authors and readers of early English novels

The rapid growth of novels in late eighteenth-century England was an important communications industry development.  A large number of manuscripts of novels were available to printers at low cost.  Printing novels was a profit-driven business, as was book-selling and book-lending through commercial circulating libraries.  Printers chose novels to print with keen regard for market demand.  Hence studying what novels were printed provides insight into what readers sought.

Female authors predominated among the authors of English novels for about thirty-five years after the production of novels rose sharply. The number of new novels printed in Britain and Ireland roughly doubled from the first half of the 1780s to the second half of the 1780s, rising above 50 novels per year and remaining above that level permanently. Across the years from 1785 to 1819, the median ratio of male-authored novels to female-authored novels was 0.69, meaning that male-authored novels numbered about 31% fewer than female-authored novels.[1]

sex ratio of authors of early English novels

[graph with underlying data and source citations here]

Printers probably favored female authors because they judged female authors to have better prospects of successfully serving readers’ demands. Female authors on average probably understood the literary demands of female readers better than male authors did. Hence the sex ratio for authors suggests that, for thirty-five years after novels became a much more popular good, female readers predominated. These were also the years when women workers, including married women, were a large share of the new cotton factory workforce. Thus, even when women were taking jobs outside the home in a new, high-profile segment of the economy, women probably were also spending more time reading fiction than were men.[2]

Given the biological facts of human sexual reproduction and the evolutionary creation of the human animal, one should expect the behavior of males and females to differ significantly. In the contemporary U.S., men are much less likely to read literary works than are women. Taking sex differences seriously is important for thinking about the development and marketing of communication services.

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[1] The ratio of male-authored to female-authored novels is not the same statistic as the ratio of male authors to female authors of novels, because some authors wrote multiple novels. Raven (2003) p. 150 declares that the latter statistic is “far more significant” than the former, but does not clearly specify why. From 1770 to 1799, the number of male authors of novels was 54% greater than the number of female authors of novels. See Raven (2000) p. 41. Since authorship of novels typically generated little profit in money or social status, the latter statistic indicates that authorship disadvantaged men more than women. Authors, however, were a much smaller share of the population than were readers.

[2] Tepper (2000) analyzes the “gender gap” in fiction reading in the U.S. This work notes that fiction reading is “passive and generally home based” and states that “girls are still socialized into passive, private and non-competitive activities, while boys are channeled into activities which tend to be aggressive, competitive, creative, and leadership-oriented” (p. 272). It cites an authority who declares that “inequalities persist for women in their opportunities for leisure” and concludes that socialization accounts for women reading more fiction than men (id.). Tepper seems not to have considered the possibility that particular patterns of socialization of males and females are part of evolved human development paths and might be extremely difficult to change without tyrannical force. Note that Tepper’s concern about women’s fiction reading goes against the fundamental theme of the NEA’s study, Reading at Risk. Neither Tepper (2000) nor Reading at Risk shows much concern for men.


Raven, James (2000), “Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age,” in The English novel, 1770-1829: a bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles, gen. eds. Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vol. 1, pp. 15-121.

Raven, James (2003), “The Anonymous Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1750-1830,” in The faces of anonymity: anonymous and pseudonymous publications from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, Robert J. Griffin, ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), Ch. 6.

Tepper, Steven J. (2000), “Fiction Reading in America: Explaining the gender gap,” Poetics 27, pp. 255-75.

2 thoughts on “authors and readers of early English novels”

  1. “…girls are still socialized into passive, private and non-competitive activities..”

    Possibly. Cow thinks female novel-reading is less socialization but more of a drug to achieve total wish fulfillment. Given the fact that females tend to earn less and have lower work-place achievement and status than men, novel reading is a way to instantaneously correct this imbalance; females can get a quick fix, dopamine surge from novels in which females, instead of being work-a-day drudges with limited income and choices, have power either through wealth, business success, beauty, or cleverness.
    Cow, of course is speaking theoretically, never having read a novel herself.

  2. On the SHARP discussion list, Anthony Mandal noted that Minerva Press drove the dominance of women-authored fiction in the 1810s. In the 1820s, Henry Colburn, who then favored male authors, eclipsed Minerva Press in publishing.

    My (slightly edited) response:

    Thanks to Anthony Mandal for the interesting response. Some follow-up thoughts:

    A shift in publishers (Minerva to Colburn) would affect the aggregate sex ratio if publishers had slowly changing assets associated with the sex ratio of their authors. Reputation and expertise in publishing female authors (Minerva) certainly would be examples of such assets. But Minerva didn’t suddenly go out of business for some reason unrelated to its relatively high investment in female authors. Without a large, female-specialized publisher going out of business for an exogenous cause, I would expect a publisher-driven sex-ratio effect to be gradual, because a competitive industry wouldn’t leave a lot of money (poorly served customers) to be exploited by a relatively obvious change in business practice.

    The graph is my post shows that the ratio of male-authored to female-authored novels was trending downward from 1750 to 1815. This long-term trend would seem to me to be associated with publishers’ responses to underlying demand conditions (greater growth of female readers). That makes the rapid, sustained reversal 1819-1821 all the more remarkable. Scott’s generic innovation and the changes in common concerns after the Napoleonic War perhaps provided conditions for rapid, sustained spread of men reading fiction.

    Any thoughts on what might encourage men in the U.S. to read more fiction today?

    Anthony Mandal’s Jane Austen and the Popular Novel looks like an interesting book. Sadly, the U.S. Library of Congress doesn’t have a copy. Perhaps list members could help to address this shortcoming. I can’t find an online form for requesting a purchase, so I’ll ask about making a purchase suggestion next time I’m there.

    A big thanks to Dr. Mandal for his work on the database of British Fiction: 1800-1829. That’s a great knowledge resource freely available to everyone around the world 24×7!

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