*This is part one of a two-part post. Part two will publish tomorrow.
How often do we hear that YA is full of women? That this is a land where there aren’t boys or men? That readers and writers are girls and the implications of what that might mean?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And I decided it was time to finally sit down and look at one of the most well-known and highly-revered tools that the book world looks to when it comes to status and acclaim: The New York Times Bestsellers List.
Before diving into the data and making some connections among the things I saw, I thought I’d break down the NYT list a little bit. You may or may not remember that last December, the Times decided they were going to change up how they handled their Children’s lists. It used to be that all Children’s books were on one list, thereby having 10 spots for books published among all categories for children. The change that was made ended up splitting middle grade and YA from the general Children’s list, giving them their own lists. This offered more spots for books within those categories, and with the extension of the list, there are 15 books labeled “Bestsellers” each week.
In addition to those lists, there are series lists. When (theoretically) there are three books published within a given series of books, the books within that series are tied together and placed on the series list, rather than offered individual spots within the overall list.
The NYT list tracks sales within a given week and highest sales correlate to placement on the list. For YA (and MG), e-book sales are included in the totals, whereas children’s sales are not. Keep this in mind with the data below because I think that those e-sales play a role in what emerges. Sales numbers are reported from big retailers, online and off, and rather than rehash all of the details of how it works out, it’s worth reading the Wikipedia article to know what does and doesn’t count, as well as the controversies surrounding the counting — there are enough citations here to fill you with all kinds of glee, don’t worry.
I’ve focused all of my number-crunching on only the YA list. There is nothing in here about the MG list and nothing in here about the series list, except where I’ve chosen to make it a relevant point. There is a big one, too. In total, I looked at 47 bestseller lists from the NYT, which is everything from the beginning of their separate list through the week of 11/5/13.
What you should know if you don’t already is that the lists are printed two weeks in advance of the sales. In other words, the list for November 5 covers the sales for the week of October 13 through 20. Knowing this will contextualize much of what you see later on in the data, as books which are published on a certain date that would no doubt make the NYT List don’t do so immediately — there is a two-week lag in the reporting.
The reason that I pulled November 5 as my final counting date for the data is simple: the list for November 12 is one that changes the game, as it’s the week when sales for Veronica Roth’s Allegiant come through, and thus it’s the week when the two spots she’s held on the list for YA are opened up. Her series, now three books, leaps over to the series list instead. More on that in a bit.
Other notes I made in my data collecting I should share: when there were author teams, each of the authors counted. So when Maureen Johnson and Cassie Clare’s book made the NYT list, each of them were tallied for women. The single exception to this came through a personal judgment call you may or may not agree with, but which changes the data and results very little. That exception came for books written by James Patterson and a co-author. I chose not to count the co-author because, as anyone who works with readers will tell you, it’s Patterson who is the author. Readers do not ask for the Maxine Paetro book. They ask for the newest Patterson. Without his name leading the book, there is little doubt in my mind that that book would not make the list. I did also make an exception for the Gabrielle Douglas book, which is authored by her but was written “with” someone else. I did not count the person it was written “with,” since “with” indicates something different than “by.”
As in the past on data posts, there is a LOT to sift through here. I like numbers and correlations among them. I like to take guesses and talk about what I’m seeing and what I think it means. I invite you to do the same thing. As should be noted, I’ve rounded all of my numbers to the nearest whole to make the data easier to read.
You can see my raw data, with some miscellaneous notes-to-self, here.
Individual Gender Representation on the NYT YA List
The first thing I wanted to know was how well men and women were represented on the lists. I’ve always suspected that men outnumbered women on the list, and when I’ve made that claim before, I’ve been told that’s not true.
But actually, it’s startlingly true.
Starting on the very basic level, I counted up the number of different men and the number of different women who occupied a space within the NYT YA List. Because I wanted to cast the widest net possible from the beginning, I looked at not just the top ten list, but the extended list of 15.
On average, there were 7 men on the list and 4 women. Again, these are the number of individuals, so authors who appeared more than once were only counted one time.
Let’s look at this more granularly.
