Diversifying the Bookshelf: A Roundtable With Bookstr’s Women on Representation and Change

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked the women of Bookstr to share their experiences as women in publishing. Read on for their insights.

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To celebrate Women’s History Month, we wanted to uplift some of the women at Bookstr who are diversifying the publishing industry with their work every day. Everyone at Bookstr is unique in their own way, but we’re all united by one thing: our love for books. We asked Bookstr women to share their experiences with books and publishing as women in a traditionally male-dominated field. They discussed how they choose the books they read, which legendary female figures they admire, how to uplift female authors, and more.

Read on to learn more about some of the amazing women who help make Bookstr what it is.

1. Do you have identities that you consider/factor into how you choose books to read?

Gabriela Collazo: As a writer and songwriter, I appreciate beautiful, clever prose. It’s not necessarily a requirement for me when choosing a book, but an elevated prose will leave a more lasting impression.

Kristi Eskew: It depends on what I’m picking up. I’m a wife and mother, so sometimes, the things I read might be geared towards them in some way. So that plays a role, but not as often as one might think. 

Quiarah B.: One of the things I may consider is whether the book is written by Black authors, especially female authors. As a Black female and writer, it feels so good to see them on the shelf writing in the genres in which I love to read. But I also gravitate toward a badass story featuring women as protagonists. At the heart of it, I honestly just crave a well-thought and imaginative story. The above, though, are major pluses in my book.

Lauren Nee: I’m a writer, so I definitely tend to gravitate toward literature that falls into the genre I write most often, which is science fiction. However, I love a variety of genres — fantasy, mystery, thriller, and literary fiction included — so my taste is pretty eclectic overall. Additionally, as a member of the queer community, I seek out a lot of books about queer characters by queer authors. Diversity is a vital consideration in what I read. To me, reading is always a learning experience, so I try to choose work by authors from different backgrounds and communities than me to gain new perspectives on the world.

Danielle Tomlinson: I’m also queer, and I look for books that have LGBTQ+ relationships. It’s so great to see that representation, and it feels good to see more people like me falling in love.

Erin Dzielski: When I am reading for pleasure, I lean towards the genres I enjoy the most: sci-fi, techno-thrillers, action-packed mysteries, and so on. As a pansexual, extra bonus points if the stories feature diversity and representation. When I read for research/exposure on subjects I plan to write about, I branch out and read whatever I can get my hands on that pertains to either the topics themselves or the writing techniques found in literature about the subject matter I am tackling.

Emma Jamrin: As a woman of color, I tend to gravitate towards books with that representation. It’s important to see women of color written into roles that they have historically been left out of or heavily stereotyped in. There are many experiences I thought were isolated until I read about them in books and realized that what I’ve lived through is valid. 

Sierra Jackson: No. I guess it’s more about the collected opinion about the book in terms of me browsing the reviews. But ultimately, if I think the plot sounds interesting, I’ll take a risk.

Jazmine Butler: Being a Black woman myself, I recently started to look for more diversity in the authors I read. I have found new books and am learning about different cultures and customs because of it and I think it’s amazing. 

Abigail Caswell: I’m usually drawn to books with progranists that share identities with me: Black, queer, in their 20s, complicated relationships with their mothers. I also gravitate towards books about writers because I like that meta peek into what authors have to say about writing and publishing through their characters. But I’ll read anything as long as it sounds interesting, so a book doesn’t have to align with all or any of my identities. It does get put higher on my buy/read list if it does, though.

2. Who’s an underrepresented female author you want to see more of?

Gabriela Collazo: I don’t have an answer for this, but I like encountering up-and-coming indie female authors on social media. Ireen Chau, for example. It’s aspirational to see someone paving their own way in the industry by gaining a following through simply doing work that speaks to them.

Kristi Eskew: Nalini Singh is hands down one of the best female romance writers I have ever read, and you just don’t see her name pop up often enough. Her style of writing is unique and truly pulls you into the story like no other. 

