An Analysis of the Gender Disparity in Romance Fiction Readership
By Kevin Zhang (2019)
This report focuses on and analyzes the claim that male readership in the romance fiction genre is significantly different than male readership in other genres of fiction. Through drawing from consumer surveys at various points in time, I can calculate the approximate gender proportions in romance and other genres of fiction. From these calculations, I have found that the proportion of female and male readers in romance fiction do not differ significantly from that of overall fiction. As a result, I do not believe that romance-specific factors, such as cultural norms, have a significant effect on romance fiction readership.
More than most other literary genres, “the romance novel has been misunderstood [and ignored] by mainstream literary culture—book review editors, reviewers themselves, writers and readers of other genres, and especially, literary critics” (Regis 3). Often unspoken of in public, “women admit that they cover a romance novel if they are going to be reading in public” (Pamela xi). Furthermore, for example, “…during ten weeks in late 1997, …the romance novel went unreviewed, despite [several writers of romance fiction appearing on the New York Times Book Review’s Best Seller List]” (Regis xi). Even recently, in 2017, Hillary Clinton described romance fiction as “women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance” (Kleypas). Thus, romance has been ignored and demeaned by the public despite its popularity.
The romance genre has been incredibly popular, with eighteen percent of US adult readers in 2008 indicating that they liked it (Statista). As shown below, the reported figures of Simba Information Estimates from 2012 show that the romance genre generated the most yearly revenue of genre fiction, $1.44 billion, almost double the second highest genre that year (Stewart). This immense popularity is paradoxically the opposite of what I would expect given the critical response to the romance novel, which Deborah Chappel, an Associate Professor of English at Arkansas State University, has characterized as “dogged insistence on containment and reduction” (Regis 3).
According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the largest organization of genre romance writers in the US, any romance fiction novel must contain two basic elements: “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA).While the description seems simple enough, the genre mainly attracts one gender; in 2014, a study conducted by the RWA revealed that, in the United States, women made up eighty-two percent of romance book buyers, with men holding eighteen percent. This disparity has created a belief in the United States that men do not read romance.
One of the proposed reasons for this phenomenon is that romance novels are popularly equated with women and femininity. For example, Conseula Francise, then an Associate Professor of English at the College of Charleston and researcher of African American popular romance, said “because romance novels are so equated with women and femininity, and because we train boys and men to avoid…being associated at all with femininity, [romance fiction novels] just falls outside the realm of what is accepted” (Berlatsky). Similarly, Eric Selinger, a Professor of English at DePaul University and Executive Editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, said that “[structural misogyny] means that you have a situation where some men consciously avoid and mock romance novels, and for others… it just never even occurs to them to try one” (Berlatsky). Essentially, because society has trained men to avoid anything associated with women and femininity, they instinctively either mock romance novels or avoid them altogether.
Another belief is that romance writers write to women, and do not try to write so that it appeals to men. This rests on the assumption that men and women have distinct writing styles. As best-selling romance author Kathleen Gilles Seidel puts it, “I write to women… I never make any changes in a book to make it more appealing to men” (Berlatsky). This corresponds with what David Kinney, a male romance fiction reader, said: “that men have difficulty seeing/understanding that it is from a female perspective and not spoon fed to them”.
The common belief is that women write to women, which naturally does not appeal to men “because men and women have different life experiences… [and, as a result] the writing of female and male authors will differ” (Lange). Anecdotally, this seems to make sense. According to gay romance writer Damon Suede, forty percent of his readers are men, a stark contrast to the RWA statistics. Suede suggests that this difference is due to his writing style, which often features raw or over-the-top scenes; men prefer to read these extravagant scenes that build heavy tension in the language. This suggests that the high proportion of male readers is either from Suede’s unique writing style or from general male writer characteristics. If the latter were true, we would expect a relatively large proportion of male readers and writers of gay romance. And yet, “women dominate the M/M romance subgenre in authorship as well as readership” (Brooks et al.). This might indicate that Suede’s atypical readership is attributable more so to his own unique writing traits.
While this anecdotal case is certainly interesting, a look at population statistics now might prove informative.
