Why Are Dogs Popular in Books, and Cats on the Internet?

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 1:30 PM

The Curious Incidence of Dogs in Publishing

If kittens rule the Internet, why do puppies reign in print?

130401_BOOKS_CatILLO

Illustration by Luke Pearson

Reader, if you and I can agree on anything, it's that the Internet is made of cats. But we may differ on the follow-up: What else could it be made of? When cats took over on our screens and in our minds, whose regime, exactly, did they replace?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

For too long we've talked as if the online feline emerged from nowhere, to fill a niche that hadn't yet existed. We've made out cats to be the brand-new products of a brand-new age and ignored the fact that before we had the Internet, and before the Internet had its furry totem, media consumers held a different set of animal predilections. We've forgotten that the readers from that ancient age of dusty books preferred the dog, and so they do today. Before the Web page there was the written word. Before kittens ruled the Internet, puppies reigned in print.

The real mystery, then, is not how cats took precedence online, but rather how they managed to dethrone the dog. Our media have been split in two, and each opposing camp—the old against the new—has a spirit animal suited to its ethos. We're reading dogs and clicking cats. Knopf is a borzoi. BuzzFeed is a Scottish Fold.

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When did our entertainments break along these species lines? And what will happen to the dog, once so proud in literature, as the industry that championed it limps into the future?

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Surely you'll be inclined to grant the premise: Think of Maru the Cat; think of Marley & Me. But let me try to make the case using more objective means. Precisely how do dogs and cats compare online, and then again in print?

The other day I went to visit Yahoo and plugged in the words "cat" and "cats." (I tried them 10 times each.) My searches pulled an average of 1.8 billion hits, nearly two giga-cats of data on the Internet. Then I did the same with "dog" and "dogs," and received one-third as many results. For every Web-enabled pooch, three kittens danced on YouTube.

Photographic studies of cats.
A proto-YouTube collection of cats from a 1914 magazine spread.

Bing produced a similar comparison: 1.7 billion cats against 775 million dogs, for a ratio north of 2-to-1. Google was more even-pawed, but still the Web evinced a preference for felines: Its worm crawled 2.5 billion sites on cats and just 1.7 billion sites on dogs.

These searches tell us what we knew already: That stats on cats are unsurpassed online. But what's the mix for books?

On Amazon, canines held the lion's share of search results, by a healthy 2-to-1. A look at Google Books returned the same disparity: The corpus holds 87 million cats and almost twice as many pups. What's more, this trend in published work appears to date back centuries.

What about the future? To get a more specific sense, I consulted an online database of book deals and sifted through the last few years for references to animals. Since 2008, editors have signed up at least 44 dog-related works of fiction, compared with 20 books on cats. Among nonfiction deals—including memoirs, how-to guides, photography, and pet-related humor—the spread was even more severe: Over the last two years, the database lists 57 such arrangements for canine printed matter against 18 for kitty-lit.

So there we have it: Dogs really are the champs in print, while kittens win online. Which brings us back to where we started.

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