Thursday, June 10, 2004

Men and books

My son kindly sent me an article from last Sunday's Observer -- 'You couldn't make it up', by Jonathan Heawood -- which contains some interesting data about book readership.

The article is really prompted by a slightly wearisome promotion by Penguin Books, which is intended 'to get more young men reading, thereby releasing a huge reservoir of marketing opportunities.' But we won't bother about that.

Neither will we dwell on the fact, or alleged fact, which Penguin's research purports to show, namely that men who are seen reading a book are more attractive to the opposite sex. I have spent my entire life reading books, and I have seldom had to beat the ladies off with a club, so I am not too impressed by that finding.

No, instead we will look at the issues and the data, such as they are, which are associated with the Penguin initiative. First, Heawood points out that, whatever the success or otherwise of Penguin's cunning wheeze (known as 'Good Booking', by the way), there's 'a serious issue at stake. Why don't men read books?'

Well, to begin with, of course, they do. I seem to remember, a few years ago, reading an article by a couple of ladies who were running a 'women's bookshop'. They made the point that, loyalty to the sisters notwithstanding, they would have gone bust had it not been for the blokes popping in for the books on football and classic cars et cetera.

According to research by Book Marketing Ltd, sales of books divide virtually 50/50 between the genders, but the same source claims that only 44% of men read novels, compared with 77% of women. So the question is this -- how can writers, publishers, and booksellers persuade more of those blokes to read novels, and thus release lots of cash into the system?

Well, I wouldn't have thought there was any great secret about it. You just arrange for lots more first-class thrillers to be available. Men have always read 'thrillers' (however defined) and I suspect they always will. You can go back to Fergus Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab (the smash hit of 1886), through the pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s, to the world of Mickey Spillane (for the not so bright), Ian Fleming (for the fairly bright) and Len Deighton (for the awesomely bright -- particularly in relation to the early books, where it was one hell of a job to figure out what was going on). So, the answer to getting men to read books is to produce lots more first-class thrillers. 'T'ain't no secret. All you have to do is find the writers who can do the job.

Ah, well now, that's the bit tricky, that is. Though the methodology itself is not a secret either. You just find someone who is interested in doing the job, and who shows some aptitude for it, and then you train 'em up, and you allow their talent to develop over half a dozen books, and with a bit of luck you eventually end up, one time out of ten or so, with a professional series of books which will sell and sell.

But do our friends the publishers have sufficient wit and wisdom to do that?

How many guesses do you need to answer that one?

In the first place, the people capable of training up said thriller writers are few and far between. But they do exist. I myself, for example, am available for consultancy on this issue for a modest £500 a day. Whether any publisher is prepared to make such an investment is open to question (just about), but the answer to the question is normally No.

Then there's the question of allowing the talent time and space to develop. Not to mention the question of how the poor devil is to support himself (or herself) while mastering the art of writing. Modern publishers just don't have the patience to do this. (I suspect that they don't have the resources either, for all their massive and much publicised advances.) Years ago, Simon Raven's publisher paid him a weekly wage to produce books, and my guess is that lots of writers might be interested in such a scheme today. But publishers -- or their accountants -- just can't bring themselves to do that.

Only last night, for instance, I attended a talk by a local writer, Stan Hey. Stan has written three books about a private eye who is based in the author's home town, Bradford on Avon. The audience was naturally interested to know when the next book would appear. Ah well, said Stan, the publisher isn't interested in doing any more unless the TV people want to turn it into a series. And the TV people aren't interested unless there are more books.

You see, Stan's books are perfectly professional, but they haven't 'caught fire', 'taken off', 'broken out' or done any of the other fancy things that publishers prattle about. If they gave him time (and money) to do 10 or 20 of the things, everyone might get somewhere. But no. If it doesn't happen now, they just aren't interested. Try someone else. You never know, a new and unknown writer might turn out to have the magic formula. They might know how to sacrifice frogs at the crossroads at midnight, or do whatever it takes.

It was not always thus. Some publishers used to have a rather better understanding of the writer's art. In 1981 I had breakfast (as you do) with a crime fiction editor at Dell, the American paperback company which was then publishing some of my own crime fiction. Who on their list had I been reading, he asked me.

I mentioned the name (now forgotten) of an American woman who had written four or five whodunits set in small towns, with domestic cookery as the common theme. She was, I said, a pretty entertaining writer.

Yes, said the editor, she was. But unfortunately she had recently died. Which was a pity, he added, because after four or five books she was 'just beginning to learn how to plot.'

The old guys at least understood how things work, you see. The new ones either don't or won't.


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