Why Have Men Stopped Reading?

Christopher Fowler
The pandemic encouraged people around the world to read more books than ever before. There have been some changes. Amazon is pushing audiobooks, where their profits are higher. Hardbacks have picked up sales and e-books have fallen since no longer being promoted by Amazon. But all the academic data I've read shows that the gender gap has grown considerably, with far fewer males of working age reading books. Close to 80% of all books are now purchased by women. The Guardian says, 'Women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women.' I would argue with that; try finding many women who have read Giles Milton, Nicholas Rankin or Ben McIntyre. Men enjoy books by women; the average rating men give to women authors on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for male authors it’s slightly lower. In Scandinavian countries males read both. Most men stop reading a book by page 50 but women are more likely to persevere past page 100. Several reasons for the reduction in male readership present themselves. 1 The most obvious is that that reading has been reduced by technology. More men now spend their spare time looking at their phones and pads. 2 More males are in full time employment, and this makes increased demands on their time. 3 Female authors are perceived as being more interested in emotional and family issues. 4 Publishers are not catering to a male market in recession. 5 Writers are not catering to male readership in the way they used to. 6 The Scandinavia example suggests that the UK has a more primitive approach to gender equality. 7 'Viewing the world through a woman's emotions that isn't appealing to most men.' - Goodreads reader comment I'll be interested in hearing your point of view, especially from new readers.


Tim Lane (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 12:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I’ve just got back from the first holiday I’ve had in ages and for the first time in ages I read two print books. In the normal run of things ebooks and audiobooks work better for me, particularly the latter because I have a very boring job which luckily allows for consuming these at the rate of five or six a month. I used to read print books voraciously, largely those written by male authors, a trend which continues today. Honestly, I don’t know why this is. I have read excellent books by women from Mary Shelly to Ann Cleeves and Susannah Clarke but perhaps it’s because the write in the “genre fiction” styles that interest me most.

Jo W (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 13:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry, Chris, I’m not a new reader,I know, but thought I’d tell you that on your recommendation I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Giles Milton’s - Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.
As a woman, does this make me odd? Ok, must dash, lots more in the to be read pile, awaiting my attention.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 13:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Could the covers have something to do with it?
Bookshops seem to have shelves of books with dark covers ( mostly by men), and shelves with pastel covers ( mostly by women).
Perhaps some men don’t want to choose, or be seen reading ‘girly’ books.
There might have been a good reason for having books all looking the same - Penguins, the yellow Gollancz books etc.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 13:08

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Jo W - I’ve read and enjoyed the Giles Milton as well.

Stephen (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 13:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have not stopped reading. Since 2020 I’ve been borrowing ebooks from my library. In Colorado a library card from your local public library entitles you to cards from other public libraries. So far I have 4 cards. Naturally I’ve been borrowing ebooks.
Buying ebooks from Amazon has become difficult. Kindle ebooks prices are difficult to find and are no longer the least expensive way to buy a book. The ebook price for McBain’s Last Dance is the most expensive way to buy it.
I am slowly returning to women authors. I disagree with point 7 and try to find books written by women because they help me understand how different men and women are. I’ve found a publisher run by a woman that publishes first rate books by women.
In my small part of the world I find that I disagree with most of your points.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 13:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cornelia - took the thoughts out of my head. I read a lot of ebooks from my local library subscription. And I tend to choose things to read by skipping across thumbnails of what's on offer. And the covers are seldom what I'd describe as neutral, they seem designed with gender in mind. It's colour and imagery and typeface.
And to add to Mr F's thoughts here, the vast majority of newly released ebooks on my library subscription site are authored by women, so there may be an imbalance in availability too.

mike (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 16:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

When I was much younger I tended to avoid books by women, now I don't care if a book is written by a literate warthog or an ungendered alien from planet Tharg. If the blurb and cover look interesting I'll read it.

Alan R (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 17:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Very interesting question. Chatting to my son, 40 something, and grandson-in-law, 20 something, they laughed at the question and thought it obvious. Gamers prefer to "live within their stories - rather than read them".

