Monday, May 10, 2010

'Why men don't read books'

Do men read? And if not, why not? And what should we be doing about it?

Following links can be a route to perdition or at least a large waste of time... And occasionally thought-provoking... look, there was always a small statistical probability it has to happen ;-). It, um, has relevance to Amanda's question of yesterday. Eventually accidents will bring readers to your site. The trick is keeping them.

Anyway - to proceed with my easily derailed train of thought. While looking at this article l (worth reading, but with a little pinch of salt, I think) I happened on a link to this item about another Huffpo item... in Salon. Now anything that called itself ‘salon' does not have much attraction for the hirsute and shaggy fellow that I am, but I read it simply because the title "Why Men don't read Books" is of some interest to me. I want EVERYONE reading. I believe it is vitally important that people do (even if it is not my books that they read. So long as they read).

Now, as a sales pitch for the site, I am afraid the article failed for me, as it's not -- as I was hoping -- a well-referenced and scientifically analytical piece. The only stats Miller gets around to (down in the letters) are rather dodgy as there is none of the required statistical rigor to them - they're a self-selected sample for starters... but it was interesting for the responses it provoked. The curious logic -- in both the responses, subtitle and author's conclusion -- was also quite funny, if you like irony.

Lets start with a few premises here: 1) Some men do read. We're really asking about what they read and why they read that, and why those who don't read, don't, and what the proportions are. Real numbers, real facts. Actually we'd like to know what women read, why, etc., what every possible market/social segment reads. But there is some not very well proven (but I suspect correct) evidence that men are reading and buying less. This really not good news for anyone (even militant feminists who believe all men are EEEEVUL.) It wouldn't be good news if the segment being alienated was Chinese or lesbian or believers in the great Arckleseizure. It's worse-than-average bad news, because if you breed dogs that can bite your head off, having them good-natured, intelligent and thoughtful about possibly doing so is more important than if you're breeding Toy Poms (think about that, if it doesn't make your head hurt too much).

2)There really seems to be no good research on this. One has to wonder why something as fundamental as "why am I not effectively getting to 50% of my possible audience" is not of burning interest to publishers, and not vitally important to the government of any forward-looking society (after all, the social and intellectual capital of any society rests on literacy, and on the literate having a catholic reading habit). Ignorance might keep you in power, but it also means you are in power over a financially weak and socially frail society.

So: what do you think? Is this bunkum, and reading is really distributed normally with the probability of those with an IQ of over 100 being more or less equal?

Is it Okay that men (or pick any other group) read less?

Is this about the money editors earn (Laura Miller's Pink Ghetto theory), or are there other forces at work? Given my own experience - being a writer is mostly terribly badly paid, with most editors living a secure, comfortable life compared to that, and that I would be livid if anyone said that should be any group's preserve, and it isn't. Or that some of the worst paying jobs in the qualified world are in field biology - as bad or worse than writing and far worse than editing (gee, my first direction before blundering into writing - do I detect a trend here?) and it's a very male dominated area (principally I think because it's dirty, physically hard, and badly paid. You really have to love it do do it. There are more women involved now... and oddly pay scales have improved along with that - so rather than getting worse because women are there, its getting better. Which is a good thing.) I can't say I believe pay can be the sole reason. It was a male dominated field once. I suspect careful analysis will show editors then were as screwed as they are now, relative to margins etc. So what other factors could be at work in the editorial gender imbalance? Is there one? Does it matter?

Doesn't diversity proportionate to your target audience make some kind sense - especially when diversity means getting the viewpoint of 50% of the possible audience? If I owned a publishing house aiming at generally accessible fiction it would make financial sense to me to not recruit an editorial board from same gender/ town/ orientation/color as I am. If I had little choice I'd aim for where my market was, surely? Ergo, if I were gay and Japanese, and wanted to only sell books to a gay Japanese market, it would make sense that my staff were gay and Japanese (or at least familiar with that group and culture). If I were trying to sell books to a more general audience, I'd want an editorial staff who at least knew a lot about other sectors, even if they did not have a physical representivity. New York is a very large city, (but still a tiny segment of the US, let alone English readers) but as a statistician the subsection its editors seem come from /live in is not. Is this part of the problem - like Hollywood assuming the world is just like Hollywood?

