Women’s Popular Fiction Selections


The purpose of this ethnographic study was to determine the effect of mass-media advertising on women readers’ popular fiction selections. The determination to research this case study was based on interest resulting from readings in a recent Popular Culture graduate class and from my own enjoyable experience as a reader of popular fiction. Factors contributing to the success of this case will be measured by the creation of an unbiased well-organized women readers’ survey, survey response, and the ability to evaluate that response.

Following the study of Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, I began to wonder if women were reading romance novels. If so, were their selections based on mass-media publishing and advertising methods? If not, what kinds of popular fiction were they selecting to read. Had the types of fiction they had chosen changed over the past years? And, if so, was that a product of the times or a result of mass-media publishing and advertising?

In chapter one, “The Institutional Matrix,” of Reading the Romance, Radway’s discussion of book production, distribution, advertising, and marketing techniques points to several interesting changes in book marketing over the past several decades. Radway looks at the evolving mass-production of books from as far back as the days of the first American press when, in the early 1600’s, authors financed their own publications and assumed the risk of unsold copies. Promotion was not usually an issue, since the author often knew his community of literate readers and produced writings for their specific taste (20-21).

It was not until around the 1830’s that publishers, with new technology, could consider producing for profit what the general American public wanted. Publishers determined they must find ways to identify their potential readerships. To draw in the public, publishers used magazines and newspapers to carry novels and novellas in serial form for women readers. Often, women could not wait for the final episode and would decide to go out and buy the complete book. Still, there was no effective method for surveying specific readership interests (Radway 23).

Following the invention of rotary presses, synthetic glue, and better bindings, Robert De Graff, founder of Pocket Books, reasoned if he were to sell the numerous books he could now more easily produce, he must place those books in the paths of consumers. Newsstands, drugstores, food and candy stores became book outlets for paper-backed books. But it was the imitation of an earlier bestseller which led to the publishing of types or categories of books (Radway 27-28).

W. Lawrence Heisey, a Harvard M.B.A. and “soap salesman” for Proctor and Gamble, also had an impact on the public’s vision of books as commodities to be consumed when he went to work for Harlequin to design an innovative sales campaign. His contention was that the quality of a product—whether soap, facial tissue, or romantic fiction—was unimportant in designing a sales campaign. What he set out to do—just as with any other product—was to identify consumers (readers) and learn their reasons for reading (Radway 40-41).

Heisey’s strategy was to create advertising that would reach female readers—who make up more than half of the book-reading public—and insure their repeat purchases. Today, Harlequin’s advertising campaigns target and reach one out of every ten woman. And most of the major book sellers have followed the lead of Harlequin by identifying their audiences and then creating books for these readers and catering to their demands for more and more of the same kind of stories (Radway 41). So do women buy popular fiction because it’s what they want to read—a residual effect from what their mothers and grandmothers read—or do they buy it because it is available and made desirable and intriguing by mass-media methods of advertising such as books covers, bookstore displays, and advertisements in magazines and on television?

As I went about creating a questionnaire, several additional questions came to mind. Additional answers I might attempt to exact from the planned survey were: What is your reading experience? What do you read? When do you read? Why do you read? Why do you select the types of books you do? How much does mass-media advertising affect choices that women readers make in selecting and buying their books? What about bookstore sales and promotions? Do you make your reading selections based on Oprah’s Book Club recommended choices?

Initially, with so much interesting information to explore, I had a difficult time choosing a specific area on which to concentrate so choosing a hypothesis was not a simple task. However, I decided to pursue the question of how much mass-media publishing and advertising influenced the popular fiction selections of women readers. The hypothesis I finally selected was: Women’s popular fiction selections are the direct result of mass-media publishing and advertising.

Before I ventured forward with this project idea, I decided to talk to a few women with whom I work at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. In hopes of expanding my initial ideas for research on a popular culture project, I began by speaking informally to female co-workers—women ranging in age from approximately twenty-five to fifty-five. I gave them a brief description of my “Feminism and Popular Culture,” class, explaining that we were initially studying articles and discussions on the reading of romance novels and that I would be responsible for completing at 15-20 page research project in some area of popular culture.

