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Women now dominate the book business. Why there and not other creative industries?

Mohamed Hassan

Ever since she was a little girl, Jessie Gaynor has had a passion for books. Whether classic literature or YA fiction, she spent her youth devouring novels. She wouldn't just read them. She would reread them, sometimes the same book over and over again.

"My mom used to say that my rereading of books worried her because she thought I wasn't expanding my horizons enough," Gaynor says. "And, later, in retrospect, she decided that what I was doing was learning the language of the books."

In the sixth grade, Gaynor read Angela's Ashes. She loved the book so much, she actually looked up the author in the phone book and called him to talk about it. She got his answering machine and didn't talk to him, but she self-mockingly tells the story as an early example of her literary enthusiasm.

Gaynor carried this enthusiasm for books into adulthood. She's now a Senior Editor at Literary Hub, an online publication that focuses on literary fiction and nonfiction. And, just recently, she's become an author herself.

This June, publishing powerhouse Penguin Random House is set to publish Gaynor's first novel, The Glow. It's a dark comedy that centers on a struggling publicist named Jane Dorner who, in a desperate effort to save her job, tries to land a lucrative client: an enchanting wellness guru. "Jane decides that she will try to aggressively monetize this woman's shtick," Gaynor says.

Gaynor is part of a sea change in book publishing that has seen women surge ahead of men in almost every part of the industry in recent years. Once upon a time, women authored less than 10 percent of the new books published in the US each year. They now publish more than 50 percent of them. Not only that, the average female author sells more books than the average male author. In all this, the book market is an outlier when compared to many other creative realms, which continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by men.

These findings and others come from a new study by Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Waldfogel crunches the numbers on the book market's female revolution. And, in a recent interview, the economist helps us think through potential reasons why women trail men in many creative industries, but have had spectacular success in achieving — in fact, surpassing — parity with men in the US publishing business.

Author Jessie Gaynor
Ebru Yildiz / Jessie Gaynor
Jessie Gaynor
Author Jessie Gaynor

Female Authors Leap Ahead

Waldfogel got interested in studying female representation in creative industries after spending part of last year at the U.S. Copyright Office as a visiting scholar. The federal agency, which is part of the Library of Congress, is tasked with keeping records on copyrighted materials.

One of the first projects the Copyright Office had Waldfogel work on was a data analysis of the evolution of women in copyright authorship. Looking at the numbers, Waldfogel's eyes opened wide when he realized that women have seen incredible progress in book authorship but continue to lag in other creative realms.

For example, while they have made inroads in recent years, women still accounted for less than 20 percent of movie directors and less than 10 percent of cinematographers in the top 250 films made in 2022. Likewise, when looking at the data on patents for new inventions, women make up only between 10 to 15 percent of inventors in the US in a typical year.

For a long time, the book market saw a similar disparity between men and women. Sure, some rockstar female authors come to mind from back in the day: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Agatha Christie, Zora Neale Hurston — to name just a few prominent ones. But, Waldfogel says, between roughly 1800 and 1900, the share of female authors hovered around only 10 percent each year.

In the 20th century, female authorship began to slowly pick up. By the late 1960s, the annual percentage of female authors had grown to almost 20 percent.

Then, around 1970, female authorship really began to explode. "There was a sea change after 1970," Waldfogel says.

The boom in female authorship
Joel Waldfogel / NBER
The boom in female authorship

By 2020, Waldfogel finds, women were writing the majority of all new books, fiction and nonfiction, each year in the United States. And women weren't just becoming more prolific than men by this point: they were also becoming more successful. Waldfogel analyzes data from a whole range of sources to come to this conclusion, including the Library of Congress, the U.S. Copyright Office, Amazon, and Goodreads. Waldfogel finds that the average female-authored book now sees greater sales, readership, and other metrics of engagement than the average book penned by a male author.

Why 1970?

The progress women have made in the book market can be seen as one small part of the broader feminist movement. Picking a single year as a clear turning point for any social movement can get pretty arbitrary. Dramatic social changes often proceed incrementally, not in one fell swoop. That said, if you were to pick one single year as an inflection point, 1970 is a pretty good one for the women's movement, not just in book publishing, but in a whole range of social and economic pursuits.

Female participation in the overall US labor market seems to have really picked up steam after 1970 (although, to our point, you can clearly see the antecedents for this progress beforehand). Economists have offered various theories and evidence for why, after centuries of playing second fiddle in the labor market, American women made significant advances. The lasting effects of women entering the labor force as men fought overseas during WW2, the feminist movement, cultural change, and declining discrimination surely played important roles.

So did the increasing diffusion of labor and time-saving technologies, like electricity, plumbing, dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and microwaves, which changed the economic calculus for many families. Before households adopted widespread use of these technologies, domestic work was much more burdensome than it is now, requiring hours and hours of labor per day. The bulk of that work was done by women. As new technologies decreased that workload, various economic studies suggest, women were increasingly freed to pursue careers — including careers in publishing.

The birth control pill, which exploded in use during the 1960s, and increased abortion access in the 1970s, also helped free women to enter domains traditionally dominated by men, by giving more women greater choice over if or when to have children, and how many.

Intimately related to the pursuit of writing books, women began investing more and more in education around 1970. "If you look at the share of women who are going to college, it looks very similar to book publishing," Waldfogel says.