Leaving the occasional stupid sexist diatribes out (men are not too easily distracted by TV/video games, any more than women's brains explode if they try to read) are there any real concrete reasons why men could be reading less? (I can't say the gender of the writer is big issue with me, but the publishing date is!)

More questions than answers. Is this real, if so what should writers, readers and editors do about it?

Let the riot begin.


Mike said...

Really odd thought... how much did Playboy used to pay for stories? I will admit that "I only read it for the stories" was always a bit lame, but on the other hand, I can't see the publisher paying those kinds of rates unless someone was reading them? So if there was (apparently) a readership that paid for those stories, did it disappear somewhere -- or is it in hiding, gleefully reading something else?

C Kelsey said...

Here in the US, if there truly is a gender gap in reading I'd say start looking at the education. The US school system goes to great length to define what is good to read and what isn't. In then forces everyone to read what some degenerate out there has labelled "good". Most of it is intensely boring. So if men aren't reading, perhaps they were forced to learn that it is generally boring while TV and video games are *right there*. They're also much easier and generally not boring.

Jim McCoy said...

I'm not sure how true this is. Most of the people that I know that like to read are men. I'd like to see some real proof of this. Entire sections of book stores are devoted to things like sports, SF/Fantasy and history, any of which CAN be enjoyed by women but all of which are more popular among men. I think that the article you posted is probably just bunk.

matapam said...

Humm, tons of hypotheses, no data apart from my one research subject, and myself. My husband is a very active reader of SF/F/Thrillers and action.

Hypothesis(1) Computers and computer games have cut into his reading time. I wasn't affected, as I had no interest in shooting, explosions and so forth as light entertainment. Once I started finding social interaction sites, my time started getting eaten by the electronic monster.

If there was ever a gap, I suspect it has closed up. To the detriment of reading fiction.

(2)Tom listens to audiobooks while commuting. I think the reading aloud is slower than his normal reading speed, slowing his intake. He works on computers for a good part of the day. Occasionally has eye-strain to the point of central vision whiteout. Reading e-books isn't going to happen.

(3)With financial instability, he's been working more hours than usual, again cutting back reading time. I think this is getting common. If you've got a job, you work your ass off. If you're unemployed, you hit the library.

How to use these ideas, assuming they sound reasonable?
When the quality of print-to-voice is good enough, commuters will become another target e-book customer group.Keeping you name in front of them with occasional audiobook releases is probably a good idea.

Generous sample sizes, so those on a limited budget can avoid wasting money on a book they don't want.

Game and video tie-ins. Or add ons. Any one know any game writers? Options in characters of favorite novel heroes and bad guys could be fun.

Will CGI get sophisticated enough for non-programmers to use to make short movies?

This is all the sort of tech that could pop up tomorrow, or never. And might do more harm than good if it did.

Anonymous said...

I read a statistic once that quoted that 60% of the total books published in the world qualified as romance books. These are largely read by women. It wouldn't therefore surprise me that more women than men read though I don't know that it's true.

I would think marketing would be an extremely important factor in publishing success. If, as with romance, your market is women, you don't need a huge ratio of the total number of women to be financially successful. If, however, your market is men, you are going to need a larger ratio of men if indeed there are fewer men reading.

I don't know if all of this is true, but I do know that, were I a publisher, I would make it my business as much as possible to find out who was reading what.

Steve reads a lot but stays within a fairly confined area of material which includes, military, historical, and hard science fiction with some non-fiction of these genres thrown in. I actually have a wider interest in my reading which includes fantasy, science fiction, mystery, mainstream, and non-fiction of various subjects.

This reminds me of another statistic I read which involves children's writing. It said that while girls will read books/stories featuring boy main characters, boys will not (on the whole) read books/stories featuring girl main characters. Does this mean that an author would have a harder time finding a publisher for her books featuring a girl rather than if it featured a boy?

These are all things to think about. It boggles my mind, so I've decided to write the stories I can and go from there.

Linda Davis ::off to take Tylenol::

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Linda brought up the point I was going to make.