I explained that, as a reader, I was interested in pursuing information on women’s reading experiences. Some of the questions that intrigued me, I explained, were:
* What kinds of books are women reading?
* What were their reading experiences and habits as children? Teens?
* How did they feel about romance novels?
* Had they ever read romance novels?
* If so, were they still reading them and why?
* If not, what were they reading—if anything—now.
Finally, I asked them what they thought about my idea for a research project and the enthusiastic response was both surprising and welcome.

Women readers began pouring out their experiences of growing up with books. They talked about their childhood reading backgrounds—what they’d read, the kinds of books they liked best, and the age when first they discovered they loved reading for pleasure. It was as if I’d opened a topic that had never before been broached and they were anxious to talk about every aspect of fiction, book selection, and reasons for reading.

From the start, the mention of romance novel provoked interest, excitement, and animated conversation. In particular, two hard-driving women managers gave interesting responses to the question, “Have you ever read a romance novel?” Both of the women’s facial features lit up with enthusiasm. Eyes twinkling, they began to—actually—giggle! The discussion which followed was of tremendous interest to me. Neither of them seemed to get enough of reminiscing about books they’d read—both past and current.

One of the women said she’d never read a romance novel. Yet, she continued to say that the plot was the same in all of them. She explained, “Girl meets boy…boy and girl go through difficulties…are displaced from each other…then girl realizes she’s in love with boy…and they end up together.” I found it intriguing that she said she had never read a romance novel, but knew the formula perfectly. The other manager said she’d never read a Harlequin romance but admitted she’d read a few romance novels in the past. She explained that she didn’t read them anymore but has read—and continues to read—everything that Danielle Steele has ever written. Both women had previously read the Thorn Birds and thought it a bit steamy and good. These conflicting statements caused me considerable interest in finding out more about women readers and their popular fiction selections.

The discussion I had with the two managers followed one of our regular business meetings and the visible change I observed in them was enough to convince me that I must pursue the project of attempting to evaluate popular fiction selections made by women readers. As for the managers, both declared they didn’t know when they’d had such a good time. Both agreed they would love to know more about the reading rituals of the other women “in the building.””

From these initial conversations, other questions materialized. Do readers of romance novels find release from their bondage of responsibilities or are they held captive by the promotional workings of the mass-media? What about the argument that meaning lies not in the text but in: 1) in the reactions of the reader as she interprets the text and/or 2) in a larger sense within the subculture or community of which the reader is a member. Are patterns of women’s reading a result of what our mothers read? Were the popular fiction selections our mothers made a result of mass-media advertising?

My own personal interest in popular fiction selections is based not only on an enjoyment of reading but also on a kind of legacy left by my mother and maternal grandmother. My grandmother Amanda, a Finnish immigrant, studied and learned English through her work as a housekeeper for a doctor and his wife. An avid reader, her favorite book was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin. Though this particular popular novel of its time did not have a happy ending, how different is the following passage from the romance novels of today?

“During the interval between dinner and the arrival of the guests, Kitty felt as a young soldier feels before going into action. Her heart throbbed violently and she could not keep her thoughts fixed on anything. She felt that this evening, when the two men would meet for the first time, must be the turning-point in her life. And she kept picturing them to herself, first individually, then both together…Going upstairs to dress for the evening and looking into the mirror, she noticed joyfully that this was one of her good days and that she was at her best, which she needed to be for what lay before her. She felt outwardly serene and that her movements were free and graceful” (Tolstoy 60).

So passionate was Amanda about this romantic tragedy, that she named my mother—whom she was expecting at the time—Kaarina, after Tolstoy’s title.

In turn, my mother, also an avid reader, was reading a novel by Grace Livingston Hill as she awaited my arrival. One of the characters in this Christian romance, The Seventh Hour, was named Coralie (Cormier). My mother became enamored of this unusual name and, from her romantic read, I gained my name. Did I also gain my future as a reader? Do women chose romance again and again for their reading pleasure and/or needs? Grace Livingston Hill authored more than one hundred romance novels that were undoubtedly mass-produced for the consumption of women who wanted more and more of the same type of popular fiction at the time. Did this woman chose my future as a reader? Or did mass-media advertising cater to the category fiction demands of a female book-buying public? These are some of the questions I hope to answer with this ethnographic study.

