Long before the #MeToo movement gave voice to women fed up with a culture of sexual predation and harassment, titles focused on the real issues facing women were finding publishers and readers. That movement’s uncompromising demand for social justice is echoed in a wave of new titles focused on women’s and girl’s empowerment, feminism, and the connection between those issues and the distinct problems faced by women of color.
PW contacted a wide range of adult and children’s publishers to ask how their publishing programs serve the needs and demands of women and girls and celebrate their achievements. We spoke with the following publishers, editors, and marketing professionals: Liza Baker, v-p, publisher, Cartwheel Books and Orchard Books; Jennifer Baumgardner, publisher, Dottir; Shannon Fabricant, senior editor, Running Press; Beverly Horowitz, senior v-p, publisher, Delacorte; Jennifer Kasius, editorial director, Running Press; Jisu Kim, senior marketing and sales manager, Feminist Press; Jessie Kindig, editor, Verso; Krestyna Lypen, editor, Algonquin Young Readers; Amanda Maciel, executive editor, Scholastic; Margaret O’Neill Marbury, v-p, editorial, Harlequin; Liese Mayer, adult fiction editorial director, Bloomsbury; Nancy Miller, associate publisher and editorial director, Bloomsbury; Sarah Parvis, head of book development, Rebel Girls; Jessica Schmidt, v-p, associate publisher, Running Press; Dan Simon, publisher, Seven Stories; Reka Simonsen, editorial director, Atheneum BFYR; Ruth Weiner, associate publisher, Triangle Square BFYR, and publicity and marketing director, Seven Stories.
Check out our listings of women’s empowerment titles
Have recent public events surrounding the #MeToo movement impacted the kinds of books you acquire?
Lypen: Since the founding of Algonquin Young Readers, we’ve published both fiction and nonfiction on women’s empowerment; it’s a subject we’re passionate about. When the #MeToo movement began to take hold in the public consciousness, we had recently published Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, a YA anthology about feminism. It was a good feeling to have a book that’s in many ways an introduction to feminism to offer to curious readers. We’ve continued to publish books meant to empower our teenage readers.
Simonsen: We have always sought out and published books with strong female voices, so our acquisitions haven’t changed in light of recent events. Where we have seen change—and in a really positive way—is in the increased interest and attention paid to these books.
Mayer: Like so many others, I find it hugely validating that at last women’s voices in literature seem to be getting the prominence that they have always deserved. It doesn’t change the books that I publish, but it can help elevate them culturally—and that’s a great thing.
Miller: Bloomsbury has always had a strong frontlist and backlist in these areas—everything from Eve Ensler’s The Apology to DaMaris B. Hill’s book on Black girlhood coming in 2022. Recent events haven’t affected the kinds of books we acquire, but it’s incredibly gratifying to see these books getting the recognition they deserve at this moment.
Baumgardner: My priority at Dottir is to create children’s, middle grade, and YA books where talking about assault is part of the story—we discuss sex, rape, and other “difficult” topics far too late, typically—and to trust the reader’s ability to handle tough information. I’m interested in books where the violation isn’t so clear, perhaps to both the victim and the perpetrator, and in books that create space for boys to talk about their experiences and confusion around sex and masculinity. Now That We’re Men and The Hill figure into this category.
Kim: When discussions around sexual assault and rape culture increasingly happen in the mainstream, it’s our mission to continue to push forward and enrich these conversations. In July, we’re publishing the English edition of Black Box by Shiori Ito, the internationally recognized sexual assault memoir that revolutionized a feminist movement around rape, stigma, and silence in Japan. It not only makes accessible to English-language readers this important document about one woman’s experience seeking justice in the Japanese legal system, it also helps to broaden their understanding of #MeToo conversations toward a global context.
Marbury: We’ve always looked for books with strong female characters, but yes, we have wanted to acquire more books that support women’s freedoms or highlight female pioneers. A great example is Women in White Coats by Olivia Campbell, a nonfiction account of America’s first female doctors. On the fiction side, we love The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, about an 18th-century female apothecary who helps women by poisoning men who abuse and deceive them, and the modern-day historian who is escaping problems of her own when she unlocks these unsolved apothecary murders from the past. We also love Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers with its themes of self-love, Sapphic love, family love, and Black excellence.
Parvis: All of the Rebel Girls book ideas are generated in-house, and our titles are for kids ages five to 10. So #MeToo has not really affected our approach to publishing; we have been dedicated to empowering women and girls since our very first book.
Maciel: My feminist views have always influenced the kinds of books I want to publish, so I’m grateful that #MeToo has helped everyone in children’s publishing feel an even greater urgency to support stories like Muted, our upcoming YA novel about the music industry by Tami Charles. The enthusiastic support for this title, and the young woman of color at the center of it, is so exciting—and so promising for a future in which we will see more titles like it.
