My friend Elizabeth Scanlon Thomas sent me this Salon piece and asked if I had any thoughts on the subject. Dudette, I got thoughts on every subject. So for the first time in YOU AND ME, DUPREE’s storied history, I guess this one’s by request. Be careful what you wish for: I think I’m going to wander a bit in search of illumination.
Do women read more books than men? Do little girls have more noses in books than little boys do? In general, yes, that’s correct, but that still doesn’t explain why machers in the book-publishing industry tend to be female, as the guy who tried to get the wrestling book past his editorial board learned. (Um, dude, female publisher Judith Regan did the first WWF autobios more than ten years ago, before that editor’s nephew could even read. I’m just sayin’.)
Once upon a time, book publishing was indeed an old-boy-network, in the days of Bennett Cerf, Alfred Knopf and the like. As in all other contemporary aspects of American business, the guys called the shots. They were the editors and agents as well. Partly this was because of the notion of the idyllic nuclear family: dad went to work, mom stayed home and kept house. World War II changed most everything, as (a) many women filled slots in the workplace left by departing soldiers, and (b) the book business transformed itself. We’re not sure exactly who made paperbacks a mass medium. Some say Allen Lane, who founded Penguin in 1935; some say the Pocket Books imprint, which came along in 1939; and I say Ian Ballantine, who, while in charge of getting Penguin titles into the U.S., helped stuff the pockets of GIs with free, easily portable books and created an actual demand when they returned home, now hooked on cheap reads. (As a dealer might say, the first taste is free!) And Ian was ready for them: in 1945, he co-founded his own company, Bantam Books. He once told me that he wanted his corporate symbol to be a bird which could tear the hell out of a penguin, and they don’t come much tougher than a bantam rooster. It’s important to note that back then, “pocket books,” which you probably know as “paperbacks” and the industry refers to as “mass market editions,” were exclusively reprints. The first “paperback original” didn’t appear until 1950.
In the meantime, women were moving up in the publishing ranks. They’d often migrated from the secretarial pool into the “subsidiary rights” department, which was responsible for selling the rights to publish translated editions, to serialize or excerpt in magazines, etc. It was comparatively rather clerical work, and the big shots couldn’t be bothered. But “sub rights” income gradually became more and more important to the decision of whether to buy a book at all, and if so, how much to guarantee the author. The women who ran these departments acquired “horse sense” – which is, after all, nothing more than experience, and they were negotiating every day – and they could read a P&L every bit as well as a man. This made the best of them ideally suited to join the next generation of publishers. Also, the industry did – and still does – attract very bright women fresh out of college clutching English or liberal arts degrees, whose boyfriends or spouses (if they were ever part of the picture, and increasingly they weren’t) might be considering law, medicine or finance. Such people had more post-grad study to do. The ladies could hop right in to the work force. This annual influx, now most assuredly of both genders, helps explain why book publishing salaries are notoriously low compared to other forms of entertainment: there’s a never-ending torrent of capable people willing to work cheap. Hey: it’s show biz.
By the time I got into book publishing, more than twenty years ago, this shift was not just under way, it was maturing. Women were the publishers at Warner (the president was a guy, but the title “publisher” was held by a woman), Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, NAL, Putnam, “little Random” (that’s the Random House imprint, as opposed to the massive conglomerate which owns dozens of other imprints as well), and more. In other words, your publisher was most likely to be a woman. At Warner, Bantam, Avon and HarperCollins, the four places of which I have any first-hand knowledge, the editorial staffs were each about 3 to 1 women. These days, there are probably more female literary agents than male: big ones like Suzanne Gluck and Lynn Nesbit are among the most powerful in the business.
OK, lots of chicks in this game. Now comes the big question: are they selling to mostly people of their gender?
