Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Men are from Storyville - Women are from Charactertown

I want to say right off the bat, what should probably be the prologue to about half the blogs out there, ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. Really, I have no clue as to what’s going on in the literary world but I have heard some things and done a little research, enough to have more questions than answers and maybe develop a cockamamie theory or two. So read on and at the end let me know your opinion because, like I said ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’.

I heard an odd statistic at a recent writer’s conference – “75% of all books sold are sold to women.” Being male, and an avid reader as well as a writer, I decided to dig a little further into this statistic, first to confirm its validity and second, if true, to try and figure out why. What I found was interesting.

The typical American read only four books last year, and one in four adults read no books at all.
Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman reads nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. (that’s 65% for women and 35% for men, not quite the 75% number, but close).

The gender gap is at its widest in fiction. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
There are exceptions to the fiction gap. More boys than girls have read The Harry Potter series, according to its U.S. publisher, Scholastic. What's more, Harry Potter made more of an impact on boys' reading habits. Sixty-one percent agreed with the statement "I didn't read books for fun before reading Harry Potter," compared with 41 percent of girls.

One national bookstore speculated that “the number of women buyers is so high because women are buying books for men.” I thought that was wishful thinking until I took my own little unscientific Facebook survey. I asked my Facebook friends how many books they read a year. I got responses from six women who averaged about 50 books a year and half of those commented on their husband’s reading habits. Two men commented, one said 7 books and the other one just commented on the 75%. So maybe women are buying books for the men.

Hmmm. So what can we glean from all t his information? Yes, women read more than men, and women tend to read a lot more fiction. So I dug a little deeper into just what books women and men are reading and I found the following. The five most popular books among women at this moment are:

· The Time Traveler’s Wife - Niffenegger
· The Secret Life of Bees - Kidd
· The Blood of Flowers - Amirrezvani
· Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood - Wells
· Eat, Pray, Love - Gilbert

Now, let’s look at the five most popular books for men at the moment:

Dead or Alive- Clancy
The Confession- Grisham
Full Dark, No Stars- King
Cross Fire – Patterson
Inner Space- Fraser

Ok, so what do we see here? All of the books popular with women were written all are very character driven, specifically focusing on “a woman’s struggle”. All of the books popular with men are very story driven focusing on action, suspense and danger. (I’m talking perspective here, not genre, history, sci-fi, humor, paranormal, mystery, etc can all be written either from a story driven or character driven perspective). So what’s the distinction? In story-driven novel the events of the story move the story forward and the characters react to those events. Characters are secondary to the plot. And these are usually action or mystery stories so the characters don’t have time for introspection, they are too busy reacting to what happens in the story. In a character-driven story the characters move the story along through their actions. Events happen due to the character’s choices and they have plenty of time to agonize over their decisions before and after they make them.

Examples of Plot-Driven Novels:

The Hunt for Red October Tom Clancy
The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
Jurassic Park Michael Crichton

Examples of Character-Driven Novels:

Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
Portrait of a Lady Henry James

I wanted one more validation of the data so I went to my own collection of books and of the hundreds of books on my shelves I found that most were story driven. Most were paranormal, science-fiction/humor or some combination thereof and most these genres tend to be story-driven. Of course there were a few exceptions like “Confederacy of Dunces” and “Tomcat in Love which are character-driven.” But these also have well developed stories and while the characters cause the action to happen they are also pushed along by the plot. Also a lot were British authors like, Pratchett, Rankin, Adams, Gaiman. British authors tend to be very story-driven.

Ok, so now we have learned two things, Men are from Storyville and Women are from Charactertown and women in the U.S. buy more books so they drive the market and that’s why there are so many more character-driven books than story-driven books in the U.S market, which is why I read so many British authors. This is also why a lot of agents say they are looking for “character-driven novels”. Do I have a valid theory here, or do I have no idea what I’m talking about?

Then I came across this: “For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Wow, for 25 years readership has been dropping like a prom dress, and now it’s on the rise? What happened? I read further;

“’Reading on the Rise’ documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among male adults, ages 18-23.

Ah ha! This are the Harry Potter generation! It jibes with the exception above. So, let’s look at the Harry Potter exception. Book readership among men was declining until Harry Potter showed up. I believe J.K. Rawlins surpassed Bill Gates in net worth about two years ago. So what was her winning formula? While her characters have depth and are well defined, people feel they know these characters intimately; her books are primarily story-driven with suspense, action and danger. She not only capitalized on most of the female market but she tapped the male market as well.

OK, so, except for the Harry Potter books men don’t drive the market, so a quick look at the New York Times current list of bestsellers in fiction should confirm that:

1. DEAD OR ALIVE, by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
2. THE CONFESSION, by John Grisham
3. CROSS FIRE, by James Patterson
4. PORT MORTUARY, by Patricia Cornwell

What the hell? Except for “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” these are all story-driven novels, that’s 80% of the top five novels. I expected to see Nora Roberts, or Sandra Brown or Ann Brashares, not Clancy and Grisham. Ok, obviously I have no idea what I’m talking about or I’m interpreting the data completely wrong. If you have an explanation or opinion, let me know.