Sex Appeal

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Not that kind of sex appeal.  A more precise term for today’s post would be gender appeal, but the former is a great attention-grabber, don’t you think?

It is widely acknowledged that women read more than men, but the disparity is startling.  A 2007 story by NPR, “Why Women Read More than Men,” put it at a ratio of 4:1.  Click here for the NPR story.  (Note the comment about the “spate of new literary blogs” made up primarily of women.  Hmm…).

While I think quite highly of National Public Radio, I’m still not convinced that we’re looking at that big of a disparity, which the report backed up with anecdotal information from store owners and statistics from book sales, among other things.  Perhaps I’m resistant to the idea because my own experience doesn’t bear this out, at least not in the social subset I gravitate toward.  Still, book buyers and book readers may not necessarily be the same people in every case, so going by book sales doesn’t tell the whole story.

Then there are the social experiments, such as that of perfect strangers thrusting free books at random people (cited by NPR), and noting the difference between how men and women react.  Turning it down meant you were a non-reader.  Really?  Seems to me that it’s testing one’s willingness to accept a book from a complete stranger.



The Fiction Gap

According to numerous sources, women also read more fiction than men.  The NPR article in particular cites bookstore owners across the country who noticed that the women invariably head for the fiction sections and the men make a bee-line for the non-fiction.  Why?  No one knows for sure.  Theories abound, of course – mirror neurons, female empathetic response, higher language ability in women vs. higher mathematical ability in men…don’t even get me started on that one.  Maybe we could blame aliens.  Or a vast left-wing conspiracy.  Or zombies.

"Yip,yip...don't read...yip,yip..."

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Young readers

We’ve also heard the statistics about girls reading more than boys, that boys are a tougher sell than girls when it comes to falling in love with a book.  Having three sons, I can relate to this.  Parents struggle to cultivate an early love of reading in their children.  It can be difficult to find good books that interest boys, although these days there are more of them than there used to be.  Then there’s the challenge of getting the teacher to assign the ones that boys will read.  Each of my children had to read The Secret Garden, and really struggled to get through it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic, but not as relevant to a Wii-mote-wielding, soccer-playing, minecraft-building kid.

Fortunately, the Harry Potter books changed the landscape for boys.  Finally, boys were eclipsing girls in number of readers of the Harry Potter series, and the films helped add to the cachet.

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The Middle Reader/Young Adult genre has become cooler that it ever was.  Check out “Harry Potter: the Boy Who Made Kids Love Reading” and “Harry Potter and the Literacy Phenomenon” for more perspectives on this.

The upshot for writers

The topic of gender appeal has been on my mind lately.  I’m at the stage where I need to consider how my book will be promoted.  While it’s clear that Dangerous and Unseemly, with its female protagonist and female-centric, nineteenth-century setting will have more appeal for women, I don’t want to exclude half of my potential readership, where only men who know me will pick up my book.  I’ve tried to write the book so that it has a more universal appeal than that.  I suppose time will tell whether I’ve done the job.  But is this a worthwhile goal?  Is it even attainable?  What is lost when an author tries to appeal to everyone?

So, what do you think:  can a female-centric novel be appealing to men as well?  And what about “cozy” mysteries – is that a sub-genre just for women?  What’s your opinion of the reported gender reading gap?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


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9 thoughts on “Sex Appeal”

  1. PJ KaiserPJ Kaiser

    Kathy – very interesting post. I’m surprised at the 4:1 statistic as well and you’re absolutely right that it can’t be determined by book purchases, unless you’re looking at ebook purchases. In my family, my mom is a huge reader (mostly fic, but nf as well) dad was a lawyer and hated reading at home. My inlaws are both huge readers of both fix & nf but my fil reads more nf than my mil. My sil hardly reads at all but my hubs is a voracious reader of both fic & nf. So I guess in my family it comes out to a virtual tie with my non-reading sil balancing out my non-reading dad.

    I’m going to be in a similar position as you because my first novel (in draft stages now) has a female protagonist and may appeal more to women. I’m not sure I’m comfortable yet with a “women’s fiction” label – or any label for that matter. There are men who read women’s fic, but theyre few & far between. But anybody in marketing will tell you that more targeted marketing is always a winner. Look at John Locke’s strategy for
    one prime example. So, I’m no help here – just wanted to empathize 🙂

  2. Susie LindauSusie Lindau

    Include some action, sex and violence and you will have men glued! hahaha!
    Seriously though I think you have to go with the flow of your story and take your own comfort level into consideration.
    Great post!

  3. Tiffany A WhiteTiffany A White

    I’m going to base my opinion on my household – since those are really the only ones I can speak for. 🙂

    I read WAY more than my guy. Period. It doesn’t matter about the genre at all. When we first started dating over 8 years ago, he didn’t read. His mother would send him stock-related books to recap for her and he’d just browse through. I read all the time. I LOVE fiction. Love, Love, Love murder mysteries and true crime. Anyway, my harping on him about his lack of reading has started to pay off and he’s now reading fantasy. I still can’t get him to read my blog though!

    My nephews – three boys – don’t read unless you make them. They’d prefer video games. When I was a child, you couldn’t peel the books out of my hands.

    My parents? They both read, maybe my father more than my mother. He loves murder mysteries like I do. Mom too. It’s no wonder those are my favorites.

    So, is there a gender reading gap? I think so. I think that only age and maturation can get those to read who don’t enjoy it as a hobby like the rest of us.

  4. Leanne ShirtliffeLeanne Shirtliffe

    I love this post, K. I have a lot to say on this topic, but my first five-day week in the classroom may prevent me from being coherent.

    Some points then.
    -I have boy/girl twins who are 7yo. I am more than aware that this sample is insignificant statistically, so I make assertions with a ton of subjectivity.
    -when I went to our public library to look for beginning reader books for my son, so many were geared to girls. My son wanted superhero books (or sim) and that was hard to find. Easy in the early chapter books, but not in the learn-to-read section.
    -I also think there is an erroneous perception that to read fiction is to read for emotion; to read nonfiction is to read for knowledge.

    I have more points but there is a disconnect between my brain and my fingers on the keyboard.

    Great post and happy weekend!

  5. Jenny HansenJenny Hansen


    I think the men who love to read devour books as much as women but the women in my circle do tend to read more. I’ve seen crossover with the Janet Evanovich/Stephanie Plum series and with the JD Robb/In Death series. I know many men who read those as faithfully as I do.

    The closest my husband has gotten to a fiction book since I’ve known him (8 years) is “Eat, Pray, Love” which he really liked. Part of it is that he is a very slow reader because he reads EVERY word. This makes him a tremendous proofreader for me and he’s one of my #1 QA specialists on my blog. 🙂

    The number #1 indicator (supposedly) of whether a child reads is whether they see their parents reading. This surpasses even the reading to your kids stats. Do they see you reading? If yes, it is usually more likely that they will pick up books and value them.

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