Quiarah B.: I really adore Tomi Adeyemi. While she is pretty popular, I don’t think she makes the splash that she should make. Her work is phenomenal, and her trilogy is being made into a movie! But the talk around this isn’t as big as I know it can and should be. So, to me, I think she’s truly underrated and should come up in more conversations alongside other prominent female writers.

Lauren Nee: There are so many! Jane Pek, Julia Armfield, Eowyn Ivey, Carmen Maria Machado, and Marisha Pessl all come to mind. I love their work, and I know others would too. 

Danielle Tomlinson: Natasha Ngan. I’ve only read one of her books, Girls of Paper and Fire, but it was SO good. It’s part of a trilogy, and the last book was published in 2021.

Erin Dzielski: Rachel Moore! Her first novel, The Library of Shadows, a YA paranormal rom-com that pays homage to the world of libraries, takes place in a secretive, enigmatic library any lover of dark academia can appreciate. It only came out a few months ago, but I look forward to seeing more titles from her, and I think she deserves more attention.

Emma Jamrin: I’d love to see more of and with Safia Elhillo. Her novel in verse, Home Is Not a Country, deeply resonated with me, and reading it was one of those stand-out moments that I’ll never forget.

Sierra Jackson: It’s hard to just pick one, isn’t it? I’d say any POC romantic, horror, fantasy, adventure, or a mix of all. According to BookTok at least. It’s pretty rare to see a female POC author going viral. 

Jazmine Butler: An underrepresented female author I would like to see more of is Valorie Burton. Her self-improvement and empowerment books have helped me tremendously. While they are geared towards women, any gender can learn from her books.

Abigail Caswell: I recently listened to the audiobook for Tender Beasts by Liselle Sambury and loved it so much all of her other books are on my TBR now! I think Sambury has a real talent for capturing character complexities and keeping a level of suspense throughout her story, even when you think you know the twist. I hope she gets her flowers soon because she’s one of the stronger new voices writing in YA right now.

3. When choosing a book, does the author’s gender influence your decision?

Gabriela Collazo: Not necessarily. I think good writing is good writing; it’s less about gender and more about whether the work itself speaks to me.

Kristi Eskew: I’d love to be able to say that, no, it doesn’t, but that’s not really the point. Gender doesn’t influence any of my choices except when it comes to romance books. While there is the exception, most romances written by men just don’t appeal to me. They express the male gaze more often than not and just feel disingenuous. 

Quiarah B.: It can. As I stated above, it’s a huge plus to come across a book written in the genres I read that’s written by a female author, especially a Black female author, as well as other ethnicities of female authors that we don’t see many stories about.

Lauren Nee: Somewhat. I usually pick up books based on my interest in the concept more than anything else, but looking at my bookshelf, it seems like I have a lot more books by women writers than men. I enjoy reading about female characters, female friendships, and sisterhood a lot, so I guess that does lead me to pick up more books by female authors than male authors. 

Danielle Tomlinson: Sort of? I tend to gravitate toward women authors without being consciously aware of it. I love fantasy with some romance as well as romantasy — these two are different, I promise — and I think that women write these stories best. It’s not that men can’t write these stories, but I don’t find their stories as compelling. But I never made that connection until now, so I’m not entirely sure what my answer should be.

Erin Dzielski:  It does not influence my decision when choosing a book to read, but it did influence my decision to use a gender-neutral pen name for my own fiction writing. 

Emma Jamrin: Yes. I tend only to read books by male authors if the characters in the book are predominantly male. I think that the male gaze can sometimes unconsciously influence male authors’ writings, and when they are not talking about something they themselves experienced, I find that the book is off the mark, at least concerning a woman’s perspective. 

Sierra Jackson: Not always… I guess it depends on the genre. If it’s romance, I gravitate toward female authors. If it’s horror, I don’t usually care, but it does excite me to read someone who looks like me.

Jazmine Butler: No, the author’s gender does not influence my decision when I choose a book.

Abigail Caswell: I put a lot of effort into reading books written by women because I didn’t when I was younger. And why would I when I was a kid? A kid isn’t considering the uneven ratio of male writers to female writers when they’re picking up something to read. But ever since my junior/senior year of high school, right around the time I made an effort to read more Black voices, is when I looked for more books by female writers. Now, years after fine-tuning my tastes for what I look for in the books I read, the books written by women naturally stand out more to me.