I thought gaming was largely a kid's thing, but I was surprised. "The average age of the UK gamer is 28 years old. 51% of 36 to 50 year olds play games, and that number is growing". Ref BBC News.

The average price for a leading game title is around 40UKP. 35.8 million games were sold in the UK in 2021.

Games are not "games" any more. They are personal experiences on a big screen. Could you imagine us B&M fans actually "living" in the B&M universe, talking to them, looking for clues and helping them solve crimes, walking around London with them listening to their stories, chatting to each other as we go, qualifying at detective school, and opening businesses - all in an on-line game universe? How exciting does that sound?

Maybe its not yet possible with B&M, but that's exactly what millions of gamers do now (including my families adult male workers), every day of their lives in various on-line universes. This must be having an effect on adult males buying and reading books?

Christopher Fowler Sun, 29/05/2022 - 18:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I had not considered 'ungendered alien from planet Tharg' as potential demographic.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 19:17

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Perhaps not, admin, but I'm with Mike on the authorship question. I'll admit to looking for particular authors to continue a series but it's the plot or characters that keep me and I wouldn't have cared about author gender for the first one. There is a point there, though. Look at Elizabeth George's series; you learn as much about the investigators as you do the suspects and sometimes you feel that the books are about a person who happens to be a detective. I also admit that the Sherlock Holmes stories are much that way. If that were not so there would be lots of pastiches and no one would question anyone's writing of them because it's only the plot that matters.
My husband has always read massively and so did my father (born in 1913). Both of them read fact and fiction with equal enjoyment, although I admit that it was my father who introduced me to The Guns of Navarone and my husband who got me into classic science fiction. I have no idea how much, if any, influence I had on their reading. It was my Mother and I who did a whole study of the early years of archaeology and some African history ("Lobengula, Last of the Matabele")

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 19:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've just remembered the title of that African book; it was Three Against Africa and Cecil Rhodes did not come off well.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 19:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Why have men stopped reading (fiction) ? Let me count the ways (with apologies to Liz Browning). Actually, it is undoubtedly a combination of "ways," starting with the way our brains are wired to the way books are selected for publication and sold by a risk-averse mainstream publishing industry --- all, of course, now fundamentally affected by the digital 24/7 torrent of information called the internet.

Men go online in greater numbers than women for a vast, but scattered array of activities and likewise pursue and consume information online more aggressively than women. The instant gratification this provides does little to encourage engagement with an extended piece of writing — regardless of an author’s gender. In fact, neuroscience tells us when we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. Apparently it's not only lab rats who "click" for pleasure. So why wouldn't you spend more time being instantly gratified.

Then there is the generally accepted view that men tend to view what they do in a reductive, more egocentric or dogmatic way. In other words, unless something fits into a rather narrow view, it is generally ignored or dismissed. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more holistic and take a broader, more generous approach --- ascribed by some to actually being neurally wired to be more empathetic. This (generally) supports the notion that men are less likely than women to take a chance with their choices of reading matter and fiction, in particular, (with a modicum of sexism possibly in the mix) when they do take time away from the internet (or gaming). And the number of options from which to make those choices has declined as the mainstream publishing industry continues to consolidate (and Amazon continues to play an outsized role in those options). Women’s reading comprehension and writing ability also consistently exceed that of men, on average.

Interestingly, the relationship of empathy to reading fiction is illustrated in a practical way with schools of medicine and nursing increasingly adding literature and other humanities courses to their curriculums. The objective is to help instill critical empathy needed by medical professionals. Studies have shown that empathy declines during medical training.
Then there is the disturbing statistics which show the decline of reading for pleasure by children, who also spend less time doing so when they do pick up a book. And it only gets worse as they age. Apparently reading for pleasure takes a nosedive --- and especially among young males --- after about nine years of age. Part of that of course is the increased availability of those "digital disrupters" and more peer-approved activities but also a distinct bias by the education system (if not the actual educators) in reading for measurable proficiency. Reading thus can easily become a chore.

