Making it in Publishing by Guest Author John Elder Robison

We’re very pleased to welcome John Elder Robison to the ball. His memoir about growing up with Asperger’s, Look Me in the Eye, is a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller.

This is my first experience as a guest blogger, so I’m not sure exactly where to begin. I guess I should start with an introduction. I’m John Elder Robison, six foot three, fifty one years old, male, from Amherst, Massachusetts. I own a business that restores and customizes Land Rover and Rolls Royce automobiles. I have a wife, a kid, a dog, and a tractor. Thanks to Monarch School of Houston, Texas, I’m even a high school graduate.

I don’t know the first thing about romance, mystery, or literature. I failed High School English and wasn’t admitted to College English. Despite that, I do have a reasonable command of language.

It’s not clear from that list of attributes why the Debutante Ball people would want someone like me on their blog, or anywhere nearby. The only conceivable reason is that I am a book writer too, so they identify with me for plying the same trade, some of the time.

Also, I have this difference called Asperger’s syndrome, which means I think in non standard ways. Today, I believe people are looking to me for insightful commentary on the publishing business so I will do my best to oblige.

Here are some thoughts on sex, publishing, and being a guy in a female dominated world.

Whenever I go to New York to meet people in publishing, it is obvious that I am in a minority. For book publishing is one of the few totally female dominated businesses that I’ve seen. Look at the organizational charts of the big houses and you’ll see what I mean. The top management is mostly female, as are the editorial, publicity, production and most other functions. And when you look closer, what few guys there are, are mostly gay. So straight guys like me are really left out in the cold.

There are only two places where I see lots of guys: The printing plants and the field sales force. Everywhere else, the females dominate.

In an industry that’s dominated by females, it’s natural to wonder if a male writer has any chance of success. Luckily, the female stranglehold on publishing jobs does not extend to the writing of books. The majority of bestsellers are written by females, but there is still a slim chance for guys like me. A look at the statistics tells the story.

This week’s NY Times hardcover fiction list is pretty evenly split, with 17 books from males and 18 from females. It’s not so good for the guys on the trade list, with 14 males to 21 females. The mass market list is even more lopsided, with 12 males to 23 females.

All the romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and even general literary fiction are in those categories. And they are all female dominated.

The nonfiction list is the one place guys are most welcome. On that list, 23 books are by males, 12 by females. Books on finance, dog management, politics, and baseball are mostly written by guys. Guys also write histories, with recent books on the History of Bus Transportation and the story of Bomber Command in WWII being good examples.

USA Today publishes a single list where all books are ranked in order of sales. For this week’s top hundred, females are also favored 58 to 42.

With all the complaints about a glass ceiling, and popular stories about limited opportunity for females, how did a situation like this come to pass? I ask myself that question every day.

I’m sure it’s partly driven by readership. Ask any publisher who the typical book reader is, and they’ll say it’s a forty-year-old mom with two kids and some time to read.

I’m sure the females don’t see this imbalance the same way I do. Why should they? It’s in their favor. Luckily for guys, things are different in other creative industries. For example, Time Magazine recently surveyed American to identify their all time top ten movie stars. Nine of the ten were male. Good odds in any guy’s book.

Of course, the competition on the way to the top is fierce. Hollywood is full of struggling starlets, and many are probably fierce and carnivorous. I do not think I am cut out for the movies.

Another are where males are dominant is to become a traditional artist. After all, everyone knows the Painter of Light® – Thomas Kinkade – is a guy. According to Art Cyclopedia, twenty nine of the thirty most popular artists of all time are male. And Thomas isn’t even on that list. Those are good guy odds by any standards.

Finally, Billboard Magazine says 72% of the top songwriters are male.

What can you conclude from all this? If you’re female, and you’ve taken up writing as a creative pursuit, those statistics suggest you made a good choice, unless your area of interest is subways, tugboats, or bombers.

So what’s the point of all this, you ask?