Grace Livingston Hill (1865 – 1947) (Her)
The Livingston Hill romances were published first by J.B. Lippincott and reprinted by Grosset & Dunlap. Though called Christian romances, the heroine, in each novel, is generally found to be in “reduced circumstances, and often tossed out onto the world after the death of a beloved parent, meets the hero and captivates him with her beauty and virtue…and the rest of the book chronicles how they arrive at the altar…all the reader has to do is relax and turn the pages toward that happy ending” (Grace).

The population for this study was women readers of popular fiction. The sample for this study was seventy-five women—women whom I know either as co-workers, relatives, or friends and co-workers, friends, and relatives of these women. The ages of these women ranged from twenty-five to fifty-five. About one-half of the group was selected at random from women I came into direct contact within the course of a week in which I was circulating the survey and requesting responses. The other half of the group was selected from female friends and relatives who live at a distance and to whom the survey was mailed along with a letter explaining the need for prompt action and an enclosed stamped and self-addressed envelop for the return of their survey response. The selection of women was not based on age, race, marital status, education, or employment. This case study was based solely on reader response to questions regarding their reading experience and habits. The independent variables to be considered in this case study were:
* Reading history as a child
* Reading history as a teen
* Reading history for: 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s
* Category of popular fiction currently read
* Number of books currently read
* Where most books are purchased
* Reasons for reading popular fiction
* Attitudes toward various types of romance novels
* Effects of advertising on popular fiction selections.
The final survey question asked, “Do you think that popular book advertising has an effect on what books you select to buy? Please explain.” This open-ended question allowed for reader response to evaluate their own book selection process and give an opinion regarding the influence of advertising on popular fiction selections.

Of seventy-five women readers who responded to this survey, 13% were in the age group twenty through twenty-nine; 20% were in the thirty through thirty-nine age group; 24% were in the 40 through forty-nine age group; 32% were in the fifty through fifty-nine age group; and 11% were in the sixty and older group.

Marital status of the respondents were as follows: 65% were married; 19% single; 12% divorced; and 4% widowed.

Employment status of the women readers were as follows: 79% were employed full-time; 3% part-time; 11% retired; 3% students; and 4% not employed outside of the home.

Educational status of women reader respondents was as follows: 46% of the women had some college experience; 25% had earned bachelor degrees; 24% had completed masters or higher degrees; 5% had completed a high school education.
Most of these women—63%—began reading for pleasure when they were ages five through nine years old. Another 31% discovered reading when they were ages ten through nineteen. Only 7% began reading popular fiction after the age of twenty.

Do women readers read what their mothers read? An interesting response to how first books were selected shows that 44% of readers read first books that were recommended by either their mother or a close relative. Other selections were based on recommendations from friends (29%), teachers (17%), and librarians (10%). It appears that there is a close connection between female children and female adults in the reading of fiction. My own mother suggested to me that I read, Anne of Green Gables as my first novel. She explained that it had been her favorite as a child. My early impressions of this experience were that I could trust my mother to choose a good book for me to read.

Whether recommended by a relative, friend, teacher, or librarian, most female children obtained their first popular fiction selections from libraries or bookmobiles. Others found them on bookshelves in school or at home, received them as gifts, or purchased them in bookstores or at used book sales.

Favorite popular fiction selections for first readers and teens ranged from mystery and romance to classics and various other genres. Mysteries topped the list, with romances close behind. Historical fiction placed third as most enjoyed book category. The three titles that were most often mentioned as favorites were: 1) Nancy Drew, 2) The Boxcar Children, and 3) Little House on the Prairie.

Nancy Drew mysteries, published first in April 1930, by far outweighed the others in popularity. Was this a result of recommendations from other readers? Was it a result of the changing times for women? Or was the popularity of Nancy Drew based on a mass-media publishing promotion? Catherine Calvert, in her article “A Heroine Full of Life,” discusses the joys of reading the tales of “the brave and forceful young woman” known as Nancy Drew. “There are books that meet you—and mark you—at the moment in childhood when you are ready for them,” she says. “Nancy Drew was full of new ideas in more ways than simply finding, say, The Secret of Shadow Ranch. She was created at the time when women in America were beginning to strike out in new directions” (103).

