Where Did All The Male Readers Go?

Books

In the last few years, the book-reading and publishing demographic has radically changed.

In the press this week, Elisabeth Strout warned against the dangers of women writers dominating fiction as both authors and publishers. ‘We need to mix it up. I also wish there were more male readers of fiction.’

Overall, males are still ahead in the bestseller lists but there are fewer of them, and far fewer male authors read specifically by male readers. There remain a handful of traditional popular writers like Ken Follet, Bernard Cornwell, Wilbur Smith (still writing at 88) and Robert Harris, but this market segment has largely disappeared. The latest research is fairly clear; men between 20 and 50 no longer buy or borrow books in the UK. Does this mean that women’s lives are so leisurely they can kick back and read whenever they want?

Perhaps it’s the fault of the new burgeoning middle classes. The common man is no longer catered for. The paperback is no longer stuffed in the back pocket. The placing of the tongue between the teeth is all it takes to differentiate the classes.

The trouble is, no-one can fully make sense of the new data. I have yet to read a cogent argument that explains why men have stopped reading. Certainly there are more exclusively female books. Jojo Moyes and Sally Rooney are hardly drawing in males, and men stopped reading as working life became more intense and business social media took deeper bites from male leisure time.

It seems to me that the TV presenter Richard Osman hit a sweet spot by appealing to women with some crossover to men by virtue of his celebrity, but there are deeper changes. Males no longer care to read tales of ludicrous adventure in far-off places, but they’re not getting much that’s fresh and more relevant. Their mantra is; ‘Why should I read when I can watch?’ I’m currently reading David Sedaris because there’s no-one else quite like him.

Women readers are being offered a wider, more inclusive and appealing range of fiction. Plus, it helps that they form better emotional attachment to books. Whenever I do a signing, women will explain why they connect with a certain book of mine. On balance I have more female readers. To my husband the idea of reading about emotions is vomit-inducing. He doesn’t want to talk about emotions. He wants a book where spacemen fight an alien race. He’s university educated, one of the smartest people I know and formerly a voracious reader, but now he regards books as the equivalent of websites.

Is there any climb-back from this position? Yes, if publishers produce books with more male appeal, as they have done so brilliantly with women.

37 comments on “Where Did All The Male Readers Go?”

  1. MartinT says:

    I’m currently reading King Solomon’s Mines, an iconic male read? Not sure I’ll finish it though as the incessant animal slaughter is a bit strong for my 21st century sensibilities. So happy to read your continued thoughts here.

  2. Bob Low says:

    I’m not sure if there were ever that many dedicated male readers in the first place. I was lucky to have a dad who was an incessant and omnivorous reader, but it became increasingly obvious to me as I grew up that other members of the extended family – both male and female – saw this trait as slightly inexplicable, at best an eccentricity, at worst, as some kind of weakness. As far as my generation of the family goes, I am the youngest of three siblings, and my big brother -who left school with six Highers, all at ‘A’ grade, and is now a vet – has barely read any fiction for pleasure in his life. The American pulp fiction magazines of the first half of the 20th century had a largely male readership, but many of the writers for that market had few illusions as to the priority their public placed on reading itself. There’s a nice quotation from Robert Heinlein about this – he said that writers for these magazines were ‘in competition for Old Joe’s beer money, and Old Joe loves his beer!’

  3. Joan says:

    I think that women obviously think differently than men, and because of that connect easier with other women in their writing. I find myself I prefer a woman writer when dealing with emotion or romance. I can understand the author AJ Finn keeping his head down with The Woman in the Window, so much that a lot of readers didn’t realize it was a man. When reading mystery fiction it doesn’t matter to me who writes it, as long as it engages me.

  4. Paul+C says:

    A bookseller friend says women buy more fiction and men buy more non-fiction. I’ve certainly moved to more non-fiction as I’ve grown older. Wonder why ? My dad took me to the local library regularly as a lad and instilled a love of reading – I’m eternally grateful that he did. I read every day and can’t imagine not doing so.

