes to an invitation to the show. That’s in itself interesting. There’s very few times when I’ve written to a man inviting him onto the show and he’s turned me down. It has happened but not often. Or just not responded. It’s happened more – not often, but significantly more times, I mean Sheryl Sandberg was one of my first targets, and I got a polite note from her assistant saying she’s too busy. And I completely get that, and I do wonder if it’s about women being more frugal about their time or less concerned about their platform. It’s hard to know, again, what’s behind that, but I’ve definitely noticed a more rigorous vetting, and a quicker rejection from top women.”

AM-T: “That’s really interesting. And hearing about that, the first thing that comes to mind for me is maybe they’re saying no because the more important they are the more they think maybe a smaller show isn’t worth their time, but if the men authors are saying yes maybe that does point to something else. Maybe it points to their assistant protecting them because of the women prioritizing the rest of their life, family stuff.”

“Yeah. That’s my feeling because I have had some really big male names on the show, and fewer really big women. So it’s interesting and it’s frustrating.”

Before we wrapped up, I wanted to ask Alison about her profession – publishing – and what was going on under the surface. I used to work for a publisher in London and the office had far more women than men.

AM-T: “I worked in publishing at the start of my career and publishing tends to be pretty female dominated. But at least from what I’ve been told by listeners who work in publishing now, it is still largely male at the top. Have you found that as well where you’ve worked?”

“Oh, that’s absolutely right. It’s sort of funny except it’s not at all funny. When I worked at Oxford University Press some wag put up a cartoon outside the office, it was a Punch cartoon, it said – ‘a good hierarchy needs a good foundation of women at the bottom,’ and that is still how it works in an awful lot of companies. You tend to get a lot of women in the lower level jobs, editorial assistants, publicity, marketing, almost exclusively populated by women, and then men in the higher-level support functions…finance, tech. HR is still women-dominated, and on the boards too, it’s massively dominated by men, and the salary survey done each year shows the disparity. It’s not unique to us but it’s no better in publishing than anywhere else, and it should be, because you should be getting these people coming through to the senior leadership positions. I mean there are a few brilliant examples of women leaders in publishing and probably more than many industries but it’s still way, way off parity.”

And even though Alison was a senior leader herself, she did choose to leave the business and strike out on her own.

AM-T: “How does it feel now? I mean obviously everything is so different when you’re running your own business, but does it feel freeing, does it feel nice to be your own boss?”

“Yes, I mean it’s terribly stressful of course but all roles that matter are stressful, and this is stress of my own choosing. So it’s a very different quality of stress and I love it. It was very frustrating trying to do innovation in a big company, in a disrupted industry, very, very risk averse, and then to be able to turn on a sixpence, and do something new and try it out is so liberating and so exhilarating – yes, I think I’m probably unemployable now.”

AM-T: “I wonder the same thing about myself.”

“Which is fine, I’m good with that.”

 Alison Jones. She’s the host of the Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast and the author of a brand new book of her own. It’s called ‘This Book Means Business – clever ways to plan and write a book that works harder for your business.’

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I am always glad to hear from you. You can email me, tweet me at ashleymilnetyte or hit reply on the newsletter if you’re a subscriber to that. And if not, you can sign up via TheBroadExperience.com.

And if you have 2 minutes to write a quick review of the show on iTunes I would really appreciate it.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.