Thursday, May 13, 2010

of she-publishing and prisons...

INTERN happened upon the recent Huffpo/Salon/various blog kersnuffle over Why Men Don't Read (or Whether It's Actually True That Men Don't Read, or Whether Publishing Is A Female-Dominated Industry Running Roughshod Over The Literary Needs Of Men, or whatever) rather belatedly.

For those who missed the debate, here's a brief summary:

Pinter: "Men don't read because all the books being published right now are she-books picked by she-editors promoted with she-marketing campaigns that don't make men want to buy them!"

Salon: "This is possibly true! Also, maybe there are more women in publishing than men because more women are willing to put up with the crappy pay!"

Various Blogs (in chorus): "But then why are there more male authors on the NYT best-seller list than female authors?/I'm a man and I read!/But NPR said only 1 in 4 books is bought by a man!/What is this, the 1950's? Do we really need to make such a big distinction between she-marketing and he-marketing anyway?/etc etc etc."

All of this stuff was clattering around in INTERN's head last night when INTERN's friend who volunteers at a books-for-prisoners program invited INTERN to join her at a book-sending session.

Going to this books-for-prisoners program was one of the most interesting book-related experiences INTERN has had in recent memory. It was like dropping in on Santa's workshop—there were about a dozen very industrious people flitting about bookshelves and tables, putting together packages to send to prisoners whose letters were stacked in a basket. INTERN's friend explained that they got so many letters from prisoners requesting books that there was up to a six-month waiting period for responses.

It was a funny feeling to read all those articles about Why Men Don't Read and then spend three hours sorting through letters from men who are absolutely desperate to read. INTERN is not sure what her point is in bringing up prisons in response to the gender-in-publishing debate—perhaps, as is often the case, INTERN doesn't even have a point—suffice to say that she felt a touch of the absurd, wrapping up fantasy novels and cheesy self-improvements handbooks from the 1980's for men whose circumstances made them hungry to read something, anything, whether it was she-published or he-published or published by howler monkeys.

INTERN will definitely be going back to volunteer again, and in the meantime, she is going to give some more thought to the matter.

INTERN wants to know: Do you think publishers are putting out too many she-books and/or using she-marketing tactics? Or is there something else going on that explains the gender skew in book readership?


  1. I'm a writing professor who just finished a 3 year study of 200+ YA fiction books. Among other things, we compared how well books were marketed versus how well they sold.

    We found that books are more aggressively marketed to boys, but that they are more actively bought by girls.

    Our hypothesis is that it's not that boys don't *read,* but that perhaps they just don't read *fiction.*

    And our ultimate conclusion was that publishers are over-marketing to boys when it would serve them better to focus on girls. At least in YA fiction.

    (Gender is fun, huh?)

  2. Children's publishing is certainly very she-orientated, but the book business in general seems a rather feminine domain. The irony is that there should nevertheless be so many women's writing groups about.

  3. Well, women are the ones with the time to read, since they're stuck back in the cave. It's difficult for men to find time to read while wielding a club and chasing after animals for meat. Also, carrying around those stone tablets all day gets heavy.

  4. Oh INTERN, I assert this subject is full of statistical FAIL.

    There is a blog entry about that.

    Specifically, the Salon article was poorly researched.

  5. all i know is that when i walk into the nearest waterstones there doesn't seem to me to be any real imbalance. the only book marketing i've ever even noticed is the window display and book covers and those seem to be split fairly evenly between pink books, blue books and books that don't fall into either category. i don't really know where this information is coming from. and how exactly do they know that men only buy 1/4 of the books anyway?

  6. Every time I read this blog I end up snorting with ape-like laughter. But I have to say: you've got me feeling pensive now. It's humbling to think that there are hungry, desperate readers out there, valuing books for the rudimentary things they are made of--and not giving a damn for all the industry whims we get preoccupied and pretentious about. Reading to read, like we all did at the beginning. At least, I'm humbled.

    Thanks for that little dose of perspective, INTERN.

  7. We say we're reading the stories, but you know we're just looking at the pictures.

    Oh wait, you were talking about books.

    A trip to the bookstore just doesn't sound as interesting as a trip to the hardware store, ya know? And if you do go to the bookstore, there's all this Harlequin stuff right out front. Going past it's like walking down the 'feminine products' aisle at the supermarket. Worse, some of the titles and covers look intriguing, but no way is a man gonna stop and investigate.

    Thank heavens for Amazon, where we can bypass the mushy girly stuff (or sneak a peek at the hot-looking titles when nobody's looking over our shoulders). But look, Amazon's got electronics and power tools and gas grills and stuff!

    Seriously, though [tries to pretend the above was all just joking], my guess is it's both what gets published and what men are reading. One of those feedback systems.

    It used to be that about the only books I bought were non-fiction, career-related. Spending real money on hardcover fiction seemed absurdly profligate, and even a mass-market paperback seemed expensive for a single reading.

    I started back to reading some fiction when I began visiting paperback exchange stores. Somehow, the publishers didn't notice any change in their sales figures.