4. Are there specific genres you associate more with female authors? Why or why not?

Gabriela Collazo: I do find more romance stories written by women, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I know female authors and readers alike often get boxed into that genre, but I’m a fan of romance myself, and I think it deserves its respect.

Kristi Eskew: Romance. There’s a nuance to describing physical features and introductions of character traits that women writers understand better than male writers. Not everything comes down to the size or sexiness of a person, which seems to always be the case with male-created romance. 

Quiarah B.: I think fantasy is certainly one genre that I associate more with female authors, only because that’s what I’ve come across more. However, one genre that seems to be associated with female authors is romance. I think it’s because women want to see romance the way they feel works and makes women truly feel seen, understood, swooned over, taken seriously, and in some way safe while reading.

Lauren Nee: I think a lot of people probably associate female authors with romance, but for me, that’s not the case. Romance is likely my least-read genre, so I associate female authors more with speculative fiction. When I think of sci-fi classics, I think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy. These women, and so many more, shaped the genre into what we know today. I have no doubt women writers will continue to be pioneers in the speculative fiction realm. 

Danielle Tomlinson: Romance and fantasy. Yes, men write these genres as well, but they also tend to write more sci-fi, dystopian, and mystery. At least from what I’ve seen. Romance is considered a woman’s genre, though men should definitely read and write it too, and the kind of fantasy I read is more commonly written by women. So naturally I associate these genres with women.

Erin Dzielski: I tend to associate the hard science technothrillers with male authors, probably only because I do not come across many female authors in that niche (and I am therefore doubly excited when I do).

Emma Jamrin: Because I don’t read many books by male authors to begin with, I almost think female authors lead all genres. But maybe romance because, truthfully, I will only pick up romance books if a woman authors them as I think they write them most respectfully. 

Sierra Jackson: Yup, as I stated earlier, I tend to associate romance with women authors. Why? I don’t know. I just do. That doesn’t mean that I’ll look the other way if it’s a male author writing about romance. If the plot looks interesting, I might give it a chance. I just don’t see it that often. 

Jazmine Butler: I associate romantic suspense and romance books as well as dramas because most of the books I have read like that were women. I would like to expand my author list though. 

Abigail Caswell: I associate romance more with women. You think of all the times you see women reading something in a movie or a TV show, and it’s usually one of those mass-market paperback bodice-rippers with a half-naked couple on the cover that the woman gets shamed for owning and reading. For so long romance was one of the only genres it was “acceptable” for women to pursue, and even centuries ago it used to be a male-dominated field. Now, I can say confidently that if you ask anyone to name a romance author, they’ll give a woman’s name. I think it’s great that women have been able to dominate and capitalize off a genre that for so long was used as a way to demean women, but there’s still a stigma surrounding women and romance that the publishing industry needs to face.

5. What role do you think the “male gaze” plays in the selection and publication of stories, and how can we move beyond this perspective to offer more well-rounded narratives?

Gabriela Collazo: The “male gaze” can cheapen a story, specifically its characters — and not just the female characters. If the female role is reduced to being tokenized or sexualized, that has a domino effect on the male character’s role, too, reducing the story’s potential. I think we could stretch our imaginations a bit there; gender does inform a character’s worldview but it shouldn’t limit their complexity.

Kristi Eskew: At this point, I think the male gaze has its place for genuine effectiveness in believability. However, given that the vast majority of the literary industry is now situated within the female grasp, I think it’s becoming less prevalent than before. Continuing this trend and pushing for a more nuanced, realistic female character with well-rounded traits (you know, other than her ability to be sexy and vulnerable) in all genres is sure to bring about a more equitable industry.

Quiarah B.: The male gaze, in some way, still plays a role in the publication of stories, though not as big a role as it once did. I think the changing landscape of differing voices has played a role in this. Plus, more women writers have taken control of the narrative to shift the conversation about women and girls dealing with the world around them. It seems to have opened up the eyes of people across the gender spectrum. I think having more of these conversations and seeing them discussed in books more openly is how we ultimately move past this perspective and create a well-rounded narrative.