Although the RWA statistic indicates a large gender disparity, the proportion itself would only matter if the romance fiction gender proportion differed significantly from other fiction gender proportions. On the other hand, if the female to male proportions for reading and buying are similar between romance and other genres of fiction, it would suggest that the gender disparity in romance is more so attributable to general fiction trends than romance-specific ones. I decided to compare the romance fiction book-buyer numbers from the RWA to my own book-buyer calculations for the overall fiction industry.
A survey conducted by the AP found that amongst avid readers, women per year read an average of nine books a year, and men five (Fram). Since this survey only pertains to avid readers of all books, I wanted to find the percentage of the overall gender populations that read or bought fiction works. By multiplying the nine and five books a year to the proportion of women and men that read literary or fiction works a year, I arrived at the expected average books read per year for the general population. However, to compare this data to fiction book reading percentages, I needed to show two things: that I can use book buying and book reading interchangeably, and that I can use statistics for fiction and for all books interchangeably. The 2004 AP survey data of nine and five books per year for women and men, respectively, is equivalent to women being sixty-four percent of total book readership, and men being thirty-six percent. This is similar to the proportions from a Gallup survey for the American Booksellers Association in 1994, which found that women made up fifty-nine percent of fiction book buyers, and men the remaining forty-one percent (Gabriel). The Gallup survey allows me to use fiction and all book statistics interchangeably. It is also approximately the same as a 2009 study done by Bowker, which found that, in the US, women made up sixty-four percent of all book buyers (Gwinn). The Bowker study allows me to interchange between book buying and book reading through a transitive property, since the ratios are approximately equal. Thus, I can approximately compare the buyer proportions for all books to the reader proportions for fiction books. This assumption allows for an apple to apple comparison. Thus, I will generally use the terms book buying and book reading interchangeably.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts Research Division Report #46, in 2002 fifty-five percent of American adult women read literary works, as opposed to thirty-eight percent of American adult men (Liberman). By multiplying by nine and five, respectively, I arrived at an average of 4.96 books read per year for women and 1.88 books read per year for men. With the assumption that literature reading could be used as a proxy for book buying, seventy-three percent of fiction book-buying was done by women, with twenty-seventeen percent being men. According to more recent data from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2015, fifty percent of women read literary works, in comparison to thirty-six of men (Ingraham). Multiplying by nine and five, respectively, again, resulted in an average 4.5 books read by women per year and an average of 1.8 books for men per year. Once again using the assumption, this would result in a relatively similar percentage of seventy-one percent and twenty-nine percent, respectively. An interesting thing to note from the two National Endowment for the Arts surveys, taken thirteen years apart, is that the percent of men and women reading literary works has not changed significantly. This could imply that the rise of e-books e.g. Amazon Kindle has not drastically altered the percent of men or women who choose to read books.
According to a paper published by Princeton University in 1998, after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics, like education, women were 2.3 times more likely to have read a book of fiction in the past year compared to men (Tepper 4). This is equivalent to seventy percent of fiction readers being female, in-line with my rough approximations for overall literature. However, since the RWA data referred to the book-buying market, which refers to the percentage of books bought, we need to account for the fact that women read or purchase more books per year. If we stretch the nine to five ratio to these numbers, this results in eighty-one percent of fiction book-buyers being women, almost exactly in-line with the 2014 Nielson book-buying data for romance fiction. Since the National Endowment for the Arts survey showed that the percent of men and women reading literary works has not changed significantly over approximately the last fifteen years, I believe that these old datasets could still largely be applicable today.
Another survey in 2000 found that there was a gender disparity in almost all genres: fifty-two percent women in science fiction, sixty-nine percent women in thrillers, eighty-six percent women mystery/detective fiction, and eighty-eight percent women overall in fiction (Berlatsky). However, while this survey was referenced to in multiple articles, I was unable to locate the primary source of the survey. Similarly, while a survey referred to by NPR in 2007 reported that women accounted for eighty percent of the fiction market, I was unable to locate the “surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Britain” (Weiner). Because I was unable to find the sources for these surveys, I believe that they serve merely as sanity checks.
While the current 2014 RWA statistics do not differ much from my fiction data points, the proportion of male readers of romance fiction has risen sharply over the past decade. For example, in 2008, a RWA study found that men made up just ten percent of romance fiction book-buyers, a little over half of the 2014 results (Fisher). However, regardless of previous data, the hypothesis that the current gender disparity in romance fiction differs little from the current gender disparity in overall fiction or literature remains the same.