Nancy Drew, says Karen Plunkett-Powell, arrived about “ten years after American women won the right to vote—and she arrived in style, without an ounce of time wasted contemplating her gender’s alleged limitations.” And there was never a doubt about how a mystery would end or that it would lead to yet another episode. A formula for mystery that worked along with an attractive heroine and a “fabulous marketing campaign could not help but become a success.” Nancy Drew appealed to girls because she showed them that they could have new freedom—including “the right to vote, the option of having a career, and the ability to pursue their dreams without benefit (or limitation) of an ever-present male protector.” Plunkett-Powell quotes novelist P. M. Carlson : “The message in Nancy Drew mysteries was clear: “Yes, we’re female, but we too can hunt down truth! We can fight for justice! We too can have adventures! We can do it!” (3-18).

From these two declarations, it appears that Nancy Drew became popular because she fit into the changing times for women. But how did women know she fit into their changing views? A brief description of the formation of the Nancy Drew series will explain that an outstanding mass-media marketing campaign was the key. Edward Stratemeyer (1862 – 1930), a shrewd and prolific author and business man from New Jersey, broke new ground in the world of children’s book-production by forming the Stratemeyer Syndicate around 1905. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was responsible for the mass-production of series books for children and produced famous creations such as The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and many others (Nash).

Stratemeyer, worked first as an editor for Good News, a weekly boys’ story paper published by Street and Smith. Here he learned the intricacies and operations of the publishing business. He soon began writing and publishing his own weekly boys’ magazine called Bright Days. He authored numerous serials for boys. He also wrote paperback dime novels as Jim Bowie and Jim Daly and women’s serials as Julia Edwards. His first hardcover book, Richard Dare’s Venture, appeared first as a magazine serial in Argosy in 1881. His first best-seller, Under Dewey at Manila, caused readers to demand more and more of the same. Stratemeyer produced five more novels called The Old Glory series (Plunkett-Powell 13).

During the heyday of the industrial revolution, Stratemeyer contrived a fiction formula that would become his hallmark. He combined rage-to riches themes of the late 1800’s with the excitement of early twentieth century technology. While, in the beginning, Stratemeyer authored mostly books for young boys, he eventually wrote numerous books for girls as well. But, in the early 1900’s, he faced the problem of parents and children having a difficult time coming up with the 75 cents to $1.25 needed to purchase a juvenile hardcover book. So he decided to sell his books for 50 cents each. “The idea took off. Boys and girls gobbled up the attractively bound, economically priced hardcovers.” Stratemeyer had created the “golden age of fifty-centers” (Plunkett-Powell 13-15).

A second problem Stratemeyer faced was in finding enough time to write all the books he proposed to produce. He decided to hire writers to do the job for him. He placed ads in the classified and hired a small staff of ghostwriters. “The concept of a book-packaging house was not a new idea in publishing, but Stratemeyer capitalized on it with unprecedented success…It was a remarkably lucrative setup.” The 1927 introduction of The Hardy Boys series was astounding, but the 1930’s fascination with Nancy Drew novels was unprecedented. The new series outsold all of the boys’ series books up to that date (Plunkett-Powell 16-18).

Nancy Drew’s stories, originally published in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap—the same publishers who produced the Grace Livingston Hill Christian romance series—have sold over eighty million copies in more than seventeen languages. The success of Nancy Drew can be attributed to an outstanding mass-media marketing campaign by Edward Stratemeyer in the early part of the twentieth century. True, women’s reading preferences reflected their desire for freedom, but the Stratemeyer Syndicate understood this and used it as a hook to promote their products for profit. They created a character that fit into the popular culture of the times, created a series through which the character could continue to live as a role model for young females, reduced book prices, and set out to reap their profits from women’s need to consume the current popular fiction presentation of Nancy Drew. Women bought the product, passed the information on to their friends, and to their daughters. Today, Nancy Drew continues to be alive and well in paperbacks and readers can still “choose to purchase updated versions of the Grosset & Dunlap hardcover titles their parents and grandparents enjoyed” (Plunkett-Powell 3).

