Goodreads Blog

Reading Across the Gender Line

Posted by Patrick Brown on February 10, 2011
Yesterday, Salon.com's Laura Miller posted an article lamenting the fact that fewer books by women are reviewed in the press than books by men, and that, furthermore, there are fewer female reviewers in these book review publications -- such as The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and Harper's -- than there are male reviewers. Miller quotes statistics posted by Vida, an organization for women in literary arts. Miller also points to a comment by Ruth Franklin, noting that fewer books by women are reviewed because fewer books by women are published. By most estimates, this turns out to be true (in the world of literary fiction, at least). The question with all of this is why? Why are fewer books by women published and reviewed?

Miller provides an answer:

The imbalance in books published is indeed a puzzle; book publishers, like any other business, want to make money, and multiple surveys indicate that women buy and read far more books than men do. (This fact has long been established within the book business, but since some Salon readers have questioned it in the past, please see the National Endowment for the Arts "Reading at Risk" report.) If women were only -- or even primarily -- interested in books by women, the logic of the marketplace would dictate that publishers should release more titles by female authors.

And here's where we have to get anecdotal. There's really no hard data on how many books by male authors are read by women readers and vice versa, nor are we likely to ever see any. But try this: Ask six bookish friends -- three men and three women -- to list their favorite authors or favorite books, without explaining your motivation. Then see how many male authors the women list and whether the men list any female authors at all.


Oh, but we do have the statistics! We have data on how many books by women are read by men and vice versa. In 2010, of all the reviews posted by male users on Goodreads, only 18.3% of them were of books written by women. In contrast, 38.6% of the reviews posted by women were of books written by men. You don't have to be Bill James to see what this means -- last year, women were more than twice as likely as men to read and review a book by an author of the opposite gender.

Why is this the case? I can't say. I've tried hard to recognize my own reading prejudices, though I'm aware I could stand to diversify my shelves quite a bit more. I've also learned that there's no ground to be gained in shaming people about what they choose to read. Still, I echo Laura Miller's sentiments when she says: "A novelist I used to know once defiantly informed me (apropos of nothing we'd been talking about) that he'd never read a Jane Austen novel and had no intention of ever reading one. Deeming him something of a lost cause, I kept my mouth shut, but it was clear he expected me to get indignant, and to scold. Instead, I could only look at him with pity. The loss was entirely his."

I am proud to say that Goodreads has been quick to recognize the many great books published in 2010 that were written by women. In the 2010 Goodreads Choice Awards, books by women took home 16 of the 23 awards, including Favorite Book of 2010, Best Fiction, and Best Non-Fiction. Of course, Goodreads represents a different world than that of a traditional book review publication. We welcome readers of all books, whereas the focus of The Atlantic, for instance, is highly literary and somewhat narrow. Our membership is also majority female (and it's not even close). So perhaps it makes sense that Goodreads members would be more likely to recognize female authors than the literary establishment is.

I'm fond of ending posts with a question, and the question in this case is obvious: How parochial are your reading habits? Do you tend to read books only by men or women? Do you think about this at all when you're choosing what you'll read next?

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message 1: by H.L. (new)

H.L. Reasby "In 2010, of all the reviews posted by male users on Goodreads, only 18.3% of them were of books written by women. In contrast, 38.6% of the reviews posted by women were of books written by men. You don't have to be Bill James to see what this means -- last year, women were more than twice as likely as men to read and review a book by an author of the opposite gender."

Superficially, this looks like an interesting number, however, when you take into account the fact that fewer books by women are published through the traditional publishing houses, it's kind of like comparing apples and baseballs.

Unfortunately, there may be no way to get a truly accurate measure of this. Yes, women might be more likely to read from both genders, but is that because they truly have no bias, or simply because of the relative derth of books written by women?

With the new 'legitimacy' of independent publishing, it will be interesting to see how these numbers develop as more women take publishing matters into their own hands!


message 2: by Joanie (new)

Joanie I would say I'm pretty even in terms of the books I read. To be honest, I don't even look at the name of the author until after I've decided to start the book. If the plot/concept on the summary flap sounds intriguing enough, then I'll pick it up. Sometimes I'll even forget to read the little bio on the author until after I've finished the story. I try to diversify my reads so I touch upon various topics, whoever the author is just happens to be by chance. You never know when you'll discover another favourite, and frankly it's a shame to avoid authors of either gender.


message 3: by Joan (new)

