If you had asked the American lingerie industry in 1977 whether they had market growth potential, I’d venture to guess they would have told you no. They would have said that every department store in America was selling bras and panties, and how much more lingerie could women need? Two words: Victoria’s Secret. 35 years after Victoria’s Secret was added to the lingerie landscape, their 2012 sales were $6.12 billion dollars. Their secret: They didn’t just focus on what women needed, they imagined what they might want.
It’s a leap, but bear with me. According to the 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review, women make up 58 percent of book buyers. And with overall book sales declining, one could believe that we’re already giving these book buyers what they need and that there’s just no room for sales growth. But I would suggest, both as a bookseller and as one of those book-buying women, that the publishing industry could be generating more sales if they published more women’s voices.
We just finished compiling our holiday book catalogs for both Vroman’s and Book Soup. Several booksellers from both stores helped curate, whittling the massive fall list down to our top 100 recommendations for each store. This was not the first year that the gender imparity of the initial list was shocking: 90 percent of the music books, 70 percent of the nonfiction titles and 70 percent of the biographies were by or about men.
The gender imbalance in the book world is not news. There’s been a lot of talk recently about unequal coverage by reviewers and magazines. There’s been concern that as publishers consolidate, there are fewer and fewer women in executive positions. There’s the shocking realization that Alice Munro is only the 13th woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the award’s 112-year history. And there’s my sense as a bookseller that we’re not hearing enough women’s voices. Clearly, there’s much to discuss in regard to why we’re in this predicament, but perhaps we should be focused instead on how we can change it.
Publishers could sponsor writing contests for women writers. Literary magazines could dedicate issues to up-and-coming female writers. The Nobel Committee could review how they compile their panel of nominators. Acquiring editors could look beyond the manuscripts submitted by agents and actively look online or in the news for women who, with a little editorial guidance or a monetary advance, could become published authors.
Women readers can vote with their wallets by buying books by and about women. And let me stress all of this for women of various ethnicities, races, sexual orientations and cultures.
I love women’s stories. I would buy more books (God help me) if there were more women’s stories being told. I definitely have a feminist agenda in suggesting this. But I also have a financial agenda as a bookseller. Victoria’s Secret imagined a future where women spent more money on lingerie, and it paid off. The book industry could do the same.
Allison Hill is the president and chief executive officer of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., and Book Soup in West Hollywood, Calif. After a false start in publishing, Allison fell into bookselling and it was love at first sight. She writes for the Huffington Post and is working on a book of essays. Allison lives and reads in Los Angeles and is currently shopping for more bookshelves.