Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
The recent decline in ebook sales has led many pundits to pronounce that the digital revolution is over. Admittedly, this is indeed the end, but merely the end of the beginning of how ebooks will affect publishing. We are now in the next wave of publishing’s digital transformation—one that is based on the use of data that is collected digitally and allows us to develop unique insights into audiences.
This is the fifth post in my exploration of data-smart publishing, and it explores whether gender and other demographic factors actually affect reading.
When users claimed their free ebook as part of the test reading trial, we asked them for their age and gender; this allowed us to examine whether these traits influenced their reading behavior.
When it came to participating in the trials, far more women signed up than men. This is not a surprise: women account for more book purchases and books read than men do. In general, we recorded 20/80 male/female splits across test groups, though some books were noticeably more likely to be picked by men than others (up to five times more likely, in fact).
What was more interesting to us, though, was whether the sub-group of men that read a book had the same completion rate as women. If a man decides to read a book, is he less likely or more likely than a woman to finish it? In other words, is the completion rate of a book at all gender-specific?
In general, the result was a firm no. In most cases, the likelihood that a reader will finish a book is not correlated with gender; both sexes have an equal probability of finishing a book. Issues such as writing style, strength of characters, topic and other factors have a bigger influence on the completion rate.
This holds true across non-fiction and literary fiction, including genre fiction like fantasy, science fiction and crime. Below is an example of a book by a Canadian author (Jellybooks test title #1048) that shows how men and women complete the book at near-equal rates (27 percent for male readers and 28 percent for female readers, which is not a statistically significant difference for sample of 400 test readers).
There is one noticeable gender-specific difference in reading across most books, however, which is well-illustrated in the above example: men decide much faster than women do if they like a book or not. The initial decline during which most readers are lost is much sharper and earlier for men than it is for women, and this is a behavior that we observe for the majority of books (the above title also loses readers in the middle of the book, which is a rather rare occurrence).
So put another way, men give up on a book much sooner than women do. Given the identical completion rates, we take this to mean that men either have more foresight in this regard or that women continue reading even if they already know that the book is not to their liking. We suspect the latter, but cannot prove it at this point.
In an earlier post, I highlighted that authors need to capture the attention of readers quickly. What our demographic reading analysis shows is that, when it comes to men, an author has only 20-50 pages to capture their attention. No room for rambling introductions. The author needs to get to the point quickly, build suspense or otherwise capture the male reader, or he is gone, gone, gone.
Now, there is in fact a noticeable exception to the rule of identical completion rates for men and women, as there is a type of book for which we observe significant differences between the sexes: books that deal with feelings. This includes books about emotions like grief, loss and love, but also books about relationships in general and romance in particular.
Books that predominantly deal with these categories show noticeable differences in completion rates, which can vary from relatively small differences (5-10 percent fewer men finish the book) to very large difference, in which the completion rate for men is half the value or less than that for women. Not only do fewer men start reading these books, but those who do start reading them are more likely to give up on them than women are, irrespective of the quality of the content or the narrative.
In such cases, it doesn’t matter if the author is male or female. Even male authors dealing with the above emotions will witness male readers being less engaged than women.
The fact that emotion is such a dominant influence should not come as a huge surprise, and anybody who has read John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus will be familiar with the arguments.
So in a lot of cases (e.g., a romance novel), we can pretty much tell a priori what the book’s audience will be. But where the tool comes into its own are the special cases for which it can help immensely to understand if a book has a strong or weak male appeal. Some young adult titles, for example, fall into this category, as do some historical fiction ones.
In an upcoming post, we will examine the influence of age on completion rates. Without giving too much of the story away, age has a much, much stronger impact on completion rates than gender does. More on that in a few weeks, and of course you will hear a lot more about this topic at our DBW workshop on data-smart publishing next month.
Note: All the data reported in this post was collected in pilot projects financed by Innovate UK. EPUB3 files were modified with candy.js by Jellybooks so we could record, store and extract the user’s reading behavior when using iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and selected Android reading applications. The data stored within the ebook file was extracted when the user clicked a “sync” button in the book. All users were informed about the presence of the analytics software.
We will also be holding a workshop on data-smart book publishing at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference in New York City. The workshop takes place on Monday, March 7th from 2pm to 5pm, just prior to the main DBW conference. We will look at the challenges publishers face in collecting data, making sense of data and applying it so they can publish smarter, more efficiently and more profitably. The workshop will include speakers from Elsevier, Piper (Bonnier Germany) and others sharing their experience of turning themselves into data-smart publishers.
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