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a:Women’s Empowerment in Fiction: Bookseller Perspectives

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If there’s one topic I love talking about with fellow writers, it’s women’s empowerment in fiction. For this reason, I was thrilled in late January to see that Publishers Weekly had run a fabulous piece on exactly this subject, titled “Is Women’s Empowerment Coming to Publishing?” The article was from the perspective of big players in the industry like marketing and sales managers, executive editors, and editorial directors, and it outlined what publishers are seeking in the women’s empowerment space. It also covered the impact of recent political changes on women’s fiction and popular sub-genres related to women’s empowerment.

While I enjoyed the article, I felt that something was missing—more precisely, a perspective was missing: booksellers! After all, booksellers are the ones with “boots on the ground,” the people interacting every day with readers. They are closest to the discussions about what readers are seeking when they step into a store to browse. Publishing professionals may utilize industry trends and data to derive their own conclusions, but is there any replacement for approaching a reader and asking, “what are you looking for?”

I think not.

So, I set out several weeks ago to fill the gap and seek this missing perspective. I am thrilled now to share the feedback from a half-dozen booksellers about what their readers are seeking in the women’s empowerment space, and why such titles are important to their readers.

I also invited each bookseller to suggest several titles in the genre. There are some fabulous recommendations here!

Question: Why do you feel women’s empowerment in fiction is important to your readers today?

“Although we have made great strides, it is still not an easy road for women. Speaking for myself, when I see strong women making changes in the books I read, I feel a personal sense of empowerment. I am sure it is the same for many of my readers.” –Mary Webber O’Malley, Skylark Bookshop 

“Throughout history, the voices of women in the greater collective story have been marginalized, and the space for narrative has been filled predominantly with white, cisgender men. It’s baffling to me how our collective understanding of life has been so narrow for so long, but it’s about time to add women’s voices (and all other silenced voices, for that matter) to our intellectual space, to add layers of experience and insight that have been missing from the conversation for too long. It’s through access to these perspectives that we can hope to claim true equality. We are here, this is our truth, let’s work it out.” –Amanda Hurley, Tombolo Books

“Fiction allows for a space…to view ourselves, and that mirror creates the opportunity for empowerment through education and representation. It devises circumstances in which women develop agency, and what that might mean for an inspired future. Envisioning a path with less restrictions on women can be impactful on a variety of issues ranging from healthcare, sexuality, domestic violence, and socio-economic struggles.” –Caitlin Philippo, E. Shavers

“Reading is believing! From advertising to politics, women are still struggling to see themselves as equals in all things. The messages are subtle and all around us. That’s why the Bechdel-Wallace test is such an eye-opener, whereby at least 2 women must be in a conversation about something other than men! And most movies fail. However, books with women in roles as confident decision-makers help to counter the negative images that continue to exist around us. The more stories we have that show woman acting independently for their own individual growth, the closer we come to elevating it to the norm.–Laura Taylor, Oxford Exchange Bookstore

“Art and literature are at the forefront of every cultural movement. What we are seeing in literature reflects the current way of the world. Women’s voices have been silenced since ancient times, but we’re seeing that change. Storytelling is the greatest teacher.  What we learn through storytelling is a map out of silence and abuse, and a way forward.–Karen Schwettman at FoxTale Book Shoppe

“I had a professor in college ask the class who cared about women’s rights. This was 30 years ago and a few of us raised our hands. I think we were more ahead at that time than we are now. Especially the last 4-5 years. Current events have again brought women’s rights to the forefront. We need to see ourselves as the women not behind the scenes in a supporting role but front and center. This empowers us all to take the lead.” –Sue Lucey at Page 158 Books

“In July of 2020, I read Jennifer Palmieri’s book She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence From a Man’s World, in which the author modernizes the Declaration of Independence into a spirited feminist manifesto. One statistic she included was when true gender equality would likely be reached. It was in the hundreds of years from now, and that got me a little fired up. I started to seek out fiction that was written by women or had strong female characters so I could continue to be empowered and fired up, and have been recommending those books regularly. It’s been amazing to have customers come back and report that the voices of women authors and characters inspired them to find their voices and platforms on which they can proudly stand. We should never underestimate the power of bolstering women authors. There’s great power in their writing.” –Rachael Johnson, Valley Bookseller

Question: What do you look for when deciding which relevant titles (in the women’s empowerment space) to make available to readers?