So essentially we have a vicious circle for why fewer men are reading fiction. There are more options for instant gratification elsewhere (starting at a young age) and fewer options to satisfy a generally narrower preference in fiction because a risk-averse industry has to cater to the female 'market' which is regularly buying more books and a broader range of fiction, albeit perhaps with a greater percentage of female lead characters. And the industry (as in Cornelia's and Martin's example with cover designs) does not always do itself any favours in marketing. Round and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows. At least not at the present. Now, having burned through a pair of glasses, aren't you pleased CF asked the question ?

Joe (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 22:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I for one did enjoy the Tharg Trilogy, but I have an alternative answer to your question Mr F.

I read one or two books a week. I don't mind who writes them, men, women, Thargons and sometimes don't even look at the author, preferring a quick glance at the back cover and then get on with it. Sometimes it's a photo of the author at the end that gives it away and sometimes I'm surprised, but then I question why I should be. But here's the rub - I don't buy the books, the missus does. So does that mean I'm reading less because I'm not the purchaser or am I just mucking up the statistics? Well the wife is actually and given the amount of books she buys it's probably skewing the Amazon statistics.

Actually I've just realised that I have absolutely no idea who wrote the book I'm reading right now or if they are male or female. Or are they writing under a contrasexual pseudonym? Or are they called Leslie?

There is obviously a list of female writers with male pen names but now also male writers with female ones. How are they counted?

Debra Matheney (not verified) Sun, 29/05/2022 - 22:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There are lots of reasons. I don't think being well read is a thing anymore. Both of my parents emphasized to me growing up that reading certain fiction classics (and poetry) was important to my education. There are many more distractions (gaming, porn) which appeal to men more than reading fiction. But I think Stu hit the nail on the head with the empathy thing. I read books to better understand the human condition and to better understand other people's experiences. I think being an English lit major was deeply helpful to my career as a marriage and family therapist. As we move more and more into our own tribes for validation, having empathy and understanding of those not like us sadly suffers.

Will Highfield (not verified) Mon, 30/05/2022 - 06:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have many opportunities to read books by woman authors. My wife leaves them in the car and I read them while she is in the store. I prefer books by male authors because of the way they describe detail, and the way they approach relationships. My favorites are Chris Fowler, Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly, Clive Cussler (who writes in the grand old "boy adventure" style), Nelson DeMille, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway, My favorite lady writers are MC Beaton (Hamish MacBeth books), and BM Bower, who wrote of ranch life in the old west.

Tony Hillerman wrote books about Navajo policemen. When he died his daughter continued the stories. But she focused on a policewoman so the details and relationships were written from that point of view. Although she is quite a skilled writer I just can't work up the enthusiasm to read the books through to the end.

I have tried kindle books and find I much prefer the tactile sensation of turning real pages. I read avidly all the time. Because I am a tax professional I constantly have to read tax publications by the IRS and continuing education manuals. Don't feel sorry for me - there are a few authors who make the subject interesting. By the way, Mr. Fowler, the dust jackets on your newer books are superb. I also appreciate that you name the fonts used in your books.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 30/05/2022 - 10:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My 9 year old nephew won't read books as reading is perceived as soppy and cissy - it was less so when I was at school (I'm 57) but it was certainly the reason some lads were put off. Lads grow up thinking that reading is for wimps not macho males - I think that may be one root of the problem ?

I like Milton and Macintyre - this seems a golden age for non-fiction rather than fiction. I like lots of female writers - esp Angela Carter - but not sure I'd want to be spotted reading one on the bus though - the looking like a wimp problem again. The solution is possibly teaching kids the joy of reading for fun at school - rather than reading for exams.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 30/05/2022 - 12:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul, kids seem able to accept that Harry Styles can wear a baby doll nightie.

Will, fonts loom large in my life. For a less appealing font, check out the US covers' potato print-style block capitals font.