Interesting reports by women readers on reading preferences for the past several decades reveal that, in the 1970’s, romance novels became the most favored type of fiction—though stories of mystery and suspense were not far behind in popularity. Romance continued to place first in the favorite fiction category, in the 1980’s, while mystery stayed at a close second and suspense continued to gain popularity. In the 1990’s, as mystery and suspense novels grew to first and second places, there was a declining interest in romance novels. Still, these three categories of popular fiction remained most popular throughout the thirty year period. All three of these genres have been produced in series form and promoted by mass-media publishers and advertisers. Women readers, it appears are being controlled by the corporate powers of syndicate advertising and publishing which creates for them—just as it did for, say, Nancy Drew or Grace Livingston Hill audiences—a fix through series books, then serves it up to them again and again.

Harlequin set out to create series books that would guarantee repeat purchases by filling the demands of female romance readers for formula fiction. The result of identifying audiences and targeting them with an aggressive advertising campaign led to Harlequin’s immense marketing success. Harlequin romance novels are issued in ninety-eight countries around the world and the company claims it has a regular readership of over 16 million women in North American alone (Radway 42).

But over half—64%—of respondents to this survey said they felt either negative or very negative toward Harlequin romances. Only 7% felt positive about Harlequins and 29% were neutral. Of the romance categories listed, family sagas and historical romances rated the most positive response—58% and 40% respectively. Response to Danielle Steele’s books turned into a three-way split: 36% felt negative about them; 34% were neutral; and 30% were positive or very positive. Gothic romances rated: 36% negative; 44% neutral; and 21% positive. Contemporary romances rated slightly higher with 38% of readers saying they felt positive about them and 37% reporting a neutral stance.

When asked if they read romance novels, most readers—39%—said they’d read a few. The response of 36% was that they had read them in the past but do not read them much anymore. Other results were: 9% said them read romance novels voraciously and 8% said they had never read a romance novel. Seven percent said they didn’t read them, but knew a friend or relative who does and elaborated on this by explaining that these readers often exchange shopping bags full of books with friends and relatives.

Romance readers were asked to rate what they liked best about romance novels. Of seventy-five respondents, twenty-nine responded to this question. The results, interestingly, were: 1) escape from tedium; 2) happy ending; 3) the plot; 4) the spunky heroine; 5) alone time – just for me; 6) the suspense; 7) steamy sex; and 8) the hunky hero.

The reasons for reading popular fiction given by women readers in this study were: 1) a time to relax and relieve stress – 73%; 2) an opportunity to travel to another world – 14%; 3) to gain new knowledge – 6%; 4) to escape from boredom – 4%; 5) to review other authors’ writing styles – 1%; and 6) just for fun – 1%. One women wrote the following comment: “An opportunity to travel to another world – any world but mine!”

Where, then, are most of women’s reading selections obtained today? Almost half of the respondents—48%—state that they buy their popular fiction in bookstores. Readers share books with other readers and 21% said they receive their selections this way. A trip to the library was listed by 14%; used books sales – 10%; grocery or drug stores – 4% book clubs – 3%; and purchasing online – only 1%.

An overwhelming 97% of the seventy-five respondents to the survey reported they are influenced in making fiction selections sometimes, often, or very often by the author. If they have previously enjoyed a specific author, they said, they will buy any of that author’s new titles. Just as with series books, books by the same author carry the promise of a repeated experience of reading satisfaction.

Women readers just as frequently—96%—choose their popular fiction books based on recommendations from other readers. Some of the individual comments by readers expounded upon this. One reader said, “I’m most swayed by particular authors and recommendations from others.” Another explained, “Most of what I read comes from book referrals from friends.” Still others made the following statements:
“Personal recommendations are valued.”
“I often read what my teenage daughter recommends.”
“Word of mouth is my most reliable.”
“The opinion of others influences the book I’ll buy.”

“The recommendations of my friends influence what I read because we have similar interests in our reading material.”

