Monday, August 11, 2008

Jim McCarthy attends RWA

Picture it: San Francisco. July 30th. Still reeling from the death of Estelle Getty, a young (fine: young-ish) agent arrives at the Marriott hotel to attend his first Romance Writers of America national convention. In the weeks leading up to this point, many people have asked him if he’ll be overwhelmed being one of the only males in attendance. “Nah,” he replied. “I grew up in a house full of women – three older sisters and only one of me.” It was a stock answer that he fully believed to be true. How wrong he was.

Okay, so really: I thought I wouldn’t be fazed being in such a distinct minority at a conference. Then I show up to the convention and head downstairs to the registration booth. At that moment, a major lunch event lets out. I am standing alone in a hallway that approximately 2,000 women are about to pour into. I feel…conspicuous. The dream where you show up at school without clothes and everyone stares at you? This was that. But with clothes.

After a few hours, I got over it, even if I did get a lot of annoying questions like, “So why do you like romance novels?” Standard answer: “I imagine for the same reasons you do.” What? It let me dodge a question, get out of my, “Ah, you’ve noticed I’m male” spiel, and keep on trucking. And I learned a lot at my first RWA convention. Stuff like:

--Romance authors can teach other authors a thing or two about marketing. This was a bunch of folks armed with postcards, flyers, business cards, and freebies galore. I admire the hell out of the dedication to sales that permeated the entire convention. These authors know they’re working in a business, and damned if they don’t want a piece of the pie. More power to ‘em.

--The sense of community among these authors is fantastic. Writing can be a struggle as anyone reading this blog surely knows. I love that these authors seem to have found so many support groups, critique partners, message boards, and outlets through which they find the means to keep writing, keep working, and make a go of it in a tough marketplace. And this doesn’t stop with new or first time authors. To wit:

--Nora Roberts kicks ass. Here’s a woman who sells gajillions of copies of all of her books and hardly needs to work that hard to promote. She could coast so easily. But darned if she isn’t at the events offering chat backs, doing book signings, making the party rounds, and just generally being on the scene. As someone else described her to me, she is “utterly unexpected.” By which they meant she’s a blast of fresh air—a bestselling author who tells it like it is and pulls no punches, but is also fully supportive of her colleagues of all stripes. I met her for approximately four seconds but was incredibly impressed by her throughout the conference—I wish there were more like her! Plus, she really cut up the rug at the Harlequin party.

--Speaking of which: Harlequin throws amazing parties. Okay, first of all it was at the Four Seasons in a smashing room. And it had an open bar which some authors who shall remain nameless…enjoyed. But most impressive? The chocolate fountain. There were so many things to dip in it! I couldn’t get enough. Much to the consternation of the line forming behind me.

--Romance writers read. These people lined up for ages to get books signed, were able to chat about other writers in the genre, knew the reputations of publishers and who worked with whom. They’re by and large extremely well-read in their field and hyper-aware of where they want their own work to be placed and how to position themselves. I often ask the same question when I’m pitched books: Who would you compare your writing to, or whose career would you want to emulate? Lots of people get bashful at this point and say they hate to compare themselves to other writers. I hate that. And I didn’t get it this weekend. Instead I got humble but intelligent answers like, “I’m not going to say I’m at her level, but I like to think I’d appeal to the readers of Blah O’Blah because we share a style and…whatever, whatever.” If you’re pitching me a book, I want to know that you have a sense of who your audience is. If you don’t know what else that audience is buying…bad sign numero uno.

--Don’t get between a romance author and a dessert tray. Seriously, I almost had to take someone down who unleashed her inner howler monkey on me because she thought I was cutting in line for the tarts. Similarly, don’t pick a fight with an agent on the dessert line. I can be meaner than you. That’s all I’m sayin’.

I’m sure I learned other things, but I’ll have to take some more time to process them. Anyone else at RWA?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Adina Kahn approaches the gender divide

A few months ago, Jim McCarthy wrote about an AP poll that stated one in four people didn’t read a book last year. Many people found this news to be shocking and disappointing. Personally, I was more fascinated with another statistic: women read more books than men. According to the poll, the average woman read nine books that year, compared with only five books for men.

I tend to challenge broad statements made about the differences between men and women. For example, film executives would have you believe that the only people going to the movies are teenage boys. When Sex and the City was such a huge success in theaters recently, I felt like it was the hundredth time that I’d witnessed the industry’s amazement at the fact that women do indeed also like to go to the movies! So am I really to believe these reports about women having more interest in reading than men? I decided to do a little detective work and get to the bottom of the book buying habits of men and women.

I started by looking up what sorts of books women and men are more likely to buy. According to a recent Harris poll, women are more likely to read mysteries (57% versus 38%), religious books (32% versus 24%), and romance novels (38% versus 3%). Men are more likely to read history (44% versus 27%), science fiction (34% versus 18%) and political books (22% versus 9%). None of these statistics are especially startling, but what I did find a little surprising is that overall many more women read general fiction than men. In 2007, an NPR story commented on studies showing that men actually account for only 20% of the fiction market.

A quick glance at a recent NY Times fiction bestseller list seems to support this statistic. Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Jane Green, Emily Giffin, Danielle Steel, and Lauren Weisberger are just representative of the primarily female authors on the list, and most of their books have female protagonists. The non-fiction bestseller list, however, appears to be more gender neutral, at least in terms of content.

I decided to conduct my own poll and sent out an e-mail to some friends inquiring about their reading habits. Many women wrote back that they felt they read the same amount of non-fiction as the men in their lives, but confirmed that they did read more fiction, while they thought men tended to gravitate towards history, biography and general non-fiction books. Interestingly, a few men replied that while they didn’t read much fiction, they felt they put in more hours each day reading online news sites, magazines, and newspapers.

Perhaps the most interesting statistic of all is that of the friends I e-mailed, many more women than men responded with answers. So after all of my research, I guess the only thing I can state with certainty is that among my circle of friends, men and women both read an impressive amount of books, but only my female friends read my e-mails!

So what do you think about all of this? Do women really read more than men?