Books fail. We, naturally, look for reasons, and, as often as not, apportion blame.
All of us are at least mildly paranoid to some extent. The paranoids just don’t understand the severity of the issue. Seriously, we come from a long, long line of evolutionary selection that said ‘if you were too trusting, you got eaten.’ There are of course huge benefits in being able to trust and in being trustable – any social species needs this or they stop being social species with all the advantages that implies (you know, facebook, twitter… oh dear. I am digging a deeper hole.)
With this, of course come the inevitable breakdowns in trust, and the fact that, somehow, some people think someone besides Charlie Brown will always play Lucy-ball. You can go on playing Lucy-ball for a long time… but not with the same person. Trust is a rare coin which the same person is unlikely to get twice. The trust between readers and writers is no different. Sometimes that breakdown is by accident – the reader thought this was X and got Y. That may destroy you for that reader. Sometimes it was Lucy-ball – and that reader is not coming back. Re-building trust is hard and slow, and not always possible.
Look, all relationships need some trust, especially by the weaker part of that relationship. As the weaker part you know you are open to exploitation and abuse. If that happens: Common sense says ‘get out’ but often the abuser (or reality) paints a situation where that’s not possible, or at least not easy, and maybe worse. Plenty of writers have found themselves in this situation with their agents, their publishers even their readers. At this point Stockholm syndrome often cuts in. It’s a grim reality, you will encounter in everything from abusive marriages to hostage situations. Writing is no different. Blaming other people, even oneself rather than the abuser is a natural and human reaction (not a healthy one but real). There are plenty of examples in our field: where a publisher or agent or even bookseller has made a horrendous mess of a book, its launch, its availability, printing, cover etc. This is actually pretty obvious. Yet the author will blame almost anyone else. Amazon. The patriarchy. Homophobes… anything that is unlikely to strike back at them.
The above is also true when it comes to trusting yourself. Sometimes your work really just isn’t what the reader wants. You need to deal with this and move on. Few books and fewer writers appeal to everyone. It’s probably not the patriarchy’s fault. Nor is it likely to be the matriarchy’s fault.
For it to be real discrimination, not incompetence, or generic abuse of power (where your publisher doesn’t care if you’re a black male heterosexual conservative, or a white female gay Maoist) the evidence really has to be there. In a field like traditional publishing where the staffing of publishing houses skews strongly female and overwhelmingly left… it is incompetence, not discrimination if you fit their group ID. For it to be malice, the publisher would actually have to know and care who you were, which, despite those Stockholm type delusions, unless you’re a chosen darling, they don’t.
Neither, by in large do readers. It’s not patriarchy that’s stopping men buying your sf. It may be your publisher, your distributor, your cover, or prior experience with your books… but none of these is ‘patriarchy’ or any other nebulous and unable-to-hit-back bad guy.
There is an element of luck. There is an element of skill. There are aspects of history. You can blame away. If the numbers are on your side, you might even be right. But it won’t help you.
The only thing that works is to step away, and try again. If you’re convinced it your religion, skin color, orientation or even that your publisher personally has it in for you, or that all sf readers hate women/men/trannies… There is the chance to prove this, to succeed. Being an author is potentially the most flexible (thanks to Indy publishing) and the least subject to discrimination field in the world – if you choose to make it that.
If it doesn’t fly – stop looking for a safe ‘blame’. If it is you publisher or the traditional publishing establishment… get up and try again. You can use a pseudonym, you can choose your own cover.
You can own it.