The point is, I am going to run a contest. The winners can choose one of three prizes: A hardcover copy of Look Me in the Eye, a paperback copy of Look Me in the Eye, or a genuine 9 by 12 signed photographic print of something interesting.

I will choose two, three, or four winners depending upon how winning the crowd seems to be.

All you have to do is post imaginative and practical answers to this question: What should a hard working, lovable but bumbling guy do to make it in the female-dominated world of book publishing and reading?

I will read the answers and announce the winners Sunday.


29 Replies to “Making it in Publishing by Guest Author John Elder Robison”

  1. Since I know nothing about the mechanics of the publishing industry, I can only answer as a reader. Having read and re-read Look Me in the Eye, my best advice would be the following:

    Write books as gripping, addictive and informative as Look Me in the Eye!

    (woof right back atcha)

  2. Publishing may or may not be female dominated, but it’s important that it be full of diverse and interesting voices. So please don’t leave us for another profession–and keep writing!

    Thanks for being our guest today at the ball.

  3. John, that certainly was an interesting and informative post. I had never been aware of the publishing industry as so female dominated. (But I do wonder if the breakdown of top management would be far more male dominated. For instance, are most CEOs and Publishers – the top dogs at the houses – male?).

    But what was most interesting to me about your post is your keen analytical breakdown of this data. Do you think this is part of the way your mind works? Part of the Aspergers – that you would see and be interested in things like this? I actually think this is fascinating, as is the topic of your book.

    Thanks for opening my mind!

  4. John, I always love your candidness 😉 . And having spoken with you on a number of occasions, I know how good you are at dissecting information and data and applying it in a thoughtful manner.

    What I find interesting and I think that you might well have missed this point is if you do the math on how men are payed in this business versus how women are paid in this business, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that, book for book, men are paid vastly more for technically the same product–a book.
    I haven’t statistics on this, but from what I’ve heard over the years, far more often men are given vastly better advances than are women. Plus men are way more likely to end up in hardback than are women. The bottom-heavy number of women in mass market is due to the fact that those women are being paid the least amount of money for their 350-page novel (and I’m talking in the low 4-figures) versus the man who might have a six- or seven-figure deal for the same level of output. Obviously one can’t exactly quantify if one is “better” than the other because taste in books is purely subjective, but having read plenty of novels in my day I can say for certain that because one author is paid vastly more for a book is not often a reflection on talent, and more based upon business decisions. I also suspect that men are far better at “getting what they want” from a publishing deal. But from all that I’ve seen, the glass ceiling keeping women far more down is very much alive and well. In fact at all of the conferences that I’ve attended, I’ve rarely met a man who isn’t paid quite handsomely for his job as an author. The same can most definitely not be said for many women.
    I also suspect that Eve is right–at the top of the heap in the publishing industry you’re most likely to find far more men than women.

    I do know from having heard from many female writers that often times women feel like a publishing house is almost doing them a favor by publishing their book, whereas that type of thinking wouldn’t dawn on most men. To men it is a business transaction, this selling of their product to a publishing house. To women it’s far more intangible than that.
    I wonder if there are also more female writers because women tend to be right-brained more than men? I’m guessing on that, I don’t have facts on it. But women tend to draw from the emotional far more than do men. Also women can take up writing while raising children–I know I’m amongst many women who have dragged laptops to soccer practice, swim meets, even waiting in line at school pick-up. Traditionally men are at “the day job” where it’s not so easy to get away with writing a novel on company time.
    The great thing is that you were able to kick butt in this business and you have made it! So as they’d say in Australia, good on you!

  5. Eve, you asked about the top jobs in publishing – who has them. There is still female dominance, even at that level. At Random House, for example, many of the big divisions are run by females. Same at Penguin and the other houses. It’s not all female, but I would wager that the percentage of senior female management is vastly higher than it is at, say, GE or Dell.

    And I guess this is an example of Aspergian thinking.

    Jenny, I don’t know if it’s really true that male authors get bigger advances. And in any case, why should that happen in a discriminatory way, if it’s females who award them?