There have always been plenty of independent bookstores in big cities, but not in the hinterlands. A smart guy named Harry Scherman, an adman, realized that the hinterlands may not have had booksellers, but they damn sure had post offices. For decades, a hefty chunk of hardcovers were sold through mail-order book clubs. The most prestigious was Scherman’s Book-Of-The-Month Club, which had half a million members by the end of WWII. Specialized clubs evolved for genre fans: science fiction, mystery, military, etc. BOMC sold the original trade edition and was thus the most expensive, but each club sent out a monthly catalog (later teased out to 13 times a year as business began to fall off) and employed Scherman’s brilliant, diabolical “negative option”: if you did nothing, you got that month’s main selection automatically – you had to mail a postcard back if you didn’t want it. Most of the genre clubs printed special hardcover editions to-order, all on the same presses and with the same trim size, and sold them at huge discounts. You might even have some on your shelves: on the front flap reads the legend, Book Club Edition. Libraries also subscribed to these clubs – toward the end, some of them existed only on library sales. At Doubleday, the most adept at selling this way, there was an active “Direct Marketing” department well into the Nineties.
Let’s pause here to note that genre fiction readers do tend to fall into predictable gender divides. There are plenty of exceptions to everything I’m about to say, but “hard science fiction” (i.e., firmly based on known science and then a “what-if?” idea inserted to upend it) has long been primarily read by males. Thus, the membership of Doubleday’s Science Fiction Book Club was predominantly guys for a very long time. Also note: when I refer to “science fiction,” I’m not counting the many media-tie-in books which rely upon previous familiarity with the source material and characters. Some people scoff at them, and I can’t really claim the high road here, since I supervised Bantam’s STAR WARS publishing program for five years. But that’s out there somewhere else: movie/TV fans are intergenderational. In the mystery field, “cozies” (think Miss Marple or MURDER, SHE WROTE) are enjoyed mostly by women, while “hard-boiled” noirish detective stories tip more to men. “Romances,” as you might expect, are titanically read by women – I’ve talked to a couple of male romance writers who use a female pseudonym, and they say the romance conventions are amazing! “Heroic fantasies,” a genre stated by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, were hugely male-dominated pre-teen power trips until a wave of Tolkien followers, some of them very talented female authors, reclaimed the forests and dells for distaff readers, and this trend continues today. Westerns, now usually called “historical novels,” have been in decline since Louis L’Amour died, but in their prime they were almost always read by men. These days, fantasy outsells science fiction (Harry Potter didn’t hurt), mystery probably tops them both when you add in “thrillers” and “police procedurals,” and romances are lapping the track while the others are still puffing along toward the first turn. There will always be fans of all these genres, but, once again, it’s the ladies who seem to be doing most of the buying. The latest turn, romance plus vampires, just cannot be stopped. “Paranormal romance” is the hottest thing going right now, whether you like it or not – because there are lots more people who do.
So why don’t you buy your hardcovers from Book-Of-The-Month Club any more? Attitude and convenience. There was a time when reading books, or at least having books in your home (once we publishers get your dough, we don’t care when, or even if, you actually curl up with your purchase) was considered an essential aspect of the cultured life. Can you remember when every department store – overwhelmingly marketing to Mom, mind – had little book sections, maybe with an easy chair and floor lamp to suggest how great these things would look in your house? Long gone, man.
Then there was the advent of megastores, led by Barnes & Noble (which kept flooding the country with mail-order catalogs during its great physical expansion). All of a sudden, there was a bookstore damn near everywhere – in the shopping mall or right next to it – and they were stocked with thousands of titles, many of them even discounted! The poor independent booksellers could only look on in horror; there was no way they could compete on price or scale, and their ranks have been decimated over the years (I’m using that term in the modern, not the Roman, sense: there are maybe a tenth of the peak-era independents still in business). If you’re lucky enough to live near a great independent store, like Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, my old haunt, for God’s sake shop there. But I’ll bet most of you won’t. Because now, it’s cheaper and almost laughably simple to order a book without even getting up from your desk. We’ll get to Amazon in a minute.
Have I strayed from the boy-vs-girl readership question? Not at all, grasshopper. The ubiquity of booksellers made the next phenomenon possible. Just as the movie industry is able to ring the cash-register bell by “opening wide,” or everywhere at once, so the book biz was now able to “lay down” a huge bestseller everywhere, discounted so you could afford it. The age of the “mass market hardcover” had arrived. Most were still sold to women, who devoured Judith Krantz and Danielle Steel and still do. But then came Tom Clancy. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was an eye-popping paperback sensation (Ronald Reagan’s blessing didn’t hurt), and henceforth the Clancy heat was in hardcover. Selling to men! Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, guys were buying their books too, but now they were grabbing hardcovers off the front tables of superstores, refusing to wait for the paperback! As we’ve recently seen with Harry Potter and the TWILIGHT books, when lightning strikes like this it creates its own category and spawns lots of imitators. Clancy became the king of “military fiction.” Scott Turow, and then John Grisham, pioneered “legal thrillers.” The important thing was, you could sell hardcovers to guys too, and not just business books like MEGATRENDS!