  5. Joel Stein says:

    Here in the States, it’s difficult to find a male writer that writes like a man. Most of them pander to the women because they think that’s where the market is. Some even pose as women to sell their books, just as, women used to write under men’s names. I have stopped going to the local library because there are nothing but romances and self help books. I depend on old classics because I love to read. Christie, Steinbeck, Hemingway etc. Our bestseller list is one of the biggest culprits. Michener once said he couldn’t get published today because his books don’t fit the “profile”.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    There are a good many female authors writing and (having written) books which have universal appeal and more than a few with “men’s interests.” The mystery and crime genres, of course, come immediately to mind. The issue is less content, I would suggest, then it is, to a large extent still a matter of embedded sexism. The same persistent bias that saw the likes of  the Brontës,  Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (‘George Sand’), Mary Ann Evans (‘George Eliot’) and even J.K. Rowling (among many other women authors) adopt male noms de plume, or otherwise gender-ambiguous pseudonyms just to be published in certain genres — let alone read by men.

    With the exigencies and uncertainties post-Brexit facing an already risk-aversive UK mainstream publishing industry ( much the same without a Brexit factor in the US and elsewhere), it now has economic justification (or excuse) for this embedded bias. Why take a chance with a woman author in genre dominated by men ? Go with the surer option of a book with a distinct woman’s interest, which is more likely to sell well (or certainly better). This is further exacerbated by declining attention spans in general wrought by the incessant stream of information of all kinds pumped out via the internet which, with the exception of social media, tends to be significantly more consumed by men. Books require a degree of active attention and engagement and as evidence shows — men, in particular, immersed in this digital 24/7 torrent acquire self-inflicted attention deficits and become less capable of the quality attention that literacy requires.

    Fortunately thus far, women are taking up the slack by continuing to buy books, and novels especially, in high percentages. There is a strong social element to reading for women, while it is far more a private affair for men. This may also be a contributing factor to gender-related motivation. But reading in general has trended downward, with the exception of what is hopefully not an illusory or temporary tick up during the pandemic. Particularly worrisome, is the decline of reading for pleasure by children, who also spend less time doing it when they do pick up a book. And it only gets worse as they age. There is real concern that the ubiquity and continuous use of digital media is in fact beginning to rewire our neural pathways and especially those of children.The instant gratification it provides does little to encourage engagement with an extended piece of writing — regardless of an author’s gender.

  7. Joan says:

    Joel I am very sorry to hear about your library experience, I worked in a Library for 25 years and never found that to be the case. What bothers me more is that the young are so into the digital information of YouTube and that in my Grand Daughters case, she can give you all the famous movie quotes and scenes to match but has never watched the films. How sad is that?

  8. Peter T says:

    Is it acceptable in 2021 to distinguish authors and readers by their gender? If it is, then could some of the trend amongst authors be due to a degree of saturation in male authored fiction; that is, much of the ground has been covered, leaving little opportunity for original work? Another possibility is, provided the female author uses a male or gender neutral pen name, the absence of a glass ceiling. Personally, I don’t consider any properties or persuasions of a writer other than the quality of their work and its interest to me.

  9. Debra Matheney says:

    I read more non fiction in retirement, but nothing beats a mystery for escapism, which I need a lot of these days. I read lots of dead white men and the occasional female studying for my degree in English. I took Women in Literature when classes like that were first being offered. I read a lot of female fiction writers in 20’s and 30’s, trying to figure out being female, I guess. I only started reading mysteries in my 40’s. Don’t care if writer is male or female. What I do love is a well written child or teenage character and stories told from their viewpoint. The boy in Bewilderment is a great example. I like quirky characters a la Bryant and May but also straightforward police procedurals. I read widely and have found great pleasure in a great many books. I also believe my wide reading made me a better therapist than just studying psychology would have. Happy reading to everyone.

  10. Helen+Martin says:

    My husband is trying to support the paperback market on his own because he enjoys reading and reads quickly. He used to enjoy science fiction but I’m the one who introduced him to authors lately. He went through a western phase last year which involved a lot of Louis Lamour. Clive Cussler was very big and those go to a friend of mine who has a neighbour that travels a lot (or at least used to travel). I look at what he’s bought and out of ten books there might be one I want to try. The latest of those is Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London (historical crime and there have been a few pages where I thought I was reading a CF book). He does read a lot of non-fiction, some of it provided by our son who is politically aware.
    It’s all just a phase. Women were all reading craft fiction (The Yarn Barn Mystery, The Potter’s Wheel, A Scrapbook Affair) but there isn’t as much of that around now. All anyone can do is write what they are driven to and hope it will find a market. An active marketing department helps, of course. I hope Pete finds something beyond spacemen fighting aliens, although there is a future for that now that all these billionaires are trying to get into heavy industry in space.