    Take LMITE’s publisher, for example. At Crown, many editors and the editorial director are female. The publisher (Tina Constable) is female as is the president of the Crown division (Jenny Frost). So if you believe Crown gives bigger advances to males, it’s females who are doing it.

    I agree with you that many of the mass market paperback advances are very low, and it’s clear that females write a larger percentage of those books. But I think that’s a result of female choice. There are more female writers, and a larger percentage of them choose to write the mass market fiction, which results in low advances because there are so many writers offering product in that segment.

  6. WOOF! I am delighted to call John a friend and a mentor. If you haven’t read LMITE I suggest you grab a copy for the holidays. Like all good non-fiction, it reads like fiction. John’s little brother is named Christopher Robison – but YOU know him as Augusten Burroughs! So you know John has some really interesting stories.

    My three girls have the autism autism side of autism – not the Asperger’s side of autism. And John has taught me a great deal about them.

    John – as always, your voice stands out.



  7. It was an interesting experience for me, meeting my editorial “team” from HarperCollins in New York City last month, that my whole experience was with women, aside from the security guard who checked my ID. It was a sharp contrast from my previous business, journalism, where I often had to act like “one of the guys” just to be accepted by my sources to get the scoops. (Which is a tough trick for me to pull off. There’s very little guy-like about me, though I can curse like a sailor in the right setting.)

    The women writers I know don’t feel like we’re benefiting from a female-centric industry. Yet, it’s undeniable that by sheer numbers, publishing has lots and lots of women in it. So, why don’t we feel privileged?

    Here’s one possible reason. I believe that similar topics addressed by a woman in a novel are often treated less seriously than those same topics addressed by a man, i.e. hardcover and literary review attention vs. paperback and the sometimes-pejorative “women’s fiction” label. (I’m pleased and content to be coming out in paperback, by the way. I am speaking generally, not addressing my own specific situation.)

    I agree with one of the comments above about continuing to write excellent books, John. If you keep going as you’ve been, you’ll do well, no matter your gender!

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

  8. “There are more female writers, and a larger percentage of them choose to write the mass market fiction, which results in low advances because there are so many writers offering product in that segment.”

    I would point out that most starting writers don’t choose their format. They write what they write and the market ends up choosing the format for them!

  9. John- Loved your book.

    You really want to know what it takes to succeed around females? Now come close and I’ll tell you- but you have to keep it secret. No spreading this around to all the guys. Women are suckers for people treating us with respect and we like to think no different than our male counterparts. Ask us our opinion on things and then either listen or give a good appearance of listening. Laugh at our jokes. Avoid making jokes about fat women, sleazy women or stupid women- it makes us wonder if you are laughing at us.

    If all else fails- bring chocolate. And the high end stuff too- don’t scrimp here on a waxy tasting Hersey bar.

  10. Meow, sorry cat person here, I do like dogs though . . . As a fellow Aspergian, and one of the females, I read a lot, and I read mostly male Authors, I like the way they write better than females. Personally I think your doing a great job as is, just keep up the good work. You are obviously doing something correct or they wouldn’t have you here. I agree with Kra, humor honesty, clarity and style are the way to go, but good chocolate doesn’t hurt either. Love you love the book, when is the next one coming out. I can’t wait to read what you write next.

  11. Thanks for being our guest today, John! I love statistics. Good fun.

    Well, you may consider yourself a bumbling lone male in a sea of women, but you are doing well as it is, so perhaps it’s best to consider the question from the other side of the issue–what is hindering the men who, unlike you, aren’t able to crack into the business?

    I’d guess, aside from maybe just not writing books that are relatable to a female readership, some of these guys have attitude problems that make the publishing executives decide that they’d be a total pain in the neck to deal with. I’m sure pain-in-the-neckiness crosses gender lines, but maybe it’s the more social/accommodating aspects of the female psyche (see The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, MD) that make women less likely to step on toes at the outset.