Baker: As the publisher of our ages zero to eight illustrated list, I’m proud to say Scholastic has always been committed to representing and celebrating empowering women in our board books and picture books. We have also made a number of recent acquisitions that are particularly relevant to supporting women’s issues and women’s rights, elevating the voices of women writers, and celebrating the many contributions, often unrecognized, that women have made throughout history.
Simon: We’ve always had a strong feminist list, thanks partly to our friend, advisor and author Barbara Seaman, the pioneering women’s rights champion who mentored so many young feminist authors. Through Barbara, we met and worked with Gloria Steinem, Laura Eldridge, Leora Tanenbaum. Editor and Open Media founder Greg Ruggiero brought in Are Prisons Obsolete? and Abolition Democracy, Angela Davis’s two books that pioneered the prison abolition movement. And on and on. Today, we see the politics of feminism and transgender politics as very much aligned, and are proud publishers of younger radical novelists like Chavisa Woods and Alex DiFrancesco, as well as important older voices like Beverly Gologorsky, whose Can You See the Wind?, an autobiographical novel of her radical transformation in the 1960s, is a book I’ve been waiting for for a long time. Our social justice foundation is powering us today, especially on the fiction side.
Kindig: Verso is a progressive political publishing house, so we’ve made books tackling gender oppression, misogyny, and sexism a part of our publishing program for many years. I myself am a committed feminist, always interested in publishing feminist thinkers and writers. What #MeToo highlighted for me most clearly is that we have an extremely impoverished and inadequate language to talk about sexuality, desire, power and violence.
Fabricant: Recent events have underscored how important it is to provide opportunities for women to speak about their own experiences, and to be the narrators of their own stories. It’s one of the things that drew Running Press to acquire Bravely, as this book centers itself on the words, thoughts, and opinions of women, both highly celebrated and less well-known.
Kasius: The #MeToo movement showed how cathartic it can be for women to speak their truth. It’s a time when we all realized how much shame is intertwined with our sexuality, which resulted in our collective silence. That’s why I thought Women on Top of the World was such a unique book—women are finally talking honestly about sex and seeing it as a vehicle of empowerment.
What subcategories related to women and empowerment are popular right now?
Lypen: We’re not especially interested in chasing trends but love it when the trends line up with the books we’re passionate about. We aim to publish books of enduring value, and it’s amazing to see so many other incredible books on women’s empowerment in the marketplace.
Simonsen: Nonfiction with a feminist slant seems to be striking a chord with readers at all age ranges, from picture books through young adult. While fiction can be a great way to explore the many situations and emotions that girls experience when dealing with harassment or disenfranchisement, I think nonfiction feels more proactive right now—more like taking action that is long overdue.
Horowitz: The use of power that girls already have and how they accept and learn to use it makes a difference for the characters as well as for readers. This is not a trend that will go away. This is about power, intelligence, and action.
Kim: We have been a mission-oriented feminist organization since our founding in 1970. No matter the genre or trend, we’re looking for books by insurgent writers that complicate and deepen the landscape of feminist thought and literature; those books are both timely and timeless.
Marbury: Women’s history and politics, self-care, WWII novels about strong women, as well as any relatable yet escapist fiction featuring heroines, mostly inspired by real-life women, who showed unimaginable strength and courage during a time when women’s freedoms were even fewer.
Parvis: Empowering titles for children, especially young girls, is a key subcategory in the market of books on women. And I think books for and by women of color are also getting a lot of long-overdue support these days.
Maciel: The interest in feminist stories for young readers seems to cover every subgenre. I’m particularly excited to see doors opening for intersectional voices, particularly in fiction. The incredible success of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series has shown that middle grade readers want to read about girls who are immigrants and activists and just like them—making their way through middle school. Characters like this are inspiring models of empowerment because they are, at the end of the day, ordinary kids.
Baker: It’s been so gratifying to see the groundswell of support for books on women, and their role in our history within our younger category of publishing. From Little Leaders by Vashti Harrison, to She Persisted, and in board books such as Baby Feminist, we’ve seen tremendous growth and interest in this category of girl power publishing. We are proud to be part of that movement spanning from fiction to nonfiction, from board to picture book.
Hooker: We’re seeing more books about reproductive rights and justice coming out, which is exciting. In 2019 we published Robin Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America, a road map for how to organize and access safe abortions if Roe is overturned. But a lot has changed since then, so in early 2020 we and Robin decided a second edition of the book was needed, which goes much deeper into self-managed care and care outside of traditional clinic settings.
