Is the 80-20 female-male fiction ratio just the Snark?

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

Not a button, or feather, or mark,

By which they could tell that they stood on the ground

Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

While writing a post on three books by female authors I’ve read recently, I tried to track down exactly where the oft-asserted figure of “80 per cent of fiction is read by women” comes from. I haven’t been able to.

Which is odd,?because it does seem to be an established belief. People quote it pretty loosely (I’ve done so myself, and often) – but no-one ever sources it.


Here’s some links I found while trying to find this particular literary Snark:

– a 1998 Princeton paper on called “Why Do More Women Read Fiction?” ?I’ve not read the whole thing, but even the title seems a bit lazily suggestive. Presumably it means “more women read fiction than men.” But it could also mean “women read fiction more than non-fiction,” which would be something very different.

– a?2006 blogpost?with a link which no longer works to a dissertation that apparently said: “Women are more likely to read fiction and borrow from libraries than men.”

– an old?Ian McEwan thing?in the Guardian in which he tried to give away books in the street, and the only takers were women. From which he draws possibly exaggerated conclusions.

– an?NPR story?which says “men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain”, but then doesn’t say what that means or link to any surveys. Gah!

– a really interesting study into the so-called “literary gap” between men and women, which looks at empathy, education and social factors – and is also unable to track down the source for this “80-20” assertion

– A pretty good Guardian summary of the spat earlier this year which pitted Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult on one side – arguing that review pages were dominated by books by white male authors – and Teddy Wayne on the other, who claimed that male authors were at a financial disadvantage because, yes, you guessed it, 80 percent of fiction is bought by women. Wayne linked to some places in support of his assertion. But hang on: do they assert anything of the kind?

First up is a mid-2011 report from the Book Industry Studies Group on Consumer Attitudes to E-Book reading, reported on by Tomorrow’s Book, which says:

The BISG says most eBook power buyers — that is, someone buying an eBook at least once a week — are by and large women (some 66 percent), who mostly buy fiction. Out of the entire eBook market, power buyers make just 18 percent of all buyers, but they buy 61 percent of the eBooks.

Where’s the 80-20 rule then? Not here.

The second of Wayne’s links is a Seattle Times piece from September 2010 by Mary Ann Gunwin. She quotes a report from Bowker, which says this:

Women make 64 percent of all book purchases, even among detective stories and thrillers, where they buy more than 60 percent of that genre.

80-20? Not here, guv.

In other words, I’ve not been able to find the source for this oft-quoted stat. Does anyone know where it can be found?

Reading Girls: Jubilee, by Shelley Harris

It’s sadly true to say that I read a lot more books by men than books by women. This is probably the case for a lot of men, and it’s an interesting and to my mind relatively unexplored phenomenon. I don’t know what my personal ratio is, but it’s probably something like eight books by men to two books by women.

Which is sort of interesting, because according to the oft-asserted wisdom, 80 per cent of fiction readers are female (see this related post for more thoughts on this possibly fictional statistic).

I’ve read three very fine novels by female authors in the last few months. Two I’ve already written about on this site: Girl Reading by Katie Ward (whose title I plundered for this post), and The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. The third, which I finished last night, was Jubilee?by Shelley Harris.

Full disclosure: I met Shelley at a literary dinner in Windsor earlier this year and liked her very much, and she bought my book and asked me to sign it, so I felt I should buy her book and ask her to sign it, which is probably a bit naff, but there you are. Then my wife read Jubilee before me, liked it, and then I got my hands on it.

And I liked it.?A lot.

Brief synopsis: Jubilee tells the story of a group of people whose photograph was taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. The novel describes the events which precede the taking of the photo and the ripples they create through to the present day. The central character, Satish, is a Ugandan Asian whose family escaped Idi Amin and moved to England, and who in the present day is a successful doctor. Back in 1977, he’s a a gawky pre-teen living in a family trying to carve out an identity for itself in a country, England, which has yet to come to think of itself as “multicultural”.

The book’s full of delightful nostalgia for the period, which directly appealed to me because I reckon Satish and I are exactly the same age. But it’s also got horrors in it, and here’s where we come to “reading girls”, because the horrors Shelley puts in her book are of a kind which I think a man would struggle to write. One character in particular is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch. But Shelley draws her bitchiness in a way which doesn’t judge it, and I think a man would struggle not to judge a character who behaves so badly.

Shelley is deft and skilful in suggesting a world of fierce emotions bubbling beneath the surface of a dinner table. A bowl of coronation chicken can become astonishingly significant. She describes the world of cooking, of kitchen conversation, of families coming together with a warmth and a depth of realism which I’d struggle with myself and which, I think, would be unusual in a book by a male author.

