Newspaper Book Reviews, Reviewers, and Gender

The latest VIDA statistics assessing gender representation in book reviews continue to draw comment and response. But VIDA's lens, expanded this year to include more publications, still primarily examines periodicals and journals and overlooks the substantial body of daily and weekly book reviews in large-circulation newspapers.

That's exactly the world we have tracked for years in our Publishers Marketplace Book Reviews database (also shown via our cool Top Reviewers tool), which offers a rich data set for analysis. In examining that data over the past 5 years, there are some interesting findings that may expand on the view that VIDA has depicted. Among them:

- Female authors do very well among the small set of books receiving the most review attention every year. They generally dominate the five most reviewed titles of the year, and have rough parity with male authors across the 20 most reviewed books each year. (We see the same thing in our aggregated annual Best of the Best of lists, culled from booksellers, publications, awards and more.)

- Across the full 100 most reviewed books each year, men receive more reviews than women, but the attention is more balanced than the 75/25 split VIDA says has been the rule over the past five years. On average over that period, women received 40 percent of the reviews for the top 50 or so titles, and 37 percent of the top 100 or so titles.

- Among reviewers for the daily papers, the three most prolific reviewers over the past 12 months were all women. Two work for the New York Times. But all three women reviewed considerably more male authors than female authors.

The NYT's third standing critic reviews even fewer women than his colleagues, however, and together the newspaper's daily reviewers cover male authors in far greater proportion than their colleagues at the Sunday NYT Book Review.

- In contrast, the most balanced Top 10 "Top Reviewer" was a man, Ron Charles at the Washington Post. 24 of his 51 full-length reviews that we captured in 2013 were for books written by women. On the other hand, his frequent Washington Post colleague (at No. 5) Michael Dirda reviewed men 83 percent of the time.

-  The other women in our top 20--Yvonne Zipp (CSM);  Carolyn See (Washington Post); Heller McAlpin; and Wendy Smith--were all very balanced in their 2013 reviews, almost evenly split between male and female authors.

- In commercial terms, looking just at sales, books by women accounted for 37 percent of Nielsen Bookscan's annual lists of top 15 adult fiction print sellers over the past 4 years in fiction, and 33 percent of the top 15 adult nonfiction print sellers.

Our data is shown below. Our initial focus was on the top 100 "most reviewed books" each year. In total we capture information regarding 5,000 to 7,000 full-length reviews annually during this time period. Note that we are old-fashioned and come from a world in which a full-length review means something different than a "roundup" of a group of titles or "briefs."

Over the past few years the top titles -- the most reviewed books -- are reviewed 16 to 19 times. The 100th most reviewed book gets about 6 reviews. In total, the 100 or so most reviewed books account for about 20 percent of all reviews that we log in a given year.

As VIDA did for the publications they analyzed, we found our data set quite consistent from year to year, too, with 2010 looking like the year in which female authors were least represented among the 100 most reviewed books, and 2013 looking like the best year.

As noted earlier, in general, at the very top of the annual lists, women do as well as or better than men. The further down you go in our lists, the more the review "share" for female authors declines.

The Most Reviewed Books, 2013 - 2009: Books By Female Authors Comprise....
9 of the 20 (and 3 of the top 4: Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan; Kate Atkinson )
21 of the top 48 (44%)
42 of the top 103 (41%)

9 of the top 20 (and 6 of the top 8: Barbara Kingsolver, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Hilary Mantel)
19 of the top 55 (35%)
31 of the top 101 (31%)

9 of the top 20 (and 4 of the top 6: Ann Patchett, Karen Russell, Tea Obreht, Susan Orlean)
19 of the top 45 (42%)
44 of the top 108 (41%)

7 of the top 20 (3 of the top 9: Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler, Allegra Goodman)
21 of the top 55 (38%)
41 of the top 119 (35%)

14 of the top 19 (3 of the top 4: Lorrie Moore, Jayne Anne Phillips, Margaret Atwood)
24 of the top 58 (41%)
39 of the top 112 (35%)

"Top Reviewers" In 2013
Separately, we extract information from our reviews database about the "Top Reviewers" who contribute to the newspapers that we follow recently. The 3 most prolific reviewers we followed over the past 12 months were all women (Janet Maslin, Michiko Kakutani, and Colete Bancroft at the St. Petersburg Times). But after that, only 7 of the top 20 were women, and 22 of the top 52.

Even female reviewers, however, do not necessarily tilt the reviewing scales towards female authors. Maslin, Kakutani and Bancroft were roughly at or below the overall averages we found in our "most reviewed" data above:

30 of 80 reviews in 2013 were female authors (37.5%)

15 of 54 reviews in 2013 were female authors (28%)

19 of 52 reviews in 2013 were female authors (37%)

To assess individual publications, you can use the advanced search tool in our Reviews database and use the "reviewed in" drop-down menu. We don't have 10 interns to count our database for us and have not had the time yet to page through all 669 reviews from the Wall Street Journal in 2013 -- but it was abundantly clear after reviewing the most recent 200 of those that nearly 90 percent were commissioned from men. (You'll see for yourself some of the counting is tricky; how do you "count" a book anthologizing work by a man, edited by a women; and where do books with male and female co-authors go?)

Gender and Sales
We were curious to see the gender distribution among the bestselling books. Looking at the Nielsen Bookscan annual lists of the top 15 bestselling print books in fiction and nonfiction, female authors regularly have fewer than half of the top slots, except for one instance. (Women would have more spots on the fiction list if Bookscan counted YA/crossover titles as adult books rather than juvenile titles.)

6 of Top 15 fiction
3 of Top 15 nonfiction

9 of Top 15 fiction
5 of Top 15 nonfiction

4 of Top 15 fiction
5 of Top 15 nonfiction

3 of Top 15 fiction
7 of Top 15 nonfiction