    Then I'd see the mass-market paperbacks at the supermarket, and they're like "#14 of the series". Great. I haven't read #1 through #13 yet. Oh well, eventually they'll turn up at the paperback exchange. Maybe.

    The publishers notice that I've bought something like two novels brand-new, both mass-market paperbacks, in the past twenty years, and for some reason they think there's not much money to be made in publishing novels that I'd be interested in.

    In the meantime, while I'm at work, Oprah's got this book club thing going...

  8. I'm generalising here and commenting from my observations and experience. In Australia it's not cool for teenage boys to read. It's cool for teenage boys to be online, and do other boy stuff: cars, sport, girls. Father's don't read, they work, drink, barbeque, watch TV, and avoid conversations with their wives. Men are lazy, we won't buy, or read. It's an effort. Men read when we're isolated from distraction. We need to be alone. We read when we're calves because we have to, and then when we're the old bull in the back paddock, because we can't be a bull anymore.

    Men who read will jump in and say that's not true, but they're men who read! It's nothing to do with marketing. I know more men who read women's magazines than men's. A woman will go to the shops, budget or not, and buy a magazine, a book, pick up a brochure. A man will go to the shop won't be able to make a decision or forget why he's even there. Come home and read her magazine. Men have become lazy thinkers. We don't dream. Women still dream and feel.

    90% of my clients are women. 90% of the men who come are to see me are dragged along by their wives and girlfriends. They all have a great experience, but they'd never make the decision to see me by themselves. Too lazy.

    Same with books. I don't know how to fix it.

  9. INTERN,

    As I was reading your post, my initial (and, admittedly, snarky) response was "Well, if men are being pushed into the sciences, then women are stuck with humanities classes, especially literature ones. So clearly they're going to be reading more in school, and then when they stay at home while their husbands earn big bucks at their engineering firms!"

    Then I came to my senses. =)

    I've really not noticed any bias, myself. I wonder, though, if the sheer volume of some genres, such as romance (especially Harlequin) and mystery (pretty equal gender divide among authors) might help to explain why people think women buy more books, since women are writing lots of popular works in these genres. I wonder, though, why people think this correlates to women reading more.

    And I think the books-for-prisoners program is a terrific idea!

  10. I've also done these book for prisoners stack and pack days. Tons of fun and will do again too.

    I think the "men don't read" is really statistics of "men don't buy new books". This discredits libraries, used books, swaps and girlfriends who buy books for them.

    It also shows that maybe women are more prone to responding to surveys.

  11. I don't have any proof of this, but my theory is that the numbers are heavily skewed towards women for the simple fact that romance novels (which I believe are the most popular form of genre fiction) are bought mostly by women. So, if you remove the numbers of romance novels sold, I think the gender gap narrows.

    Just a theory, mind you.

  12. Never thought of this, though when an author posted photos of her visit to Simon & Schuster on her blog, with all the staff standing around, I was stunned at how many women there were. Like twenty to one! Like the guys were just waiters at a women's retreat.

    And my first thought wasn’t anything deeply insightful or sociopolitical, but simply, “Geesh, what a cool place to work.”

    Cool about helping the prisoners. They should have e-readers loaded with Project Gutenberg, which has everything from books about prison, like The Count of Monte Cristo, to books written in prison, like Don Quixote.

  13. I don't think there is any gender gap. Certainly, a lot YA novels are geared toward women, but not all. And just about every other genres? No. Just no.

    In other news, I would like to participate in this books-for-prisoners program. Do you know how I would do that?


  14. duuuuudes, fascinating answers! and nice to hear that other people are involved in books-for-prisoners.

    evansentranced: there are lots of different programs, all with different names, that do the same thing: send books to prisoners. Google the name of your city/town/region + books for prisoners to find one near you. good luck!

  15. The male of the species speaks a different language among themselves than the one they use in mixed company. They talk about sports, their toys, sex and fighting, and their exploits, their achievements, frat boy locker room talk. They don't display or discuss the tenderer emotions among themselves. They beat their chests and howl at the moon figuratively. One-upmanship is almost exclusively a male bonding ritual. They read privately because reading stimulates emotions they prefer to keep private. Gender oriented reading survey statistics cannot practically capture a reliable data set on the male of the species. Outliers aside.

  16. What are the actual statistics?

  17. I don't buy the 'boys don't read fiction' idea. I generally don't read much non-fiction; it is fiction that I love! However, from what I can see, publishers and agents are mass-rejecting the types of books that I most want to read. I am sure there are writers writing such books, as I set out to do just that myself, but those in the publishing industry act like no one wants to read them, so they don't pick them up.

  18. What Kerry said.

    Anecdotal evidence would suggest men read less FICTION than women.

    Non-fiction thrives on male dominated buying (though I might add, proportionally women buy more books... perhaps because women shop more?).

  19. My father, who was a Japanese prisoner of war in WWII, said the first thing the men did when they knew Singapore was about to fall was raid the library for books.

  20. As Mark Twain says :

    There's lies, damn lies and statistics

    4:1 is a pretty sweeping statement, I'd like to see the breakdown and stats/sampling behind the statement!