Joan Grubbs I found this article interesting. This is a subject that I honestly had never thought about. Looking back over my last sixteen reads, my ratio of books written by women as opposed to men is about 60/40, which seems to be about average for women readers.I would guess that men maybe stick to a certain genre, whereas women may be a little more eclectic in their taste in books. I know for myself, I prefer variety,alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Would love to hear comments from other readers (men and women).


message 4: by Dani (new)

Dani I did a quick look at the last 50 books I listed as "read" on Goodreads. Only 13 books were authored by men. When I weeded out the cookbooks, memoirs, and such, only two of them were novels. Unfortunately, I didn't like either of those novels. To be fair, I don't think I am the audience for literary fiction. The few books I've read that fall under that classification have bored me because the characters seem to live in their heads too much instead of DOING something.


message 5: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Are you using the gender field in each author's profile to determine author gender? Because there are a whole bunch that have that blank.
If you are, it would be really interesting to re-run those numbers if there was a way to get all those fields filled in. Just looking at the some books on my bookshelves, approximately 10 didn't have gender filled in, and most of them were women.


message 6: by Kelly (new)

Kelly I try to not care about the gender of the author, but it's not always possible. I really enjoy the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which is dominated by male authors and male characters. I really prefer stories where the main character (or at least one of the main characters) is female (preferably not a girl in need of rescuing). Lots of the fiction I've read by men do not feature female main characters. I need to be able to connect to the main character(s), to be able to put myself in his/her shoes, and I find that a lot easier with female main characters, or men who aren't focused on killing everything in sight.

I'm also not interested (not primarily, at least) in wars, fighting, gore, etc., though that is what I also find in a lot of stories written by men. The stories written by women (in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, that is) contain strong female characters, interesting plots, and characters that have depth and dimension. I find that quite enjoyable.

My other preferred genre is romance, where a majority of the authors are female, one of the two main characters is female, and the women are likely to be "strong" at least 50% of the time.

Out of my last 21 books read, none were written by a man. Oops. My stats for 2010 books read are better, but not by much.


message 7: by Gail (new)

Gail Of the last 50 books I read (which only takes me back to the end of Oct. 2010), only two were by a man--the same man. Every single book is fiction, most of them are genre fiction. I don't care much for literary fiction for the same reason as Dani. It bores me--too self-involved and slow. I pretty much stay in the "girlie ghetto" of romance and urban fantasy, which is why I have so many female authors on my list.


message 8: by Brian (new)

Brian I bet my numbers are skewed heavily towards male authours, but that's likely because a big chunk of my reading has been older SF, and it's very light on female authours.

I have no bias - some of my favourite authours are female, some I found out later were female using pseudonyms and I honestly couldn't care less the sex of the authour when I'm choosing a book. Nonetheless, I bet my stats look like I am.

It's a chicken and egg thing in some cases I think.


message 9: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Wardhaugh This made me curious, too. Over my last 100 books read on Goodreads, my ratio is about 70:30 female to male authors. I mostly read genre fiction, but there were some exceptions in that sample. I hadn't noticed a lack of female authors or a glut of male authors. There is never any difficulties in finding books I like to read, one way or another. The number game is fun to play, whether it means something or not. Perhaps when next Goodreads decides to do some re-designing, it might consider how best to give us tools to catagorize and study our own reading habits. And to share our results!


message 10: by Eric (new)

Eric Phetteplace I could really stand to read more books by women; it's also a problem with my musical tastes, where women are severely underrepresented as well. I hope to get more into Gertrude Stein, who was certainly among the most important and talented modernists. I think discovery is the hardest part; for centuries women have been taken less seriously, their books reviewed and promoted less. A few make it through the cracks into the canon, but by and large there's a lot that was missed.
I do take issue with the implication that not wanting to read Jane Austen is somehow patriarchal or misogynistic. I could repeat the "have no intention" sentence, but it's fully because Austen's style is not to my liking (neither is Tolstoy's, Tennyson's, or Henry James' either). So sue me. I'm allowed to have preferences and they're not based on prejudice but taste.


message 11: by Lani (last edited Feb 10, 2011 02:13PM) (new)

Lani Eric wrote: "I do take issue with the implication that not wanting to read Jane Austen is somehow patriarchal or misogynistic. I could repeat the "have no intention" sentence, but it's fully because Austen's style is not to my liking (neither is Tolstoy's, Tennyson's, or Henry James' either). So sue me. I'm allowed to have preferences and they're not based on prejudice but taste. "

Absolutely, preferences are everyone's right. And I'm not saying Austen is necessarily to my taste all the time either - though I've read most of her books. But I would think that a novelist (as noted in the OP) would be open to reading a lot of classic novels since that's how you hone your craft - by seeing what's come before you. And I'd be surprised if he dismissed Hemmingway, Tolstoy, (name your own generic 'classic lit' author here) in the same way.

