(Real) Men Do (Not) Read

Posted on May 12, 2010


As my prelude to discussing acquisitions in my book publishing classes, I read students this quote: “I do not believe that there will be enough interest in the subject [to make a profit].” It was spoken by a publisher after the end of the Second World War about a manuscript of an English translation of Anne Frank’s diary. How wrong can you be? But in this acquiring editor’s defense, he was only working within the sphere that he knew, and that he was comfortable with.

At the end of WWII, book publishing was still an old boys’ game. Corporatization and conglomeritization were just starting to get a foothold on what was essentially a pop-and-son business. Major book publishers at that time were mostly companies that had been in families for generations. And the lines of succession were almost exclusively male. These scions of the book world were mainly upper-class, white (Anglo-Saxon white at that) and Ivy League educated. They were, to say the least, a privileged caste.

So, for a, say, Princeton-educated (Classics or English literature, probably) middle-aged Methodist to say that no one would be interested in the diary of Anne Frank, he is essentially saying he’s not interested in it. Its author, and subject, are so far removed from his daily existence that he cannot even conceive of anyone else being interested. For him, there’s no affinity with a teenage Jewish girl consigned to the fate of 6 million others in the Holocaust.

Lesson: Acquiring editors in the book world select books on the basis of what they know, what their field is. If the manuscript lies outside their scope, it does not become a book in their hands.

Much has been made lately about the fact that men don’t read anymore. And what’s worse, men are reading less and less books. Now as a red-blooded reading male, I’ll take exception to the direst of interpretations of the data. I read. I make my living reading, and I read for pleasure. If they’re not wrestling a kayak paddle out of my cooling hands after I expire, it’ll probably be a book (or a magazine or newspaper) that they’ll be pulling out of my greedy grasp (although those who know me too well, the chances that that object would be a TV remote are also very high).

A number of bloggers have commented on the fact that men read less, and have been buying less books. Laura Miller and Dennis Johnson both commented on Jason Pinter’s speculation on why men don’t read. Book publishing has changed some in the last 60 or so years. For the major houses, it’s now a corporate world where management has not grown up with books so much as exited the nearest business school with an MBA. It’s no longer companies that have followed the patriarchal line for generations. Most editors now are women. In the graduate publishing program where I teach, I’m lucky if there’s two men in a class of twelve.

Where have all the men gone? And why? For starters, for a professional occupation publishing is about the least renumerative. But that’s not really news, and that really has not changed over the generations. In his heyday, Maxwell Perkins could have made more money as doctor or a lawyer. But in those days, within the higher echelons of society, a publishing position garnered more prestige. (When people ask me these days what I do, or teach, “publishing” begets a blank stare and a quick change of subject, unless the inquirer happens to be working on a book…) When the upper class got out of publishing in the era of corporatization, the prestige also vanished (it was never there for the middle or working classes). So why work for little pay and little prestige, even if you love what you do?

So, the publishing employment rolls, and the roles of editors, especially acquiring ones, started to get filled by more and more women as the 20th century gathered steam and then braced for a close. It’s still the lowest paid professional work around, and with little social cachet. Women found less men to compete with for jobs in publishing and steadily increased their ranks.

Instead of WASPy men not knowing what women and youth might like to read, we now have women who love to read selecting books. While many many books have crossover value for both sexes, as much as I hate to say it, women are going to be at a loss as to what males (young and old) might want to read that has no, or little, crossover value (witness Pinter’s example of the Jericho book).

So how do we get men to read more? Well, duh, publish more books they’d be inclined to read (also in ways they want to read them — I’m not against books scrolling on a TV set like the Star Wars intro). But how do we publish more books men would like to read when those making the decisions have little incentive to move from their comfort zones?

There are two courses of action that might help with this problem. One is to attract more men back into the profession. Raising salaries by 50 to 100% to make it more comparable to other professional jobs will help — not only men, but also women in these jobs. You’re not going to skimp on paying the person who’s deftly excising your appendix but the person who takes a mass of (sometimes) inchoate words and transforms it into something that delights your soul is also worth some lucre. And it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge their skills. (Next cocktail party, talk to that editor even if you aren’t working on a book yourself.)

The other is education. It’s incumbent on those of us teaching the new crop of publishing professionals to be open-minded, to move out of their comfort zones, to not throw up their hands and give up when confronted with difficult questions, to want to continually educate themselves, to know that they don’t know everything and the world does not revolve around them.

…And maybe a third course of action: Next time you see a guy reading, make them think that reading’s really really sexy…