January 12, 2016
New study confirms that popular history genre is dominated by male subjects and authors
by Chad Felix
A recent study conducted by Slate confirms that trade history books—those intended for a general audience, not a solely academic one—are (big surprise) mostly written by men.
Of the study, which was inspired by the Vida Count Project, authors Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion write:
We looked at author gender among history books published for general readers in 2015. We also wanted to know more about content and approach. Is it true that most popular history books are about presidents and war, or is that just our perception? Are the Nazis as omnipresent as they seem to be? How many biographies are written about men, and how many about women? Do the Founding Fathers have an iron grip on the genre?
The answer to the primary question isn’t surprising at all. Indeed, the historian Ann M. Little, who Kahn and Onion reference in their article, previously noted that “of the top 23 best-selling history titles in 2014, (13 hardcover, 10 in paper), two were written by women, and twenty-one by men.” Nonetheless, it’s important to put more numbers out there.
Of the 614 titles Kahn and Onion considered, which collectively represent 80 different publishing houses, 75.8 percent were authored by men. Of the biographies considered (21 percent of all titles), subjects were 71.7 percent male, “with the list dominated by big names like Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, and Napoleon Bonaparte.” So, heroic dudes.
Regarding women in biography, Kahn and Onion discovered that:
While some of the biographies of men were written by women (13 percent), female authors were far more likely than male writers to write biographies about women. Sixty-nine percent of female biography authors wrote about female subjects, and there was a huge gap between this number and the 6 percent of male biography authors who wrote about women. Clearly, there is some relationship between the gender of authors of biographies and the gender of their subjects.
In the “Uncle Books” category—books the authors define as “about a president, the founding era, the Civil War, World War II, Abraham Lincoln, or royalty”— only 8.6 percent of books were about presidents. In the “bestsellers” category, however, 21.1 percent focused on the men in the Oval Office, and Lincoln in particular: “In the 150th year since his assassination, Lincoln was king: His name appeared in the title or subject headings for 68.8 percent of the total of [bestselling books about presidents].”
Following the study, Kahn and Onion shared their findings with prominent voices in trade publishing. They, too, were not surprised. Andrew Miller, an editor at Knopf, told Slate that he “[tends] to find that most of [his] history authors are male, too. That’s certainly not by conscious design but it does seem to be the pattern.” Lara Heimert, publisher of Basic Books, notes that: “There is no question that there is a real problem with gender imbalance in trade history publishing. It is something I worry about a lot.” Publishers are often influenced by the conventional wisdom of the market, she tells Slate—and the conventional wisdom of this market states that men read non-fiction, not women. Heimert, however, notes that she’s never seen a study proving this to be true.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.