Kindig: I think less about women and empowerment as a “market” than as an ongoing, necessary conversation that I never want to see publishing tire of. But we are seeing an incredible hunger from our readers for books on Black feminism and women of color feminism; for feminist theory that connects feminism to other social movements for prison abolition, anti-racism, against capitalism, for climate justice; and for accessible histories of feminist activism. I will also say that our annual Halloween reading lists on gothic feminism are a big hit on social media!
Fabricant: Across the board there’s a desire to incorporate women’s history into a wide variety of books in the category. Authors and readers are looking to celebrate those who have been overlooked or undervalued historically, and to draw inspiration from them as they pursue their own endeavors.
What trends are you seeing related to the topics of girls and empowerment?
Simonsen: We’re seeing more stories about girls who stand up and speak out about harassment and injustice of all kinds.
Miller: Ariella Elovic’s graphic memoir Cheeky has been resonating with young women, celebrating the imperfections of the author’s female body in all its glory and providing an exuberant antidote to body shame. Several years ago we published Caroline Paul’s The Gutsy Girl, a book of stories, activities, and tips to inspire girls to pursue a life of adventure and excitement. It was one of the first books to break the taboo against young girls being physically adventurous, spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and continues to be a strong backlist title for us.
Horowitz: We publish many books for tween and teen girls that encourage and inspire. I feel the word empowerment is used in such broad terms that it can be hard to know what it means. I think that what girls and teens really want is to know the extent of their own power and how best to use it—more a way of life than a trend. This can be seen in many of the genres we publish for this age group. In YA fantasy, contemporary novels, even in historical fiction, many of our most appealing and bestselling works are about young females seeking to save their people, their country, their family. Girls make the decisions; they do not simply accept what men tell them to do.
Baumgardner: I’m seeing far more books where young women or girls fight back against sexual predators. We published Send Pics last April, which featured a squad of girls fighting back against a douchebag athlete who routinely roofied girls and took naked photos—and worse—without their consent. Taking revenge against revenge porn appealed to me, but I was also drawn to how wrong the revenge plot goes. There is real jeopardy when teenagers take matters into their own hands, but perhaps it’s that or accepting a status quo that sacrifices girls—or anyone who is remotely vulnerable.
Kim: We publish the occasional book directed at younger readers. Younger readers—and, of course, their parents—are smart, savvy, and more excited to be politically engaged than some might believe. A recent children’s title that has been met with excitement is How Mamas Love Their Babies, the first picture book to depict a sex worker parent, which illustrates how no parent’s job equals “better” or “worse” parenting. This August, we are publishing the bilingual picture book Alejandria Fights Back!/¡La Lucha de Alejandria!, which is about housing justice and gentrification.
Parvis: Explicitly feminist and woke board books are doing well. Nonfiction and especially biographies have taken center stage in the world of literature for girls. Today’s kids are more engaged than ever. They are activists and explorers with a keen awareness of current events. They are endlessly curious and interested in the powerful women they hear about on the news, in school, and on social media. One of the main ways they and their parents are seeking out more information is by reading about the barrier-breaking women who came before them—and about the women who are making change today.
Maciel: I hesitate to call it a trend, but I feel like I’ve seen more novels like Front Desk, in which the characters find actionable ways to fight back against oppression. In Lisa Schroeder’s Don’t Judge Me, a group of girls—and some boys—organize to protest rules at their middle school that unfairly target the girls. The characters in realistic fiction are showing realistic ways to spot injustice—and do something about it.
Baker: As a publisher, but also as a parent and a feminist, I’ve always been drawn to stories about strong women who provide role models for our younger readers. Readers can’t know what they don’t see, and books offer an accessible way for readers to see themselves and imagine what they can become; that is equally important for boys, who also need to see those female role models. There are many examples from our list that highlight outstanding women and girls. From our recent picture book Building Zaha, celebrating the pioneering British Iraqi architect, to our oversize board book Dream Big, a bright bold homage to female trailblazers, we want to offer readers at every stage and age the chance to meet powerful women who have changed the world.
Weiner: It’s great to see that there has been a rise in books with strong girl/woman characters for a while now—further encouraged by #MeToo, the Women’s March, and the wise counsel of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other women leaders including, now, Kamala Harris. As a parent and as a publisher, I think the last four years have been more important than ever for young people to hear voices of women who are smart, caring, powerful, and empathetic, and who are fighting for justice and getting it done.
What have you heard from your agents, distributors, and retailer partners about the market for these titles?
Baumgardner: My impression is that booksellers and librarians are eager for more radical and realistic books about the real oppression and violence that young people, particularly women and girls, face. They know that if a book is genuine, even if raw or shocking or upsetting, YA readers will be drawn to it—because they are experiencing a lot of upsetting and confusing things already, and often get the message to deny, deflect, or compartmentalize. Books can magnetize and affirm experiences and help them tell the truth about what has happened to them.
