Sex, Books, Genders, and Numbers: What Counts for Readers?

The newest novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, City of Girls is what I’m reading—not for book club—just for the fun of comparing it to Eat, Pray, Love. (I didn’t enjoy Gilbert’s memoir for the same reasons I loved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Go figure.) But, as of chapter 11 in City of Girls, I do like Vivian, the protagonist. She’s an elderly woman who looks back on being young and living an unbridled life in the New York City of 1940. Vivian is an unapologetic, serial, and adventurous lover of sex in the city of girls. She’s so different than Dorothy, that farm girl who went to Oz as a teenager. Vivian, meet Dorothy. Dorothy, you’re meeting Vivian in my reader’s mind. Let’s go, girls!


In June 2019, I had the good fortune to hear Ms. Gilbert give a brief talk about writing City of Girls…and then she answered many questions from an audience that I estimated was close to 90 percent women—of all ages. When a young woman asked the author what she’d learned about relationships since Eat, Pray, Love was published in 2006, Ms. Gilbert made a profound statement that I remember as, ‘Everyone craves them, but relationships are complicated.’ Then she said something I’d not heard since being cautioned by adults during my adolescence—and I remember it as, ‘Sexual intercourse is actually kind of dangerous.’


Dangerous? That’s not what Madison Avenue wants us to believe.


But sex, as lovely and dangerous as it can be, seems to sell everything. Even books—maybe especially books. Several questions came to mind about book purchasing and reading habits—for all the genders—so I put down the novel and went reading for answers. 


First, I asked who—or what—comes up with data about book purchasers and readers? 


A website,, reports that the U.S. book industry counts over 10 billion dollars in sales from 675 million print books. And that was for 2018.   


What are some recent statistics?


Accurate sales data doesn’t really exist! Tracking the sales of all books, and all book formats, is more of an art than a science. Every print book has an ISBN number to be tracked by Nielsen BookScan—but BookScan does not record all sales. I could not find any information about who or what tracks sales of ebooks. 


Next, I wanted to know the most popular genre across all markets. According to the Statisita website, mystery/crime/thriller stories sell the most books. Romance books are a close second. Books for children seem to be in third place (although it was difficult to tell, given the level of accuracy in reporting sales). Cookbooks are selling well; join me (and all the foodies) in giving them an unofficial fourth place ribbon. 


If you’re still curious, you’ll want to do your own research, but cyberspace seems to be getting even squishier when it comes to facts. Here’s a good article titled “Everything You Wanted To Know About Book Sales But Were Afraid To Ask,” by Lincoln Michel:  (June 2016). 


Finally, as for gender (the root of all close, intimate relationships—sex!) I’ve seen that some literary agents are asking for LGBTQIA-themed manuscripts and I wondered about that market. I learned that Penguin-Random House has an LGBT Network, and for Pride Month (June), they published “The Ultimate LGBTQIA+ Pride Book List” at Go there and explore. It’s a grand adventure…the titles you’ll see are indicative of our literal brave, and better, new world.  


Now…please forget the “data,” and lack of it. What’s most important is what you find important to purchase and read in a landscape where our electronic best friend, the internet, provides trillions of letters in reading material for free: blogs, journals, news media websites, Twitter, Facebook, and even the comments on Instagram. Plus, when your eyes get tired of print, iTunes and YouTube offer electronic fountains of free content—and noise—and advertising. 


It’s a big marketplace—for books and things, too. Think, and know that it probably has some of its employees figuring out ways to do better sales tracking data even as you read this. 


I’ve stopped asking questions, at least until I’m finished reading City of Girls. Information on book sales and the reading habits of people turns out to be not nearly as fascinating as sex in New York City nearly 80 years ago.  


By Mary Holden