  11. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Grew up in large (8 kids) family. Parents read to us and taught us to read; we were expected to read to the younger siblings as soon as we could. All of us are constant readers…mysteries, histories, autobiographies, cookbooks, science fiction, business, etc.…and heavy users of the local public libraries. Our divergence is primarily in media form: as I’ve gotten older, I find the convenience and large print of my iPad Kindle app to be my first choice, but still go for hardbacks from the library for anything I can’t find on Kindle. The exceptions are my Fowler, Edmund Crispin, and Anthony Price collections. And yes, four of us are male!

  12. kevin says:

    “Here in the States, it’s difficult to find a male writer that writes like a man”

    I assume Mr. Stein is referring to subject matter given the inclusion of a comment by James Michener, who, I suspect, is one of those writers whose books many men display but never read Has Mr. Stein heard of James Lee Burke? Cormac McCarthy? Tim O’brien? George Saunders? Or even Jonathan Franzen? Oh, no, not him, he writes about family, faith, marriage – domestic stuff. I was planning to include John Grisham and David Baldacci but realized that they have large and devoted female readers or fans depending on your view of their motivations.
    And please, don’t stop going to the library. It really is a big place; and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover all on your own. Good luck!

  13. admin says:

    The AJ Finn controversy is a subject I want to broach with AJ Finn (not his real name), who wrote to me last week about how much he enjoyed the Bryant & May books. The question is whether I have the nerve to raise the subject!

  14. Richard says:

    Admin: You may be amused and annoyed by Parul Sehgal’s review article in the Nov. 1 issue of The New Yorker: “Is Amazon Changing the Novel?” (“In the new literary landscape, readers are customers, writers are service providers, and books are expected to offer instant gratification”) at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/11/01/is-amazon-changing-the-novel-everything-and-less.

  15. Bob Low says:

    Admin – I came across an online article from the New Yorker magazine, published in February 2019, about ‘AJ Finn’ including his real name and occupation in the publishing industry, the contents of which are probably best described as hair-raising. If even a quarter of what is claimed about him is true, he’s probably best approached with extreme caution.

  16. Keith says:

    Time for me to say ta-ra Chris and wish you all the best for the future, was great to hear the immuno was taking effect.
    Thanks for helping me get through this year with the wonderful Bryant & May novels- B&M forever! Thanks too, for the signed books you sent me many years ego, they will remain in my wife’s possession.
    Carry on blogging, your fans love you for it.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Keith We will be the poorer. Peace.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin As far as Dan Mallory (aka ‘AJ Finn’) goes — the making of his ‘Woman in the Window’ (now on Netflix) would probably lend itself to a horror short story, at least. Just be careful if you write him with more than ‘Thanks.’ It might wind up in his third novel, considering the claims of plagiarism.. As a matter of fact, I would carefully screen his second novel for familiar plot points, since he says he enjoyed of B&M. It apparently will have to do with a writer getting revenge on an interviewer who uncovers her dark past. What’s that about writing what you know ? “Curiouser and curiouser!”

  19. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thank you Keith for your presence and your honesty. It isn’t always easy to put into words the parts of life that run deep. I think now of a favorite poem of mine by Christina Rossetti and wish you a gentle journey.

  20. Jan says:

    Could it be that guys are a bit more tricksy when it comes to filling in certain surveys do you think?

    Maybe fellas of various ages don’t reckon it comes across that well revealing how much time they spend reading. Or is this info gleaned from library memberships and debit card spends @ bookshops then?

    Certainly blokes seem much more into gaming not just gambling but the now diverse and complex world of computer gaming. To tackle these games Take a a fair amount of time for sure.

  21. Jan says:

    If there’s hardly any blokes reading how come about half of your blog contributions are from fellas then? Are guys maybe more inclined to comment than women do you think?