Not all male authors, of course. I think Ian McEwan is particularly good at this kind of stuff, which is perhaps why he’s so successful in a market now allegedly?dominated by female readers (and why Martin Amis, perhaps, has gone off the boil a bit). The book I’ve read most recently by a male author which comes closest to what Shelley has pulled off here is Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, which is equally brilliant and also successfully conveys deep horrors dancing beneath the surfaces of domestic life (although, in Will’s case, it’s a particularly male, obsessive-compulsive sort of domesticity).

But even those books by male authors have less of the warmth of Shelley’s book, and maybe that’s where the difference lies. I detected a similar warmth and appealing sensibility in Girl Reading by Katie Ward, whose title I garbled for this blog post. Like Shelley’s book, Katie has enormous sympathy for her characters, such that one’s judgement is always suspended and one is forced to listen to them and try to understand them. Be more like a woman and less like a man. Katie’s book spans historical, literary and science fiction and is fiercely ambitious, but the female characters at the heart of the book are all drawn from enormous wells of compassion and sympathy. To repeat: I’m not sure many male authors have access to those wells.

The third book I wanted to add in here is?The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. Again, bad things happen and there are bad people doing them, and Essie’s story has extremities that are pretty Gothic in their intensity (in a?good way, mind). When I wrote about it, I said this:

More than that, this was the most intensely feminine story I?ve read in a long time. Essie describes the physical sense of being a woman really, really well. She describes clothing, washing, eating, sleeping and other more intimate stuff in ways which I think a man could never manage, and it left me with a real sense that Phoebe was living and breathing.

That’s another aspect of Reading Girls, I think. Female characters in books by male authors are often totems rather than individuals. My favourite character in any book is Isabel Archer in?The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and Isabel is the totemic totem, the character who is mysterious and downright infuriating even to her own creator. So to read a book by a woman is to have women described without that pervasive air of mystery, and Essie’s book in particular is very good at that.

I don’t really have a conclusion, or a point to make, other than this: if it is an effort for men to pick up and read books by women, it’s an effort that’s almost always worth the candle. It’s a patronising truism to say men don’t understand women, but it’s also at least partly true. Reading a good book by a skilled female writer at least makes our ignorance a little less wilful.


Give it away give it away give it away now

What’s the best thing an author can do to promote their work? I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit, prompted by the realisation that the Facebook Page I set up as an “author” page was a complete waste of time (or, I was doing it wrong, which is quite possible). Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list of things an author can do, as opposed to anything a publisher or agent can do, to get their book into the public mind:

  • write something that people want to read (see, for instance, my post on Fifty Shades of Grey)
  • get well-known authors and celebrities you might know to say they like it (difficult if you’re starting out and don’t know anybody)
  • get onto Twitter (essential, I think, or at least it is for me – a public platform where you’re visibly active and easily available)
  • write a blog (as opposed to just “having a website”, a blog which is updated often has more chance of attracting links from other places)
  • attend events (something I’m trying to do a ?lot more of, and am getting better at)
  • have a pitch (again, something I’m trying to do better, and something I was rubbish at. It’s vital to know what your book’s about, know how to describe it succinctly, and know how to make it sound exciting)
  • give away copies, personally

It’s the last one I’m thinking about today. I’ve given away quite a few of my complimentary author copies of The English Monster, and am beginning to think this method might be one of the most productive things an author can do, in the long term?

Why? Because it puts the book into people’s hands. And if they read it (a big if, still), and if they?like it (an even bigger if) you’ve just sent an advocate for your work out into the world.

Buzz, word of mouth, whatever you want to call it, these are the things which make a book live over time. I’m convinced of it. Amazon recommendation algorithms, front-of-store positions and all the other dark retail arts are essential, but in an oddly indirect way; they simply serve to make more advocates possible, by virtue of more books being sold.

If your book’s good, and if you have confidence in it, my recommendation is to give it away, personally and with a signature and with thanks. And build out your army of advocates.

PS: This is?not the same as demanding your book be heavily discounted on Amazon or elsewhere. That may help, again by putting it into people’s hands. And it will happen anyway. The author can’t do much about it. But he or she can give their book away, to the right people at the right time and in the right way.

PPS: If I’ve given you a copy of my book, it’s not because I’m a cynical bastard exploiting your propensity to be nice to me. It’s because I wanted to. All I’m saying here is that this has nice, long-term effects. I love you. I really do.

Who is reading Fifty Shades of Grey?

I’m watching Twitter just now going a little mad at the latest sales figures for EL James’s?Fifty Shades of Grey.?It sold 400,000 copies in paperback last week. In fact, all three editions of the trilogy outsold the previous paperback sales record in the UK.