60% of the book market is romance. I don't know what percentage of men read romance, but it is not going to be 30%.

Romance Market Share Compared to Other Genres (RWAmerica)
(source: Simba Information estimates)

* Romance fiction: $1.37 billion in estimated revenue for 2008
Religion/inspirational: $800 million
Mystery: $668 million
Science fiction/fantasy: $551 million
Classic literary fiction: $446 million

Our genre is about about 13% (from memory, unless you want to do the maths). Even if the rest of the genre market is 50/50 by gender. Statistically, more women are reading than men.

Maybe we need a new genre that is the equivalent of romance for males. Bromance?????

That's guy buddy stories. Again, not something I see becoming really big.

C Kelsey said...


The closest were going to get for romance for men is Monster Hunter International... Low-grade romance overshadowed by lots of BOOM. Urban Fantasy, male style.

Seriously, I went into several book stores this weekend and did some research on how fantasy, urban fantasy, and romance were all marketed. For all intents and purposes, the difference between urban fantasy and romance seems to be that the women do the fighting in urban fantasy.

Dave Freer said...

Mike - they used to pay a dollar a word - I know because JBU got one that had been contracted to them originally.

Dave Freer said...

C Kelsey - now that IS established, in both the US and UK. In both countries University graduation (and enrollment) has been skewed to female for - I think it is 16 years in the UK. Of course it varies by subject, with 'hard' sciences still under seige as being male dominated bastions. It's sort of bizarre to me that a university which has 70 + % female students should have students complaining how sexist engineering / physics are. Does logic not apply? And yes, I do believe there is a strong correlation between reading and education, tertiary especially.

Dave Freer said...

Jim - I think it was fluff article, which owed more to PC and a wanting to stir a bit than research. Mind you I do suspect that men are reading less FICTION than they used to.

Kate said...

Here's a random thought: send a bunch of guys into a bookstore. Get them to note what interests them. Repeat with a bunch of women who are - apart from gender - basically the same demographic etc. Examine the differences.

My guess? There'll be a lot more in there that women find interesting, especially in the fiction section.

We won't even go into the morons who use reading as a punishment.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - audiobooks count as reading IMO.
1) May be true - but it's a reason for competing for that space - both with new and lapsed readers. Not just 'that's okay then' - unless (and I am NOT referring to your husband - but to the society in general - of which I suspect he is not really typical) you believe a lower level of reading in half of humanity is acceptable.

Dave Freer said...

Linda: Podkayne of Mars. Boys will read girl leads if they are done right. Seriously, it's a major issue, and if it means more 'boys'orientated books need to get written in order to make sure that market segment isn't lost, maybe we need to grasp that nettle.

Romance: According to the RWA stats 20% of their readers are male. But it still doesn't answer the question. If romance can do it for the woman's fiction reading market... what do we need more of to offer the men to get them reading?

Hope you're feeling better

Dave Freer said...

Rowena -RWA cites it as 20%. Mildly curious - how many openly male (and hetrosexual, writing what would be considered normal romance) romance authors can you name? And how many male romance editors are there? How many male lead POV romances are there? Curiously, 20% would have been a good guess at female sf readers in 1960 - when all editors and authors at least appeared to be male. Just a thought.

Dave Freer said...

Kate - the terrifying part is that no-one seems even vaguely interested in finding out. Or they seem to consider Okay or even good that some people who could be reading, don't. It's the equivalent of a major brand of say noodles discovering that most women won't buy their brand (but men will)and not trying to find out why.

We'd better NOT go into idiots who make reading a punishment. grrrr.

Mike said...

Just for fun:

Amazon bestsellers books top 10 as of 10:37 AM JST

1. Dead in the family Sookie Stackhouse
2. The girl who kicked the Hornets Nest
3. The girl with the Dragon tattoo
4. The real George Washington
5. Spoken from the heart
6. The girl who played with fire
7. The help
8. The red pyramid
9. The big short: inside the doomsday machine
10. The short second wife of bree tanner

Two of those -- the red pyramid and the big short -- look as if they're aimed at male audiences? Although one is YA, I guess.

