Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Where the Boys Aren't

My rant for the day ...

You know what exhausts me? Publishing trends and the people who say to ignore them. Because you know who doesn't ignore trends? Agents and acquiring editors.

OK. Let me back up a little bit. I'm working on MG books that are basically aimed at boys. I figured these would be sellable, right? I mean, look at the proven success of series like Lightning Thief, Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, and the Inkheart books. There is a market there, and when a series does well, it can break out with HUGE sales.

But it turns out this is a harder market to crack than I figured—and I have a theory why.

First off, the MG/YA publishing industry right now is just completely enamored of first-person teen romances. I get it. Stephanie Meyers sold a lot of books. If you look at the books right now going at auction, they are more often than not first-person teen romances. These books are squarely aimed at girls. They are, in fact, frequently despised by boys.

Second, publishing at this level is run by women. I've been agent and editor shopping now for a few years, and I've had lots of contact with both. In all that time, I've dealt with two or three men total. Everyone else is female. Now please don't misunderstand me: I love females. I married one. My mother is female, as are my sisters and even my dog. I strongly suspect that my childhood pet iguana was female. But I think it's fair to observe that women look for different things in books than men do, and naturally, boys look for different things in books than girls do. I've gotten a lot of feedback from high-up editors and agents, basically saying, "This book needs more emotion, more heart." But see, here's the thing: I know a lot of boys, and I don't know ANY who are clamoring for more "emotion" in their entertainment. Most of them are hoping their parents will relax and allow them to watch movies/play games/buy books in which shit blows up.

But what about all those books I mentioned in the beginning of this post? Didn't they get bought? Didn't the industry recognize this large boyish audience?

Well, no. Of all those series I mentioned, only two were purchased traditionally in the United States (and both were written by authors with previous publication histories). Three were first published overseas and only brought here AFTER they had a track record of success. And one was self-published first.

It's not hard to look at the situation and conclude that MG/YA publishing is delicately, subtly and probably unwittingly tilted against young boy readers. I'm not saying I don't need to continue growing as a writer—I do—and I can't pretend to read the vast feminine hive-mind that currently rules children's publishing, but I think I can fairly be frustrated by it.

Several times now, I've had agents or editors say, "I'm actively looking for boy books! I really want to build my boy list!" But I secretly wonder if they really mean it. I think there's never been a less fashionable time to be a boy than right now. Boys are falling behind in virtually every measure of academia, and schools are even taking away recess and gym—the very things boys need to discharge some of that animal energy. I know the struggle for equal rights is ongoing, and I know there's a lot of progress yet to be made, but I worry that some of this future progress will come at the expense of a whole generation of loud, frequently smelly, sticky-handed and woolly headed little boys.


Mark Terry said...

Oh, uh, boy. So, to clear the air, or lay out my bona fides, perhaps, I'm a guy. I have two sons, one 16 and one 11. My wife, it is safe to say, is a "boy Mom," and even my dear sister once commented (as Leanne was out tubing with her sons behind the boat my sister and I were on), "God sure knew what he was doing when he gave Leanne sons."

It's been jaw-dropping to me to see what books my sons have been expected to read for English classes for the last 8 years. Particularly once they got into middle school. I kept looking at these books and thinking, "No wonder my brilliant reader/writer son doesn't like his English classes or any of the books he's forced to read. They've all got female protagonists."

And I've seen the same thing in the "we want to publish boy books because they're being underserved" by publishers and I'm skeptical. I've watched what my sons like to read. And you know what it is? It's action and heroics. And you want my opinion on why two of the bestselling kids books are the Alex Rider novels by Anthony Horowitz and the Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan? Action, humor, heroics. Hell, the Alex Rider novels, he's like every boy's dream, a reluctant spy who's always being forced to use his weird skillset--snow boarding, ATV riding, scuba diving, parasailing, video gaming, etc--to get out of trouble and defeat the bad guys. THe very minute I read the first Alex Rider books, Stormbreaker, I knew exactly who the demographic was and why it was so popular.

Ah crap. You got me going.

LurkerMonkey said...

We've had similar experiences with our son in school. My oldest is 14 and he's a natural reader ... but like a lot of boys, he basically stopped reading fiction in 7th grade. Why? Well, I think there's a lot of reasons ... they discover video games, movies are all basically pitched at 14-year-old boys, and there isn't much fiction he's interested in. Just this morning, he said, "I was in the library yesterday at school, looking for something to read, and I couldn't find a single book I wanted to read." He ended up picking up Fahrenheit 451.

I know the industry's response: we tried to publish those books. They don't sell. And maybe that's the case ... but I don't think the publishing industry alone can move the needle. If we value reading as a society (and maybe we don't after all), then I think it begins at home, extends to school, and only ends with the publishing industry.

Natasha Fondren said...

Boys and girls are definitely completely different. For some reason, I was really good with boys and not as good with girls, while my good friend teacher was really good with girls and not that good with boys, LOL. But I have never seen a teacher (and highly suspect the same holds true for editors) who is equally skilled with both. Competent with both, surely, but excellent at both?

I lived in a community where half my students went to the best public school in the state, and half went to all-boys or all-girls schools. There is NO comparison. I watched for fifteen years, and I can't find ONE reason why boys and girls should be schooled together. I watched for years with an open mind, and there is NO comparison. NONE. In fact, seeing what a number joint schooling does to both girls' and boys' self-esteems in comparison to single-sex schooling, I'd say it's near criminal. It's definitely a travesty.

Could you try selling your stuff overseas?

Mark Terry said...

I sort of figured it out (or maybe just figured her out) when we went to a parent-teacher conference with my youngest's 4th grade teacher and the subject of one of the books he read and loved was "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen. She just wrinkled her nose and shook her head, which pissed off both my wife and myself. First, it's an award winner. Second, it's good. Third, my son loved it. What the hell was her problem? I half-suspect her problem was that the author was still alive, the book was funny, and that it had a boy as the main character.

Oh well. She wasn't our favorite teacher, even before we found out she had an affair with the principal, causing both of them to leave their spouses. Oh, small town gossip.

Erica Orloff said...

Don't even get me started. My Oldest Son adores (!!) anime and manga. He's not "allowed" (or wasn't in middle school) to use that for reading time or "count it" toward reading points. As I once blogged about it . . . I decided to READ one. And I loved it. The storytelling, the art, the boys' roles and most especially the GIRLS' roles. And as an artist (i.e., someone in the arts), the idea that this form of storytelling doesn't count? Ludicrous. No wonder he hated English.