The word phenomenon gets batted around a lot, but this is now beyond a phenomenon. It’s a sensation, a wonder, a nonpareil. And it raises the interesting question: who on earth is?reading these books?

Presumably, she did not buy her own copy

I haven’t read them myself. The only person I know, anywhere, who’s read them is the book blogger and writer Isabel Costello, who had this to say about the experience:

By the time I finished the first chapter of E L James?s Fifty Shades of Grey, two things were clear: everything I?d heard about the writing was true, and it wasn?t going to be a long read. One of these was regrettable, the other a blessed relief. I?m not writing this piece as a Book Review because I?m not recommending this title as a good read. I wouldn?t be able to review it properly anyway because I have no context for it, as I don?t read romance, erotica or pornography.

Isabel is careful not to be sneery or rude or abusive in her analysis, but it’s pretty clear: she hated it. She thought it was terribly badly written, and a fair few of her commenters agreed with her. I thought it was particularly interesting that she said “I have no context for it.” Because that seems to be the problem?everyone is having with it.

But there, you see. I said?everyone. When what I meant was?everyone who reads a lot and writes about what they read.?This is presumably a rather small proportion of the population. We’re all trying desperately hard to be polite about Fifty Shades, but the two questions we should perhaps be asking ourselves are:

  • what has this woman written which seems to be so massively popular among so many people.?
  • who is reading these books?

Because if I don’t know anyone who’s read it apart from Isabel (who read it with her finger holding her nose), then presumably other people don’t know anyone who’s read it either. So who’s reading it? And why?

I don’t know the answer. I’m just struck by the fact that people aren’t asking the question. If EL James has found a way of putting words down on paper which a vast constituency of readers are determined to read, I think finding an answer to those two questions might be worth the candle. It might just be that publishing’s salvation might not lie in technology or new retail models or new forms of storytelling. It might just be about publishing stuff that a very large number of people are desperate to read.

Or, alternatively, we could just take the piss and hope the whole thing blows over.



Some disconnected thoughts on Waterstones and Amazon

Well, that caught everybody napping, didn’t it? A day after telling Robert McCrum that Waterstones would be “different” and “better” than Amazon when it came to selling digital books, Waterstones announces that it’s signed a “commercial agreement with Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) to launch new e-reading services and offer Kindle digital devices through its UK shops”.

Hey, Daunt? My gun's bigger than yours

Twitter this morning has erupted in a volcano of dismay, incomprehension and more than a little sarcasm. The words “suicide note” are being bandied around. And on the face of it the deal does look barking mad: plucky British bookseller puts its head in gigantic American lion’s mouth, instead of lying down on the plush sofa in the next cage.

Some random thoughts on all this:

  • Commenting on any deal like this is like shooting a pistol in a dark room. There’s an information imbalance here. If one assumes that neither Waterstones nor Amazon is run by reckless idiots with an appetite for self-immolation, one has to consider what the reasons for a deal like this would be. In fact, when a deal is this startlingly unexpected, one has to think even harder.
  • The Waterstones press release is short, lacking in detail and, perhaps, a bit rushed? One of my first thoughts was that perhaps this deal is a reaction to something else external to both Waterstones and Amazon. What could that be? Well, is Nook up to something (see below)? ?That’s the kind of thing that could have sent Waterstones scurrying into the arms of Amazon.
  • This is, paradoxically, a bet on the physical, by both companies. Waterstones is essentially saying it is happy to outsource much of its digital future to a third party, leaving it to concentrate on physical bookselling. Whatever you think of the intelligence of that move, you shouldn’t ignore the benefits of freeing up management headspace. Digital has been a huge distraction for Waterstones; arguably, it now won’t be. Again, I should say that doesn’t make this a smart move. But it might be a tick in the “pro” column. Also, some analysts in the U.S. have been saying that Amazon’s main weakness is its lack of a physical High Street presence; this is certainly the line Barnes and Noble has been peddling. Well, that problem is now sorted, in the UK at least.
  • So much remains to be made clear. I find it interesting that the press release refers to “new e-reading services”, which seems to be a careful phrase with lots of headroom. How then will Waterstones handle DRM? File formats? Buy one format, get the other free (presumably impossible without publisher buy-in)? Customer data? And, following on from that, community activities like highlighting and commenting and sharing – all of which sit within the Kindle data store? What are the “dedicated digital areas” in stores the press release mentions?
  • What is?Nook doing? Did it have a deal with Waterstones which was then dismissed? Was Waterstones using Nook to negotiate with Amazon? Is Nook talking directly to publishers about?direct digital distribution of their books?
  • Did WH Smith just become the most complete, vertically-integrated bookselling company in Britain? What does that mean for book retail, and for publishers?