Before this, hardcover publication was meant to legitimize a book, get reviews, and goose the auction for the right to reprint in paperback a year later, which was how you made your real money. Some houses specialized in hardcovers (for each title, the acquisition, editing, publicity, etc.), others in reprints and paperback originals. But authors and agents started demanding “hard/soft deals,” meaning you had to line up a reprint partner early and pony up a much higher guarantee. The age-old hardcover/reprint scheme largely collapsed under its own weight. In the case of THE EXORCIST, for example, Bantam actually found itself retro-licensing the hardcover rights to Harper & Row. The reprinters began tentatively publishing hardcovers as well, so that the full contractual arrangement could be under their direct control. Early hard/soft hits from Chuck Yeager and Lee Iacocca tempted Bantam to expand its “trade” list, meaning both original hardcovers and “trade paperbacks,” or softcover titles that are sold by the “book trade” in real bookstores, as opposed to the identically trimmed thrill-genre mass-market books whirring on spinner racks in truckstops and midsize airports. (I joined Bantam toward the very end of this fascinating transformation.) Others quickly did likewise, and today no major New York publishing house, not even Simon & Schuster’s “Pocket Books” imprint!, is exclusively paperback.
The hardcover numbers kept – and keep – rising. THE HELP, a female-centric book if there ever was one, has already done about two million units, with no movie and no paperback. Look out below when the movie comes out. I was at Bantam when Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME just frickin refused to fall off the hardcover bestseller list. It was the DARK SIDE OF THE MOON of books. Admittedly, that’s a good problem to have if you must have problems, but we had to postpone the trade paperback reprint for season after season: when would we finally have to kill the golden goose? (I don’t know if you’ve read Prof. Hawking’s book, but as a good Bantam soldier I tried, several times, and it’s so far over my head that said head explodes when I survey its huge bestsellerdom. Did millions upon millions of geniuses suddenly appear in America – BTW, if so, where the hell did they all go, LOL? – or was this the kind of book you bought and proudly shelved but did not actually read, shades of BOMC?) Wal-Mart sells books: in fact, they’re one of the big publishers’ largest customers, a fact that will surprise only those snobs who don’t realize that the largest US wine retailer happens to be Costco. Wal-Mart sells mostly hardcovers, but only the ones they think will blow out in middle America. Do you find that déclassé? To me, anything that gets anyone to crack open a book is a net positive. As I used to tell my assistants and any other lowlifes who were somehow forced to hear me blather, reading the absolute worst book we publish is still healthier than the alternative: zoning out in front of a video screen.
Am I straying again? Aah, I caught ya dozing, you little minx! (I’m assuming you’re female because boys don’t read so much, right?) Anybody who peddles entertainment is competing for your leisure time, which by definition is finite. We used to claim that a paperback book was, dollar for dollar, hour for hour, your cheapest form of entertainment. We can’t say that any more. You can roll a movie on your honking big screen from HBO or Netflix, you can surf the Web “for free” (consult your ISP about that), you can stare for hours at video games, and if you do the math, it’s very likely hour-for-hour cheaper than enjoying a current mass-market paperback. That’s one reason the mass-market portion of the business is now imploding. “Mass-market hardcovers” have to poach from sales and distribution of the downstream reprinters. Twenty years ago, we used to load out a million copies of our monthly mass-market “leaders.” Now, all the action is on the hardcover list, except when there’s a movie or Oprah involved.
Books are not a zero-sum game, thank God. Cars are. When you choose a Toyota, every other automaker loses one potential sale. But if you march into a bookstore for the new Grisham, you might see something else and buy it impulsively. In fact, browsing aimlessly in a bookstore is one of life’s great pleasures. All the other authors are just glad you’re in the store. This is where Amazon, another group of smart people, has managed to dig down deep.