    It’s my belief that in any creative business, there needs to be a good deal of trust and a sense of rapport and cooperation. Maybe women are better at developing those things quickly than men are. So my advice to men looking to break into publishing would be to assume as cooperative an air as you possibly can and really emphasize a willingness to work as a team. Because, really, that’s what publishing is. If you can’t be part of a collaborative team, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

    And if I win (are the Debs eligible?), I would like an interesting photo. Preferably something canine or tractor-themed. 😉

  12. Hi New Guy, this is Eve’s Mom, and might I point out (try and stop me) that it is about time there WAS an industry besides nursing and teaching where the female was welcomed, if only as handmaidens to male doctors and supervisors.

    As a product, albeit late, of the Woman’s Movement, I didn’t know I SHOULD be angry as a young girl when I was told I couldn’t be this or I couldn’t be that by “guidance counselors”. Were they male or female, I have blocked that out. Science teachers were male, and art teachers were female. K through 6 were female, principals were male, assistant principals were female. And so it went, and went, and went. And I hope it is finally gone.

    However, I live in a state that still pays men more for the same job title, can you believe that? I do not live in Mass. although I hope my daugher the soon to be famous writer will welcome me when I become old, frail and cranky (no matter how cold it is in Mass.), if only because I never told her she couldn’t be this or couldn’t be that because of her gender, or religion (that too was an issue when I grew up), or even height (which I noticed was pointed out early in your blog). Of course you know the studies on height and pay rate for males, was one ever done for females??? Maybe in females they should do bra size and pay rate!

    Yes, I am rambling today, pain pills are to blame.

    And, yes, now I have another book to buy…having read your brother’s, I can’t wait to read yours.

  13. Well, Katie, I think teamwork is a good suggeston and you are right that females tend to do better at that.

    It’s funny, I recommended that Female Brain book myself, at an event last night.

    Kristina . . . you said “most starting writers don’t choose their format . . .they write what they write.” Surely that is choosing the format. One sets out to write a thriller or a history book or whatever. So we choose what to write about, and with a little research, we can make a reasoned judgement about where it might be published.

  14. Oh and to answer your question (and possibly be in the running for a prize). Just do whatever you’ve already done. It looks to me like you’ve already “made it.” Your book is out there. It’s being read and impacting lives. You are sought after. And am I wrong, or did I hear you’re already on some bestseller list? All you need do now is enjoy it!!!!

  15. How funny, John! I have the audiobook, which was great, at least until she got to the more… intimate information. Some things that work fine on the page are slightly less palatable read aloud.

  16. I’m a reader. One thing female writers do is host some contests and put links to other writers books on their website. I have found many new authors because of winning one of their books. Also I have used their links to find new authors I have enjoyed reading. Get someone to review your books and post reviews for you wherever possible. I am a reviewer on two sites. I would be happy to write you reviews on both of them as well as Amazona and Barnes and Noble. The thing is you have to get your name out there.
    Let someone like me read your books and pass them on to others – which is what I have started doing. I believe a good author’s books should be passed on. I have introduced a whole slew of people to new Authors this year.
    My landlord’s wife volunteers on the Library Board. Get one of your books put in a library.

  17. Having met you in person, John, I’m certain the women in New York (in publishing) find you personable, smart and talented.

    And I know you are incredibly generous with your time and advice.

    So…I’m not out to be entertaining and already have the book, but don’t change!

  18. Mr. Robison, I don’t have an answer to your question, but I must say I disagree with something you wrote…

    “Ask any publisher who the typical book reader is, and they’ll say it’s a forty-year-old mom with two kids and some time to read.”

    I can’t speak for others, but I am 41, have two of my own and for the last year and a half a teenage stepson, too. I DON’T HAVE TIME TO READ…where do these moms get time to read? Ok, I do have one well-off friend with kids who doesn’t work and one friend with kids who works part time and I know they read…but I work full time…I did read LMITE but it took me three months to finish because, I DON’T HAVE TIME….what little time I have is taken up lately with e-mailing teachers, paying bills, helping with homework, cooking, cleaning, and your blog, and sleeping.