“I am inclined towards stories that both illuminate and inspire. There is something powerful about an account that highlights a way forward while still acknowledging that the fight for women’s rights is one based on collective knowledge and ambition. While there is a romance attached to a solitary character triumphing over all odds, I feel that neglects a critical tenant of the women’s rights movement, which, for lack of a better phrase, is that we often stand stronger, together.” –Caitlin Philippo, E. Shavers

“I’ve always looked for strong female characters that overcome the odds. Good writing and storytelling are a must. I’ve seen lots of material that is just too harsh, that lacks a purpose.  If it is a difficult subject presented in a harsh way, women won’t read it.  It’s too painful.” –Karen Schwettman at FoxTale Book Shoppe

“I choose not to sell books that make women appear like victims. Throughout history, women have played some major roles in the outcome of many historical moments. Albert Einstein’s wife helped him crack the code. Queen Elizabeth has been a mainstay in her country. Etaf Rum overcame three generations of beatings to free herself and the next generations. I love to get into these women’s heads and find what made them tick. What made them succeed.” –Sue Lucey at Page 158 Books

“One of the main goals/missions of Tombolo Books is to amplify the voices of the marginalized. We want our readers to have an experience they won’t find in many places, and to that end we strive to buy and curate the store with a rich and diverse amalgam of voices that will broaden the readers’ understanding of the world. I find that job particularly important as the children’s buyer, as we can always hope that the best generation is yet to come so long as we nurture them properly.” –Amanda Hurley, Tombolo Books

“Life is not a fairy tale, so not every book needs to have a perfect ending. I look for books that show real women, facing real scenarios, and those women are probably flawed. Also, it is very important for me to find books that represent women with experiences outside my own. I have spent most of my life in white, middle-class America, but my experience is a tiny slice of what the rest of the world looks like. So, I go out of my way to find books about women living other experiences in order to expand my own viewpoint, as well as those of my readers.” –Mary Webber O’Malley, Skylark Bookshop

Question: Do you have any perspectives or encouragement for authors writing (or considering writing) stories that put women front & forward in meaningful ways?

“Make them as real, flawed, and as strong as we are!” –Mary Webber O’Malley, Skylark Bookshop

“Do it! The momentum is here and now and endlessly marching forward. Speak into the space, tell your story, and think always to the generations coming up behind us. Let’s leave the space so open that there’s not even a second thought as to whose story & voice belongs in the collective canon of our history. It should be as wide and varied as the world we live in.” –Amanda Hurley, Tombolo Books

“History is a treasure trove of women who deserved to be uplifted for their efforts, by fictional accounts or otherwise. I hope to see more stories of women that shine a light on ways we can continue to move forward and fight for equality in all aspects of our lives.” –Caitlin Philippo, E. Shavers

“First of all, I love debut authors!  I want to see what new spin can be put on age-old problems.  What have women learned as we’ve evolved?  We have been championing female storytellers and characters for 13 years now.  I’d encourage authors to find a different way to present the story rather than following an unspoken script. I can always tell when an author is trying too hard to make a point.” –Karen Schwettman at FoxTale Book Shoppe

“I love to read the perspectives on women who overcame strife in their lives. Some insurmountable feat they and I didn’t think they could get through and see them thrive. Growing up with a schizophrenic mother it was Anne Frank, Nancy Drew and Judy Blume who made me see that there was a normal life out there.  Each in their own way was smart, plucky, and strong-willed. I wanted to be them. They helped me get through life. I suggest putting the real you out there. Vulnerable. Warts and all. We all need the real conversations to happen.” –Sue Lucey at Page 158 Books

Question: Any recommended titles in this space that you’d like to recommend?

Caitlin Philippo, E. Shavers recommends Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth and We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper.

Mary Webber O’Malley, Skylark Bookshop recommends The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge, and Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia.

Amanda Hurley, Tombolo Books recommends a few children’s and YA selections, including Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, and Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson.

Karen Schwettman, FoxTale Book Shoppe recommends The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare, The Healing by Jonathan O’Dell, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, and Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera.

Sue Lucey, Page 158 Books recommends A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain, Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher, and A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell.

Rachael Johnson, Valley Bookseller recommends The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson, Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman, Remembrance by Rita Woods, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Brood by Jackie Polzin.

I’d love to hear your perspective on women’s empowerment in fiction. Why do you think it’s so important to write about strong women? What book recommendations do you have that feature empowered women and girls?



About Sarah Penner

Sarah Penner is the debut author of THE LOST APOTHECARY, forthcoming March 2, 2021 with Park Row Books/HarperCollins, in the US, UK, Canada, and more than fifteen territories worldwide. Sarah lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and their miniature dachshund, Zoe. When not writing, she enjoys running, cooking, and hot yoga. Find Sarah on social media or learn more at SarahPenner.com.


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