who are your readers?

by Tess Gerritsen

Last weekend, Michael Palmer and I taught a writing workshop in Cape Cod.  One of the participants asked a question: “Who are your readers?” It’s a very good question, but it’s one for which authors have only a hazy answer.  Because, for the most part, we’re not certain.  We get a general idea based on the fan mail we receive, and we see who turns out at book signings, but as for real statistics?  For the most part, we’re just guessing.  I suspected that my readership reflected the general readership of fiction readers in the country: 75% female, on the older side.  And the audiences at my book signings tend to support that general female/male ratio.  But these are just spot samplings, and I had no hard numbers.

Then I got back a survey of readers around the country, which checked the demographics of my readership.  And what I’d suspected to be true has turned out to be pretty accurate.  

— Women were four times more likely than men to rate me as one of their favorite authors.  (Which is actually not all that different from other female mystery writers.)

— My readership tends to be on the older side, with the percentage peaking in the 45 – 54 age group.  Again, this is probably right in line with other authors.

— My readership tends to also like mystery, thrillers, horror — and romance.  But I have very few readers who also favor graphic novels, manga, and science fiction.

— My book THE KEEPSAKE was most popular among two groups:  those under 18, and those between 55-64.  

— No surprise, many of my readers work in the healthcare industry.

These results are just for the U.S.  I have a feeling that those numbers might be slightly different outside the country, just based on who attends my signings overseas.  At some of my UK and German booksignings, the male/female ratio has been close to 1:1.  And the only time I’ve ever had a man approach me in a hotel lobby to ask if I was Tess Gerritsen, it happened in Berlin.  

My reader demographics are probably similar to those of other female mystery authors.  What can we all gather from this?  

Our readers are primarily female, and older.  I also have a fan base that’s under 18, but once a reader hits their twenties, it seems their novel reading slows down for a few decades. They’re busy with college,  marriage, motherhood, and careers, so it’s not surprising they might cut down on their pleasure reading.  But once the kids are raised, and they have more control over their lives, women seem to go back to reading again.  I’m not sure there’s much we can do to snag more of those 18 – 40 year-old women readers.  

As for the male readers, obviously I have a ways to go.  But then, so do we all.  How do we get more men to read us? How do we convince them that, yes, a woman writer can tell a story they’d enjoy?  That’s the challenge.  



17 thoughts on “who are your readers?

  1. Alafair Burke

    I’m amazed at the number of emails (from both men and women!) that say, "I don’t usually like female writers, but…" or "I don’t usually like books with female protagonists, but…" Apparently readers associate with books with female authors and/or characters as more romance-oriented, less gritty, and just…softer?

    I also think publishers play into reader stereotypes based on how they market the books. Why do they go to Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos to blurb their up and coming male writer, but to female authors for an up and coming woman? (Tess: I’d love to know the gender split of authors you’re asked to blurb.) Why do so many of our jackets feature women’s faces or those ubiquitous bare legs? Do publishers try to build a gender balanced readership for women, or are they content to market our books to other women, knowing that women make up the majority of fiction readers?

  2. Neil Nyren

    Alafair, we definitely try to balance our readership — why let any potential book buyers go? In the readers’ copies going out now for the new Robert Crais, for instance, there’s a prominent quote from Sue Grafton (who also has plenty of male readers, I should note). And if a male author has a strong female readership, it’ll influence our jacket treatment and choice of title. Same goes for the reverse.

    At the same time, a publisher would be foolish not to concentrate on the core audience first. Regarding your blurb question above, if a book looks more likely to appeal to a male audience, for instance, then you’re going to solicit more quotes from authors you think will appeal to that audience. The main purpose of quotes always is: If you saw one from a particular individual on a book jacket, would it make you more likely to pick that book up?

  3. Fleur Bradley

    I can only speak from my perspective in teen books, but I think the problem starts early. There are few teen boys who read, which results in fewer books being published for boys (no money to be made), which continues the cycle.

    I think it would help if we can get boys to read early, to create a habit of reading for pleasure. Mystery/thriller books seem (to me) like the best genre to grab young male readers, since these genres are high on action and low on navel-gazing.