I think it's particularly important for men to read books by women because there are so few other ways to see 'how the other half lives' in any other medium - TV, movie, even visual art. At least literature has more female perspectives than most other forms of media, even considering the dismal numbers that have been thrown about recently.


message 12: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Dingwall I read across genders and genres, but as I assess my reading, I find that left to my own devices, I gravitate to women authors, unless there is a lot of hype for a book written by a man, which often times there is. For example; remember The Da Vinci Code? And what about John Grisham and James Patterson books. I'm likely to hear about their books more often in the news, so would be made curious and enticed. When is the last time I read a news article about Kathy Reichs or Nora Roberts? Never, except when I've gone looking for one. I guess we women still have some catching up to do.


message 13: by Dani (new)

Dani Wendy, your comment brought an idea to mind. It occurs to me that where women are getting the Grisham-type hype these days is in YA fiction. Whenever I hear about the latest book that is being passed around my kids' school and even mentioned in mainstream media, it is usually written by a woman. Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and of course J. K. Rowling are a few of the authors that come to mind. Then again, that is still genre and not literary fiction, isn't it?


message 14: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Dingwall Good point and I agree with it. Perhaps women have more influence in that area, and we could grow young men who won't be hesitant to pick up books by women. I must admit, I know two men personally who have no problem reading women authors such as P.D. James (notice she doesn't use her first name) and suspense authors like Patricia Cornwell, but I also note they read many more male authors, which is understandable since they are men and probably relate more to what men write.


message 15: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Very interesting topic/comments.

The assumptions based on numbers bothers me a bit. If I, as a reader/reviewer, have less access to quality writing by someone who I belive is the same gender, it stands to reason I am more likely to have read books by the opposite gender. If the majority of quality books are written by someone of my same gender, it isn't surprising that most my reviews will reflect that. As one poster said, chicken and the egg.

My take on this is times are changing. Children who are exposed to interesting (to them) books that by both genders will very likely grow up to be adults who will choose books based on criteria other than gender of the author. I believe the same about authors with foreign names.

Sites like Goodreads has increased my access and reduced the ability of individuals (librarians, booksellers, publishers, and similar controls) to influence what I have access to read. Publishers/distributors have become much more amoral as well, if it sells, they will probably make it available. It can be overwhelming and messy, but it is freedom.


message 16: by Danya (new)

Danya Bakhbakhi I don't tend to pay much attention to the author's name before picking up a book to read, but it has always been obvious - at least to myself - that the majority of the books I like the most are ones written by female authors, especially when it comes to fiction. I think I just relate more to the stories that authors of my own gender write, of course there are some few males whom I relate to the stories they write and admire the characters they bring to life but still they're very few.
However I'm glad that someone had brought this up because I've always wondered about it and whether other people think the same way I do, sometimes I get lost when asked to recommend books to others and I don't know if they will like it less than I did because of the author's gender or if they won't pay attention to this detail.


message 17: by Danya (new)

Danya Bakhbakhi It's a shame that there are more comments from female readers though, I was eager to read the opposite gender's opinions...


message 18: by Guy (new)

Guy Here's a male comment, but given that two of my absolute all time favourite authors are Jane Austen and Anne-Marie MacDonald, with Barbara Gowdy sniffing at their heals, I may be an anomaly. However, gender rarely plays a role in my choice of book, unless I am looking to read about gender issues. I took a quick look at my books, and my recent reads are biased towards men, in part because of a concentration on Shakespeare and a certain fascination with Noam Chomsky and CG Jung right now. But my physical library, based on inches of book space attributed to gender, is only slightly biased towards the male side of things, and that includes the fiction, past and present, and non-fiction. For example, Jane Jacobs is one of my favourite critics of social/economic structures and I have several of her books; Marie-Louise von Franz and Alice Miller are favourite psychologists, and I have most of their books.

So, a man's comment, but an odd man out, I think. ;-)


message 19: by Liyah (new)

Liyah Nope, I don't prefer Authors of any gender, I don't even care. I choose my books by genre and reviews and don't care if a man or woman wrote it. I just expect it to be a good book, entertaining, exciting, fantastic.

I don't know if there are more male authors than female, but it would explain why woman read more books from male authors: Because there are plain and simply more of them.


message 20: by Rose (new)

Rose So far this year I've read 17 by men and 1 by a woman. In 2010 I read around 50 by women and 180 by men. I don't pick books based on the author's genre but do tend to read a lot more by men. I read a lot of non-fiction and not much genre fiction.


message 21: by Petra-X (new)

Petra-X That was a very interesting post.