Lauren Nee: For a long time, it was hard to find an SFF novel that didn’t feature a male protagonist. In these stories, female characters were shallow love interests and nothing more. They weren’t capable, complex, or interesting like the male characters got to be, and their presence in the story only served to bolster the male protagonist’s arc. Fortunately, we’ve gotten some incredible SFF female protagonists in recent years thanks to women writers who redefined the genre. In the past, virtually all media was catered to male audiences, and this is still very true in some spaces, but it seems like publishing is more and more open to female narratives as it becomes an increasingly female-dominated industry. 

Danielle Tomlinson: There’s a reason that an entire subreddit exists on men writing women terribly — because it’s so common. Despite the tremendous progress in gender equality, the male gaze and men authors get preferential treatment because publishers think it will sell better. Not to mention that until more recently, men were publishing more books than women, so their point of view — and gaze — was easier to see. There are three things that need to happen for more well-rounded narratives. One, more women have to write books to combat the male gaze. Two, these books need to be picked up and published, and since nearly 75 percent of the publishing industry is made of women, this hopefully shouldn’t be a huge roadblock. And three, readers need to buy these books. If these kinds of books don’t sell, fewer publishers will be willing to pick them up, and fewer women will write them.

Erin Dzielski: I think things have been changing in that regard, but thinking forward into ideas for “more well-rounded narratives,” I think it would be cool to see more collaboration projects between men and women where both perspectives shine through equally in stories. 

Emma Jamrin: I think for a while, the male gaze was a driver of the industry, the whole “sex sells” kind of thing. But now, people are becoming more knowledgeable about its history and realizing that they don’t have to be okay with its implications. I think the male gaze is a by-product of a much larger, misogynistic issue that can only be genuinely rooted out of society if there’s a more significant collective shift in how we view women and their lives. A way we can do that would be education and activism led by non-men. 

Sierra Jackson: Currently, I think the “male gaze” has definitely shifted because society is now waking up. Although it is still prevalent in other forms of media, uplifting underrepresented voices is a good way to go.

Jazmine Butler: I think the “male gaze” has shifted and authors across all genders and identities are giving more depth to the relationships of their characters. I think continuing to do that and show the world that we do need each other and everyone has something deeper than a physical connection to bring to the table will help. 

Abigail Caswell: I think men are still at the forethought of all marketing campaigns and advertising strategies even as more and more women writers become successful. So many genres and measures of success are defined by men or men’s works, which women-written works will struggle against just because they’re written by women. One way of eliminating the male gaze is by hiring more women into traditional publishing as agents, editors, and directors — in positions where they can oversee what’s happening in publishing houses. Another way could be to treat indie- and self-published works better, removing the stigma around them as “low-quality” or “unserious” just because they’re more accessible.

6. What are some things readers could do to further support female authors?

Gabriela Collazo: Buying their books seems like the obvious answer, but if it’s an indie author with an online presence, support them like you would any content creator. Help them gain traction by liking, following, and commenting. And if you do buy their work — or are lucky enough to receive an ARC — post a review.

Kristi Eskew: Read, review, follow, and share. Pick up a book by a female author you’ve never heard of before. Post reviews on the various book tracking platforms and reader groups and share them with your book besties. The more the author and their work are shared, the more visible they become. 

Quiarah B.: Follow female authors on their socials. Talk about their books on our own social media platforms. Buy, buy, buy their books. Go to their websites and buy their books. Leave comments and reviews about their works. And when their work is made into a movie or show, support them by watching and talking about it. Overall, talking is what brings awareness and support with our dollars.

Lauren Nee: Read, review, and share their work! A lot of readers — myself included — forget the importance of leaving positive reviews, but even one or two sentences do make a difference. Plus, sharing books you enjoy on social media and with friends and family in real life helps boost authors’ visibility and turn new readers on to them. 