Random thoughts, as I say. Will add to them as and when. But what do you?think?


Here’s the video Waterstones have put out with James Daunt discussing the deal. It doesn’t really answer any of the specific questions, but the emphasis is very much on the “reading experience”.


How we live now: Amazon reviews and sales figures

I was speaking recently to a clever chap who knows about things, and he told me of a self-published author he knows who has had a bit of code written which queries the Amazon API for regular daily sales figures and the latest reviews on her books. He told me that there was a direct?correlation on Amazon between a bad review hitting the system and the sales numbers; they dropped by 75 per cent immediately.

So this author does this: every time a bad review hits the bit of code she uses, she contacts one of her friends and asks them to write a five-star review. They do so, and hey, whaddya know? The sales go up again.

This, I must admit, made me feel a bit queasy.

Firstly, it made me wonder why publishers in Britain don’t have similar bits of code to this author, telling them in real time what’s going on; or, if they do, why they don’t seem to use this information particularly aggressively.

Secondly, it made me ask myself if I should be doing something similar to this: watching the reviews, and instantly responding to them by calling in favours.

Thirdly, it made me ask myself why I feel such a colossal reluctance to do anything like that.

Fourthly, it made me wonder at the value of Amazon reviews.

Fifthly, it made me wonder why I’m so horribly naive.

The tragedy of attention

Not Joni Mitchell

David Hepworth’s written a brutal and honest assessment of the difficulties anyone putting a record out just now has in getting the attention of “taste makers” who can propel it from almost-ran to hit. He has a particularly graphic way of illustrating these difficulties, which I’ll quote from here:

As I write this I have at my left hand a copy of Burning Spears 1976 album “Man In The Hills”. Ive actually only just heard this record. Until recently I never went further than “Marcus Garvey”. Anyway “Man In The Hills” is brutally good. ?I keep it close at hand as my Control Sample. Not far behind it is a copy of “Revolver” and Nick Lowes “The Old Magic”, both of which could easily be Control Samples.

The presence of the Control Sample means that I have to decide whether Id rather spend the next forty minutes of my life reaching a further level of intimacy with something I know is worth the investment or risk it on something untried from my huge great box of new stuff right, most of which, I have learned through experience, will never be fit to dust the shoes of those three great records. Thats why lots of the time the Control Sample wins.

via David Hepworths Blog: Record reviewing and the Control Sample.

I had three responses to this, as someone with a new thing out there (in my case, a novel) which needs the oxygen of attention to survive.

Response 1: AAARRGHHH. Because what this seems to describe is, if you like, a Tragedy of Attention; a world in which the recent cultural past silts up our appetite for “new stuff”, a world in which there isn’t in fact any “new stuff” at all, just spins on the “old stuff”, a world in which every new piece of heralded stuff?just kills the future. To repeat: AAARRGHHH.

Response 2: Hepworth is a man of gargantuan experience in the music industry, well into his fourth decade of responding to and writing about music. He is, without doubt, my favourite music writer (in fact, I sometimes think he’s my favourite writer, full stop). But I wonder if he also has a different attitude to new stuff because?of that experience. The fact is, he does have four decades-worth of fine music in his head, but a younger reviewer does not. So perhaps that possible younger viewer is not comparing, for instance, Laura Marling with Joni Mitchell. Perhaps, for them, Laura Marling is fresh and new and sparkling. Or at least, more potentially interesting as a “current” Joni Mitchell; our?Joni Mitchell.

Response 3: Despite being one of the most clued-up “old media” executives when it comes to thinking about the digital world, Hepworth is pretty much describing the old world of review opportunities in a limited number of outlets, when a decent review or a Record of the Week slot could make a career. Those slots are still essential and potentially career-making, but they’re no longer the whole story. There are more independent channels and there are more, far more, opportunies for word of mouth to be amplified. The English Monster, for instance, got a cracking?review in Londonist, the independent London blog. Is that more valuable than, say, a review in the Times? Almost certainly not, but it’s getting there. And meanwhile on Twitter people can say they love something and be retweeted and retweeted and be getting attention from tens of thousands of other people within minutes.

I’m not arguing with Hepworth – I would not presume. But I do think the world isn’t quite as brutal as he suggests.

But I’m also aware of the obvious comeback to this happy-clappy techno-utopia stuff: well, of course, I would?say that, wouldn’t I?

