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Don Read This Essay

Back in 2005, while I was still working as an editor, I had an opportunity to acquire a book that I was confident would be a bestseller. The author had a huge media platform, was one of the stars on a show watched by millions of people each week, hosted his own radio show, headlined his own band, he had a fascinating life story, thousands (if not millions) of fans worldwide, and even had a degree in journalisn. Unlike many celebrity memoirs, I knew this author was passionate about his story and had the writing chops to make it a great read. The author's agent wanted, in my opinion, a reasonable advance. I had confidence that this book was low risk, very high reward. However...

The author's name was Chris Jericho. Chris Jericho is a professional wrestler. Needless to say, pitching Jericho's book to my editorial board was like pitching iPads to the Amish. A whole lot of blank stares and a whole lot of people saying 'I don't get it'. Now, this is not the fault of the individuals, but it is the fault of a system in which in a room of 15-20 people, not one of them knew what I was talking about.

Like many boys, I grew up watching pro wrestling. I knew that Jericho was not only a huge star, but a genuinely smart, charismatic guy who had some incredible stories to tell. In an attempt to convince the editorial board, I brought in Chris's videos, action figures, CDs, anything I could think of to prove to a skeptical room that this guy was a big deal and his book would work. Nobody was buying my pitch. Nobody had heard of Jericho. So here's what happened--and I swear this is true.

One of our senior editors had a 15-year old nephew who was a wrestling fan. I was instructed to have a conference call with the editor's nephew, where I would ask him what he thought about Jericho. If the nephew agreed that Jericho was popular and the book had potential, I would be permitted to make an offer. If the kid disagreed, no dice. Naturally I was dumbstruck, infuriated, since I was essentially being told that a random 15-year with no publishing experience and questionable judgment was trusted more than I was. Thankfully, the kid agreed with me, and thought the book was a fantastic idea. The offer was greenlit, I acquired the book, and Chris Jericho's A Lion's Tale got rave reviews (Kirkus loved it. Kirkus!!!) and the
book became a New York Times bestseller. The sequel is scheduled to come out this Fall.

Why do I bring this up? Because if you've worked in publishing, you've heard the tired old maxim: Men Don't Read. Try to acquire or sell a book aimed predominantly at men, and odds are you'll be told Men Don't Read. This story is not an isolated incident. And while the book I'm discussing is not everybody's piece of cake, is is a microcosm of what I believe is a huge problem within the industry. If you keep telling yourself something, regardless of its validity, eventually you'll begin to believe it. So because publishers rarely publish for men and don't market towards men, somehow that equates to our entire gender having given up on the reading books. Hence the mantra 'Men Don't Read.' THIS MUST END.

In my opinion, this empty excuse of 'Men Don't Read' has begotten a vicious cycle. I was hesitant to write this article, mainly because in no way do I want to be perceived as diminishing the talents of many, many brilliant women in publishing, nor do I believe that there is a true 'gender bias'. A bias insinuates some sort of malice, a purposeful exclusion of a segment of society for selfish or ignorant reasons. Those kind of insinuations are not the aim of this piece, nor are they my opinions in any way. This is a critique of the system, not those who work within it.

This NPR piece three years ago came to the conclusion that women read more fiction than men by a 4-1 margin. Articles like this madden me because I think they miss the big picture, or perhaps are even ignoring it purposefully. It's like discussing global warming, while completely ignoring the fact that hey, maybe we have something to do with it.

Nobody can deny the fact that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions. Not to mention that, because there are so few men, the competition to buy books aimed at men is astronomical. I was once shot down in an effort to buy a sports humor book because I couldn't get the support of a senior editor. The reason? This editor had written a similar book proposal on submission and didn't want to hurt his chances of selling it.

Men read. Tons of them do. But they are not marketed to, not targeted, and often totally dismissed. Go to a book conference, a signing. Outside of a Tucker Max event, what percentage of attendees are men?

