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Who is Reading What?


by Tom Ashford

An article by the Guardian was posted into the SPF Facebook group recently, in which it was claimed that eighty percent of readers buying novels in the UK, US and Canadian markets are women. A similarly disproportionate amount of literary festival goers, audiobook listeners and bloggers are also female, apparently.

Of course, as with any statistics regarding book sales since the digital (and indie) revolution, they may not paint an entirely accurate picture. Are they counting sales of ebooks with ISBNs? How did they get this data – through comprehensive sales reports from every outlet and avenue, or by asking a random section of the general public? And even if women are doing the buying, does that mean women are doing the reading? What if us men are just too lazy to click a button and order the books ourselves?

So I did a little more digging (albeit with a small garden trowel rather than a proper spade).

Apparently, two-thirds of Americans say that they never read books for pleasure, and almost half read fewer than ten books a year (let’s be fair, though – we don’t know how big those books are). The most common book count amongst readers in a single year, according to a questionnaire conducted by YouGov, was between one and five (31%).

Women are consistently more likely to have read more books than men, with the gulf between the two sexes climbing alongside the greater number of books read. By the time we reach fifty books a year (who are these people?), women are over four times as likely to hit that target than men. Suddenly that eighty percent purchasing figure doesn’t seem so outlandish – in fact, on the upper limits of binge reading, it seems to match entirely.

As for formats, 26% said they read paperbacks (though general stats tend to lean towards the 70% industry mark), 24% say they read hardbacks, and 16% read ebooks.

But a sweeping statement about the entire literary industry isn’t hugely helpful. It’s all well and good knowing that eighty percent of novel purchases are by women (even if they aren’t all the readers), but that can’t be true of every single genre. What if most books sold are in the romance genre, and what if nearly one hundred percent of romance readers turned out to be women? Wouldn’t that throw off our data if we were, say, looking into marketing a horror novel?

So let’s take a look at how popular individual genres are instead.

In 2017, Crime and Thrillers became the most popular genre of fiction in the UK, with over eighteen and a half million books sold. It was the most popular genre in the States, too – mystery, thriller and suspense ebooks brought in an estimated total of over 187,000,000 dollars.

Back in 2015, Romance had a 34% share of the US fiction market, and in the last nine months of 2017, it brought in around 162,000,000 dollars through 50,000,000 ebooks.

Children’s fiction is incredibly popular too (so it’s not just men and women who read – kids like books as well!). With over 19,000,000 books sold, bringing in £239,000,000, in 2017 they were actually more popular than thriller novels. Globally, children’s books are actually more popular than books for adults.

And finally, there’s science fiction and fantasy (my personal favourite). Lumping them together is a bit problematic (there are loads of fantasy readers who don’t touch sci-fi, and vice versa), but the two together amount to being the third best selling adult fiction genre in the UK (2017) with over three million books sold. Interestingly, self-publishing seems to be boosting the genre somewhat.

So there you go – it can’t all be women, and even if it is, the market just isn’t that simple.

Extra Reading – American Reading Habits

Extra Reading – Genre Reading Habits

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.