Danielle Tomlinson: Go out of their way to find women writers in their preferred genre. Then buy the book or collection, and recommend it to others. Word of mouth, especially by using social media, has such a huge impact on sales. And it wouldn’t hurt to try and email the author and tell her how much you appreciated the book.

Erin Dzielski: Encourage and support female authors who publish under female names rather than gender-neutral ones, I suppose. 

Emma Jamrin: Buy locally, and if you know you like a writer’s style, pre-order! With the influence of social media and marketing, hyping up a book seems to impact its trajectory significantly. 

Sierra Jackson: Buy their books. Review them. Period.

Jazmine Butler: I think sharing the female authors you read on social media is a great way to help. People look for recommendations on these platforms, and that can give them more visibility. Also, purchase their books if you can, or go to your local library and borrow the books so that the library will carry more of that author. See if they are having a book signing in your area. 

Abigail Caswell: Buy their books or borrow them from the library. Rate and review them. Push them on social media. Follow women writers on social media, and push their content when possible.

7. Are there women in history who are a source of inspiration for you?

Gabriela Collazo: Anyone who’s ever been brave enough to write, perform, or start a business is inspiring to me. I’d like to know what it’s like to think, “Yeah, I can do this,” and just put out a project, come what may.

Kristi Eskew: I am a sucker for the redeemed, scorned women of history. Those who rose to power only to have the patriarchy smear their names in infamy. Eventually, their story came to light: the Mary Magdalenes, Boudicas, and Marie Antoinettes of the world.

Quiarah B.: There are so many women throughout history that I have been inspired by. From Queen Elizabeth I to Sojourner Truth. These women inspire me because they were bold in their times and stood for what they felt was right. They were brave at a time when brutality was very real and prevalent, whether royalty or not. I truly am inspired by these women who stood the test of time.

Lauren Nee: So many. Especially trailblazing female writers who have forever changed the literary landscape like Agatha Christie and Octavia Butler. 

Danielle Tomlinson: So many! Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Amelia Earhart, Marsha P. Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen…the list goes on. But primarily, women who stood up for what they believed in and didn’t let others intimidate them into submission.

Erin Dzielski: Ada Lovelace, the FIRST computer programmer in history, and illegitimate daughter of the famous Lord Byron (who never bothered to meet her). She was both a mathematician and a writer herself. She inspires me because I earned a degree in applied mathematics, using her as a dissertation — and then I went on to graduate school and earned a creative writing degree.

Emma Jamrin: They may not be famous, but the women in my family who came before me are one of my most significant sources of inspiration. I hear stories of them, their hardships, and their dreams, and I aspire to live my life to the fullest and honor them through my work. One of our greatest connections is our womanhood, and even if I have never met them, we are in some way much alike. 

Sierra Jackson: Mary Wollstonecraft always comes to mind. She was far ahead of her time when she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She was saying things that were unpopular, yet had the strength to say it anyway.

Jazmine Butler: This is a tough one to answer, but I would say Maya Angelou, Eartha Kitt, Angela Lansbury, Betty White, and Toni Morrison are some women who are a source of inspiration. 

Abigail Caswell: In terms of literary history, I think of Toni Morrison, Mary Shelley, and Octavia Butler. These women either ushered in new eras of literature or contributed significant works that we now think of as prime examples of their genre. Outside of books, I think of women in Hollywood like Marilyn Monroe, who used their places of privilege to uplift people who were being shunned out of the industry.

8. How do you think female authors’ experiences and perspectives differ from those of their male counterparts, and how does this influence their writing?

Gabriela Collazo: We’re told from the beginning that the odds are against us; right off the bat, we’re having to overcome something. So, writing is just another medium in which we try to prove ourselves. Even if the content we write isn’t meant to be in any way revolutionary, we might be more mindful of our messaging. Are we setting other women back in the characters we create? Are we being innovative enough in the stories we tell? We’re wary of the fact that we’re gonna be scrutinized slightly harsher than our male counterparts because we know anything we do will reflect back on us as a monolith.

