Why Men Don't Read: How Publishing is Alienating Half the Populationby Jason Pinter
The author's name was Chris Jericho. Chris Jericho is a professional wrestler. Needless to say, pitching Jericho's book to my editorial board was like pitching iPads to the Amish. A whole lot of blank stares and a whole lot of people saying 'I don't get it'. Now, this is not the fault of the individuals, but it is the fault of a system in which in a room of 15-20 people, not one of them knew what I was talking about.
Back in 2005, while I was still working as an editor, I had an opportunity to acquire a book that I was confident would be a bestseller. The author had a huge media platform, was one of the stars on a show watched by millions of people each week, hosted his own radio show, headlined his own band, he had a fascinating life story, thousands (if not millions) of fans worldwide, and even had a degree in journalisn. Unlike many celebrity memoirs, I knew this author was passionate about his story and had the writing chops to make it a great read. The author's agent wanted, in my opinion, a reasonable advance. I had confidence that this book was low risk, very high reward. However...
Like many boys, I grew up watching pro wrestling. I knew that Jericho was not only a huge star, but a genuinely smart, charismatic guy who had some incredible stories to tell. In an attempt to convince the editorial board, I brought in Chris's videos, action figures, CDs, anything I could think of to prove to a skeptical room that this guy was a big deal and his book would work. Nobody was buying my pitch. Nobody had heard of Jericho. So here's what happened--and I swear this is true.
One of our senior editors had a 15-year old nephew who was a wrestling fan. I was instructed to have a conference call with the editor's nephew, where I would ask him what he thought about Jericho. If the nephew agreed that Jericho was popular and the book had potential, I would be permitted to make an offer. If the kid disagreed, no dice. Naturally I was dumbstruck, infuriated, since I was essentially being told that a random 15-year with no publishing experience and questionable judgment was trusted more than I was. Thankfully, the kid agreed with me, and thought the book was a fantastic idea. The offer was greenlit, I acquired the book, and Chris Jericho's A Lion's Tale got rave reviews (Kirkus loved it. Kirkus!!!) and the book became a New York Times bestseller. The sequel is scheduled to come out this Fall.Why do I bring this up? Because if you've worked in publishing, you've heard the tired old maxim: Men Don't Read. Try to acquire or sell a book aimed predominantly at men, and odds are you'll be told Men Don't Read. This story is not an isolated incident. And while the book I'm discussing is not everybody's piece of cake, is is a microcosm of what I believe is a huge problem within the industry. If you keep telling yourself something, regardless of its validity, eventually you'll begin to believe it. So because publishers rarely publish for men and don't market towards men, somehow that equates to our entire gender having given up on the reading books. Hence the mantra 'Men Don't Read.' THIS MUST END.
In my opinion, this empty excuse of 'Men Don't Read' has begotten a vicious cycle. I was hesitant to write this article, mainly because in no way do I want to be perceived as diminishing the talents of many, many brilliant women in publishing, nor do I believe that there is a true 'gender bias'. A bias insinuates some sort of malice, a purposeful exclusion of a segment of society for selfish or ignorant reasons. Those kind of insinuations are not the aim of this piece, nor are they my opinions in any way. This is a critique of the system, not those who work within it.
This NPR piece three years ago came to the conclusion that women read more fiction than men by a 4-1 margin. Articles like this madden me because I think they miss the big picture, or perhaps are even ignoring it purposefully. It's like discussing global warming, while completely ignoring the fact that hey, maybe we have something to do with it.
Nobody can deny the fact that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions. Not to mention that, because there are so few men, the competition to buy books aimed at men is astronomical. I was once shot down in an effort to buy a sports humor book because I couldn't get the support of a senior editor. The reason? This editor had written a similar book proposal on submission and didn't want to hurt his chances of selling it.
Men read. Tons of them do. But they are not marketed to, not targeted, and often totally dismissed. Go to a book conference, a signing. Outside of a Tucker Max event, what percentage of attendees are men?
I thought about this while watching the first television ad for the Barnes & Noble Nook. The ad itself, I think, is quite well done and effective. It tells a story, hits strong emotions. But notice something odd? It markets itself solely towards women. What about the Kindle? Amazon is a brilliant, juggernaut of a company, but the ads for Kindle with their twee music 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?
Now look at the ads for the iPad. Cool, right? They catch your attention without alienating half the consumer population. Why can't we do that? Make a fun, cool campaign that doesn't cut your audience off at the knees?
I'm tired of people saying Men Don't Read. Men LOVE to read. I've been a reader my whole life. My father is a reader. Most of my male friends are readers. But the more publishing repeats the empty mantra that Men Don't Read the less they're going to try to appeal to men, which is where this vicious cycle begins.
Publish more books for men and boys. Trust editors who try to buy these books, and work on the marketing campaigns to hit those audiences. The readers are there, waiting, eager just under the surface. And I promise, if publishing makes an effort to tap it, they'll come out in droves. It won't be easy. They've been alienated for a long time and might need to be roused from their slumber. But as I've always said the biggest problems facing the publishing industry are not ebooks, or returns, but the number of people reading. This is a way to bring back a lot of readers who have essentially been forgotten about.
So the next person who tells me that Men Don't Read, I'll simply respond by saying Then You Don't Know Men.
Print it, and they will come.
I thought this would make a good companion article to this post because it's all I could think about while reading this nonsense. Let me quote author Maureen Johnson (who brought this to her followers' attention) about this, from her Twitter: "Why is something a crisis if women are (so they say) doing more of it than men? Would that be true the other way around? A better question: why is it that for HUNDREDS OF YEARS women read "boy books" and LOOK! We got them! But in theory men can't do the same?"