I choose books on subject and have never thought about the gender of the author. This blog might make me more conscious of that. I have noticed in my shop though that men do buy more books by men, but that could be because they buy more mysteries and thrillers of the Patterson, Grisham type. However, the higher up the professional scale the customer, if they have quite literary tastes, then they are much more likely to buy books by women, Jane Austen included.


message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

"Our membership is also majority female (and it's not even close)."
So what is the ratio? (just curious)

And while I'm asking questions, if it's long been a know fact that, "women buy and read far more books than men do," what's the ratio? (curious minds want to know)

I can't help but wonder if the women/men ratio for book buyers is different than that for Goodreads.com membership.


message 23: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Great questions. Not sure it is possible to know, but then I started wondering how many of those books women buy are actually for others.


message 24: by Nathan (new)

Nathan Hmmmm...I never even think whether the author is a male or female. I just look at the cover :)


message 25: by Holly (new)

Holly The fact that there are fewer women reviewers of books than men is flatly a hiring bias within the profession. I say this because, as we all know, there has to be about two women to every man who wants to express an opinion about anything and when it comes to books, it must be more like 10 women to every man. I base my findings on the prolific number of book clubs out there and the fact that there are almost no men in any of them. Frankly, I am of the opinion that every literate man in America must be employed as a reviewer and I base that opinion on the fact that I have had to rewrite nearly everything written by every male boss I have ever had. Of course, maybe that is also happening in the world of book reviews.


message 26: by Tracy (new)

Tracy When I read the Salon article to which you refer I immediately thought of how Goodreads would have a tremendous amount of good data to mine on this subject. Thanks for sharing some of it.


message 27: by Alana (last edited May 01, 2011 06:08AM) (new)

Alana Moore Interesting.

I don't consciously choose books based on author gender, but I wondered if perhaps I did subconsciously. After some data collection of my own, I found that of the novels I read from 2009 to the present, my male to female author ratio was 44:56--not an enormous difference. I speculated that I more likely chose books by character gender on grounds of relatability (for lack of a better word). Well, I was wrong! My primary character gender ratio was 51:49, male to female. How about that?


message 28: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Theaker It would be super if the authors' gender could be included in the Export to CSV file feature, so I could have a look at my own figures, year by year, etc.


message 29: by Dee (new)

Dee while i'm sure the article is interesting, the heading in itself turned me off - she is trying to support her argument with statistics, but the one thing I noticed was missing (and probably because she didn't have access to the data) - we don't know how many men vs. women applied for these jobs - could it simply be that they are under-represented because they aren't interested in the stuff they would be required to review by the given publication? or aren't qualified (journalistically wise)? the author is making it sound as though (and this is just to me) that there is this network of people out there conspirering against female authors in literary fiction...


message 30: by David (new)

David Wong From Facebook and Google statistics, I learned that males in my age group form the majority of visitors to my site. I struggle with how to create content to reach across gender and age lines. I could seek female writers to contribute content but then it won't be my blog anymore. And as I am creating a second site, drawing on my visitors from the first site, I'm still left with the challenge to reach other demographics.


message 31: by Guy (new)

Guy David, with your reference to site stats, I just checked my followers for gender - hadn't thought of doing that before. 4:2 F:M. Undoubtedly this means absolutely nothing, but is mildly curious.

Recently I did what turned into a fascinating gender detection test in a Goodreads poetry group comprised of 18 people — 10m 8f. The 'test' - write one or two poems anonymously and have the other members determine the sex of the writer. The subject: "Nature Delimited".

Each were to write a poem inspired by one or both of two photos. For the most part the group was reasonably familiar with each others' writing and so pre-test most were confident that not only would they be able to detect the sex, but the actual writer.

They couldn't have been more wrong! Not only did they not know who wrote what, they were not able to do better than guessing at the sex for the first poem. It's photo being a 'soft' photo of an icy window looking out on winter trees. (The sex of the contributors was exactly 50/50.) Within the stats some odd anomalies: the best sex detector was m, with an 11/14 correct score. The worst m 2/14. One poem was most accurately guessed as to the author's sex 9/14.

avg correct 6.3
std dev 2.50
times F guessed 66
times M guessed 73
times sex NOT guessed 4

The second was even more interesting! The photo was quite harsh: it showed the remains of a mostly decayed seagull. The feather's remains outlined the bird, and in the area where the body would have been were scores of brightly coloured plastic human jetsam. It was a startling image. Click Dead Gull to view it. Caution: not for the faint of heart.