More parleying with pirates

Last week I wrote a thing for Guardian Books about my experiences talking to some people from the Mobilism website about book piracy – specifically, about why they thought it was OK to pirate my book, and therefore deprive me of income. I won’t recap the whole thing here, but suffice to say it went a bit nuts over the weekend, and the article is still being retweeted all over the place as I write this.

Because of the attention, quite a few people dropped me a note via this website, and said some quite interesting things in the process. They contacted me privately so I won’t reveal who they are or what they said, but I wanted to honour their intent. I firmly believe the greater the dialogue between the people who write books and the people who “pirate” them, the better.

But there’s one exception to that policy of keeping all the comments private. It was perhaps the most significant and controversial message I received. It was from someone who claimed to be the “owner of Mobilism”, the site where I’d first encountered all this piratical activity. The email address was “” and he asked me to keep any “correspondence” private. So I won’t publish what he sent to me. That’s a way of acknowledging his ownership of his words – see what I’m doing here?

I am, though, going to reproduce what I said in reply:

Hi – many thanks for that, very interesting, and you’re right, I should have emphasised that an author can ask for a title to be taken down. But then that begs the rather obvious question: why should they?

Under law, I own my content. I have licensed it to certain individuals and companies to be used in certain ways which I give permission to. The fact that I am now having a conversation with an anonymous person who has essentially (though indirectly) taken it upon themselves to change the economic basis on which I sell my goods is wrong, unworkable and will in the end lead to people like me doing something else with my time. I do believe that.

This, for me, is the essence of the matter. If I own something, I should be the one making the decisions on how it is exploited. By providing Mobilism, you have taken a good deal of power out of my hands. The decision not to provide the book for free, or very cheaply, may indeed be the wrong one – but it is mine to make, not yours, and not the users of your site.

I am using strong words to make myself clear, because I want you to understand how your activities make people like me feel: we feel emasculated. We feel we have created something that we want to distribute, and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t want to be lectured on marketing by people we have never met, nor ever will. We don’t want to be told we “don’t get it” – you are not saying this, I know, but some people responding to my article have said that. I do indeed “get it.” I have a better understanding of the economics of content than 99.9% of the users of Mobilism. I know what I am doing. And if I screw up, it will be my mistake.

I thank you for responding to me, and if you wish to keep this conversation private I will honour that wish. But I would say this runs very much counter to the principles you and Mobilism seek to profess, and I would like to put the exchange on my blog and keep this out in the open. But I will allow you to make the call on that – a courtesy which, I would point out, your site did not extend to me in the first instance.

Thanks for dropping me a line.

As you’ll see, I said I would allow him to make the call on publishing the email, but he never replied. So here we are. My response was rantier than I would have liked, but it was also heartfelt; whatever the rights and wrongs of the strategy behind free content and free promotion and pirated material, at the end of the day it should be the people who create the content who make the call on its distribution. I respect and support Cory Doctorow’s right to distribute his books for free, and I know why he does it. I’d expect him (as I’m sure he does) to respect my right not to do so, and to allow me to be wrong if that turns out to be the case.

Anyway, enough pirates. Back to writing books.

Photo from Flickr user evilnick, licensed under Creative Commons. This acknowledgment is called “respecting someone else’s copyright.”


Harkaway on books, ebooks and contexts

It’s the second reference to Nick Harkaway in a week on here, but what the hell, he’s got a book out this week (and bloody good it is too, judging by the first hundred pages).

Anyway, Nick’s jumped into the whole “ebook v. print” debate which some people wish would go away, others are making a whole living out of, and the rest of us find fascinating and satisfyingly controversial.

His point, in an excellent posting on Futurebook, is that ebooks are fine, but only when they find their right slot inside our personal cultures:

After a few years of enjoying and thinking about electronic books, paper still has a very specific place in my world – in fact, it has regained some ground. The depthless grey of my Kindle screen and the gloss brightness of the iPad or iPhone are fine and good, but they are not the hearth and home experience. For that, I want paper, with its grain and flexibility. I want to be able to manipulate pages in three dimensions, riffle through them, flick back. I want to be an ape with an object for a while, relax into my physical universe while my mind generates the world of the book.

via … everything looks like a nail… | FutureBook.

For myself, I’ve yet to be able to read my Kindle at bedtime and here’s the thing: I don’t know why. It just doesn’t feel right. I read my Kindle in the living room, on the bus, at the kitchen table: anywhere where portability matters and time is moderately fleeting. But bedtime is different; bedtime is for quiet reflection, surprisingly sharp concentration, and for unplugging oneself before sleep. So there, I’ve maybe answered my own question: that’s why I prefer a proper book. And as of right now, it’s Nick’s, even though it’s a heavy bloody thing and I wake up with sore wrists and a sizzling head in equal measure….