Three Taboos 1
1. The Missing Males
This is the first of three short pieces on new taboo subjects. And it’s something I first noticed on the last tour – an almost total absence of male readers in the audiences. The only men who turn up now are students or retirees. Anyone else is an anomaly. A talk with my New York agent confirms that there’s trouble ahead; in the USA males of working age have all but stopped reading fiction.
There’s a combination of culprits behind this. First, working hours are expanding, the lines blurred by our ability to carry our jobs around with us on devices.
Also, the traditional ‘guy with a book’ image has been replaced by ‘guy with an iPad’. Working males browse emails and subscription press sites while commuting. E-readers are partly responsible for wiping out mass market novels, with thrillers particularly suffering. More women are writing for women.
But this is no middle-aged-white-guy-moans-about-females diatribe; women writers are finally getting their due, and it’s been too long coming. In particular female thriller writers are proving something many of us already knew; they handle suspense magnificently.
When a great chunk of the market vanishes overnight there should be a conversation about it, but it’s tricky. The disappearance of male readers is a phenomenon that has nothing to do with sexual politics. It’s about time-poverty, multiple device technology, multi-platform market grabs, fragmented attention spans. It’s also about long-tail loyalty to certain authors’ careers ending. US publishing now is largely dominated by debut authors, one-offs and multi-media stars.
It’s also harder to start reading again the longer you stay out of the loop. I have extremely well-read friends whose reading seized up about three years ago, when most of them purchased iPads. They own Kindles too, but these get little use.
How do we fix it? Where are the new Michael Crichtons and Robert Harrises? Can we revive mass market books? A new small-sized format could refresh fortunes by making the paperback something to carry around again. Margins are tighter on physically smaller books, but if hardbacks can become attractive objects of desire, so a new format could be a status symbol.