Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Guys don't buy books

I thought I could sling hyperbole with the best of 'em, but I was humbled when Daniela Rapp of St. Martin's Press looked around the room halfway through an SF Writer's Conference session called Creating A Book Out Of A Manuscript and remarked:

"I see a lot of guys here. But guys don't buy books."

Yow. This, I thought to myself, is a woman with a very different perspective than mine. And it's her job to know what she's talking about.

All the guys I know buy books, and read them. Okay, not all the guys I've ever met, but all the guys I'd call a friend -- even a Facebook friend! Even the guys I know who pay attention to sports also pay attention to books (sorry sports fans, personal blind spot there).

But Ms. Rapp wasn't the only one talking about women as the market that matters for books. Rebecca Oliver, an agent with William Morris Entertainment, said almost the same thing in a hallway conversation: since most books are sold to women, she remarked, "all books are ultimately women's books."

Statistics, please:

The press release for Bowker's 2008 report, 2008 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Report ($999 for single-use PDF!) says that "57% of book buyers are women" and "women purchase 65% of books sold in the U.S." (that's nearly two-thirds, or it was the last time I did the long-division). And "women made the majority of purchases in the paperback, hardcover and audio-book segments" though "men accounted for 55% of e-book purchases" (way to go, guys...).

A fascinating set of slides presented by Kelly Gallagher, also of Bowker, and apparently riffing off the same report, counts mystery/detective (34%) and romance (24%) genres as more than half of the fiction market. Women are 63% of all fiction buyers, 73% in general fiction, and (no surprise) 84% in romance fiction. The only genre category in which guys take the prize is science fiction, at 55%. When you start counting dollars spent, the numbers are even more skewed: women pay 71% of dollars spent on fiction.

What does that mean to an author who is also a man? Maybe not so much? Consider Grisham, King, Brown. Updike, Roth, Murakami. And my reading group. Membership fluctuates, but over our 11+ years we've been mostly women by a long stretch (for years I was the only guy) ... but two-thirds of the books we've read together were written by men. The book we just discussed last night was written by a woman in a man's voice (Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson).

What do you think? If you're a woman, does the fact that a book was written by a man make you less inclined to read it ... or more inclined ... and why? If you're a man, what proportion of the books you read are written by women, and how would you characterize the difference -- if you see any?


  1. I can't say I've ever paid any attention whatsoever to the gender of the author of the books I read. In fact, this is the first time I've given it any thought. Upon reflection, it looks like all of my favorite authors, as well as most of the one-offs I've read recently, have all been written by men. Part of that might be attributable to my own quirkiness, though; I have a hard time stomaching estrogen-laced "you're a woman so you know what I'm talking about" fiction/non-fiction/TV/conversations/anything.

  2. I wonder what the stats would look like if you pulled out the extremes -- the top-grossing 1% or so. It seems like the number most relevant to new or new-ish authors would the demographics of book buyers who read from the midlist, and those who take a chance on debut novels.

    I don't screen authors for gender on a conscious level -- although when I read a particularly bad gender portrayal, it does make me more conscious of the author's gender. For example, watching Naguib Mahfouz struggle with his own understanding of women in novel after novel is particularly distracting, despite his other virtues as an author.

    I do find that given the number of authors these days who can write interesting characters of all types, I have a lot less tolerance for those who can't seem to come to terms with half the species. I put up with a lot from authors who I can qualify as having produced Great Art For All Time....the more modern and less capital-g great an author is, the less room I have for them pretending that women are some kind of alien unwriteable Other, who either oddly don't appear at all, or only pop in as an ornament for domestic life.

  3. Interesting question. If someone asked me, I would say I hardly ever read books by men, but when I look at what's on my recently read or to-be-read shelf right now, there are three non-fiction and two fiction books by men, and four fiction books by women. Two of my favorite writers, Michael Cunningham and John Edgar Wideman, are men (not to mention my friend Steve Masover), but I think it matters that Cunningham is gay and Wideman is Black. I think I hardly ever read fiction by straight white men, and if I do, I usually regret it. I was about to write that I hardly ever read mysteries by men because they are usually too gory and procedural, but now I'm realizing that's not exactly true either - my favorite mystery writers include Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosely and Michael Nava. Again, Mosely and Nava aren't white and Nava is gay, but of the two mystery writers I compare myself to in query letters, one of them is Hillerman. So I would say, Steve, don't lose heart!