“I love to read but have very little spare time. I want to make sure it will be worth my time and trust a friend’s opinion more.”

“I read books recommended to me by friends. I read only non-fiction and have ever since I was a teenager and read Nancy Drew Mysteries.”
“Basically, I read things recommended by friends or books by known authors.”

“For the most part, I choose my selections by or through recommendations of friends.”
These statements—like testimonials to trust and female friendship—give a definite impression of the sense of community that appears to exist among women readers. It is a direct way of connecting with other women and sharing time, stories, and friendship. The pleasure of reading, clearly, in this group of women, is a shared activity.

More than half of all respondents agreed that book covers, bookstore special table promotions, and bestseller displays influenced their fiction purchases. Only 30%, however, reported being drawn to purchase books through Oprah’s Book Club. With so much publicity on the daytime TV Oprah Show, newsletters on books, and online Internet publicity, I thought many more readers would have mentioned Oprah’s name in conjunction with book selection. Oprah’s book club and recommended books are featured online through many different companies. The Chair Studio out of California presents colored pictures of books covers, notes on titles, and synopses of her books (Oprah’s). Major online book sellers like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble feature her books on their main home pages (Oprah). Still, with all of this advertising, less than a third of the respondents have found her books as a regular source for selection. One women explained that she was not in the least interested in what Oprah had to say about book selections. “She’s a talk show host, for heaven sake, what does she know about books?”

Newsletters about books were used in book selection by 26% of respondents; book club catalogs – 14%; magazine ads – 12%. Television commercials seemed to be the least effective in seducing women readers to buy books. A few women stated that they enjoy book reviews and interviews with authors on TV and often make selections based on this. Not one reader said she responded to advertising on TV. There may not be many commercials on TV currently but on Lifetime for Women, Channel 49, there are a few, for example a new book by Belva Plain has been promoted in recent months. But brief exposure for these ads may make them less enticing (Fletcher).

In response to the question “Do you think that popular book advertising has an effect on what books you select to buy?”, 43% of the women readers said they thought it did while 56% said, “No.” Only one reader said she felt uncertain. “The answer lies somewhere between yes and no actually. I don’t pay particular attention to advertising but, now and then, I will be drawn to a book because of something I’ve heard,” she explained. This statement may be very revealing in how many of us think of advertising and how, in fact, it actually often works. The message is out there and we hear and see it whether we recognize the fact or not.

Answers to the question of whether or not advertising influences women’s book selections may be a matter of interpretation. An examination of the explanations of several respondents who replied, “No,” seems to reveal this. “Advertising might cause me to look at the cover to review the storyline but often I stick to an author I’ve read before. Although, I would’ve never read John Grisham if not so popular,” says one reader. Sticking to an author seems strikingly the same as continued reading of books in a series created by a book syndicate. John Grisham’s contemporary suspense novels—which promise adventure again and again—have been widely advertised in book reviews, bestseller displays, booksellers’ newsletters, and on the Internet. Many of the other respondents wrote that advertising does not play a major role in their book picks but they choose their books because of a specific author. “Most of the time it is based on a previous author that I have read,” one women stated. Another wrote, “I just like to read the authors I like.”

“No, advertising does not influence me. I just choose my books by reading the back cover!!” said one reader. Similarly, another respondent wrote, “No, advertising does not influence me. I read what appeals to me through hands-on investigation. I pick the book up, thumb through it, read the jacket and the first sentence or two. I don’t read what a commercial enterprise tries to tell me I should read for their profit. (Unless you count the cover as a commercial – then I guess I do!).” It appears, that this reader caught on to the fact that cover illustrations work as one of the most powerful tools for advertising books. When in 1929, the Stratemeyer Syndicate was preparing for the 1930 release of the new Nancy Drew Series, they hired one of the best commercial illustrators in New York City to design the dust jackets. Russell Haviland Tandy’s unique artistic style was the perfect marketing tool. The popularity of Nancy Drew was a result of not only engaging texts but also of visual impact of the cover designs. “…the original Nancy Drew mysteries were beautifully illustrated by artist Russell H. Tandy, whose color dust jackets virtually leaped off the shelves in the 1930’s…The combination of riveting stories and eye-catching artwork added up to an astounding, far-reaching commercial appeal” ( Plunkett-Powell 5-6).