This is a week-by-week comparison of the number of men represented individually on the NYT List in blue against the number of women represented individually on the NYT list in red. Note that except for a few scant weeks in the middle of the chart — that would be around May and June — men appear more frequently on the list.
So how does the top ten fare when it comes to individual gender representation? If we remove the extended list, will women show up more frequently?
Not so much. In fact, the top ten list is even more disappointing to look at if you’re looking for the proof of women dominating YA.
Books and Gender Representation on the NYT YA Bestseller List
The charts above looked at the individuals represented on the lists. So despite an author having more than one book on the list, she or he only counted once.
In addition to looking at the unique frequencies of gender on the list, I decided to do a more thorough count of the books and their authors by gender to get a truer sense of how men and women occupied the list. This time, every book was looked at individually, rather than every author. Multiple books by the same author were counted each time in their respective author’s gender column.
It got even less pretty for women who “dominate” YA.
First, looking at the books with the use of the extended list, here’s what our averages are when it comes to spots that men have on the list and spots that women have on it:
On average, 9 of the books on the list are written by men and 6 are written by women.
Let’s see what this looks like on a week-by-week basis, too.
So about the fact that women dominate YA, take a hard look at this data.
Every single week — except for two — men have outnumbered women on the NYT List. Those were the weeks of March 31 and May 19, 2013. But before you get excited thinking that women had finally “taken over” in their representation on the list, I’ll report to you that they didn’t take over in numbers. Those weeks showed five individual women on the list, which is a number still smaller than the average number of men who appeared on a weekly basis. Women “dominated” as individuals none of the time.
Those five individual women on the list represented a grand total of 8 books on the 15-book extended list on those two weeks.
For two weeks out of forty-seven total.
Just sit with that for a few minutes.
There are, of course, some variables that made these two weeks of “lady domination” happen. For the week of March 31, we see the debut of Eleanor and Park, nearly a month after its release. But the sales for the book that week most certainly reflect the John Green review in The New York Times — the review was published March 10, which is the week that the March 31 NYT List covers here. Without devaluing the book and its merits, it’s fascinating to see that the book ended up on the List nearly a month after publishing but immediately following the glowing review it received in the same publication by a male who himself regularly occupies 3 or 4 spots on the list. It would be hard to argue that without the Green review that book would have landed on the list that week.
That week also includes Nicole Reed’s “new adult” book (which I argue should not have been on this list at all because of its 17+ age recommendation and the fact it’s self-published — there is a whole other list for that). There were also two spots on the extended list held by Cassie Clare; the sales for this week were one week prior to the paperback release of Clockwork Prince, and I have some theories which I’ll get to in a bit.
For the week of May 19, I note that Abbi Glines was on the list (who, again, I argue should not have been since her book was for a 17+ audience). There are also dual appearances by Kiera Cass, Marie Lu, Veronica Roth, and an appearance by Sarah Dessen for What Happened to Goodbye.
Because I looked at the data of individuals limited to the top ten list, I decided to do the same thing with the books. So the following charts look at gender representation in the top ten by books. Same deal: multiple books by the same author were gender coded multiple times.
On average, there were 7 books written by men in the top ten of the NYT List and 3 by women.
More granularly, so you can see what it looks like on a week-by-week basis:
Books written by women have never once — never once — had at least half of the spaces on the top ten list. They’ve had a few weeks occupying four spaces but never have they had five books in the top ten slots in the 47 weeks that the YA List has existed.
A couple of other factoids to include at this juncture: there have only been five weeks where a woman held the number one spot on the New York Times List for YA. Five. They were held by Veronica Roth (for four weeks — three of which were in mid-July, on the 14th, 21st and 28th, which would reflect a bump in sales immediately following the release of the first stills of the movie and the fourth week, September 15, likely reflects sales following the release of the film’s trailer) and Kiera Cass for The Elite, which stayed for one week only. Cass’s novel debuted at #1 on the May 12 list, which reflects the sales for the week her book was available for purchase.
Again, in 47 weeks, there have only been two women to see the top spot. They only held it for a combined five weeks.