I thought about this while watching the first television ad for the Barnes & Noble Nook. The ad itself, I think, is quite well done and effective. It tells a story, hits strong emotions. But notice something odd? It markets itself solely towards women. What about the Kindle? Amazon is a brilliant, juggernaut of a company, but the ads for Kindle with their twee music would make any guy groan. Why would men buy an e-reader, considering the takeaway from these ads is you can a) learn about your pregnancy after falling for Mr. Darcy, or b) become Amelia Earhart or Holly Golightly?

Now look at the ads for the iPad. Cool, right? They catch your attention without alienating half the consumer population. Why can't we do that? Make a fun, cool campaign that doesn't cut your audience off at the knees?

I'm tired of people saying Men Don't Read. Men LOVE to read. I've been a reader my whole life. My father is a reader. Most of my male friends are readers. But the more publishing repeats the empty mantra that Men Don't Read the less they're going to try to appeal to men, which is where this vicious cycle begins.

Publish more books for men and boys. Trust editors who try to buy these books, and work on the marketing campaigns to hit those audiences. The readers are there, waiting, eager just under the surface. And I promise, if publishing makes an effort to tap it, they'll come out in droves. It won't be easy. They've been alienated for a long time and might need to be roused from their slumber. But as I've always said the biggest problems facing the publishing industry are not ebooks, or returns, but the number of people reading. This is a way to bring back a lot of readers who have essentially been forgotten about.

So the next person who tells me that Men Don't Read, I'll simply respond by saying Then You Don't Know Men.

Print it, and they will come.

JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), which have been nominated for numerous awards and optioned to be a major motion picture. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at http//:www.jasonpinter.com.

Follow Jason Pinter on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jasonpinter

People Don’t Read, and Why It Matters to Skepticism

April 30, 2012

A lot of the time people simply don't read; it's sad but true. (Feel free to skip to the last paragraph if you don't have time to read this.)

I'm not talking about functional literacy, which is quite high in America. Nearly everyone can read bus schedules, menus, and everyday e-mails. But when it comes to essays or news analysis the fact is that most people outside of scholarly or academic professions don't spend much time reading non-fiction for content. It's just not something they do, and it's not surprising. Television and podcasts provide easy, passive, one-way communication that demands little attention or cognitive engagement from their audiences.

As a writer I've noticed for years that while some people take the time to carefully read and analyze what they're reading, they are very much in the minority. Many people are either not reading what they claim to have read, or are badly misunderstanding what they're reading. Two recent examples brought this issue into sharp focus for me.

About a month ago, I wrote a short column for the Web site Life's Little Mysteries about a plant that is claimed to be able to walk. (I wrote a somewhat different piece on the same topic for my "Skeptical Inquiree" column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine a few years ago.) Here's 

an excerpt of what I wrote:

 

"Many people believe the so-called walking palm tree (Socratea exorrhiza) found in Latin America can literally walk around the forest floor.... Alas, it's also not true; the tree is real enough, but it doesn't walk - or even stumble. It sits where it sprouted, not moving except under the force of wind (or an axe)..." I then quoted Biologist Gerardo Avalos and his article on the topic, who said "My paper proves that the belief of the walking palm is just a myth."

Throughout the piece, I explicitly stated at least four times that the story was not true, and quoted a published, peer-reviewed journal article and a scientist:

1) "[the story] is not true..."
2) "it doesn't walk..."
3) "it sits where it sprouted, not moving..."
4) expert: "the walking palm is a myth."

After presumably reading this short piece whose thesis could not be clearer, what did readers reply on the Comment boards?

The first person, Veenaga Bhushan, wrote, "The walking tree walks from shade to sunlight. The survival is the most individual nature of living things." Another person, Violette Lilly Rose Patrick, wrote, "I'd like to see a time lapsed video of this!" Finally another person, Miriah Williams, replied with, "did you read it?? they don't move."