Another respondent, who said advertising did not influence her, stated, “The books I purchase at book sales or rummage sales have no benefit of advertising and are some of my favorites.” However, the argument here is that someone selected the book and that selection could have been based on one of a number of different advertising devices. One of the women, who said she did not begin reading for pleasure until she was in her late forties, wrote, “Advertising plays no part in my selections. I read and still have whole series of “Wagons West” and the ones before and after. Also read Mary Higgins Clark, LaVyrle Spencer, Belva Plain, Nora Roberts, Cynthia Freeman, and Danielle Steele.” This reader did not discover the lure of books until she was an adult but currently enjoys these series types of fiction—continuously promoted by booksellers and syndicates.

Women readers who are aware of the effectiveness of mass-media advertising in books agreed that it influences their selections. The following are just a few of the statements that were made in explanation:

“I often choose bestsellers because they are the most carefully displayed and because I figure they are probably better than others since they were chosen above them.”

“Advertising in the bookstores will catch my eye. But mostly, my selections are based on favorite author, family/friend recommendation, or cover appeal.”

“Advertising communicates that a new book is out which I might want to read if I like the author.”

“PBS author interviews have often intrigued me enough to go get books they’ve written.”

“I don’t consciously select books due to reading an ad but, if that author or book title is fresh in my mind, I might pick that book to read.”

“If I decide to go to a store and purchase a book, then the advertising does help. It helps because I already have some knowledge about the book and/or author and I can make a more precise decision.”

“I find books through cover display and articles in the Sunday Book Section of newspaper.”
“It helps you to know what books are available.”

The overwhelming majority of responses of women both who agreed and disagreed that advertising affects their book selections pointed to how readers are swayed both by particular authors and recommendations from others.

“I look at the covers and perhaps stop at a little kiosk of a particular book. I’m most swayed by particular authors and recommendations from others. I also look at the NY Times Bestseller Lists.”

“Most of what I read comes from book referrals from friends.”

“When I go to a bookstore there are so many books to choose from, I like to have an idea about a new or popular book’s storyline and whether others who have read it (i.e. critics, reviewers) like it or not. It helps me choose which book to look at on the shelf.”

“I do get ideas from books that are advertised or profiled in newspapers columns. I often read what my teenage daughter recommends – she has made some good choices and some were based on advertising.”

“I watch very little TV, so radio promotions influence me some. Word of mouth is my most reliable.”

“I have read two Oprah book of the month books. When I go to the bookstore or used book store, I get overwhelmed by the vast number of books. The opinion of others influences the book I’ll buy.”

It appears that reading popular fiction is not just a recreational activity for women readers. It is an intricate part of their lives—for many an inheritance from women who have gone before. It is a way of marking certain times in our personal histories. It is not a singular event but rather an extension of a connection with other women—a community of women, binding together through the years. The act of selecting and reading popular fiction forms a bond of unique caring and understanding of other women in our world who, like ourselves, struggle to learn and grow. It is a way of connecting with other women, their struggles, thoughts, and needs in a historic period of time. The pleasure of reading is tied directly to what our mothers and their mothers read. It is the study of other women and how they react in a certain set of circumstances.

Yet, we have only to look at the history of book publishing and advertising to see that mass-media influences have helped form what women choose to read. As in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developments in technology and distribution allowed for reaching greater audiences, the idea of books as salable commodities became a reality. And, when it became clear that readers could be induced to buy quite similar books again and again, corporate powers such as the Stratemeyer Syndicate took advantage of the situation by generating books in series. The key, it appears, for selling to women readers was to target them for investigation—find out what the female book-buying public wanted. What were the current trends in women’s changing roles in society? The target audience for past and current marketing firms is not the individual female but rather a community of women—friends, relatives, co-workers—who discuss, read, and share current information regarding books and other publications. Mass-media publishing and advertising has found the hook to induce women to buy—the wish to read and grow, to find a sense of freedom within the pages of popular fiction, and then to nurture by sharing these pleasures with other women—a community of ‘ordinary women’, like me.