Kim: As more readers are shopping online, strong backlist titles with a long shelf life have been key. Since the beginning, the Feminist Press has looked to writers both past and present to explore personal and political experiences that can better inform our current feminist conversations.
Marbury: There’s always been an appetite for this type of story, and it seems to be particularly strong during the pandemic, as people also have more time to reflect on how they want to live their lives.
Parvis: The popularity of the genre is not slowing down. Readers have become hyperaware of the lack of representation in the books they read, parents seek out titles that aim to fill a gap, and girls are declaring their love for books that showcase strong, smart, compassionate, resourceful girls and women.
Baker: At Scholastic we have the unique opportunity to publish and distribute our books into the trade market, but also into the Scholastic Book Clubs and Book Fairs, and all three channels have embraced our girl power books with open arms, shown true support and enthusiasm, and made these books priorities on their list. And agents are sending us more great submissions. We know parents, teachers, and librarians are beginning conversations earlier than ever about race, gender, bias, and equity. Waiting is not an option!
Simon: We would like to think we stand against that kind of market-driven decision making. We’re in the world and see what everyone else sees, and as publishers we’re trying to be in the moment. But we also have a long tradition of publishing works by and for women. We did it when it wasn’t a selling point. And today we’re doing it in exactly the same way and according to exactly the same foundational principles.
Weiner: We’ve gotten a lot of enthusiasm from our distribution partner PRH for current titles. When we published the first edition of Handbook for a Post-Roe America, we were surprised at how fast the initial print run flew out the door. I think they and we were all responding as citizens as much as we were as publishers. The continuing legal battles emboldened us to schedule the new and revised edition for this March.
Schmidt: We see an ever-increasing demand from accounts to provide content on female empowerment with a particular focus on BIPOC.
Kindig: They’re some of our bestselling titles. One of our recent books, Burn It Down!, a collection of feminist manifestos from the 19th century to the present, has been one of our consistent bestsellers online and in the trade, and was widely reviewed in legacy media. I’d also heard that our Verso Book of Feminism was all over the bookstore tables as a holiday gift item.
Will the election of Kamala Harris as vice president influence this publishing category going forward?
Simonsen: Long before Kamala Harris was even nominated for vice president, we were working with Nikki Grimes on a picture book to share her inspiring story with young readers. I hope that her election will only strengthen what we’re already seeing: that there are so many readers hungry for books that empower girls and women, especially women of color.
Kim: This past presidential election certainly marks a historical moment, but at the Feminist Press, we’ve always looked forward. We publish books that incite conversation, and hope to help create a world in which our movement is obsolete. But our movement won’t be obsolete until there is equity and justice for all people, and currently that means publishing that holds our society—and our movement—to a higher standard of thought, respect, and care.
Marbury: As the first woman, Black, and Indian vice president, Kamala Harris has shattered multiple glass ceilings. She is already an incredible role model to countless women and girls around the world, and how she chooses to use her platform will absolutely help influence the publishing landscape going forward.
Maciel: For years—forever, it seems—we’ve been telling girls they can be and do anything. But to live in an America where that isn’t just an idea, where “girl power” isn’t just a phrase on a T-shirt, where women actually hold real power... Honestly, I can’t wait to see it. And I’m even more excited to read books written by the kids growing up right now.
Baker: As the publishers of Future President, featuring a little girl who could be a young Kamala on the cover, it’s inspiring to see life imitating art. I see our publishing footprint and our commitment to the category of women empowerment growing even stronger in the years to come, and I’m excited to be part of that.
Kindig: I hope that enthusiasm around Vice President Harris and the election will help encourage feminist movements, anti-racist movements, and progressive movements to push for substantive change. Publishing-wise, I expect the next four years will be an extremely fertile time for progressive social movements to grow, build, start to enact policies to protect our climate, and to get at the roots of structural racism and misogyny. So I expect we’ll see a reading audience hungry for the history, theory, and debates that can help people build a world of equality and equal respect.
Fabricant: I think the election of Vice President Harris will only accelerate the desire for books that highlight the extraordinary contributions of women, particularly women or color and those in male-dominated arenas like politics and the law.
Parvis: Vice President Harris’s accomplishments and success will only continue to expand publishers’ appetite for stories about women—and stories about nonwhite women. At Rebel Girls, we were so thrilled that Kamala shattered this particular glass ceiling that we decided to release Rebel Girls Lead: 25 Tales of Powerful Women to come out right around the inauguration. So you could say Kamala’s election has already influenced our publishing choices this year.
Check out our listings of women’s empowerment titles