  21. Most of the guys I know (which is by no means a comprehensive study or anything) read fiction, but not YA. I've had a few of them tell me that they "got into adult books sooner," so they don't want to "skip backwards" and read younger books.
    Then I forced things like Hunger Games upon them and lo they were converted. >.>
    But I do see, just from going to the YA section in bookstores and looking at the shelf as a whole (overwhelmingly bright colors, photo covers that usually feature close-up faces of hot/strange looking teenagers, etc.), why guys would be daunted. Some of those covers are not cool-dude-friendly to carry around. Just wrap the hot pink outer shell in a paper bag or something, then tell them to read it *nods*

  22. I recently purchased PERFECT CHEMISTRY by Simone Elkeles (YA). As an English/reading teacher, I was a little disappointed that the gushy-romantic cover clearly called, "Girls, pick me up and read me!" when the contents of the book would've been just as interesting to boy readers.

    I tried to recommend it to some of my male students, and they turned their noses up at it. One boy even said, "Who wants to be seen carrying that [cover art] around school?"

    So yeah, they know girls will buy books, and therefore they market to the obvious purchaser.

  23. One flaw I can see in using book buying by gender statistics to try to understand book reading by gender is that the study would have to exclude books bought for other people. Women are more likely to be the primary managers of their households, which means they are more likely to be buying books for other people in their household, and that they or others in the household are going to give as gifts.

  24. Okay, I must live in an alternate universe. I'm a reader, been one all my life. My wife, too. We have a 17 year old son, a big, burly, football playing, video game zombie shooting boy who also reads about a half dozen novels a week, from solidly genre stuff to Oscar Wao. Yes, some of his more athletic friends haven't picked up a book since 4th grade. But I've also discussed the use of magic realism in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with an offensive lineman nicknamed Doughboy. Boys do read, but I don't think they talk about it (obsess about it) as much as girls.

  25. That prison program sounds wonderful...

    I read this also over at HuffPo and wondered about it. My husband works in publishing and there are quite a few men who work at his company, and they do publish guy-oriented books...he brings home mss with guy themes to read (memoirs of air force pilots and so on). But he would never want to read about professional wrestlers--ever! That was the example the writer used. But he's open to pretty much anything else that involves space, history, politics, etc etc.(He's managing editor so they get his "guy" opinion of stuff, but he isn't the ultimate decision maker.)But how many guys go into publishing who are into NASCAR etc...I guess there are a few...but they're rare!

  26. "Do you think publishers are putting out too many she-books and/or using she-marketing tactics?"

    Yes. Otherwise, please explain all things Twilight.

    "Or is there something else going on that explains the gender skew in book readership?"

    More women do read more than men, it didn't use to be that way but it is now. But the publishing industry is being pitched based on what works for them, especially in these uncertain times in publishing. Currently, this involves vampires and time travel and so on, with a constant state of romantic tension in the formula.

    I have two novels finished that I won't submit at this point in time, because they don't involve vampires or wizards or anything else genre-eque and the romance is barely noticeable in all of the structural conceit. I'll wait.

  27. If men don't read, then why are most of the popular authors in genres outside of romance men? Why do most books outside of romance and chick lit focus more heavily on men's than women's relationships? Why are books about boys mainstream while books about girls are niche?

    Are women just reading books about men, by men because we want to feel "mainstream," whatever that means? Or do authors feel like men would never read books about women, while women would read books about men, so focusing on men gives them a larger potential audience?

  28. I agree with the YA comment. I have little interest in YA (though I did enjoy Harry Potter), and YA seems to be what publishers really want to push these days. Why not more adult fantasy? George R.R. Martin showed how popular it is. Just trusts us and publish more of it. We're waiting to buy it.

  29. I find this whole thing really fascinating/ troubling/ interesting/ horrifying, etc. When SHIVER first came out, I just assumed my book would be bought my 100% female readers and every single time a male reader would email me, my eyes would bug out. But then it started coming out in foreign countries and the numbers, shockingly, started evening up. French and Spanish readers seem remarkably unaffected by gender bias -- I get reader emails in equal numbers from girls and guys. Make of that what you will.

    And then there are my two kids, Thing 1 & Thing 2, who are 5 and 4. Thing 1, a girl, is an avid reader and will read anything, including the back of a cereal box. Thing 2, a boy, would rather be putting things together. He does, however, have very distinct book preferences already: nonfiction, humorous, stuff that ties directly into his interests, which are, as mentioned, putting things together.

    They are sort of like a miniature picture of American book sales and marketing, don't you think? As they've both been raised to be readers by an insane author girl, you'd think they'd be impervious to gender biases, but I have to say . . . they definitely seem to be falling along gender lines.

  30. Hmm. I don't really have anything to add except that my husband reads a couple of books a week, about 80% fiction. Recently we had a couple of minutes to kill in a bookstore, and he randomly picked out a cheap paperback with a photo of a sexy, half-naked/half-leather-clad girl on the cover. Later that night he threw it down in disgust. "This is for thirteen-year-old girls!"