BY CRAIG KELLY
I was a reluctant reader. I remember torturous bouts on the couch, my mother tangling her fingers in her hair as she pondered how to force feed her child his reading homework.
Then one day our reading group started The Hobbit. I stumbled through the first few sentences, but my reading grew in confidence as I stepped onto the road with Bilbo, not knowing where I was being swept off to. The destination, as it turned out, was a lifelong love of fantasy fiction.
I wasn’t the only one hooked by Tolkien. Two or three of us would huddle in the corner of the playground, swapping battered, dogeared copies of fantasy novels like we were bartering diamonds. Each of us placed somewhere on the scale of geekiness, with thick glasses, unfitting clothes, and a shyness bordering on aloofness. And we were all boys.
That formed my lazy assumption that fantasy readers are geeky men who may or may not have grown out of dodgy fashion sense and social awkwardness. But as I saw the number of submissions from women to our short story contest and started thinking about some of my favourite authors in the genre, I realised my assumption was just that—lazy and, very likely, wrong.
Since authors are often told to ‘know your audience’, I decided to do a bit of digging into the readers of fantasy fiction. Unfortunately, the data is patchy at best, so here are several caveats. Fantasy, as I’m sure you’re aware, often gets thrown in with science fiction into the less than helpful SFF. I don’t for a second believe the readership of fantasy is interchangeable with science fiction, although of course some crossover exists. Secondly, the datasets tend to be small, and there’s undoubtedly an element of selection bias—those people who are happy to fill in a survey are not necessarily representative of fantasy readers in general. That’s the case with the most robust data that does exist from a 2018 academic study which relied on 909 responses to a 57-question survey.
Caveats notwithstanding, that study found most science fiction and fantasy readers are women (55 percent), with an average age of 42 and a mode age of 35. Female readers tended to be younger, in the mid-thirties age range. Most readers are educated to university degree level or above and the majority are avid readers, averaging five books per month.
Another survey from 2020 also found women to be the most common SFF readers, but the age demographics differed. This time the typical reader was a woman in her 60s, although it’s worth highlighting that a significant sub-set of women in their 30s was still present.
That survey was interesting in the way it mined the kinds of themes readers say they like to find in fantasy. It found the vast majority of SFF readers want to see modern values reflected in the books they read, and they tend to be more politically progressive than the general population. Climate change, racism, and gender equality all marked high as important issues for these readers.
There is another 2020 survey conducted by a SFF lit mag. Clearly the audience here is a bit skewed since lit mags are read predominately by writers. Even so, it confirmed the earlier findings around readers’ high levels of education and comfortable economic status.
It also found—like the second study—that epic fantasy was by far the most popular sub-genre.
A notable mention for one other study, interesting in its focus on diversity. If lazy assumptions abound that fantasy readers tend to be men, so too is the presumption that fantasy readers are mostly white. This study found that the readership of SFF is more racially diverse than previously thought, and the researchers made a compelling case that publishers have failed to reach out to these audiences.
We clearly need further studies to identify the elusive average fantasy reader, and I would like to see more research specifically on fantasy readers rather than grouping them with our friends in science fiction. With that said, I am convinced that my group of pre-teen misfits arguing over Robert Jordan in the playground are no longer the archetype fantasy reader, if we ever were.
When not editing Mirk, Craig spends his days working in political comms. By night, he writes. He enjoys meandering conversations, caramel biscuits, and reading fantasy fiction. He does not enjoy his children’s aversion to sleep.