Well, this time the 14 contributors were split 9f/5m. As before, correct sex was no better than guessing:
avg correct: 6.09
std dev: 2.70

Already interesting, but now for the bizarre stats.
times F guessed: 53
times M guessed: 86
times sex NOT guessed: 7

So even though the number of female contributors almost doubled the male (9/5), the number of times male was guessed was more than 50% higher than female. Also, a male was again the best detector of sex, but not the same male as in the first poem.

This says something, I think, about gender and reading/writing, but exactly what, I don't know.


message 32: by David (new)

David Wong Guy, your post was a very interesting read. In my original post, I was mulling information which I readily had on hand compliments of Google and Facebook. I had not embarked on an explanation of why. I naively assumed it was based on my gender and age. Having read your results, it begs another explanation.

It is a practical matter whereby I want to attract a more rounded overall demographic - more important for my BuyBooks initiative than my other site which is in part to provide a smattering of topics to see what attracts who, and what Google search results the site invites. For book buying, it would be better to have more women and that is a matter for promotion and marketing.

Okay, I won't get women to write content for my sites for reason of attracting female visitors. It is just important to get the best writers regardless of gender. :-)

Rather than the gender that writes about a topic, maybe the key is to find topics that appeal to each gender. I think the writing style has an impact on gender and age appeal.

BTW, since my photo and info is available in Facebook, maybe that influences my followers/readers. OTOH, visitors from Google search that come to my site are facing the subject matter without prior knowledge of me, the writer of the material.

I'm sure there are experts in the field of Information and Analytics that can explain more on the gender influences. Analysing Facebook Usage Patterns is another example of data mining techniques that can yield explanations for the things we are talking about.


message 33: by Guy (new)

Guy David, I'm glad you found this interesting too. One of the constraints of my test group is that they are in the group because the organizer of it invited them to be members based on basically two criteria: the quality of their poetry writing and their ability to constructively critique and/or argue what makes good or bad writing. In my opinion he did a very good selection and not because I'm there, as I cautioned him that I consider myself to be an unworthy member - the quality of the writing is at times humbling. But regardless, these are very well read and articulate people, many of them published and some professors of English. Furthermore, the ages of the participants is from young 20s to 'old' 70s. Age did not appear to be a factor.

This group's background also adds another twist: do those of us who are very well read, read into writing differently than those who do not? I.e. would people unfamiliar with poetry react differently?

I found my little experiment to be very provocative, and feel a little saddened that I'm not in the right position to follow it up. But it sure says 'What you think might be going on along gender lines may not be what you think at all.'

Good luck with your project!


message 34: by David (new)

David Wong Things aren't always what they seem. I've encountered this predicament in various circles and circumstances. I try to focus on knowing the cause and effect, without necessarily knowing why. I do agree with your open thoughts on the experts vs others. It's all very well to have experts provide critique but at the end of the day, it is the reading audience that matters.

Netflix did a competition a few years back offering $1M to the entrant who can make the best movie predictions based on previous movie rentals. The solution involved data mining (data correlation methods) to find the patterns in the movie rental statistics (based on movies people rented and their ratings of rented movies). The winner probably understands the math but not necessarily an explanation of why people select the movies that they rent.

From one coast to the other, thanks for wishing me luck with my project. (I was in Ottawa for many years.)


message 35: by David (new)

David Wong Guy, if you are interested in following up on the experiment, would it make sense to do a blog containing poetry to be read by the general public - whoever can be attracted to visit the blog?


message 36: by Guy (new)

Guy I did think of that, but it presets the experiment for disqualification as science unless I can work into it the controls needed for it to be deemed scientific rather than just interesting. I've also seen first hand the problem of getting people to find blogs interesting. The little group accidentally provided both things.

Although, something like a blog within a blog - such as here in Goodreads. Hmmmm. This is worth thinking about. But where is the time?????

I remember when I was younger, and thought that answers would be easier than they've turned out to be.

Be well.


message 37: by Ashleigh (new)

Ashleigh Interesting post! I myself think I am the opposite, my all time favourite authors are all male. I do read both female and male authored books but when thinking about the books I love most the authors are definitely males.


message 38: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Does anyone know how to keep track of your own statistics in this area on Goodreads? I'm interested in whether I have a preference, and whether it changes, but I read too many books to want to do it manually. :)


message 39: by Guy (new)

Guy I don't. But when I've sent queries Goodreads support, I have gotten responses quite quickly, so maybe ask them. (Hopefully that hasn't changed since my last query.)


message 40: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Thanks, Guy--I've emailed support and will post their answer here, if interesting. :)


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