Friday, July 06, 2007

Where Men's Fiction Went...

I’ve been pondering that email I posted recently, in which the poster said that the publishing industry is dominated by thirty-year-old women and that women want romance. And, the writer said, if you write to that market, then you’ll be a success.

But he also wanted to know where the men’s fiction was, i.e., fiction that spoke to men’s tastes.

The comments were interesting, too. One comment said that men don’t read and another said that there’s little out for men to read.

The truth is, everyone is right.

It’s a commonly quoted statistic that 50% of all novels sold (or is it all books?) in the United States are romance novels. That would definitely seem to indicate a desire in the marketplace’s readers for romantic stories. But a ton of these novels are part of series. And there are, believe it or not, women who read a book a day. Who are these women? Housewives passing the time until the kids come home? Retired women passing the time until dinner needs to be made? Businesswomen with long commutes passing the time until the train gets to its destination? Pilots letting the autopilot fly the plane while they read? I don’t actually know, though I’m sure the Romance Writers of America does.

But I do know where the men’s fiction went, or at least I have a theory. In the early 1990s, three things happened in fairly quick succession:

Nintendo and PlayStation became household items;
Microsoft Windows began appearing on household computers;
The first Gulf War

A lot of what we call “men’s fiction” died off in the early 1990s. In fact, I lost my job at The Berkley Publishing Group specifically because of the drop-off in sales of what we called “men’s fiction action/adventure” (or so my boss told me!). I was hired at Berkley to replace a guy named Jim Morris, who was something of a legend in action/adventure publishing. My understanding was that he was a Vietnam vet and the kind of guy who brought a real springblade to the office when they were creating a series called SPRINGBLADE (Jim, interestingly enough, went on to write the movie OPERATION DUMBO DROP). Personally I never knew the guy, but I did take over his office and some of his authors. These authors tended to be Vietnam vets or even active-duty military personnel. They wrote series and sometimes standalone novels featuring snipers, SEALs, Special Operations teams, and the like. These series were steady and predictable sellers, along with Westerns and Romances.

These books were read, not surprisingly, mostly by men. But what kind of men were they? Well, for starters, a huge number of books were sold through military BXs and PXs. We were at peace and had been for a long time and I guess a shoot-‘em-up novel was the closest a lot of the military guys could get to any action.

Then the first Gulf War came along and, for months and months, more and more personnel shipped off to the Gulf for the Mother of All Battles. Six months waiting in the desert leaves a lot of time to read, but there weren’t many bookstores in the desert. So sales dwindled in the BXs and PXs. And it’s generally a fact of life in the book business: once you lose the shelf space, you never get it back. Plus once you’ve actually shipped out and come home, your interest in shoot-‘em-ups might be a bit less.

Next, Windows came along and, along with it, browsers to surf the WWW. Why read a book when you can be surfing the web? Sure, there wasn’t a lot to see, but even I remember spending hours reading bulletin boards on the old GEnie system, and that was DOS-based and at 2400 baud dial-up!

And let’s not forget our friends the video games. Pong was nothing compared to Atari and Atari was nothing compared to Nintendo or PlayStation. As a kid, I read for hours at a time. We didn’t have Atari or a PlayStation. I had to entertain myself reading science fiction and war novels. But by the time the early 90s rolled around, many a home had some kind of videogame and you’re nuts if you think that didn’t cut into reading time.

Today I have friends whose kids go nowhere without a book in hand. They are allowed only a set number of hours a week of “screen time,” which includes tv, computer, and games. I love this concept. I love that all three of these boys never go anywhere without a book (well, maybe they do, but they always have books when they come to our house, which may just mean we are boring).

But they are the exception. And it seems most of the kids who grew up playing video games or surfing the web don’t have the patience to sit still and read a book. Heck, I’m in this business and I can hardly sit still to read a book. I’ve got a half-dozen movies on the DVR, ninety-something emails to read, and plenty of other paperwork to review. Oh, and my portfolio needs rebalancing. And my sprinklers need to be adjusted because parts of the lawn are dying.

Okay, but what does that have to do with men’s fiction? Well, it’s all about the sales. Book sales in general are far lower than in the past. Our finite reading time now competes with the aforementioned DVR and WWW. Not to mention that we spend more time sitting in our cars commuting than ever before. Perhaps that explains the growth of audiobook sales.

Men’s fiction was always a smaller piece of the action than women’s. Simple fact. And now that the entire pie is smaller, that piece is smaller than ever. So what does get published better have an overwhelming potential to sell. And finding that potential seems easier with women’s fiction or nonfiction. Your target market is, well, a bigger target.

That said, there are plenty of thriller writers out there. I wouldn’t call them “men’s fiction” writers, but the books are pretty gender neutral in terms of readership. I know, because my father reads a ton of them.

But, hey, why not read some women’s fiction? Maybe it will put you in touch with your feminine side, which is sure to make you more interesting to your wife or girlfriend.



Anonymous said...

Men's fiction, rightly said, is the video game. I'll be blunt here and come out of my high-minded literary closet and admit that if video games managed to incorporate the vivid story lines, character development, and thoughtfulness of what we think of as men's fiction, I'd never have to read the stuff again. But getting fiction writers and game developers together might be like trying to get the cat and the dog to produce pitties (or is it kuppies?). And the result would probably be some gargantuan military-publishing-videogame-men's fiction-industrial complex.

The fiction aspect of video games is usually very poor (although there have been some worthy of the title), but as poor as it is, young boys cannot possibly be aware of its derivative, unimaginative nature. Well...because if you've never read Lord of the Rings, some fantasy knock-off story line will impress the bejesus out of you if it's the first time you've come across such a thing. By the time you're old enough to understand how poorly games tell stories, it's very hard to turn the console off and open a book. I like to think that if parents just read modern exciting stories to their boys instead of the traditional kids stories, they might see the possibilities of fiction later in life.

Mothers! Read some SciFi to your boys! Or fantasy. Or military historical fiction! My mother read early Stephen King short stories to me (probably leaving out the sex parts) and I loved it! Showed me how cool books could be.


I like to remind myself that the novel didn't always exist and that how we tell stories will change eventually.

aspnovelist said...

Hi Andrew,
I think you are absolutely correct about men verses women readers and the forces in our culture that drive such trends. The question is do you think men in general will come back to reading in larger numbers when they get tired of their video and computer games and surfing the Internet? What kind of novels would attract them? Novels about sports legends, technology, terrorism, crime, sex, modern day problems with women?

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