The Kindle store top 10

1. Breach of trust
2. Proper pursuit, a
3. Tender graces
4. Prayer
5. Light of Eidon
7. Sheet music
8. Coulter's wife
9. The girl with the Dragon tattoo
10. A promise to remember

Interesting. These seem to be mostly aimed at female audiences?

Anyone want to check the top 100? Real live statistical data...

matapam said...


I think the advent of electronic gaming and social networking has taken up the time and reduced reading across the board. If there is a gender gap, I suspect that taking full time employment into account would account for it. I think it is simply a matter of loosing available time. And I really hate to see that in the already avid reader sub-population. It probably interferes with developing a reading habit in youngsters as well. Between the horrible things they're forced to read and the latest Half-Life Game, the book loses.

Audio books for drivers, and easy to handle in the train e-books for other commuters take advantage of bits of time that can be double tasked, so to speak. But I think it's the avid readers that go for it, not the tepid, couple of books a year reader.

IMO, reading engages the brain in an entirely different way than other media. Not unlike a movie, perhaps, but writing has much more depth, for instance in showing the feelings and inner thoughts of the POV characters, as well as a more complex plot. More details of background . . . A book pulls the reader in, revs up the reader's imagination to fill in holes and visualize scenes and characters. To a very large extent the reader is an active participant, not a blank minded, passive movie viewer.

A widespread drop in frequent readers is a loss to the human race, IMO.

All of which fails to address the point of your post. How do we rope in this potential pool of readers? What do men want to read? What works to get them to pull a book off the shelf and read that beautifully crafted Hook?

Lois Bujold claims that the best selling Fantasies are written by men, with the main protagonist male. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Jim Butcher. Yet I look at Amazon's best sellers and see sex-and-gore-vampires with romantic-horror themes.

Perhaps men aren't reading as much as they used to because one of their main he-man genres has gone nasty?

I think if you want to attract men, you're going to have to drop the Nice Sensitive Hero, and return to Conan the Barbarian invincibility in the main male character, and the MMC has to be the clear central character and the winner in the end. No saved by the clever girl friend endings.

Synova said...

My first thought was, that if I were pulling numbers from my rear, that if more women read it's because women read romance. Apparently that was the first thought of others here as well.

I'm not dissing romance, because I certainly have days when what I need is something I don't need to think about (this is not a bad thing) that is fun and engaging... which sex tends to be.

I think that men really are more visual that way and would rather watch something.

So. I suppose that what I'm suggesting is that we probably ought to take the romance genre out of our figuring for the most part when we compare men's reading to women's reading habits.

If we only consider other genres, what are the numbers like? I would actually be surprised to find that men read less than women do.

And I'm all in favor of invincible Conan type male heroes. (Note to self - make a note to self.)

I just read something oldish... oh, right... Poul Anderson - Agent to the Stars or something like that. The copyright list for the collection of short stories ranged from 1951 to 1967 or so. The treatment of women was actually not bad at all. Bravo, Poul! But the hero was actually a little odd for modern sensibilities, because being single was a lofty goal and staying single seemed a sort of primary attribute of the guy that made him so awesome.

I've known too many real-life men in complete spinsterhood panic to think that it's not realistic for any biological creature to be spending a good deal of mental energy looking for a mate.

Still, it could be that men don't want to read about it.

heteromeles said...

Don't forget Terry Pratchett is right behind JK Rowling in the UK.

I think the problem is mis-framed.

Let's start by assuming the opposite: men aren't reading less than women.

What would they be reading?

Stuff that isn't tracked by major publishers.

What could this be?
--Pirated material as eBooks.
--Self puiblished non-fiction (a nice niche for technical writers)

Ummm, this looks like a better hypothesis than that men are reading less.

I'd suggest that men are simply exiting the traditional publishing world, and we're only seeing their absence because we don't have the tools to track them.

That's a problem if we want them to read our published books. Conversely,if we just want them to read, there are other ways to reach them. Well, us really, since I'm male. But I'm atypical. I like books.

Anthony J Langford said...