    I don’t reckon this is so much an age thing. Theres still tons of novels aimed at younger largely male readership I am a real fan of the Ben Aaranovitch “Rivers of London” series .( Now theres a guy with a clever twist on London as a background for his novels.) Part of the reason I really enjoy these novels though is because I can appreciate they are really not aimed at a female reader in her mid sixties! It’s like reading someone else’s letters. I enjoy lots of young adult fiction for similar / same reasons I also think it’s the quick simple read thing as well that I like.

    As the R of L series progresses the young readership element is sort of coming more to the
    fore. In the language he uses in the various story elements and descriptions of action sequences etc. He’s been very well briefed about the Job and somehow in his hands very arcane knowledge of London is made fresh and relevant. In fact I’m near the end of “Lies Sleeping” which in some ways deals with similar subject matter of your novel “The Foot on the crown”

  22. Mo So says:

    I suspect it has to do with the rise of books in which the main character is female – as a woman, I don’t particularly care about the gender or orientation of characters, as long as the book is good. I do know men, however, who don’t like books with a female main character. I read a lot of science fiction and the rise of the female author has really led to a change in sci fi focus, and I read a lot of complaints about it – see the debate about the Hugo awards a few years back. I used to read a lot of mystery books, but I am not a fan of the truly cozy (yarn shop mysteries, etc) and I have been turned off by the really violent trend.

  23. David+Ronaldson says:

    What novel genres could appeal to male tastes? John King had a stab at it (pun intended) in his Football Factory trilogy based around football, fighting and the other F, but there is only so much room for those on the shelves of man-free bookshops. I tried to get a former Whitehall colleague into John Le Carre, but he declared them to be far too complicated without ever picking one up. Promising that Le Carre could be a witty and “Joyful” writer (he clearly loved writing The Tailor of Panama) didn’t win him over. Speaking as a 6ft 4, gap-toothed, broken-nosed former Rugby Player, I recently thoroughly enjoyed Tove Jansson’s slight and beautiful Summer Book, but I did get “looks” reading it in my local pub, although they’re used to me there (was it you, Chris, who wrote ” ‘You read, don’t you?’ but said in a tone of ‘You touch children’?”). I’m seen as being mildly eccentric and only perhaps tolerated because I have proven macho credentials. I swap reading lists with a fellow former Rugby Player: he forced a weighty Dan Simmonds tome on me, perhaps in revenge for The Prime of Miss Jean Brody and he shamelessly goes under the moniker “BooksandRedWine” on Twitter. A work colleague tells me her husband declared that giving their young Son books for Christmas would be like giving him Socks, but this comes from a man who reads books with titles like “Big Trucks” and “Things that Explode”. Humour is a safe male domain, but it needs to be wrapped in a suitable literary setting: Spike Milligan’s wartime memoirs were largely unchallenging and involved guns, so they got male readers. Start them young and they’ll keep reading is my view.

  24. Paul+C says:

    Briliant comments, David – I’m definitely going to buy a copy of ‘Things that Explode’ and I think I’d rather have socks than a Dan Simmonds….

    I can’t get my young niece or nephew interested in books at all – books simply can’t compete with computers, phones, cable TV or playstations. Sad.

  25. Bob Low says:

    Thanks for the tip, David. I now have “More Things That Explode Even Bigger” on pre-order for the festive season.

  26. Allan Lloyd says:

    What has happened in the Hugo awards since the Sad Puppies mess is to make it appear that all science fiction is written by women for women. About 95% of all nominees for almost all categories were for women. If you make any comment about it, you are abused for being misogynist and reminded that in the past most awards were to men. It is assumed that if you are critical of the system then you must be a macho reader of military SF published by Baen Books.I find it sad that young male writers are being ignored. Some of the books by women are very good, but many seem aimed at young fantasy readers and don’t appeal to me. I have come to accept that maybe modern SF is not for me, and that it is just time to move on. (I am also enjoying the Rivers of London series, and would also recommend Juliet McKenna’s Green Man books, which are almost a rural version of RoL.)

  27. Jo W says:

    # Keith
    Sad that you have had to say goodbye. I can only wish you a comfortable journey to wherever…….:-(

  28. Jo W says:

    # Jan

    You have just said what I’ve been thinking !!
    Men may not be reading much but they can always find something to talk about and have an opinion on everything.