The similar readership percentages suggest that the gender disparity between romance and overall fiction is currently less-so due to romance specific reasons and more-so due to overall reading trends in fiction. A compilation of the book-buying statistics I have collected and/or calculated are shown below. For example, as of Q4 2014, according to Nielsen Books & Consumer Tracker, women made up eighty-four percent of the romance book buyer market (RWA). In comparison, according to the adjusted 2015 National Endowment for the Arts data, women made up seventy-one of the fiction book buyer market. The similar readership percentages indicate that, although a difference does exist, many proposed romance-specific factors are not as significant or impactful as initially thought. However, it still begs the question — why don’t men read fiction?
F = Fiction, RF = Romance Fiction
Berlatsky, Noah. “Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?” Pacific Standard. October 23, 2014. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://psmag.com/social-justice/dont-men-read-romance-novels-misogyny-femininity-publishing-books-92921.
Boog, Jason. “20-30% of Fifty Shades of Grey Buyers Are Male.” GalleyCat. November 29, 2012. Accessed March 26, 2018. http://www.adweek.com/galleycat/20-30-of-fifty-shades-of-grey-readers-are-men/62601.
Brooks, Emily, Alex Buben, and Fender Lauture. “M/M Romance.” Unsuitable (blog). Accessed April 10, 2018. https://sites.duke.edu/unsuitable/malemale-romance/.
Fram, Alan. “One in Four Read No Books Last Year.” The Washington Post. August 22, 2007. Accessed March 26, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/21/AR2007082101045.html.
Fisher, Maryanne. “How Much Do Romance Novels Reflect Women’s Desires?” Psychology Today. July 16, 2010. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/loves-evolver/201007/how-much-do-romance-novels-reflect-womens-desires.
Gabriel, Trip. “Women Buy Fiction in Bulk And Publishers Take Notice.” The New York Times. March 17, 1997. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/17/business/women-buy-fiction-in-bulk-and-publishers-take-notice.html.
Gwinn, Mary Ann. “Who Buys Books? 40-year-old Women and Others.” The Seattle Times. September 05, 2010. Accessed April 16, 2018. http://old.seattletimes.com/html/books/2012801171_litlife06.html.
Ingraham, Christopher. “The Long, Steady Decline of Literary Reading.” The Washington Post. September 07, 2016. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/09/07/the-long-steady-decline-of-literary-reading/?utm_term=.63891b79f76c.
Lange, Cheryl. “Men and Women Writing Women: The Female Perspective and Feminism in U.S. Novels and African Novels in French by Male and Female Authors.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, 2008. Abstract in UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research, XI (2008): 1.
Liberman, Mark. “The “fiction Gap”: Empathy, Prestige, or What?” Language Log. September 06, 2007. Accessed March 26, 2018. itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004885.html.
MyRWA : The Romance Genre : Reader Statistics. Accessed March 26, 2018. http://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=582. Berlatsky, Noah. “Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?”
Kleypas, Lisa. “Hillary, Please Don’t Reject Romance Novels – You Are a Romance Novel Heroine.” The Washington Post. December 08, 2017. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/hillary-you-are-a-romance-novel-heroine/2017/12/08/64bac658-dc2e-11e7-b1a8-62589434a581_story.html?utm_term=.ec7ce3befda0.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
Stewart, Thomas. “Which 5 Book Genres Make The Most Money?” TheRichest. January 31, 2014. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.therichest.com/rich-list/which-5-book-genres-make-the-most-money/.
Tepper, Steven J. “Why Do More Women Read Fiction?” Thesis, Princeton University, 1998. Working Paper Series, 6th ser.: 3-4. 1998. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.princeton.edu/~artspol/workpap/WP06 – Tepper.pdf.
“Type of Book Genre Preferred by U.S. Adults in 2008 | Survey.” Statista. Accessed March 26, 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/195575/us-adult-preference-of-book-genres-2008/.
Weiner, Eric. “Why Women Read More Than Men.” NPR. September 05, 2007. Accessed March 26, 2018. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14175229.