Erik Deckers (not verified) Mon, 30/05/2022 - 16:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'll read anyone if they're a good writer and they write what I like. If I had to guess, Looking at my Goodreads list for the last 8 months, I'd say that at least 40% of the books I read are written or co-written by women. (I love Verity Bright's and Anna Elliott's mysteries!) And most of my favorite mystery authors are women — Caroline Graham, P.D. James, M.C. Beaton, Rhys Bowen.

Peter T (not verified) Mon, 30/05/2022 - 20:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I sort of agree with Erik. Sort of because I've recently read Richard Osman's Thursday Murder Club. Mr Fowler considered it well written. It is and it's a decent, well constructed story. Like Bryant and May, the central characters are of mature years. Unlike Mr F's two veterans, they seem to live in fear of mortality and mental deterioration. Every few pages, there's a reference to one or the other - all somewhat depressing. Bryant and May are old, but their spirits, like those of Holmes and Watson, are indestructible; they'll be walking through London for ever - not even Mr F can stop them.

I met a Navajo policeman once. He was a very nice person and we had a pleasant chat about old Jaguars. He was kind enough to reduce the speed on the ticket he gave me from 80 to 60 mph, saving me quite a lot of dollars.

Robert (not verified) Tue, 31/05/2022 - 02:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I’m a 73 year old male. I read a lot and read every day. However, I have never read an e book and doubt I ever will. I’m not a Luddite as I am writing this on my iPhone. I just like, as others have mentioned, the tangible feel of a printed book. Same with newspapers and doing the crosswords and sudokus with a pen.

I generally prefer male authors but have several female ones I enjoy like Elly Griffiths, Lindsey Davis, Susannah Gregory, and a few others.

I also enjoy reading history and most is by male authors. Being well written is also very important to me.

With fiction, my favourite is historical mysteries closely followed by murder mysteries. Bryant and May are always my favourite series not just because of the characters but also the setting. London is a character in the series and is a city I have lived in a visited often.

Joel (not verified) Tue, 31/05/2022 - 19:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

i am thrilled that women writers far outweigh the male ones. it seems like the men who don't read, are primarily straight men. for them, as noted above, internet soundbites and gaming have taken over. why read when you can just watch talking heads give you your talking and thinking points for the day.

so for the other men who love a good book, electronic or otherwise, the amount of great reading provided by great female authors is fantastic and i enjoy it. i was trying to think of what male authors i specifically look for and could only come up with robert jordan (dead, but i love his wheel of time), preston/childs, stephen king, and james rollins. women don't seem to be afraid of those pesky emotions, and write some kick ass action at the same time.

a sad state of affairs, but then, there is nothing wrong with getting older, and having your favourite books, music, etc on hand when things look bleak. the trick, i think, is to never stop looking for a new favourite.

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Thu, 02/06/2022 - 13:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I frequently have problems working out the gender of an author due to the regularity of non gender-specific names. When you add trans authors into the mix, it gets even harder. So I follow the good blurb, decent cover rule, plus automatic purchase of new books by good reliable authors like yourself. I do find useful recommendations on author/fan Facebook sites, but, again, from reliable site members with similar tastes in books.
But yesterday I had the (unusual) pleasure of visiting an actual bookshop. I emerged triumphantly with 4 books, and a random greetings card. I have just checked the authors. All female, one non fiction, 2 novels, one of poetry. As I read a lot of political books however, my ratio of male to female authors is probably nearer 50:50.

