Which Way to the Ladies’ Library? Turns Out Even Reading Is Gendered

Book-reading cataloguer Goodreads made some waves when they recently released a study about the gender of a reader compared to the gender of the authors they typically read.

Lots of good data to chew on there: men and women read about the same number of books, collectively rate their Goodreads books at an average of 3.94, women read a lot more new fiction, and men write a lot more really long fiction (500+ pages).

Here’s a stat I stumbled over, though: in the first year of publication, 80% of a female author’s audience will be women; 50% of a male author’s audience will be women. Interesting….

Women authors’ books were also rated, on average, a teensy bit higher than male authored books (just by 0.1, though).

But the 50 most-read books for each gender fall on starkly gendered lines: Of the 50 books published in 2014 that were most read by men, 45 are written by men. Of the 50 books published in 2014 that were most read by women, 45 (46 if you count stealth J.K. Rowling, which you should) were written by women.

That’s the odd one, to me.

A lot of commenters jumped in with “well I never pick a book based on the author.” Assuming that is true, what may be going on here? I’m guessing there are quite a few factors:

  • gendered genre: it’s pretty well-understood that certain genres traditionally tilt to one gender or the other–romance is heavily read and written by women, while “literary” fiction and science fiction both heavily favor men. It stands to reason that these topics would pull the average one way or another.
  • cover design: there’s been some funny/interesting looks lately at the way a book cover is gendered when it goes through a publisher. This is intentional; they’re trying to attract an audience, so they market the book–typically by old and stereotypical methods–to whomever they think it will appeal to. But that also means that a book that both genders really may enjoy equally could get shunted in one direction or the other just because of which photo someone decided to put on the cover. Lots to think about there.
  • the “Oprah effect”: book clubs. From what I can tell, book clubs are overwhelmingly female, tend to pick new authors, and follow recommendations from talk show hosts like Oprah in order to find their next “it” topic. This may be having a powerful effect. (Sue Monk Kidd has said book clubs were the driving force behind her book, The Secret Life of Bees, becoming a best-seller.) The downside may be that book clubs try to pick a certain kind of book…most authors may not be able to harvest the “Oprah effect.”
  • maybe people really do like reading someone of their own gender; maybe they are, even subconsciously, actively selecting for a gendered read.

Personally, I find this kind of breakdown fascinating…and a little scary. I want to read a variety of backgrounds, so sometimes I do actively try to mix up my reading list and get a different genre, gender of author, etc. But there are times I’ve noticed that I’ve read a lot of books written by, say, white males in the 1950s. That’s not a bad thing, but it probably is flavoring my tastes and my writing voice.

But it also worries me as a writer: I’m interested in sci-fi–the male-dominated genre unpopular with book clubs. Uh-oh.

What do you think about the “gendering” of books? Is it an issue at all? Is it surprising?


Filed under Reading, writing

2 responses to “Which Way to the Ladies’ Library? Turns Out Even Reading Is Gendered

  1. Very thoughtful post about the gender issue in reading. I am particularly interested in gender issue in publishing, so I’m sharing this piece!

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