    As for adult male readers: maybe us women should suggest more books to men. And why give up on the 18-40 female readers? There has to be a way to encourage them too, without Oprah 🙂

    Very interesting discussion! I’ll be linking to it on my blog later this week.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    Very interesting post! And after some of the emails I get, I have to say I’m not entirely sure who my core readership is. They seem to belong to all age groups, and both sexes. But I have had comments from people like, "Oh, my husband won’t read books by female authors." And a slightly scary series of emails from a guy who was utterly convinced that there was no way a medium-sized woman would ever win a hand-to-hand fight with a male opponent, as my heroine manages to do. (OK, so she fights dirty …)

    I know when my first book came out in the UK and they were putting the cover together, I silently prayed, "Please, anything but pink …" Three guesses what was the predominant colour on the cover?

    If I was doing this over again, I think I’d pick a non gender-specific pseudonym and use that instead, just to blur the issue. But it’s always interesting to see a balance of quotes by both male and female authors on book covers, and I’m absolutely thrilled that one of the people who’s blurbed KILLER INSTINCT when it comes out in the States for the first time next year is … you ;-]

  5. Allison Brennan

    I don’t think that it’s a surprise that female authors who want to be branded as thriller or straight suspense authors from the beginning take gender neutral names. Authors who don’t are often branded as romantic suspense. (Straight mystery seems to be a bit different in this regard.) Part of the problem is that readers have a perception that women write romance and men write thrillers. It’s frustrating, but it’s so deep that few readers would be able to articulate it. It’s sort of like in politics, based on numerous surveys, it’s pretty much a given (at least it was when I was in the business) that voters tended to trust female speakers on education issues and male speakers on finance/budget issues. Fair? Nope. And when you poll specific well-known PEOPLE it tends to be more even, but generically or using made up gender names (i.e. Jane Smith and John Jones) voters "believe" one more because of gender.

    I’ve been asked to blurb a lot of male author books and female authored books. We’ve only sought out two quotes because of the types of books I write (Mariah Stewart for my debut and Lisa Gardner for my last trilogy.)

  6. Louise Ure

    Interesting blog, Tess. And one of the most interesting parts … to me as a recovering advertising person … is that somebody finally did research on your readers! I’m stunned at how little research is done in this industry. For covers, titles, demographics, distribution, pricing etc. I appreciate that we’re in a more creative field than my previous advertising challenges, but really, would a little research kill us?

  7. pari noskin taichert

    I’m with Louise on this one, Tess. This research is useful and gives both writers and publishers good information.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I know most of my readers fall into the female 40-55 demographic, but have received emails from folks who definitely break the mold.

  8. JD Rhoades

    I have never, NEVER understood the whole "I don’t read female authors" thing. There’s not, as far as I can tell, one "female author style" consistent enough to support a prejudice. Megan Abbot is nothing like Tess Gerritsen who’s nothing like Laura Lippman who’s nothing like Tasha Alexander who’s noting like Christa Faust who’s nothing like Lori G. Armstrong, and so on. I mean, WTF?

  9. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Okay, this is just one man’s opinion, there’s nothing clinical about it, but…

    As a reader, I find female thriller writers, as a general rule (there are any number of exceptions), concentrate too much on the emotional for my tastes. Getting into a character’s head is one thing, and exposing their every feeling and sensation is another. Thrillers need to MOVE, and in-depth examinations of things that don’t necessarily advance the plot (romantic entanglements, dinner menu, what someone’s wearing from head to foot) only tend to bog things down. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think female readers actually enjoy such asides and look upon them as layers, whereas male readers (like me, anyway) view them as extraneous detours from the real business at hand.

    This isn’t to say crime fiction shouldn’t be complex. I’m just saying, to appeal to most men, an author of either gender needs to strike a delicate balance between speed and nuance, with the emphasis on the former and not the latter.

  10. kit

    We’re a family of readers…so, I guess I don’t understand the whole "I won’t read female authors" thingie…it’s not even come up with us. Matter of fact, my hubby went through a box of books that someone gave us, found one that looked interesting to him, started reading it, enjoyed it so much ..he now looks for any books by the same author…and any other female author he happens to have tried and liked their storytelling ability.

  11. Allison Brennan

    I think Gar does have a good point about how genders IN GENERAL read. I, personally, don’t like long descriptions of anything. But I’ll bet Gar might be more interesting in the technical aspects of how to put together a bomb (in a thriller novel!) than the internal conflict of the hero over anything. So it’s not so much description but WHAT is being described that attracts genders. (Again, in generalization!) Because I know that my husband, who reads very limited fiction, loves the technical details in Michael Crichton’s books, but found one NYT bestselling male thriller author to over-describe some things. I read those sections and I’d argue that Dan simply wasn’t interested in the subject matter, hence felt it over-done.