In conclusion, I would like to briefly address some of the potential problems for participant observation in ethnographic research as expressed in my first paper, “Ethnography and Women’s Reading Rituals,” As Michael Burawoy, pointed out in his paper, “Ethnography Unbound,” one of the problems involved in this type of research is that too close contact with participants can lead to a loss of objectivity (2). By listening to what people said and wrote and not changing this view to suit my own—if they differed—I was able to keep a respectable distance.

In regard to Tania Modleski’s reference to the problem of beginning a ethnographic study with a predetermined attitude, I may have had an idea of what the women readers’ responses might be, but I believe that I was able to keep an open mind. Modleski also warned that ethnographers should not adopt the pose of disinterested “scientific researcher”—like Janice Radway—and wind up condescending to the people she is working with (43-44). I worried that I might have an negative attitude toward some readers’ choices but, as it turned out, I was so interested in all of the responses, I didn’t think, because some were different than mine, that this was negative. Instead, I found the similarities and differences fascinating.

I think my survey questionnaire worked quite well in discovering how women readers feel about reading, mass-media’s influence, and other aspects of reading popular fiction. In regard to response bias, a tendency for people’s answers to questions to be influenced by things other than their true feelings, beliefs, and behaviors, I think there may have been some who did not admit to reading romance novels (Monette 161). Still this may be a problem of interpretation for readers of what constitutes a romance novel. Recalling the conflicting statements of the woman who said she does not read romance novels but does read everything that Danielle Steele writes, it seems possible that each respondent may have had a different idea of what the term ‘romance novel’ meant. Some of the questions—for example, those that referred to romance novels—may have not been interpreted similarly among respondents.

However, I believe this possible response bias had little effect on the study overall. My hypothesis, “Women’s popular fiction selections are the direct result of mass-media publishing and advertising,” was, I feel, confirmed.

All in all, this ethnographic study was almost as pleasurable and interesting as reading a good book! Yet nothing is really ever as satisfying as a new book!

By Coralie Cederna Johnson

Burawoy, Michael. “Ethnography Unbound.” University of California Press. Berkeley, California. 1991. 2.

Calvert, Catherine. “A Heroine Full of Life.” Victoria Magazine. Heart Magazines. 13.4. April 1999. 82, 103.

Cormier, Natalie Jean. “All About Grace Livingston Hill.” Online. Netscape. 21 May 1999. Available: www.angelfire.com/il/cateyes6/GLHBiography.html.

Fletcher, Jim. “TYPES OF MASS MEDIA – DESCRIPTIONS AND COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGES.” 15 Mar. 1997. Online. Internet. 7 May 1999. Available:

“Grace Livingston Hill (1865 – 1947).” Online. Netscape. 30 May 1999. Available: www.garden.net/users/bksleuth/GLHInfo.htm.

“Her Heritage.” Pilgrim New Media, Inc. 1994. Online. Netscape.19 May 1999. Available: www.plgrm.com/Heritage/women/pictures/HILLGR65.HTM.

Modleski, Tania. “The Scandal of the Mute Body.” 42-7.

Monette, Duane R. et al. Applied Social Research. Harcourt Brace College Publishers. Fort Worth, Texas. 1994. 161.

Nash, Ilana. “What Is the Stratemeyer Syndicate?” Larilana Group, Ltd. Santa Monica, CA.
1999. Online. Netscape. Available: www.larilana.com/stratemeyer/home.htm.

“Oprah’s recommended books (Oprah’s Book Club).” The Chair Studio. Online. Netscape.
14 May 1999. Available: www.california.com/~rpcman/OPRAH.HTM.

“Oprah.” Barnes & Noble Books. Online. Netscape. 17 May 1999. Available:

Plunkett-Powell, Karen. The Nancy Drew Scrapbook. St. Martin’s Press. New York.
Nov. 1993. 3-18.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance. The University of North Carolina Press. 1984, 1991. 20-41.

Services’ Managers. Personal interview. 18 May 1999.

Survey. Seventy-five women readers’ responses to questions on women’s reading selections.

Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich. Anna Karenin. Penguin Books. New York. First Translation:
1954. 60.

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