Book Publishers Lean towards Women
Trip Gabriel N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD
Last fall Matt Bialer, a book agent at William Morris, sent publishers the latest manuscript by Ed Gorman, the author of 17 works of fiction, primarily suspense novels that have had steady, if not spectacular sales. But Gorman's newest, The Poker Club, which is about four card-playing professional men who accidentally kill an intruder and see their lives unravel, was turned down flat by nearly a dozen houses.
"People said it was a good story but it was too male-oriented," Bialer said. "They said it needed a stronger female protagonist."
Bialer was forced to recognize what many writers, agents, publishers and booksellers have come to assume: The book market these days is increasingly a woman's market. While little publicized and hard to document, it is a widely held belief in the book business that more women buy books than men -- perhaps as much as 70 or 80 percent of fiction. And when it comes to novels and stories, what publishers believe women want are either works by female authors or -- if the author is a man -- then a story with a strong female central character. "Authors are very aware of it, because it's said all the time," Bialer said. "Men have to write books that will appeal to women and that usually involves having main characters that are women. Some can do it and some can't." Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Trade Publishing, whose Warner Books imprint was among those rejecting The Poker Club, speaks of the "feminization" of fiction publishing in the last five years. "I think of it as kind of a wave that has just risen and surged until it's swallowed us all up," he said. The current generations of prominent female editors and authors helps reinforce the perception that fiction publishing is being feminized, as does the phenomenal ability of Oprah Winfrey to turn literary novels into best-sellers by commending them to her largely female audience. But the male author is hardly an endangered species. The men who made it onto The New York Times hardcover fiction list in 1996 outnumbered their female counterparts by 52-34; the margin differed little in 1994 and 1995. Currently, of the top 10 hardcover fiction titles on The Times' list, seven feature female central characters: Hornet's Nest by Patricia Cornwell; Total Control by David Baldacci; Evening Class by Maeve Binchy; Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer; Airframe by Michael Crichton; The List by Steve Martini, and The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard. And while an eighth, Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz, has a male crime reporter for a protagonist, the plot seems tailor-made to pluck at female heartstrings. The hero is trying to solve a plane crash that killed his wife and daughters. Crichton and Koontz have usually specialized in what the industry calls boy books, thrillers about serial killers or high technology in which the hero saves civilization. In fact, Crichton raised gender hackles a few years back when the technologist-hero in his best seller Disclosure was a man pressing a sexual harassment case against his female boss. But there has been a crossing-over by such authors; in Crichton's latest, Airframe, the protagonist is a young woman investigating a near disaster on an airliner. "The techno-thriller has become a kind of emoto-thriller, if you will," said Kirshbaum. "What we used to call the boy books don't work nearly as well as they once did, except for a brief spurt at Father's Day." Exact statistics about the sex of book buyers are hard to come by in publishing, which is notorious for the paucity of its market research. A Gallup survey for the American Booksellers Association in 1994 found that for fiction, women made up 59 percent of book buyers and men 41 percent. For nonfiction, the breakdown was 53 percent women and 47 percent men. Many industry people say the gender gap may be widening. "We have fiction on one side of the store and then history and politics and biography on the other side," said Carla Cohen, an owner of the well-known independent bookstore Politics and Prose in Washington. …