    Considering that 75-80% of the entire reading public (not just Tess’s readers) are women might encourage writers as a whole to write a bit to the feminine side of the equation and layer in more emotion and inter-personal relationships. Women often view the world and their opinions in the context of people, so books with more emotional depth and not a series of fantastic events might draw them in more.

    I read a fascinating book when I was pregnant with my first child. It was called BRAIN SEX and explained how men and women think different and processing information different based on hormones in the brain during fetal development, youth, during and after puberty. Women, in general, tend to take non-connected events, ideas, feelings, and evidence and pull them together to reach a conclusion, while men tend to be very linear. Women pull point A, R, T, N, and E to get to Point Z; men go from Point A, to B, to C and so on to get to Z.

    Obviously, anything about men and women are generalizations. But I’ve noticed things in my kids that have little to do with how I raised them. My oldest son LOVES legos. Is obsessed. He’s 8 and can put together a 12+ age 3,000 piece lego set in one afternoon. He’s been obsessed since he was 3. My 6 year old daughter wanted a lego set like her brother. For Christmas I got her one, it’s a house with horses and people. She was able to put it together just fine, following the directions, etc, but she didn’t have the same joy in the process as my son. When she was done, she liked playing with it–but building it had no appeal to her. Luke, on the other hand, loves building AND having space battles with his sets. Now Luke is into Erector sets, so help me.

  12. Rob Gregory Browne

    I simply make the assumption that most of my readers are drunks or drug addicts. Except those who are reading this right now. You’re clean, upstanding citizens. Every last one of you.

    But the rest. Oh, yeah.

    Truth is, I have absolutely no idea who my readers are except for the kind souls who write me and tell me how much they love my books (thanks, guys!). I’ve never stopped and asked them for their age, however. And it kinda hurts my head to think about breaking this stuff down to demographics.

    I’ll leave that to people who are a lot smarter than me.

  13. BCB

    A while back I had a conversation with my older sister (who ONLY reads non-fiction: history and biographies and things like SALT). I was telling her about having just read Sol Stein’s book on writing in which he says the purpose of non-fiction is to impart information and the purpose of fiction is to evoke emotion. She said that’s why she reads non-fiction — she has enough emotion in her life, she doesn’t want books to evoke more, thankyouverymuch. And I remember thinking she sounded like such a guy. 😉 Except she’s actually quite girly. Yet her husband is a voracious reader of fiction — mostly typical "guy" stuff where the emotions evoked have to do with adrenaline and honour and saving loved ones or the country or the entire world. Or being a cowboy. [Not a put-down, I love those books.]

    When I first started reading fiction on a regular basis, I read thrillers and spy novels almost exclusively. All written by men. Then I discovered romance and read all I could get my hands on. Now I read a mix of genres, usually several different ones at the same time. Depends on my mood. That might not be typical, I have no idea.

    Apologies if this is too tangential to be pertinent to the discussion, but I do think most men and women [huge generalities here] are looking to "feel" different things when they read for pleasure. Or when they watch movies. I don’t think the problem of attracting new readers should be solved by trying to write something that will appeal to a broader audience — which I think would end up being boring and satisfying to no one — but by finding a way to identify and connect with more readers who are looking for a similar reading experience enjoyed by the readers who are already fans.

    [Aside: Both my kids are in their early 20’s and both believe they have MUCH better things to do than sit around reading fiction.]

  14. BCB

    Um, didn’t mean to imply that female writers can only appeal to female readers (or vice versa). Just that if your audience is primarily one or the other, there’s probably a good reason for it and that trying to appeal to all readers (both genres) equally will dilute your impact.

    I might be wrong. I do not yet have any readers.

  15. BCB

    Holy guacamole, I’m tired. Monday has decided to last all week long. When I said "both genres" it is entirely possible I meant "both genders." In fact, it is not out of the realm of possibly at this point that there are more than two and I really meant "all genders."

  16. piles

    Interesting post!
    I’ve recently asked my readers to share their ‘best and worst’ aspects of my write ups. One of the benefits of doing this was that it identified some common and recurring problems that my readers were having. There’s nothing worst from a readers standpoint than leaving a comment, specifically a question, that never gets a response.


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