  29. Peter+T says:

    I’ve done some rapid research on AJ Finn. Seems to fall in an ever growing category: no matter how good their product might be, I will not be putting money in their pocket.

  30. Wayne+Mook says:

    Jo & Jan -I write here because I’v been studying Turnip recipes.

    Keith, thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Goodbye, my thoughts are with you.

    Something I noticed in the UK after the banking crisis (I know I’m going on about it again) the bank crisis hit in 2008 but Gordon saved us, using Statsta 2009 saw 330 mill to a peak of 343 mill in 2011, but austerity measures came in and started to bite, especially for government employees (teachers, police, nhs, and all departments) as it went on papers stated it was starting to bite on the middle classes. By 2012 book sales drop to 269, 2013 184 mill to low of 180 mill in 2014. Sales picked up and remained around 190 mill (2016 195 mill being high 2019 191.6mill.) until 202 mill in 2020. For some of us Government workers pay has stagnated.

    A point I made elsewhere the 80s & 90s saw a boom in home computing and game playing, originally it was male dominated so that male computer playing takes a lot of time, as Paul C noted his niece and nephew are both gadget orientated, my nieces are the same (19 & 20) but the elder one is a reader. My daughter is 9 and we have got her reading, she reads to her mum and her mum still reads to her. Currently The Labyrinth novelisation, next the Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, she almost bought the 3rd How to Train Your Dragon. Eventually she will go more tech but that’s a few years yet.

    In the name game romance usually has female names, Mills and Boon especially, so here we have male writers using female names.

    And if attention span is a problem why are most books 400 plus pages.

    Wayne.

  31. admin says:

    Since writing this piece, I’ve been informed from a reliable business source that ‘the ladies of the New York publishing world will not accept anything with an ‘Eeuw’ factor.’

  32. Jan says:

    “Eeuw” they don’t know what they’re missing!

  33. Wayne+Mook says:

    Well I guess that’s Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, RL Stine and I guess even JK Rowling out of the picture. It’s a good job Red Dragon was published years ago.

    It’s hardly surprising as Stephen king’s books lurk in the fantasy/SF section of one of my local book shops. I guess horror is only read by teenage boys and we now know they don’t read.

    Wayne.

  34. Andrew+Holme says:

    Lee Child, anyone? I give his books to reluctant reading teenage boys in my school. The students who claim ” I don’t like reading, Sir.” Well boy….read this!

  35. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I think it behooves you to now write a piece on what the ‘eeuw’ factor might be in contemporary publishing in the 21st c. (since ‘eeuw’ appropriately means ‘century’ in Dutch).

  36. Liz+Thompson says:

    I was brought up in a reading household. So I read voraciously (since January, I have read 319 books), and so does my brother. Both my adult kids read continuously, as does my grandson. He’s almost 13. I read non fiction and fiction, fairly equally overall, but according to mood and health, including poetry, linguistics, politics, science (as written for the non scientist!), essay collections, folklore and music, anthropology. Fiction tends to the sci-fi, fantasy, historical, murder mysteries, gay romance and historical romance, children’s picture books, folk horror.
    I suspect that reading enthusiasm depends on experience, alternative pursuits including sport, availability of books by library or bookshop, time and tv. Some factors for, some against. I have a friend with severe dyslexia, but she reads and enjoys Disney books. Our community centre operates an informal book lending scheme, and is set to introduce an open bookcase exchange/donation point.
    One of the problems in getting children to read for pleasure is lack of resources in schools and cutbacks in library funding, all due to budget cuts/austerity programmes. And a still existing prejudice against graphic novels and comics, which were things that attracted me to regular reading.
    Since I buy virtually all my books online (don’t drive, mobility problems), I can’t comment on male v female readers or their tastes, but I do know I regularly sell books I won’t re-read to We Buy Books and Music Magpie, and get reasonable amounts for them. Those two companies are obviously selling a broad range to their customers, and profiting from that, or they wouldn’t be so anxious to buy from regular readers!

  37. Ian Luck says:

    I bought about 250 books last year – fiction and non fiction, and read all of them. I have probably bought 100+ books a year since I was a teenager. I haven’t watched any TV for several years, as I enjoy books more. And the pictures in my head are better, too.

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