It's probably no coincidence that, by 2020, women weren't only the majority of book authors, they had also become the majority of college graduates in the United States. Women also now represent around 70 percent of high school valedictorians every year.

But why has the book market seen so much more progress than other industries?

Despite progress over the last half century, however, women continue to lag behind men in many parts of the labor market, including many creative industries. Why are books different?

The answer matters not just for women, but for society at large. With women continuing to represent less than 15 percent of inventors in the US, to give one glaring example, Waldfogel worries that there are likely a whole bunch of "Lost Marie Curies" out there who could be helping us find cures for diseases or creating innovative, new technologies. But something seems to be holding them back. The reason why the book market has seen so much more progress might help us figure out how to replicate the success there in other domains.

However, lacking hard evidence, Waldfogel's new study offers no rigorous explanation for why the book market revolutionized while others saw limited progress.

Waldfogel says his best guess for why women have seen so much progress in book publishing in the US, as opposed to other creative domains, has to do with the reality that the process of book-writing is typically a solo endeavor, in which the author has more power to choose when and how to do the work.

Maybe the fact that book writing is done mostly alone means there is less discrimination and fewer female-disadvantaging biases and social dynamics in the industry. Industries like movie production and scientific and technological inventing are dominated by gigantic corporate bureaucracies, which are intensely hierarchical. They also are more capital intensive. Maybe that opens the door to more sexism and a resistance to investing in historically underrepresented creators like women.

But American publishing, while seeing huge growth in self-publishing in recent years, also continues to be dominated by large corporations, like NewsCorp and Amazon. There is a twist, however, which is that individual publishing houses in the US — unlike film, TV and other creative production organizations — are largely dominated by women. In 2015, the publisher Lee & Low Books surveyed the staff at 34 US-based publishers and 8 review journals. They found that, while the industry is disproportionately white, it's also disproportionately female. About 78 percent of staffers at all levels and 59 percent of executives in the publishing industry identified as women in the survey.

In her process of writing The Glow and getting to know the book publishing industry through her work at Literary Hub, Gaynor says, she's seen this herself. "In my work, I encounter a lot more women who work in publishing, and I think it makes sense that women editors and women publicists are very happy to read books by other women and buy them," she says.

The demand for books in the US is also disproportionately driven by women. Surveys over at least the last couple decades have consistently found that American women are more likely to read books than American men, especially when it comes to fiction.

Gaynor says some of the most famous channels in which books gain popularity in the US are run by women. She points to Oprah's Book Club and Reese's Book Club (which is helmed by Reese Witherspoon). "Even TikTok, with the popular BookTok videos, my sense is it's mostly women — and BookTok is driving sales hugely right now," Gaynor says.

Beyond the demographics of book readers and publishers, the social dynamics of the book writing business could be more favorable for women than other creative industries. For example, it is a generally solitary affair that lacks the office politics, practices and hierarchies that can still all too often leave women at a disadvantage.

"We hear a lot about women being socialized to not take the lead, not make a fuss," Gaynor says. Other creative pursuits — like movie directing, for example — may reward self-confidence and assertiveness, traits that research suggests is more associated with men, on average. "I have a personality that is — I don't know if I can blame this on my gender socialization — but I don't like to feel like I'm bothering people. One of the great things about publishing a book is that you get an agent who bothers people on your behalf. Also, the solo part of writing a book is also very appealing because you just get to write the book and then put it in someone else's hands. You have to advocate for yourself to a certain extent, but the work is not about being loud, which I know for some women, at least like me, that can be an uncomfortable thing."

A growing body of research in economics points to something more than personality traits and interests that separate men and women in the labor market. The Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has published influential research that suggests one central culprit behind gender inequality in the labor market: the reality that women continue to bear the overwhelming burden of caregiving responsibilities in many couples. As a result, Goldin finds, women, on average, show greater demand for "temporal flexibility." That is, they put a greater premium on jobs that offer flexibility in their work schedule. These jobs tend to offer smaller paychecks, but they also allow more time and flexibility to spend on unpaid domestic work at home.

Gaynor is quick to point out that, for most authors — and for fiction authors, in particular — writing a book is a "really low-paying field." That may dissuade more men, on average, from aspiring to pursue a writing career. "I know women are driven by a number of market forces, but I do feel like it seems possible that more women would be more willing to work in a low-paying field at first."

At the same time, book writing, for the most part, offers the ultimate in temporal flexibility, to use Claudia Goldin's terminology. You can write a book whenever — morning, afternoon, or night. That may be particularly attractive to some women, who are more likely to be saddled with domestic work. And it might put men and women on a more equal footing in the industry. Unlike being a corporate lawyer or executive or inventor, writing doesn't place a large premium on being available to work at all hours, which entails a greater sacrifice of your family life.

Gaynor says she mostly wrote her book before having her kids, waking up early to write before starting work at her day job. After having her first child, she says, she did have to spend a significant amount of time addressing edits from her editor and finalizing her book. But, she says, her editing process "was facilitated by my husband doing more of the childcare in the mornings."

Whatever the reasons for the boom in female authorship, Waldfogel says that readers of all kinds, not just women, are clearly benefiting from it. And so are we, with new books like The Glow, which will be on bookshelves on June 20.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.

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