In Search of the Male Reader
- Monday, July 18, 2011
Walk into any Christian bookstore and browse the fiction section, and you might think only women read Christian fiction. The shelves are packed with titles of Amish, romance and historical books that tend to appeal more to women than to men. While Christian mystery, thrillers, suspense, military and political titles also jockey for space, women are still more likely to pick up those books than men.
But there are signs—mostly anecdotal— that may be slowly changing. In my own house, my husband, who reads little fiction in general and hasn’t picked up a Christian fiction book in years, came home from the library recently with a Christian crime novel—Back on Murder by Mark Bertrand. Even more surprising, my husband read the book and liked it.
It seems that Christian men do read Christian fiction, “though we believe them to be much fewer in number than the women who buy and read Christian fiction,” says Rebecca Germany, senior fiction editor for Barbour Publishing.
When it comes to Christian fiction, Christian male readers are definitely in the minority. “I keep hearing that 80 percent of Christian fiction readers are women, but that seems to be more anecdotal and less a comment based on any set of research,” says Chip MacGregor, president of MacGregor Literary Inc.
Women also read more and buy more books in general. About 60 percent of Jim Rubart’s readers are women, with men comprising the remaining percentage. “Men don’t think Christian fiction is a male product,” says the author of Rooms and the upcoming The Chair. “The reality is there is a great deal of great Christian fiction out there men would enjoy. The problem is that if a man walks into a store and it’s filled with 75 percent female clothing and 25 percent male clothing, the man will usually go shop somewhere else, which is also true for Christian bookstores.”
“We have genres where men might make up 40 percent or 50 percent of the readership, and other genres where they are likely less than 5 percent of the readership,” said David Long, senior acquisitions editor for Bethany House Publishers. “For guys who might want to read a suspense novel or legal thriller, it’s tough convincing them there are those kinds of books available. The shelves look like they are filled with Amish and historical romances and I think men have either stopped looking or are content with offerings from the general market.”
But B&H Publishing Group has hope that those numbers will be on the rise soon. “We are finding there are an increasing number of men reading Christian fiction,” says Julie Gwinn, manager of fiction at B&H Publishing Group. “Our sales reps are telling us that this is a growth area in Christian bookstores.”
What Men Do Read
However, with so many more women readers than men, it can be difficult to publish or write books exclusively for male readers. “It is pretty easy to look at a book list or shelf and see that the main target of Christian fiction is women,” says Germany. “Even those publishers who are trying to reach the male reader, still keep their main female consumer who buys for the men of her household in mind by softening covers, titles, and such more so than they might if they only expected to sell the book to men.”
Writers whose books appeal to male readers say that grabbing the attention of a male reader isn’t much different from a female reader. Both want a well-written book with a good plot and characters who speak to them. That’s not to say there are not a few differences in books preferred by men.
“Men can take some writing about emotions, but that’s salt, not the meal. Men want to see a man act like a man—I’m not talking macho behavior, I mean male readers want to see men in their novels react to crisis and conflict the way they would,” says Rubart.
“I think it's mainly a matter of subject matter,” says Donn Taylor, author of Rhapsody in Red and The Lazarus File. “For example, my first novel included a good bit of detail about airplanes, and I expect my lady readers skimmed over those. I expect ladies to be more interested in relationships and men to be more interested in struggle--not necessarily physical, but definitely in overcoming problems.”
Bertand agrees. “I really don’t write with the idea of a specific reader in mind except for maybe myself,” he says. “I write the kinds of things that I like to read, and because I’m a male, I’m thinking that way.”
Male readers gravitate more to “plot-driven books (action and pace) than character-driven books (emotions and internal conflicts),” says Germany. “There will be more action and adventure. The story-telling pace will be faster. The main character seeks adventure, stands for justice, and gains respect. They also tend to be either creepy, combative, or prophetic.”
Publishing Male Fiction
Publishers are trying to appeal to male readers by putting out books written by both men and women in genres traditionally read by men. For example, upcoming releases include an international political thriller (Lion of Babylon by Davis Bunn) and crime fiction (Pattern of Wounds by Mark Bertrand), fast-paced novels (Vigilante by Robin Parrish).
“Historically, Frank Peretti’s books, the Left Behind series, and authors Ted Dekker and Joel Rosenberg are probably the biggest names who have gained male readers,” says Long. “But outside the suspense genre, there are wonderfully diverse writers like Athol Dickson, Dale Cramer, Tom Morrisey, and Charles Martin. They’re writing novels for everyone. We just wish everyone knew their names.”
Men seem to like books in the suspense/intrigue, end times/prophecy, speculative/spiritual warfare/paranormal, and fantasy genres, says Germany, although she added that Barbour steers clear of anything “more than 50 percent geared to men. For all of our fiction, we assume a female is our main target audience. Even then, most of our suspense type books that we know a man would enjoy reading sell fewer copies than our fiction that is categorized clearly as romance for women.”
B&H Publishing had a line dedicated to male readers called Fidelis, which has since folded back into the general fiction category. Of its fall fiction line-up, half of the titles B&H Publishing will bring out are geared toward male readers, including Kiloton Threat by William G. Boykin and The Chair by Rubart.
“We still publish fiction for men,” says Gwinn, adding that “even some of our regular fiction writers like Brandilyn Collins' appeal to male audiences.”
An Evolving Market
Yet these experts do see some growth in the male reader of Christian fiction. “There are definitely more male Christian authors writing for men and gaining a strong following of readers and winning awards for their writing. The male reader does have more book options, though they are undoubtedly still limited,” says Germany.
“I think all Christian fiction has evolved over the years. The biggest boon to Christian male readership was probably the Left Behind books, which appealed to both men and women. Ted Dekker’s success seems similar—he’s got as many male readers as he does female,” says MacGregor. “There are a handful of male writers in CBA who seem to appeal to a male readership—Steven James, Joel Rosenberg, Mark Mynheir, Robert Liparulo, Mark Bertrand, Davis Bunn, Brandt Dodson. It's a fairly short list. But 15 years ago, we had almost no one writing to men. So yes, there has been growth.”
B&H Publishing hasn’t forgotten the male audience and markets some of its fiction directly to them with ads in military magazines like Army Times, author signings on military bases and booths at National Rifle Association shows. “We try to target advertising and be at events where men gather,” says Gwinn. The publisher also goes after the secondary market of women in Christian bookstore with signage and bag stuffers and front-of-store promotions. “I think it’s important that we not forget male readers,” she says.
Barbour’s Germany sees e-books as one way publishers could reach more male readers in the future. “I believe the opening doors in e-books will actually give fiction that is targeted to men’s likes more opportunity to reach the readers. Where once the Christian publisher was limited to only reaching the person who was shopping in a brick and mortar Christian bookstore or a Christian book section, now with e-books and technology we can more easily and broadly reach the male reader.”
“I think the struggle in Christian publishing with men’s fiction is what they call Christian men’s fiction is everything that’s not specifically women’s fiction,” concludes Bertrand. “However, the books that appeal to men are there—the struggle is how to signal that to male readers.”
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.
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