    I realize this isn’t your opinion, but I beg to differ…

    Sidenote….I’m going to inquire about your Pheasant Run Resort appearance in St. Charles and if it’s not full I may be able to make it, although I don’t know if I will have the nerve (or opportunity) to introduce myself….I have a 14yr. old son with AS….but I would like to see you in person, but why does it start so early? 8am?????

  19. In terms of your question, continue to write insightful books around the subject of Aspergers; you will compete with no one and the publishing/book seller community will seek you out regardless of gender and grace. Nothing speaks louder than success, and you have a voice people want to hear. I would preorder any book you write regarding parenting a young child or a teenager with Aspergers that was based on your own experience or the result of your discussions/interviews with parents of young adults with Aspergers….young adults leading successful, happy lives. Therein lies practical, real world advice and a broader message of hope. Or how about interviewing other successful Aspergians about their lives and how they managed the obstacles or leveraged their differences for success….what were their peak experiences, what were their mentors like? Or, how about a book about educating a child with Aspergers; what are the best practices whether they reside in a special education school, a mainstream private school, or the public school system. However, I suspect you have your own ideas!

  20. Hi John,

    First watch “Talks Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight”


    I read and loved your book. Also, I have just finished reading:
    “The Brain That Changes Itself” Here:
    and a number of other books, all relating in one way or the other to the human brain. And it’s been an eye opening experience.

    My little grandson needed a kidney transplant, one day before the transplant, while he was on dialysis, they didn’t watched him as they should have, and pulled 8 pounds of fluid off his approximate 40 pound body. His heart stopped, (he coded) they got him back, but his brain was dried out, the damage extensive, he lost his ability to eat and speak…
    He’s 8 years old now… and people are starting to act strangely around him, he knows/understands he is being viewed as different/strange.

    In your book you explained how you felt, you lacked communication skills, as does my grandson… your book and all the other things I have watched, read and listened to have been a help…

    What can you do to make it in this female dominated business…
    Continue on as you are, you are learning, putting pieces of a puzzle together… that is a valuable asset, but not just for Aspies, but for all who have been challenged by their brain, whether it be an injury, stroke, epilepsy, seizure, autistic, bi-polar, ADHD and so on.

    I recently read a book on doing eye exercises and found out we even “see” with our brain.

    Warm Regards,


  21. Interesting. I don’t know what to say about publishing being dominated by women. It just is what it is. My advice for the way to get along? Wear great shoes, eat a lot of chocolate, and listen to them! Wishing you luck.

  22. It’s hard to pick winners among you but I guess I’ll go with Katie and Eve. Write me at with your address and I will send the prizes. Eve, I think you are just 10 miles from me so perhaps we can just meet and you can collect it in person.

    Thanks for all your good suggestions and thanks for having me here.


  23. I know I’m too late, but here are some thoughts anyway.

    It’s best to quit thinking of men and women as different. Men and women only look a little bit different from each other, and for some reason that makes people think they are a lot different. They make up stories about it because the difference makes them nervous. We don’t have to believe the stories, though.

    Do whatever one does to impress people who like books, and don’t worry about whether those people are men or women. It’s distracting.

  24. There are more female writers, and a larger percentage of them choose to write the mass market fiction, which results in low advances because there are so many writers offering product in that segment.

  25. Gosh, I wish Dad (Leon Cromer) had told me about this website sooner John (two years ago)!! My simplest answer to your potentially HUGE question “What should a hard working, lovable but bumbling guy do to make it in the female-dominated world of book publishing and reading?” would be to keep your head down, your hands on the keyboard and your wedding ring visible!!! Being in the minority can have its benefits as well as its drawbacks.

    Other than that I am having my 11 yr old son tested for Asperger’s. He’s a boy of few words with a engineering level interest in Lego building. Go figure.

    I appreciate you John. Hope all’s well in the 5 college area, I do miss it so. I’m happy for you AND your little brother’s success.

    Much affection, Gabi Cromer, Huntersville North Carolina

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