The great white sharks of the reading world

I just read a piece here about Scribd’s attempt at a Kindle-Unlimited-style subscription service for books and how Scribd’s lack of data, and possibly math and just plain attention, led to the service’s semi-downfall.  The article is interesting and fun – while I’m rather prone to philosophy, the nuts and bolts of the book business always intrigues* me.  However, it intrigues me in part because it’s not something I know much about, so I can’t really contribute to that discussion.

Instead, I want to talk about a line that stuck out to me, partly because it was funny and partly because it surprised me (and partly because I had to go look up some of the stuff in it): “Romance readers are the Great White Sharks of the reading world. They are the 80 in the 80/20 rule. They are the power in a power law.”

Okay, let’s be honest, comparing bookworms to great white sharks is just funny.  Thank you for that, Carolyn Jewel.  Also, it might just be that before I hit up Wikipedia I had no idea what the 80/20 rule and power law were, but something in that second part of the line (and possibly a primer from the great white shark comment) give me this sense of some immense, powerful force lurking out there, unbeknownst to most.  Maybe it’s less romantic if you know more about economics and what have you, but to me it’s a pretty cool image.  And even without the mystery of lurking in the darkness, you still get the sense of raw force, which is powerful.

And I’m going to stop geeking out over the craftsmanship of it and move on.  (Look, I’m an English nerd, you have to expect that kind of thing.**)

The author of the piece (Carolyn Jewel) says that the typical romance reader will go through four to five books a week, hence the shark comparison.  From what she says, Scribd wound up cutting nearly all the romance books from their service because people were reading them too much and costing Scribd too much money.  That surprised me.  I mean, there’s no particular reason I think romance readers wouldn’t read that much, I just didn’t know they did.  It made me curious – why is that?  I don’t really know any big romance readers (that I’m aware of), so I don’t know anyone I could ask.

Anyway, the voracity of romance readers apparently surprised Scribd, too.  Jewel suggests that it’s because they just weren’t paying attention – that since romance readers are primarily women, Scribd effectively dismissed the genre as being “for girls” rather than “real books” and didn’t put much more thought into it.  She never suggests they did it deliberately, which makes sense; many instances of prejudice aren’t deliberate.  People just don’t think about some group of people, and then something gets messed up.  (See: face-tracking software can’t see black people.)  It’s too bad Scribd handled it by wiping out their romance selection, though.  It may have been the only way to save their budget, and if so it’s understandable, but that’s a lot of disappointed readers.

But going back to Jewel’s theory on why it became a problem to begin with: I was happy to see someone else propose that some books are looked down on because of their readers.  It’s not as if I thought no one else had ever come up with the idea, but I hadn’t ever heard someone else say it.  On the other hand, I’ve already said I have my own prejudices when it comes to romance, and I have the nagging feeling that my surprise at how many books romance readers go through is the product of that.  Problematic.  Well, another day, another lesson.  I learned some interesting things, enjoyed a well-written line, and broadened my horizons a little.  Not bad for a few minutes’ reading.


* Intrigue?  “Nuts and bolts” is technically a compound subject and should thus take a plural verb, but on the other hand it’s also an idiom and thus weird.  Hm.  I mean, the obvious solution would be to just use a different expression, but where’s the fun in that?

** On a related note, the book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish is fantastic, and if you are also an English nerd, you should absolutely read it.  Hm, maybe I should re-read it…

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4 thoughts on “The great white sharks of the reading world

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the kind words. There are Romance readers who have told me that they read 300 books a month. These readers tend to read a lot of category Romance, which means, to grossly simplify, books that are typically less than 60,000 words. Much more common are readers who read a book a day and those at single title length (say 80-100K words).
    I have many theories about that rate of reading and what’s behind it. But anyone paying serious attention to the Romance community would know about those reading figures. In the general media almost no one goes deeper than “women and those books bwahahahah! Aren’t they easy to mock?!”

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    • Oh my, I didn’t expect you would read this! Thanks for the info! I’d wondered if part of it might be shorter books on average, but still, that’s an incredible rate of consumption. I’m curious what your theories about it are, if you wouldn’t mind sharing.

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  2. Sure, though it’s more complicated than I can convey in a comment. My main theory is that the lives of women are jammed packed with work, responsibility, and expectations in a world that is unfriendly and downright dangerous to us. In Romances, the heroine (though of course this role is sometimes occupied by a man in MM Romance) always rises above trials and difficulties and finds love and safety. The happy ending is guaranteed. The heroine always triumphs. Always.

    In Romance, the heroine is not shamed for her agency or her sexuality. The heroine is not there merely to be a sexual partner for the hero. She is there to have her story told. And it doesn’t come at the expense of a story for the hero, because his Romantic journey matters, too.

    Women carry a disproportionate responsibility for the happiness and safety of children and spouses. Every single day of our lives women live in a culture that devalues and dismisses us. In Romance, this does not happen. Romance is safe for women. The heroine will not die. She is integral to the story. A Romance is at once an escape and an affirmation of a woman’s value to the world. At the end, the heroine is in love, safe, and with a partner who loves her. There isn’t any other genre that offers that.

    For many women, reading Romance offers a place of relief from reality and the reminder that women are not defined by the male gaze.

    In addition, Romance deals with some of the most powerful emotions we ever experience: passion and love. How is that not worthy of literary exploration? For centuries we had little but the male view in our literature. Men in our culture have been given precious little reason to believe that a woman’s perspective matters, so it’s no wonder that it’s so often lacking in books written by men. In Romance, the heroine’s role matters. It is not a Romance if the role is not inhabited by at least one protagonist.

    Heterosexual men have only to turn to media to get access to an ocean of content directed at their sexual lives and desires. Even homosexual men have an easier time finding such content. Homosexual women do not. Women have a very different experience of media. What they see is themselves reduced to roles in which they serve the male gaze. I wouldn’t have a problem with that if there was anything like an equal representation. But there’s not.

    The publishing industry has been extremely hostile to female agency, and it’s why the very early Romance authors had to carefully navigate these expectations if they were to continue publishing. Because, in fact, women are not less intelligent than men, there were many authors who found transgressive ways to do so, and there were authors who risked their careers when they stood up to editors and refused to include rape. Thank goodness those days are past us.

    So, in this environment, is it any wonder that women turn to Romance for respite? No one much mocks men for opening up that Playboy or going to Hooters. But we mock and shame women for similar behaviors.

    Lastly, where else can women see their sexual fantasies explored in ways that don’t exploit, shame, or denigrate them?

    Sorry, this got really long! But that is my base theory at a high level. I guess the TL;DR is women read lots of Romance because it is a safe place for them.

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    • Don’t apologize – I enjoyed it! And that makes a lot of sense. One of the reasons I thought about as to why romance readers are sharks was just that maybe women read a lot as escapism because of the pressures on them in the rest of their lives, and most romance readers are women. I hadn’t thought about the rest of it, though. Thank you very much for responding! It was nice to hear a reply, and I’m glad to have learned from your comments. Happy reading!

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