Average Length of Stay on the NYT List
This data is much trickier, it’s limited to the top ten list, and it doesn’t really say anything. But I wanted to look at it for comparison with the next data set after this one.
Because the list is only 47 weeks long, we only have 47 weeks to compare average length of stay against. And it moves backwards, of course: so the books which were on the list during week one had an average stay of one week. Those which were on the list during week 23 which had been there since week 1 now averaged 23 weeks. And so on.
I wanted to look at gender against the average stay of books on the list. But it wasn’t really too telling of anything. Part of that is because the top ten list had a higher number of male authors on the list, though only a handful were around the entire 47 weeks (many jumped from the top ten list to the extended list then back again). And really, comparing 8 books by men’s average stay on the list against 2 books by Veronica Roth which have been on the list the entire time didn’t show a whole lot.
But it will tell us something soon.
For men, the average length of stay on the NYT YA List was 18 weeks.
For women, it was 17 weeks.
Keep those numbers in your head in conjunction with everything above.
Trends Within the NYT YA List
Tomorrow’s post will look at some more data, including data from the first NYT List that will publish after Veronica Roth’s series is off the YA list and onto the series list. It’ll also look at publishers represented on the list and other interesting variables. But before ending this post, I thought it would be worth talking a little bit about some of the interesting trends I noticed.
I noted above more than once that lists reflect the sales two weeks prior to their publication date. That’s something to keep in mind when you notice things like drastic e-book sales for certain titles or authors. Because the YA list does reflect e-book sales, I have been curious to know what impact that makes on who is on the list and who is getting those books on the list.
Ever notice huge slashes in e-book prices? I haven’t kept track of them this year, and can’t make any certain connections, but it seems to me there’s something to be said about the appearance of some books on the list which might reflect those drastic cost reductions. Publishers can set the price of a Kindle or Nook Book at $1.99, drum up huge sales, get the book on the list, and then it’s a bestseller. Doing that prior to a paperback release or a release of the next book within a series would help that title appear on the list. A lot of times those books appear for that week and then they fall off again when the price returns to something higher.
It is not price that gets books on the list; it’s the number of sales.
Keep that in the back of your mind when the list for November 20 comes out, as last week a number of well-known YA names had their e-book prices dropped to $1.99 or even $1.40. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rainbow Rowell appear on the list twice, for example, since both of her books were dropped to a mere $1.40 for Kindle. I’d even not be surprised to see one or both of them in the top ten lists (I should note here that on the first post-Veronica Roth list, which I’ll talk about tomorrow, Eleanor and Park is on the extended).
Many books will appear for a week or two on the list — usually on the list reflecting the sales of the week their new book published — and then they will slide off. This happens in more drastic numbers for female authors than male authors, which seems like it’s reflected in the data above. And when you look at the titles that do this, it’s hard not to think about why that might be. Is there a reason Kiera Cass’s The Elite debuted at #1, lasted a second week at #6, moved to the extended, and then disappeared? It seems to me perhaps this sort of quick on and off reflects the true audience purchasing the book, and the true audience for this one? Teenagers. They get very excited about the release of the next book in a series, buy it during release week or immediately after, and then the sales fall off for any number of reasons. Books that are perennially on the NYT List definitely reflect teen sales, too, but I suspect part of why they maintain their positions is continued purchasing and recommendation from adult readers as “good YA.” Even if it’s only 55% of adults purchasing YA (which has been spun to sound like it’s adults being huge purchasers of YA books when it’s only slightly more than half of purchases are made by adults), it’s likely that those adults recommended books to other adults are doing what adults who recommend books tend to do: repeat and recommend the books they read from the bestsellers list because that bestsellers list suggests a “good book.” A bestseller is a bestseller for a reason, as the logic goes.
Books written by women are much more likely to see one week or two weeks on the list and then fall off than those by men. It’s depressing to think about what that might say about the value of women in YA fiction, the reflection of their work as having significant merit, and so on and so forth. But one thing is for certain: the assertion that “women dominate” is completely false, at least when it comes to Bestsellerdom.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).