Very interesting article/discussion. It's almost the old chicken and egg scenario. With the majority of writers/agents/publishers being women, are they merely catering for themselves? The old self fulfilling prophecy. Publishers primarily wanting their own experiences reflected back on them... If we had more equality in publishing houses, then perhaps we might get more books for men and god forbid, more might read.

I'm sure women do read more, but the balance seems to be tipped 75/25% in my humble opinion. Go into any bookstore, look at the New Releases and count up how many are written by men. Roughly a quarter.

I'd like to see a more 60/40 balance.

Dave Freer said...

Mike - I need a few extra persona, who do not sleep (or eat, need feeding etc) just to keep up with my life now... without counting the top 100. But the top 10 do sound a little slanted don't they?

Dave Freer said...

"IMO, reading engages the brain in an entirely different way than other media"

YES. YES! I agree with you absolutely on this. I'll go further and say fiction engages brain in ways that nothing else does, and is vital for the development of empathy. It trains the mind to put itself in the position of someone else (just among the other things it does which are NOT duplicated elsewhere). As such it is everyone's interest to get people reading.

Dave Freer said...

Synova - speaking as an ordinary hetrosexual male :-)I can quite understand why men would prefer something visual and women might not! (we're - many of us men, not much to look at) I recall Nancy Mitford's hilarious, accurate but unflattering description of the bit that gets euphemised into 'throbbing manhood' in bodice ripper romances.:-) Definitely best not visualised!

I'm probably a fairly poor example of typical male, but you are dead right that this particular man wanted kids, let alone a mate. I enjoy a romance aspect to my choice of books, and I really don't mind if the lead is male or female (Schmitz's Nile Etland is one of my favorite heroic characters - as a type of HUMAN not gender. She's tough, but thinks. I like that more than Conan-bash-em). Actually one of my favorite lead charaters is the Heroine of 'Red Adam's Lady' - a historical romance - which I reckon almost all male readers would love. She's a feisty lass, clever, tough, sarcastic, sharp tongued, and yet principalled and caring, and totally in trouble, and I am so completely on her side from very early in the book. So again, I guess it is a case of HOW it is done, not that it is done.

Dave Freer said...

Heteromeles - actually maybe we just need to know what is going on, before shouting the odds. I'd actually be less hassled (as a human being not a publisher) if I believed they were really just flying under the radar. TP is of course read by both genders, as Rowlings. I don't think Twilight is much ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Anthony - "With the majority of writers/agents/publishers being women, are they merely catering for themselves?"

I don't think it is so much catering to themselves, but lacking in any tools - besides their experience and 'gut feel' as to what mght sell well. Which is why having most editors of a certain age/ background/ ethnicity/ gender / geographical area / educational experience (how many are not liberal arts grads - from the same colleges?)... only makes sense if your target market is exactly the same as they are. But it is quite a closed environment, it seems. if you wanted to sell military fiction to vets then a retired Colonel from Texas might make a very good aquiring editor. But chances are if I suggested to any management board that he'd make a good aquiring editor for a list of general fiction... they'd want to know what he knew about romance, big cities or life as a civilian. Odd that the converse does not seem to apply.

One of the frequent diatribes by the sort of female and unsuccessful author is that men sell more than women, and feature on the bestseller lists more often Well, I don't know. Never checked the stats. But I suppose if the percentages are skewed - then, duh, if people read by gender (I don't) obviously having less men will make those who are there do better. Interesting idea.

Mike said...

Seems as if we've got a couple of notions in here. First, that perhaps there are more fields of reading than the publishers are tracking -- if people are reading blogs and such, it isn't going to show up in the publishing stats, but that doesn't mean people aren't reading. Second, there's different kinds of reading -- reading programming manuals or non-fiction or news just isn't quite the same as reading fiction (and even in fiction, I'm not sure that reading SF&F is the same as reading mysteries or romances or thrillers... reading protocols?).

Synova said...

I bought two writing magazines this last week. One was Writer's Digest, IIRC, and the other was Writer Somethingorother which I don't remember without going to check. It was more geared to magazine and freelance writing than WD.

I did look at the contributer's bio page at the front of each of them.

The WD had one male among the women contributers. It might have even been the editor. (Again, I'd have to check.)