The reason you take the trouble to crank up your car, drive to an independent bookstore, and probably forgo a big-box discount, is that the store is staffed by well-read people. Shop there often enough, and they’ll begin to infer what you like from what you buy. Before long they’ll have some suggestions for you, little gems you’ve never heard of. This is called “hand-selling,” and B&N has never figured out how to do it on a massive scale. Amazon has come much closer, even online. When he was mulling his theoretical business, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos attended a workshop led by Richard Howorth, who owns Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi (yes, Virginia, there are at least two world-class independent bookstores in Mississippi!). Thus did a superb independent bookseller, then battling the Great Satan of the big-box superstore, give a hand to what turned out to be the next usurper. Amazon was more than just the “first mover” in online bookselling (perfect for the new medium because unlike jeans, you don’t have to try on or even touch a book before you’re ready to buy it). It has swatted away all comers, including B&N.com, because Amazon feels like an independent bookstore, only with superstore capacity. It simulates hand-selling by inviting customers to give their opinions, even negative ones. This isn’t yet as useful as being in a good indie store, because it takes random luck to direct yourself to a terrific book you’ve never heard of: since there’s no physical shelf, there’s no serendipity. But the algorithms which gamely try to do this for you, based on your previous purchases, are close enough for many people. And reading the comments helps reinforce what we’ve suspected all along, brought into the 21st century: there seem to be more women out there reading, or at least commenting.
More anecdotal evidence comes from the Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader. Disclaimer: any Kindle stats are suspect because they don’t necessarily reflect the marketplace at large – e-reader owners who did not get them from swag-bags are by definition more avid readers than most. But that would still presumably include a hefty chunk of the hooked-on-books market. And Kindle represents the ultimate lard-ass impulse opportunity. You don’t even have to turn your computer on, much less go to a bookstore, to be reading damn near any book you want in about one minute. (I’m referencing Kindle here because once again, the other e-readers are only playing catch-up. Even if you bought a fancy new iPad — good luck using it in the bright sun! – there’s an app which lets you buy and read through the Amazon Kindle store, which is far vaster than Apple’s.) I invite you to look at Amazon’s Kindle bestseller list. Click to refresh. Ignore any games and free public-domain or promotional copies: concentrate only on books which actually cost money. All book subjects and formats are now lumped together in one fairly volatile list. Notice what’s selling. In the e-age, the ladies are still the customers. (P.S. The previously linked list is dynamic. It changes constantly. You won’t see what I saw when I wrote this piece in May 2010. But no matter when you consult the list downstream, I’ll bet I’m still correct.)
E-readers have a built-in quasi-nihilistic coolness factor which might make them even more attractive than printed books to some wired-generation males. I sure hope so. Certainly they are a godsend to anybody who travels a lot and likes to read, and that includes guys. But remember: leisure time is finite. And as video games – which have already overtaken movies as profit centers; a blockbuster game takes in more money than a blockbuster movie, and every bit as quickly – continue to globalize and miniaturize, they siphon off more and more leisure hours from young males (by far their biggest demographic chunk). In short, now we are in a zero-sum proposition: when the d00dz are shootin’, they can’t be readin’. So the reading gender gap, from all I can see, is gradually growing even wider.
Reading for pleasure is a habit. I’m sure most of you are devoted readers, as am I. But if you’re like me, you’ve also gone through periods in which you burned through book after book, then one day something you read reminded you, “Jeez, I’ve never seen THE BICYCLE THIEF!” So you watch movies for a bit (nowadays you don’t need an art house to screen THE BICYCLE THIEF for you), or pay frontal-lobe attention to the new James McMurtry album instead of letting it go on uningested in the background, or, what the hell, maybe even murder a few orcs in WARCRAFT. It’s tough out there: the competition for your time is more intense than ever, and I think the resulting come-hithers are most seductive for young males, exactly the people the book biz needs to hang onto as the Harry Potter phenomenon fades away. Some folks wonder if books will fade away themselves. Don’t worry; they won’t. What I wonder instead is, will reading for pleasure fade away, or fall out of fashion? There’s but one army standing in the way, but it’s as formidable a force as has ever been mobilized. It alone can stave off the end of reading as fun. These are the selfsame ones who have been nurturing our love for books all along.
This force is called moms.
And Happy Mother’s Day to them all.