So what happened? One possibility is that the first two posters didn't actually read the piece, but instead looked at the headline and/or the accompanying photo, and assumed they knew what the story said. Another possibility is that they did read the piece but didn't understand it, and somehow came to think that it concluded that the "walking tree" story was true, despite clear and repeated statements and evidence to the contrary. Still another possibility is that they read and understood the piece, but disagreed with it (though there's no evidence for this, since they didn't refute anything contained in the piece).

In another example, I wrote about a strange creature that washed up on a beach that was ultimately identified as an opossum. Sure enough "readers" soon chimed in to add their two cents, one of them writing on Facebook that "'They *assume* it's an Opossum, never say outright that it is." I gamely replied, "Did you read it? It says: ‘Darren Naish, a science writer and paleozoologist based at the University of Southampton who writes for Scientific American, identified it as a Virginia Opossum. ‘The oposum identity is obvious.'"

How can someone say that the experts assumed (but never said outright) that the animal was identified as an opossum when the piece states explicitly and repeatedly that it was identified? Clearly people aren't reading what's in front of them. As skeptics we encounter this all the time; paranormal claimants ignore important (and in some cases mystery-solving) details in stories and accounts of mysterious phenomena. If you ignore, don't read, or don't understand important information in the claims then it's easy to create a mystery. If you read a person's ghost report but fail to notice that she said it happened while she was in bed sleeping-or read a person's UFO report but miss the part where the eyewitness said it looked like a planet and was in the same area of the sky as Venus-you're not going to solve the mystery.

I also encountered this earlier this year in responses to my blog on Riley, the four-year-old girl complaining about dolls in a viral video. As I noted here in a previous CFI blog, I bear responsibility for some reader misunderstandings, as some of the points I made were poorly written and unclear. In other cases, however, the problem was not that I was being unclear; in fact I was being crystal clear. It's that people didn't carefully read what I wrote (instead relying on other people's characterizations, or just jumping in and replying to other reader's comments and replies), concluding in many cases that I disagreed with them when in fact we were in close agreement.

There are many more examples I could give, but this gives a fairly representative sampling. As a professional writer, it's amazing to me how often people simply don't read-or, if they read, they don't understand what they read. As any teacher can tell you, simply reading words does not mean you are comprehending those words or understanding what's being communicated. Comprehension takes skill and effort; no matter how clear or strong the writing is, the reader must do his or her part to make an effort to understand it.

It's easy in this modern, fast-paced world to skim over information. We're inundated with blogs, articles, news stories, social media messages, e-mails, tweets, and countless other pieces of information throughout the day. We like our information simple, clear, and sound-bite short. We glance at headlines and assume we know what the story says, what it's about. We make split-second decisions and reactions about whether a given piece of information is relevant or interesting to us. We sometimes "Like" Facebook posts within seconds of them being posted, when it's clear we haven't had a chance to actually read more than the title or a one-sentence abstract; we are supporting not what the piece actually says but instead what we assume it says, or might say. We all do it to some extent, and we all do it at least some of the time whether we know (or admit) it or not.

It's not wrong or unethical. But it is pervasive, and it partly explains why many people simply don't read things. When confronted with a 3,000 word article or blog (or even a much shorter one--my piece on the walking tree is less than 400 words), it's much easier to jump in to the comments and reply to other posters than to take the time to carefully read what the author wrote.

This is nothing new; I'm sure we've all come across the social experiment (probably in school or college) where the instructor hands out a multiple-page worksheet and states explicitly that students should read all of the instructions before beginning the work. Of course, the final instruction on the last page is to lay down your pencil and not begin any work until further instructed. And of course about 90% of people don't bother to read the explicit, clear instructions, thinking they know better and begin working right away.

What are the consequences of this? Wasted time, wasted effort, and futile flame wars fueled by people of whom it's likely that less than half actually read and understood what they're commenting on. Of course some of us read things carefully, and despite our best efforts even the most diligent of us sometimes cuts corners as writers and readers. Sometimes there's an honest misunderstanding, or the words are unclear. But much of the time the only plausible explanation is that people simply aren't reading, and literally don't know what they're talking about. By the way, thanks for reading this-if you got this far.

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