Kristi Eskew: There is quite a bit of subtext to most female narratives that many a man might not recognize. The lived experiences of a woman, even those of privilege, are underscored by the ugliness of what it means to be a woman in a world consistently telling them they’re inferior. The minute details of how a woman carries herself, her clothing choices, how she assesses a new male character, and her social interactions might be intentional. Still, for many, they’re the subconscious truth of the author’s experiences pushed out onto her characters. 

Quiarah B.: For female authors, they have to take into account so much that male authors just don’t. Even when writing about issues around women, such as trauma, male authors have a difficult time taking care to write about every part that a woman experiences. Writing our joy, writing our hardship, writing our mental struggles, spiritual struggles, and physical struggles tends to get lost or diminished in some ways when it comes to most male writers writing about female characters. This is where female authors tend to really hone in on these things to show that women go through so many things in order to come out on the other side.

Lauren Nee: Female authors have the lived experience of being a woman that male writers could never replicate. For so long, the hardships women endure have been ignored, but in their own writing, women are free to unveil the harsh reality of womanhood. All of the dismissals, denials, and degradations that women deal with on a daily basis are embedded in their narratives, allowing female readers the catharsis of being seen. Regardless of genre, certain lived experiences are inextricable from our writing, and womanhood is one of them. I’m in awe of female authors who have been able to expose the realities of the female experience while simultaneously celebrating the beauty and diversity of womanhood. 

Danielle Tomlinson: With society being what it is, women have to fight more to tell the stories we want to tell. It translates to writing in so many ways. All women need to be perfect in our works, but not too perfect to set an unrealistic standard. Not to mention how we write differently than men because of our experiences. Small details, even an outfit choice, can make a big difference depending on the context and who is writing it. A man might make a woman character cover up because she’s “modest,” but a woman writer might make the character cover up because she doesn’t want to be ogled.

Erin Dzielski: I think the differences in our experiences and perspectives vary by many other factors, and gender roles in our cultures can be one of them. As a woman author, this influences my writing because I sometimes find myself going out of my way to challenge stereotypes (like women in STEM, for example) in my stories and essays. 

Emma Jamrin: Women are in some ways more in tune with emotion than men and write very raw, vivid stories that deeply touch the heart and soul. I think that’s partly due to how society historically has raised and divided men and women. Although the tides are shifting, this still stands today. Not only do we carry our own unique experiences, but we carry the experiences of every woman before us. Our perspective is all-encompassing, and writing can be a tool to offload the burden and spread its joys. This can make the writing come across as more authentic, genuine, and relatable. 

Sierra Jackson: It’s hard to say. In the past, a lot of things were challenged. Letting women be educated, be able to have autonomy, to read, to write. Now, it’s getting taken seriously. Being belittled in our own fields of work. So now we don’t shut up, we don’t turn away. We keep on going, as we should.

Jazmine Butler: I think what the female author writes about will determine how their experience will differ from their male counterparts. If it is a genre that has been traditionally male or it goes against what is considered tradition, they may have to stand up for their work as changing people’s minds and perspectives can be challenging.

Abigail Caswell: I think there’s an instinctual need to prove themselves in women’s writing that isn’t there in men’s writing. Men don’t need to prove themselves in systems made by and for them. And despite all the progress we’ve made with gender equality, there is still the assumption that women are not capable of doing what men do. As a result,  women think about scenarios differently, are more considerate of all the things that go into making something happen. There may be a need for perfectionism, a closer critique of their own writing because they know their works will face more and harsher criticism than their male counterparts.

Women’s History Month is our time to honor the women who came before us and use them as inspiration for the future. We, the women of Bookstr, would not be where we are today without the legendary female figures who paved the way for women in publishing. Through our love of books and our passion for reading, we hope to inspire our readers the same way female authors inspire us.

Find Gabriela Collazo’s articles here.

Find Kristi Eskew’s articles here.

Find Quiarah B.’s articles here.

Find Lauren Nee’s articles here.

Find Danielle Tomlinson’s articles here.

Find Erin Dzielski’s articles here.

Find Emma Jamrin’s articles here.

Find Sierra Jackson’s articles here.

Find Abigail Caswell’s articles here.

Find the books mentioned in this interview and more on the Female Authors Spotlight shelf on our Bookshop page.