The NYT Best Seller Lists and Gender Dominance: A Brief Survey

By Casey Wilson

First off, an apology: it’s been too long since this site has been updated. But we are back, and plan to have a return to a steady posting schedule once more. I hope that this post will be meaty enough to make up for our time off.

Now, onto the show! If you’ve been following any of the online conversation about YA lit recently, then you’ve almost certainly encountered the debates about “boy books” versus “girl books” and the “crisis” surrounding the lack of male YA readers. I’ve no interest in rehashing that particular conversation — it’s easy to find, if you go looking. But I do want to throw a bit more data into the world, by looking at the gender breakdown of YA novelists on the New York Times (NYT) Best Seller Lists.

I fully admit to having been inspired for this project (which became my final paper for Kenneth Kidd’s fall 2012 Childhood Studies seminar) by the post titled “Gender Balance in YA Award Winners Since 2000″ over at Lady Business, which I have mentioned here on the blog before. If you haven’t read that yet, go now. It’s much prettier and more interesting than mine will be, I can assure you. An excerpt:

I would be very interested in comparing the overall results with data on all the YA published in a given year. If the trend there is as skewed towards women as anecdotal evidence suggests, it’s particularly interesting that looking at the award winners alone shows an opposite trend. If stories by and about boys and men are so rare in the world of YA and yet show up in the proportion we’ve seen above in lists of award winners, then we’re disproportionately privileging these stories when we select the best YA has to offer.

I, unfortunately, do not have access to the information on all the YA books published in the past year. But as much of the conversation about YA lit centers on best seller lists, deservedly or otherwise, I thought that they might be a useful place to turn when considering this same question.

Now for some caveats. What follows is, as the title would suggest, a condensed version of the work I have done with the data from the lists, and as such I will focus solely on author gender. Although there are many more questions that can and should be asked about the books on the lists, and far more detailed discussion to be had with the results, I am hoping to save that for a time and place that will allow me to do them justice. In addition, the data for this project was pulled before the NYT divided the list into middle grades and YA fiction. (In fact, that change came the very day that I submitted my project. The timing, it was perfect.) Although I have many, many thoughts on how that change might effect the numbers that we see below, I don’t address them here.

The final and biggest caveat is that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a statistician. I double- and triple-checked my numbers and tried to present the results as clearly and effectively as possible, but I apologize in advance for any points that may be confusing. Here goes nothing!

Method

As previously stated, for this project I turned my eye to best seller lists, specifically three of the four lists in the “Children’s” section of the NYT rankings. I chose to exclude the “Picture Books” list, as few to none of the books that appear on that list have the young adult reader as their primary audience, which left me with the following: “Children’s Chapter Books”, “Children’s Paperback Books”, and “Children’s Series”. The decision to consider these three charts was not without its complications; as my colleague Rebekah Fitzsimmons explains in her article “Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s Literature, Bestseller Lists, and the ‘Harry Potter Effect’”, the NYT has a long and sometimes troubled history when it comes to the placement of children’s and YA fiction on its best seller lists. I am under no illusions that these three lists represent a whole and complete picture of the sales of YA books in the United States, but their cultural cachet remains trenchant. Although there would be value in comparing this information across multiple aggregators – especially those of groups like Indiebound that have a very different sampling pool – I chose to leave that to future projects in order to keep the data for this project manageable. In order to gain an accurate sense of the gender representation on these three lists, I evaluated a full year’s worth of the weekly lists in each category, beginning with the week of December 4, 2011 and ending with the week of November 25, 2012.

Once these parameters were established, I then had to determine which books from each list to include in my analysis. Given that this project’s focus is on YA novels in particular, rather than children’s fiction more broadly, this required crafting a definition of YA literature as it relates to the NYT lists in question. The first decision was to confine the books in question to fiction, thus eliminating texts like the Lego Star Wars Character Encyclopedia and Tim Tebow’s memoir. The more complicated set of negotiations came in deciding which of the remaining fiction texts qualified as YA. The NYT lists include the publisher’s recommended reading ages for each book, so that was the metric I chose to work with. In order to have a firm cut off, I included only those texts whose recommended reading age began at 12 years or later. These decisions resulted in a list of 79 individual titles that landed on one of the three NYT lists across the course of the year.

For each of the three lists under consideration, I recorded the names and ranks of every book that qualified as YA, along with the date of the list on which they appeared. Once that was completed, I then coded the information by the gender of the author(s). Coding the texts by the gender of the author was relatively straightforward; as will be seen below, only two books – the novelization of Snow White and the Huntsman and Confessions of a Murder Suspect – were co-authored by writers of different genders. These two books were labeled as “Both” and put into their own category for the sake of completion, though admittedly they do not offer much in the way of concrete data from which conclusions can be extrapolated.

Results

Combined, this information allowed me to ask many different questions about the role of gender in YA’s presence on the NYT Best Seller lists as a whole as well as on each individual list. These included: Are there more male or female authors on the NYT lists? Do male or female authors rank higher and/or more consistently on the lists? How long do female authors stay on the lists compared to male authors? In order to provide a clear picture of the results of this analysis, I will begin by addressing the data combined across the three lists, and then move onto presenting my analysis for the Children’s Chapter Book list, Children’s Series list, and Children’s Paperback list, respectively.