Cary Watson (not verified) Thu, 02/06/2022 - 17:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think this problem goes back a long way. In The Feminization of American Culture by Ann Douglas she showed that, at least in America, in the late 1800s/early 1900s reading came to be regarded as a feminine activity for two reasons: the vast majority of grade school teachers were women, and because reading was one of the few leisure activities available to women. The result was that learning/reading, anything to do with books, was seen by men as a gendered activity. Another problem that I see first hand (I work in a library) is that so many YA novels are geared to teen girls, overwhelmingly so, it sometimes seems. If YA is supposed to be a bridge to adult reading, there's little there to attract boys.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 03/06/2022 - 05:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cary, I think you make a very good point there. Back in my Father's day novels for "young readers" were definitely aimed at boys, particularly since boys were much more likely to involve themselves in exciting events. Girls couldn't go camping with their male friends, were not encouraged to take an interest in outdoor and independent activities, and just weren't suitable as leading characters. There was Tom Swift and so on and it wasn't until Nancy whatsis and her little yellow sports car that girls began to investigate, except that in 1915 there were some short films called The Girl Detective, "a series starring a society girl who worked with the police investigating crimes".
What is an unfortunate answer to how to have female leads is to have historical fiction where the girl is atypical, a rebel or just overly independent. There were women like that but the general pattern certainly didn't run that way. In any event there was a flush of novels with female leads starting in the late fifties, books which had modern girls responding to modern situations so that even the more retiring girls found characters they responded to. It was a response to all those boys books. The boys didn't much care for them, though, and as time went on the boys became more and more alienated from the new books (except for science fiction, which really did have a good following amongst male students.

Michael Fallon (not verified) Sun, 05/06/2022 - 22:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I came here from having just read Norman Wisdom and the Angel of Death, which was gripping as a horror story but also something I prize, very (darkly) funny. I have just started Psychomania.
I read those, and read almost everything, I confess, on my phone or iPad. I prefer reading books, but that’s like saying I prefer listening to vinyl. The world of ebooks is so quickly and widely available that I can’t resist.
I have observed over the years that men prefer to read biographies and other kinds of nonfiction, as if fiction itself is too pointless and ephemeral. With the non-fiction books they’re getting real knowledge, something substantial, the “truth.” I think it’s ridiculous to assume that non-fiction is more true than fiction, but there you go.
Ultimately, unfortunately, when I look at the behavior of so many men these days, I’m not surprised they’re not reading books. Maybe the kids will come around.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 06/06/2022 - 09:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well put, Cary - interesting that staff at Bloomsbury Publishing asked JK Rowling to use two initials rather than her full name as young boys would not want to read a book written by a woman. Rowling also chose to write crime novels under a male pseudonym.

As I mentioned above, my 9 year old nephew and his school pals all regard reading as cissy. When I asked them what they were reading they all looked at me as though I was mad. Shame - they are missing one of life's great pleasures..

John Griffin (not verified) Mon, 06/06/2022 - 12:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's not just blokes. I asked my sixth form classes (state school in a poor area) how many had read a physical book in the last year, or even an ebook. Answer came there....one in twenty. In one class of fifteen, none. Yet they will all have arthritic necks soon from phone watching. There were no gender differences. This in a school where reading is generally emphasised in tutor group activity.
I read lots of female authors, but then I read mostly non-fiction (science, politics, society). Currently I'm reading 'Bitch' by Lucy Cooke, and would highly recommend it and other books by her. You'll never see the world of animals the same again.

snowy (not verified) Tue, 07/06/2022 - 01:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is a much shorter comment than originally planned, [delayed by the hunt for wild marjoram*], and it is quite a big subject deserving more time than I can give it.

"Girls couldn’t go camping with their male friends, were not encouraged to take an interest in outdoor and independent activities, and just weren’t suitable as leading characters..."

Female detectives have been around for much longer than people think, they predate Mrs Hudson getting new lodgers by 20-25 years. Exactly who was the first is disputed, they have a slightly complicated genesis: Andrew Forrester's The Female Detective was published in May 1864, The Revelations of a Lady Detective was published in October 1864 attributed to William Stephens Hayward, [these have been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series]. Both are collections of short stories rather than novels and not the fully formed tales of detection we have come to expect.

And there are at least another dozen before the world gets a first whiff of tweedy doings.

[Quite a few others have written about them, and the curious are invited to look there for more information**.]


[* Too young to pick, but not a fruitless trip - just need to find some recipes for Wild Basil Champagne and Elderflower Pesto!]

[** Thou those still don't answer some of the more fundamental questions arising].