Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Reader vs. Author Gender

December 19th, 2012

There is a meme that shows up now and then in my twitter stream (today for example) and it goes something like this: women will read books regardless if they are written by men or by women, but men tend to read books only by men.

My experience is the opposite.

My very rough estimate is that only 20% of my readers are women. This is based on such things as reader emails received over the years, “Likes” on my facebook page, people who comment on my blog, people on twitter who are interested in my work, and statistics on a recent sale of a story of mine republished as an ebook.

All of my readers are fantastic. Men and women both are incredibly supportive and I would be nothing without them…but more and more I can’t help wondering why more women don’t read my work.

Yes, it’s true that most of my work has been hard science fiction – generally assumed to be a genre dominated by male readers and I don’t disagree, but still – why don’t more women read my work? Is it simply the label “hard SF”? But don’t women read “everything,” regardless?

In the last couple of years I’ve put out two “scoundrel lit” fantasy novels, darkly humorous and very concerned with male/female relationships. So far as I can tell, mostly men have read them.

I don’t think I write for any particular gender. I write the books I want to read. I often write from the male point of view, but probably just as often I write from the female point of view. I like to think there is a great deal of emotion in my stories, and that there are meaningful relationships.

So why don’t more women read my books? What is it in general that determines if men or women will read a book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, men and women both.

Posted on: Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 at 9:50 am
Categories: Musings On....
Tags: , ,

14 Responses to “Reader vs. Author Gender”

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) Says:

    So is it that women read less secondary world fantasy and science fiction, I wonder? Is that what this whole “writing for men or women” thing about? Women read more Urban Fantasy.

  2. Linda Says:

    That’s a big question of mine — how much of the difference is simply genre preference?

  3. Toby Neal Says:

    My scientifically-unsupported opinion is that it’s the covers, particularly for the recent fantasy books (which I loved and think women readers will love) were more masculine looking. I wonder if your more “feminine” looking covers, like Memory and the Bohr Maker, attract more female readers? Any way to track that?

    It’s all very hard to tell what’s going on. I know in designing my covers I was happy to have my gender neutral name when competing in the “police procedural” category which is dominated by male readers…but that women buy more books, even ebooks, so having a flower theme on my covers was going to be oK. Seems like I have more female readers but men read the books too, and a few complain of the amount of romance (ha!)

    I think the “branding” concept is important, but hard to do when you are writing across multiple genres.

  4. Linda Says:

    If there is a gender split determined by my covers, I haven’t noticed it, but of course the data is woefully lacking. The idea that women buy more books in general is disconcerting to me, because if women buy more books and read across gender lines, shouldn’t I see a greater percentage of women readers? But as you say, it’s very hard to tell what’s going on.

  5. Robert Says:

    My hypothesis would be that the ladies just prefer things that are more connected to the practical day-to-day world, rather than something that happens in another world which has little relationship to us. One example – my wonderful wonderful wife prefers not to watch a National Geographic documentary about the Mars Curiosity rover that fascinates me, she says it’s too far removed from real life to be of interest to her. Which is a good point – the likelihood of any of us ever going to Mars is pretty much zero. However, she loves documentaries about people in survival situations in the wilderness – situations which we could, potentially, find ourselves in one day.

    It may be true that there are meaningful relationships in your book, Linda, but one has to actually read the books (or a snippet of them) to know that. In this world of mass media filling up our mental time, before taking the trouble to read anything of a book, or check out any material of any kind, my brain does a kind of quick analysis to see if it’s worth my time doing so. If the first impressions (title, book cover, etc) don’t attract me, the result of that micro-analysis is probably going to be negative, and so I don’t spend any more time on the item. Toby may have a good point about covers.

    Greetings from Australia,

  6. Linda Says:

    Hi Robert,

    I look forward to going back to Australia before too long!

    I completely agree that covers do aim books at a specific audience. So are the covers dividing the audience more than the gender of the author? And is genre more important than author gender in determining who reads the book?

    It’s just I keep seeing this idea that men (in general) won’t read books by women, but that has not been my experience, and I feel it’s something that needs to be said. Still, I have not had big audiences, ever. Maybe that’s because while some men will read books by women, others tend not to, and women tend to reject hard SF — a double whammy! Without data though, it’s very hard to know.

  7. Andrea Says:

    I don’t think it’s true that “men” won’t read books written by women. Clearly some men do.

    But some men also state outright that they will not read a book written by a woman or (more usually) a book with a female protagonist. This is simply what some men say they do.

    I’m sure some women say the same about books written by men, but I suspect the percentages are smaller. And some women read (and write) hard SF.

