Is the 80-20 female-male fiction ratio just the Snark?

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

Not a button, or feather, or mark,

By which they could tell that they stood on the ground

Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

While writing a post on three books by female authors I’ve read recently, I tried to track down exactly where the oft-asserted figure of “80 per cent of fiction is read by women” comes from. I haven’t been able to.

Which is odd, because it does seem to be an established belief. People quote it pretty loosely (I’ve done so myself, and often) – but no-one ever sources it.

Hmmm.

Here’s some links I found while trying to find this particular literary Snark:

- a 1998 Princeton paper on called “Why Do More Women Read Fiction?”  I’ve not read the whole thing, but even the title seems a bit lazily suggestive. Presumably it means “more women read fiction than men.” But it could also mean “women read fiction more than non-fiction,” which would be something very different.

- a 2006 blogpost with a link which no longer works to a dissertation that apparently said: “Women are more likely to read fiction and borrow from libraries than men.”

- an old Ian McEwan thing in the Guardian in which he tried to give away books in the street, and the only takers were women. From which he draws possibly exaggerated conclusions.

- an NPR story which says “men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain”, but then doesn’t say what that means or link to any surveys. Gah!

- a really interesting study into the so-called “literary gap” between men and women, which looks at empathy, education and social factors – and is also unable to track down the source for this “80-20″ assertion

- A pretty good Guardian summary of the spat earlier this year which pitted Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult on one side – arguing that review pages were dominated by books by white male authors – and Teddy Wayne on the other, who claimed that male authors were at a financial disadvantage because, yes, you guessed it, 80 percent of fiction is bought by women. Wayne linked to some places in support of his assertion. But hang on: do they assert anything of the kind?

First up is a mid-2011 report from the Book Industry Studies Group on Consumer Attitudes to E-Book reading, reported on by Tomorrow’s Book, which says:

The BISG says most eBook power buyers — that is, someone buying an eBook at least once a week — are by and large women (some 66 percent), who mostly buy fiction. Out of the entire eBook market, power buyers make just 18 percent of all buyers, but they buy 61 percent of the eBooks.

Where’s the 80-20 rule then? Not here.

The second of Wayne’s links is a Seattle Times piece from September 2010 by Mary Ann Gunwin. She quotes a report from Bowker, which says this:

Women make 64 percent of all book purchases, even among detective stories and thrillers, where they buy more than 60 percent of that genre.

80-20? Not here, guv.

In other words, I’ve not been able to find the source for this oft-quoted stat. Does anyone know where it can be found?

About Lloyd Shepherd

Lloyd is the author of The English Monster and The Poisoned Island. He lives in London, but dreams of Manchester.

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