Overall Statistics

To begin, we will look at the basic percentage breakdowns of female versus male authors and protagonists when the three lists are combined:

Percentage of Appearances on All Three NYT Best Seller Lists by Author Gender

Percentage of Appearances on All Three NYT Best Seller Lists by Author Gender

As the first chart demonstrates, 70% of the bestselling YA books were written by women, 28% were written by men, and a small 2% were written by cross-gender partnerships. Based on this, we can see that for at least the past year the NYT list has been incredibly friendly to female authors, who have appeared over twice as many times as their male counterparts. Looking at these numbers alone, it would be tempting to concede the point and accept that bestselling YA literature is, in fact, dominated by women. To do so, however, would be to ignore the NYT lists’ functions as lists. Each book that makes the list is ranked, and the novels that continue to sell well can make the list multiple times. Both of these facts provide further complications to our understandings of representation on the lists, because not all NYT Best Seller list appearances are equal. To explore this, I calculated the average rank achieved by male and female authors, as well as the average amount of time titles spent on the list by gender:

Average Ranking on All Three NYT Best Seller List by Author Gender

Average Ranking on All Three NYT Best Seller Lists by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on NYT Best Seller Lists by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on All Three NYT Best Seller Lists by Author Gender

Only two texts made up the “Both” category, so while books written by male and female writing teams had the best ranking (5.25) and the worst retention (4 weeks), it is next to impossible to arrive at any conclusions in that regard. Looking to the two categories with the most data, however, we can see that male authors averaged a ranking of 5.84 to 6.92 for female authors, indicating that men consistently slotted in with higher sales than women. Similarly, male authors averaged a stay of 16.22 weeks on the lists, while female authors averaged only 8.27 weeks. This tells us that while female authors appear on the lists far more frequently than their male counterparts, male writers have greater sales and staying power once they make it to the list.

Children’s Chapter Books

Now let’s move to the Children’s Chapter Books list, which collects data on children’s book releases in hardback. In any given week, the Chapter Books list would include as few as two YA novels and as many as six; it was often fairly evenly split between YA and middle grades texts. Of the three lists under analysis, this category had by far the most individual titles, with 34 of the 79 books coming from this list alone.

Appearances on NYT Children's Chapter Books List by Author Gender

Percentage of Appearances on the NYT Children’s Chapter Books List by Author Gender

Because of the large sample size, it is unsurprising that these charts are generally aligned with the previous examples. Here we can see that the Children’s Chapter Book list very closely resembles the overall breakdown when it comes to the gender of the authors, at 71% female, 26% male, and 3% both. Looking at the numbers for rank and retention, we see a similar increase in already existing patterns.

Average Ranking on the NYT Children's Chapter Books List by Author Gender

Average Ranking on the NYT Children’s Chapter Books List by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on the NYT Children's Chapter Books List by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on the NYT Children’s Chapter Books List by Author Gender

The average ranking for male authors drops slightly to 5.37 while the ranking for female authors increases to 7.12. Thus, the children’s chapter book list features better-than-average ranks for men and worse-than-average for women, but the shift is not overly significant in either direction. The major difference comes in the list’s retention of titles from week to week, where male authors jump to an average of 11.33 weeks and female authors drop all the way to 3.5 weeks.

Children’s Series

The Children’s Series List tracks those books that are part of an ongoing series; an author’s work is usually pushed to the series list once the third book is released. For this reason, the Children’s Series List presents both a smaller and bigger collection of YA literature than the Children’s Chapter Books List. Smaller because there are only 25 YA series that ranked on the list across the year compared to the 34 chapter books, and bigger because each of those series represents at least three titles. The Series List featured between three and six YA series each week, thus maintaining the even split between YA and middle-grades fiction seen on the Children’s Chapter Books list.

Percentage of Appearances on the NYT Series Fiction List by Author Gender

Percentage of Appearances on the NYT Series Fiction List by Author Gender

Female authors have a slightly more notable presence on the Children’s Series List, because of the 25 series on the list, a full 20 of them (80%) were written by women. No male-and-female author teams appeared on this list during the year in question. Despite the relative paucity of male authors on the Children’s Series List, however, female authors on average still lag behind in terms of chart ranking and duration of stay on the list.

Average Ranking on the NYT Series Fiction List by Author Gender

Average Ranking on the NYT Series Fiction List by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on the NYT Series List by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on the NYT Series Fiction List by Author Gender

The average ranking of male and female authors for this list is actually quite close, with men averaging 5.93 and women 6.62. The female authors were likely buoyed here by the consistently high ranking of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games on the list, but even that was not sufficient to create a better average ranking. We also see here, as we did on the overall statistics, female authors averaging about half as many weeks on the chart as male authors. While female series writers stay much longer than female chapter book writers – 7.3 weeks compared to 3.5 weeks – their numbers pale in comparison to the 14.2 week average of male series writers.

