Secret Mens’ Business

KindleWe’ve been hearing it for a generation — men don’t read. Is it true, or is the industry just not serving them? And is it really bad news or just the evolution of media? Drew Turney learns more.

It’s one of the perennial questions of our time. Some say it’s an endemic problem in the publishing industry, which believes the simple maxim ‘men don’t read’ much more than it should, creating a culture that fails to adequately service what few men it attracts.

In an angry rant on the Huffington Post last April, US thriller writer Jason Pinter blasted TV ads for Amazon’s Kindle with their ‘twee music that would make any guy groan’. “Why would men buy an e-reader, considering the takeaway from these ads is you can a) learn about your pregnancy after falling for Mr. Darcy, or b) become Amelia Earhart or Holly Golightly?” Pinter wrote, arguing that the industry itself was alienating half its potential audience with female-targeted ads. “The next person who tells me that Men Don’t Read,” he concluded, “I’ll simply respond by saying Then You Don’t Know Men.”

The Feminine Mystique

Maybe it’s the industry and maybe it’s the customers, but it seems we package and sell books from a mostly female standpoint. Curiously so, considering there are as many men as women writing books — whether in the home offices of rich authors or the kitchen tables of struggling beginners. And as every author will tell you, you should write what you know and love instead of trying to second guess a market or trend a year down the road.

Because of the overwhelming number of books targeted at women, it’s therefore tempting to think a female aesthetic takes hold once a book enters the machinery of publishing. After all, women occupy marketing and editorial positions in overwhelming numbers. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of books aimed at women, where those aimed at men enjoy a few regular spikes at certain times of the year. How literally should we take the connection?

The authors, bookstores and publishing professionals we spoke to all praised the abilities of their peers to step inside the shoes of the opposite sex or different age groups to market a book effectively even though it wouldn’t necessarily appeal to them individually. As we know, publishers publish books to make money. So is it just the market talking?

John Birmingham agrees there’s a bias toward publishing books for women but calls it ‘the logical outcome of having a market which is driven by female purchasing power,’. After capturing the zeitgeist of share house living with He Died With a Falafel In His Hand, Birmingham’s found great success as an action/adventure/sci-fi writer with the Weapons of Choice and Without Warning series, and he’s noticed even the areas traditionally dominated by male authors and readers changing. “Even speculative fiction is now almost entirely a woman’s game,” he says, referring in part to the Twilight phenomenon, “I don’t think it’s because publishing is run by women, it’s because books are mostly bought by women.

Text Publishing’s fiction editor Mandy Brett agrees. She thinks the way books are marketed might be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than any inherent taste bias in the editor because of their gender. “We often assume genre stuff or certain kinds of non fiction is bought more by men, and I suppose we design books with that in mind,” she says.

The Big Sell

If you’re marketing a book for guys, do it in August or November. ‘Male’ titles traditionally enjoy big spikes for Father’s Day and Christmas — the time of year when the girlfriends, wives, mothers or sisters of Australasia are buying presents.

Because word of mouth is the publishing industry’s most valuable sales tool, women — as the most socially connected of the species — enjoy greater scope to pass along recommendations. As bestselling action adventure writer Matthew Reilly points out, books just aren’t part of men’s daily worldview. “Where’s the male equivalent of the Women’s Weekly book of the month?” he asks. “There is none.”

The result is that the audience size or life cycle of books for men is viewed as a tiny sliver of the field as a whole. “Of the top 10 books last year only two really interested men,” says Sophie Higgins, category manager for children’s, fantasy, romance and business books at Dymocks. “Paranormal and kids were the growth genres and men’s non fiction was actually down 5 percent.”

The biggest problem with marketing books to men is as simple as it is depressingly hard to combat. It’s not so much that men don’t read (“Lots of men don’t read fiction at all and don’t have the time for made up stuff,” says Karen Berrif, of independent Sydney bookshop Better Read Than Dead. “They’re really into history and biographies and things like that”). Men simply don’t shop.

Bringing Boys Back

To many, mens’ relationship to reading is in a state of crisis, particularly when it comes to kids and teenagers. It’s not a new refrain — there are plenty of old tricks to encourage boys to read, such as disguise the identities of female authors. Would as many boys have read The Outsiders by Susan Hinton or Harry Potter by Jennifer Rowling?

So it makes sense to start with the obvious question — what do women like about reading that men don’t? “I suspect it’s to do with male and female development in the teenage years,” Matthew Reilly thinks. “Men who read my books often say they came from reading mostly biographies and non-fiction. At some point for whatever social reasons, teenage boys consider reading for enjoyment sissy or nerdy and stop doing it.”

We should also remember the sweeping generalisations we attribute to boys, girls and the reading market are just that — stereotypes. A schoolteacher as well as an author, New Zealander Bernard Beckett says the ‘gnashing of teeth over whether we’re reaching boys drives me a bit nuts.’ “There’s so much variation within each sex and I find the portrayal of the struggling, illiterate, fidgety boy somehow patronising,” he says. Karen Berrif of Better Read Than Dead adds that reading might be as individual as whether you like spinach. “It’s been my experience that if boys read as kids they come back to it as adults.”

It may be that early difficulties with reading after being forced to do so in school puts many boys off reading for life. But instead of panicking because so many boys seem to lose interest in reading at round age 12, maybe we should consider it a natural progression. Do we think it’s a problem because of a cultural belief that well-read people contribute to a better society, or because we have a change-resistant industry crying poor in the face of competitive threats? “It’s not for everybody,” Bernard Becket says of reading for pleasure. “Opera’s not for me, but I don’t think society needs to devote a great deal of resources to making me an opera lover.”

Maybe men should read more, but since the first campfire adventure stories we’ve told and consumed stories for enjoyment. Endlessly cashing in on the same tired trends or cultivating a snooty grandiosity might simply be boring to today’s time poor, relaxation-starved average bloke. Maybe reading just isn’t that much fun any more.

The Technology Connection

As men reach their early teens, they start a love affair that will last most of their adult lives. “Men love gadgets,” says author John Birmingham, referring to the iPad, Kindle and the ebook revolution they’re ushering in. “These devices are about the consumption of media. Will men go from consuming rich, electronic media to a Tom Clancy novel? I think they probably will.”

As any psychologist or parent can tell you, there’s an innate male sense for utility and the technology that enables it, a hands-on need to build (or destroy) something that reading mightn’t provide. “Do men generally like ‘functional’ or ‘useful’ books more than reading for pure enjoyment?” Matthew Reilly asks. “Based on the adult male readers I’ve met, they do.”

With a love of tools comes a native appreciation of technology-based media, and that might be one way to engage men with the written word. “Kids’ action series are big if they have interactivity like websites or collector cards, like Zac Power,” says Sophie Higgins, Dymocks’ category manager for children’s, fantasy, romance and business. Marketing manager Sarah Wakely agrees. “Top Gear books do well. They seem to have an edge because it ties into another media.”

What’s more, not every sector of publishing is suffering. Just look at the following graphic novels enjoy among (particularly young) men. While Hollywood cashes in on comics, video games and the like, smart publishers can (and do) exploit a love of characters, subjects or properties regardless of the media.

Reading might not be cool, but after men play Assassin’s Creed on their Playstation or watch the Star Wars films on their DVD, there are books from both worlds for them to enjoy too. Some stories break ground in many formats before they become books, and deploying them on devices men love will bring them one step further to adding reading to their leisure pursuits.