    The question of how big a percentage in each group becomes a factor when hard SF written by/featuring women (or men) is selectively not published/recognised/reviewed/advertised/made available because of the gender of the writer/protagonist. Without a truly enormous survey, I don’t think it’s possible to know the exact percentage, and no really definitive survey has been done (or even seems achievable) so it’s all just guesswork. Hell, there’s people who still claim women just don’t read SFF, which says a lot about the guesswork.

  8. T. Says:

    A female author in hard SF is *more* likely, rather than less, to make me pick up the book. I read my way in the past through Tiptree and Bujold and Cherryh and Robson, along with Sawyer and Swanwick and Vinge and Egan and the Bs etc etc, and my bookshelf is well populated with both genders. But these days I’m more likely to hope that a female author will be doing something out of the box, and pick up the book accordingly. To an alarmingly prevalent degree, white guys tend to write chocolate-box futures filled with white guys. Yawn.

    And I am now buying more and more in ebooks rather than physical books, due to travel, so the cover has become less relevant – unless it’s an astoundingly good one, like the forthcoming “The Other Half of the Sky” collection.

    (I suppose at this point I should note that I’m a woman, & working in the physical sciences, given the commentariat to date.)

  9. Linda Says:

    Andrea, agreed on most points–and I’m one of those women who reads and writes hard SF. I should also say that back when I was being traditionally published, several of my books were widely reviewed, so I’ve got nothing to complain about there. Advertising though–not so much, but it was the same for most authors regardless of gender.

  10. Linda Says:

    T., thanks for your comment. Your reading experience and mine are similar, reading across many authors, and many different types of books. Writing outside the lines is always a gamble though. Sometimes it’s one that pays off big, but often not.

  11. Glenn Says:

    Wow, this meme or variations thereof are everywhere at the moment.

    As a male reader, I can affirm that I don’t care what gender/race/religion/political affiliation/sexual preference/personal hygiene level, the author has/is. If they write material I am interested in, I will read it. If they write material I am not interested in, I won’t.

    Covers, hmm, maybe I’m different, but I try to ‘never judge a book by its cover’. Have some read and thoroughly enjoyed some works with covers that were awful, and conversely have seen some awesome covers on wasted trees.

    The only reason I will look at an Authors name is to determine whether I have previous experience with them. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the name or cover. The choice for me is normally based off the synopsis, and a quick look at a couple of paragraphs, ie storyline and style.

    Looking back over this last year, and never having paid attention until these queries started appearing all over the place, female authors wrote 82% of the novels I’ve read this year(39 of 48), though my current reading list, piled up and awaiting my attention is 70% male authored. Those stats are across Cyberpunk/Fantasy/Steampunk/Scifi genres.

    One last point, before I bore you to tears, if a novel is YA friendly, and I have enjoyed it, I will pass it on to my 15yo niece and 14 yo nephew, and they both enjoy most of what I share, with no gender bias.

    Cheers and Best Wishes,

  12. Linda Says:

    Thanks, Glenn! I think that your approach to the question of what-to-read-next is really fairly common. I hope so anyway! I have to admit I am swayed by covers. There are a lot of covers, especially in urban fantasy, that for me trigger the “Nah, I’m not going to like that” reaction, but mostly I pick up a book because word of mouth says it’s good.

  13. Nathan Says:

    I don’t believe there is any thing resembling an unwillingness for one gender or another to read certain genre’s, nor works by a certain gender. But there is a major difference in marketing/networking.

    For a long time I read mostly male authors, but anywhere I went they were being pushed. My own library had nifty bookmarks with “fantasy recommendations,” along with other genres. Of the 25 series listed on the bookmark, 22 were written by men.

    I wish I could find it, but someone did a informal survey last year of major fantasy review sites, and found that they were disproportionally reviewing books by male authors. It wasn’t until I started following a different set of smaller blogs that I was introduced to a large number of the female authors I have read the last two years.

    I guess the gist of it is, in my circles the meme you mentioned seemed more true. If someone asks for recommendations on the forums I frequent, the responses are overwhelmingly male authors. I find it interesting that your own experiences are different, and that shows just how much things change in different circles.

    Finally, never read your works(saw this blog on Twitter), but look forward to picking up The Dread Hammer.

  14. Linda Says:

    Nathan, thanks for stopping by and for trying The Dread Hammer! I think the problem with the meme is that it vastly over generalizes, and while it’s likely true in some contexts, it’s way off in others, and insults a lot of men who do read widely. In defense of my own readers, I felt something needed to be said. 🙂