Children’s Paperback Books

Where the Children’s Chapter Books List focuses on hardcover books and thus new releases, the Children’s Paperback Books List turns its eye mostly to books that remain popular even in their paperback releases. Unlike the previous two lists, this list is heavily weighted toward YA literature, with the average week featuring between six and eight YA titles. Despite the increase in the representation of YA on this list, however, it features the fewest individual titles. Only 20 novels make appearances on it, and all but six of those remain on the list for five or more weeks.

Percentage of Appearances on the NYT Paperback Books List by Author Gender

Percentage of Appearances on the NYT Paperback Books List by Author Gender

Male authors make something of a resurgence on the Paperback Books List, making up 40%, while female authors drop down to 55%. The one book co-authored by male and female writers is again too small of a sample from which to pull any clear data, but it accounts for the remaining 5%. Moving on to look at the average ranking and average number of weeks on the list, these texts do little to dramatically change the dynamic put in place by the other two categories.

Average Ranking on the NYT Paperback Books List by Author Gender

Average Ranking on the NYT Paperback Books List by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on the NYT Paperback Books List by Author Gender

Average Number of Weeks on the NYT Paperback Books List by Author Gender

The exact numbers do fluctuate, as male authors rank at 6.21 on average while female authors averaged 7.02. The low data available for books authored by both genders indicates that it ranks higher than either gender individually, at 5.5, but for now it remains an aberration rather than a trend, especially considering that the same text dropped off the chart after only two weeks. Of the three lists in question, female authors last the longest on the Paperback Books List with an average of 14 weeks. But male authors also last the longest on this chart, at 23.13 weeks, which indicates that this is a quirk of the category.

Discussion

So, what does this tell us? Looking at the entirety of the data, the overall impression is quite simple: while female authors appear in larger numbers on the best seller lists, male authors are likely to rank higher and last longer when they appear on the lists. This pattern offers support to both sides of the debate, because while female authors certainly dominate in sheer numbers, male authors are in no way invisible. They are far from it, in point of fact, because this is a consistent pattern rather than an aberration. While there is prestige in appearing on the NYT Best Seller lists, as a very high number of female authors did during the sample period, there is also prestige – arguably more so – in ranking high on the list and staying on the list for a long stretch of time. Thus, focusing only on the numbers of women who rank on the list ignores the complexities of the kinds of cultural capital that something like the NYT Best Seller lists make available. To say that YA literature is female-dominated because 80% of the books that make the Children’s Series List are written by women might be accurate, but it is not the full picture, as that is the only metric by which women are privileged on the NYT lists.

If these numbers do anything, they force us to consider just what it is to be “dominant” in a field like YA literature. If dominance only includes individual titles appearing on the lists, then there is no arguing that women do not dominate YA literature. If dominance includes higher sales and longer duration of those high sales, however, then men dominate every time. In her analysis of the YA award winners, Ana astutely notes, “Regarding authors, there are indeed more women, but I would hesitate to call 56% women and 42% men ‘female dominance’. Again, if these results were reversed, we would perhaps be glad that they were so close to being balanced”. Admittedly, the split across the three Best Seller Lists – 70% women and 28% men – is more dramatic than the split Ana found in her analysis, so it is easier to give into that temptation to cry “female dominance”. But I would argue that, at the very least, this sampling of the NYT Best Seller Lists proves that there are different kinds of dominance to be had, and that women do not always come out ahead. Even if there are fewer men making the NYT Lists overall, the men that do make the list are compensated in other ways.

Casey is a PhD student studying YA literature and social media. She just finished teaching a class called “Writing About the YA Bestseller”. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyalane.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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8 thoughts on “The NYT Best Seller Lists and Gender Dominance: A Brief Survey

  1. Isla

    If we make the radical assumption that there is as much of a demand for male protagonist books as for female protagonist books, then these figures could be explained by the audience for male protagonists being split between the smaller selection of male protagonist books. Not necessarily the right explanation, just something to keep in mind.

    • Perhaps, though it’s also worth noting that that explanation seems to presume that there is a direct correlation between author gender and protagonist gender, which isn’t always the case. In fact, the numbers for protagonist gender get a bit more complicated, because books with multiple POVs are fairly prevalent among the best sellers during the sample period.

      But you’re absolutely right — there are a number of possible explanations for this trend, none of which I really get a chance to explore by just looking at the numbers. That’s the next step I’m hoping to take with this project, someday!

  2. This is really interesting. I’d be curious to see how that breaks down into monetary benefit to the authors. For example, for this year, women authors on the best seller list made an average of $–/yr & male authors made $–/yr, but I don’t know if that’s really publicly available.

    You did a great job putting all this information together and analyzing it. I’m sorry, but I do want to point out one nit-picky thing (b/c I’m that kind of person). I would have loved it if the charts were consistently in the order: Male, Female, Both columns (or some other consistent order). But that’s just me being annoying.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks! I, too, don’t know that that particular information is available, but it would potentially be interesting. As would the budgets for the advertising campaigns for each of the books, for that matter.

      And I hear you on the charts — it wasn’t something I noticed until I had it all put together, and then I didn’t have time to make them more consistent. (It’s actually something I’ve chastised students for in the past, so I should know better!) I’ll definitely be keeping a closer eye on them in future projects.

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