Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Response to Deahl and Pinter

I stumbled across an article from Publisher’s Weekly the other day, by Rachel Deahl, which pointed out the proportion of women the in the publishing industry: 85% of workers with fewer than three years experience, 82% of workers with between 3 and 6 years experience, and 70% of workers overall are female. Some have called this statistic alarming, but I don't think that's necessarily the case.

Apparently the impetus for Rachel's article was this article on the Huffington Post by author and former editor Jason Pinter. The title, for those who don't want to click, is "Why Men Don't Read: How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population." This is a fairly inflammatory title to what I would describe as a less inflammatory post. Pinter's argument seems to be less about the number of women in publishing than in the lack of marketing pushes to garner young male readers. His anecdotal story about Chris Jericho's memoir is, I think, beside the point. I can think of any number of men (several men were likely in that meeting he describes, even if the proportion of men to women was 1:3) who would have no idea who Chris Jericho is or why anyone would be interested in reading his memoirs. I think that the real point is less about women not knowing what young men like and more about people in the publishing industry in general being out of touch with what young men want. Which is his real point.

I don't think he's wrong about a mantra of publishing being Men Don't Read, but I'm not certain he's right about the number of men who would be interested in reading books targeted at them. I can think of several book series that historically were targeted at boys (Heinlein's juveniles, the Hardy Boys, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series I read as a youth, for instance). But my sister had her Babysitter's Club books, Nancy Drew, and other series. The difference between us, though, was that my sister also read all of the books that I was reading, in addition to the books that were "girl books," a proposition I never reciprocated. This is of course an anecdotal experience and may not hold true on average, but I would be surprised if many young boys are interested in reading those urban paranormal romance books which are so popular right now, while I imagine there are many, many girls who still read traditional science fiction and fantasy that their male peers enjoy.

I'm reminded of Johnathan Culler's essay, "Reading as a Woman," from his book On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism and his argument that women are trained to adopt the role of male reader due to the presumption of a masculine reader in most prose works. I wonder if this hasn't shifted somewhat since he wrote the essay in the 80s and why that would be considered a bad thing. Doubtless women read fiction at a much higher rate than men, so why would the presumption of the average reader as female not make sense, especially when authors such as Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, and Philip Roth, those who would arguably appeal to male readers, are read at equal or higher rates by women?

Of course, all of this discussion is ultimately silly. Sure, books should be marketed more to boys and young men because they don't read as much and that's surely a problem. Every time I stumble across a MySpace or Facebook profile of a young friend or relative and they joke in the "Favorite Books" section about not reading or "haha, what are those?" it pains me. But the fact of the matter is that commercial publishing, those books put out by Random House and Hachette, is mostly about profit these days. What sells and to whom? While it may be true that Pinter is right, that more men would read and buy books if they were more assiduously courted by publishing interests, the current state of the situation is that women buy many more books than men, are more likely to buy them new, and to buy them in hardcover, and that is simply the best business model for publishers currently. They are already fighting the economic downturn just as the rest of us are, and the last thing they're going to feel inclined to do is shift their business model and marketing focus to appeal to a demographic which is perceived as being apathetic to their product, whether that apathy is real or imagined.

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