The other didn't have a single male person on that page. I would have thought that it would have, but it didn't. I think it had an article about a male writer... I think. But there weren't any men on that bio page at the front.

Just a data point.

DK said...

It's not really worth using this article as a guide peg for discussion if the Salon writer couldn't be bothered to research his central claim.

Further, framing the "male reader" as an unintellectual war porn enthusiast isn't helpful or even accurate. Does anyone have any data backing up this assumption that men don't read (fiction)?

Dave Freer said...

Synova, I find the writer's digenst one quite alarming. I really don't want a return to the all-male dominance, but I'd prefer us to learn that single group dominance was a bad idea, than to keep repeating the pattern.

Dave Freer said...

DK - I think that's where I started: saying the issue really needs decent research, and that it's important to dissect out myth and too broad a generalisation here, from any real trends - if they exist.

Jo Thomas said...

With respect to the Romance genre (sorry to take you all back there, folks), have you looked at what quantities of what length manuscripts are being published. For example, when I want a quick fix with a happy end, I pick up a Mills&Boon (Harlequin) run-of-the-mill book. They're only 50,000 words and I read do that in a couple of hours or so. What percentage of the romance sales and therefore the books sales total are these type of books? How many genres (including mainstream) offer that kind of read so readily? I know there are short novels, novellas and novellettes out there but they're not as easy to find or buy for the average browser (rather than knowledgable consumer).

Synova said...

Many Westerns are short, too. And golden age SF, the thing of 13 year old boys, was mostly in the 50k range, wasn't it?

There really are a lot of variables that could be studied. Are men more likely to pick up a 50K novel or a 100K novel?

matapam said...

And are woman equally likely to?

Perhaps part of the problem is bloated books that cost so much and take so long for the same plot resolution reward?

Some how I doubt we could talk a print publisher into trying half-sized books for half the price, but it might make an interesting e-book experiment.

From the writer's POV this would be nice for the writers with tons of ideas who labor to bulk up books to their publisher's requirements. Much more fun to start a new story than trying to shoehorn in enough inane subplots, add descriptions and drag out the dialog.

Synova said...

How well does the Grantville Gazette do? Or the Kzin books, or Chicks?

Dave Freer said...

Jo Thomas - that's a really good point. I have a lot of 60's and earlier sf, and a lot of it must be 50K words - as with the Louis L'amour earlier books. Now books suffered from bloat - Don't submit unless you are over 90k (which I think is a stupid mistake - a book is really as long as the story is.) And, if we're talking about short attention spans - well surely fast moving 50K books are going to be better. I have a feeling the big push to push length came from publishers when they pushing the prices up - a way of getting more bag for the reader's buck without really costing the publisher much (as they now say paper costs - the excuse then for pushing prices - is about 10% of the cover cost. Now, with e-books it is necessary to suddenly say this a minor component. Needless to say authors do not (except for shorts) get paid per word, although it has a huge effect on output. The Heirs books at 200-280 K take me as long as 4 100 K books and burn me out badly. They earn the same as 100K books do.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - definitely worth an e-book trial, even at a much lower price, because it is far less difficult to write novella length work (for me anyway).

Dave Freer said...

Synova - Grantville does quite well - Not sure about the others. But without correcting for distribution the figures really aren't comparible. Sadly I think, however that THAT is section of the market that has been lost - the guy-equivalent of the quick-fix mills and boon (and I am not dissing this segment. I think it is important to our trade, and our society.) To recapture a lost part ofthe market? Eish. That I think is hard, because customers who have moved on from your product for whatever reason, are usually reluctant to go back. We might do better just to start focussing on juvenile/YA and providing this kind of reading. And I find this irritating as heck, because I believe shorts are really where writers ought to hone their skills. But it is a very small, weak market.

Anthony J Langford said...

I'd love to see novellas more readily available. I've just written one that's 32K (for adults) and my last novel was 60K. Dave is right. It takes time to develop the skill to make the story succint. Too many overblown novels now. And theyre a chore to get through.
Even as a reader I would buy novellas. Surely in this time strapped age they could be brought back? And not just for YA?