This morning on Twitter, Cindy Pon directed me to a very interesting discussion at Enchanted Inkpot about “boy books” and “girl books” in YA and why there seems to be a discrepancy between boy-oriented fiction and girl-oriented fiction.
The dearth of boy books in YA is an on-going discussion, with question of “Why aren’t there more boy books?” arising again and again.
The thing is, there are a lot of boy-oriented books, but they’re not being bought in the same numbers as girl-oriented ones.
Gendered Reading: Real or Construct?
The accepted wisdom for those in the business of selling products to consumers is this: buying power is in the hands of women. This idea holds as true for books as it does for nearly everything else. Women (girls) buy things. And they tend to buy things more than men. I may not have a lot of discretionary income, but I certainly like to shop–to look, if not to spend. You couldn’t drag my guy friends to a mall if their lives depended on it. My father jokes that this is the hunter-gatherer mentality: women look broadly to acquire the best, whereas men find something and go for it.
Selling books to readers works on a similar principle. Women make up 80% of the fiction buying market, not just YA. Before people argue it’s because there aren’t enough books to appeal to men, I will say that in nonfiction, there is a bit more parity between the genders. Why?
Many of my friends–male, female, and otherwise–read a lot, but when it comes to approaches to reading, there is a gendered difference. It isn’t black and white, but for the most part, my male friends don’t like fiction and my female friends do. Grand generalizations, of course, but in my experience, male brains seem to be wired for utility and function. My male friends read to get something out of it. This extends to fiction as well as nonfiction–what are the complications and how are they resolved by the end of the novel?
On the other hand, my female friends (and myself included), tend to read for relationships, the interplay between characters. At work we were discussing a YA sci-fi we were looking to acquire. One of the publishers expressed doubt that it would be interesting to girls because it was set in space.
“I loved it and I don’t care about space; I cared about the characters!” said one of my colleagues.
Precisely. This is probably why girls are said to read “boy books” in addition to “girl books”–if the relationships are compelling enough, she’ll be invested.
On the other hand, there’s not a lot of utility to be taken from “girl books”. It could be a beautiful novel about the relationship between two siblings, but if there’s no intense “what happens”, then boys will probably be less interested.
I once met an author (who shall remain anonymous) at a panel about “boy books” in YA who confessed that he might not have read his own novel as a teenaged boy. “I would have asked, ‘Where are the monsters? And the killing?’” he said. “Because that was the important stuff to me then.”
I have a teenaged brother, whom I am forever trying to get to read YA. What happens? is always his first question when I recommend one. He’s not asking me about the characters–he’s asking me about the plot. When I recommend books to girls his age, they always ask me, What’s it about?
Obviously this is not 100% true across both sexes. There are plenty of girls who enjoy action-oriented fiction and plenty of boys who enjoy reading about relationships. But there seems to be an interesting divide when it comes approaching fiction, and nowhere is that more evident than in marketing.
Marketing: No Boys Allowed in YA
Cap’n Sweet Valley once said, “I’m not interested in publishing [fiction] for men–it’s the women who buy.” It might be true (and his experience might back it up), but I was rather appalled. Mostly because I’m a girl and I don’t like a lot of women-oriented fiction. I don’t like romance novels and I don’t like commercial women’s fiction or chick lit. And yes, Cap’n Sweet Valley, I am a girl.
But his isn’t the only voice in publishing who thinks this is the case. Many other houses do, because it is a universal adage when it comes to marketing. You market to women because women buy.
This is especially true of YA book covers.
One could consider THE DEMON’S LEXICON a “boy book”–lots of action, an intriguing mystery, a huge plot twist, very little romance (but not without romantic potential!), with the manliest of male protagonists. (I ♥ you, Nick!) Why then, is her U.S. hardcover so…girly?
Perhaps it’s because her publishers wanted to tap into the buying power of girls, who devour paranormal romances by the bucketful. Despite the boy on the cover, it’s clearly marketed toward girls with a hunky, pouty-lipped Tom Welling lookalike. I tried to give the hardcover edition to my brother to read, who was horrified by the girlyness of it all.
“I can’t be seen with a book like that!” he said. He didn’t bother to figure out what the book was about.
A book like what, precisely? As you can see, the paperback edition of the novel went in a more boy-oriented/adult fantasy (like Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN books) direction and when I gifted my brother with that edition, he went off and read it without protest.
I know publishers believe that girls are the only ones buying books, but the real publishing phenomenons are not girl-centric romantic fantasies like TWILIGHT, but gender-neutral books with a kickass story like HARRY POTTER and THE HUNGER GAMES. I think publishers underestimate the buying power of teenaged boys. THE HUNGER GAMES, despite a female protagonist, is enormously popular with boys–including my little brother, who went and bought the book of his own volition. (Thank you, Suzanne Collins!)
A Good Story Will Sell Regardless
After BEA, I happened to walk back to the subway with Arthur Levine, otherwise known as The Man Who Defined My Childhood Reading. (I had a huge fangirl moment. You don’t understand.) My coworkers and I were asking him questions and the “boy book vs. girl book” debate arose again.
“I don’t believe there are ‘boy books’ or ‘girl books’,” he said. “I believe there are simply good books.”
And he should know. He found HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman, the REDWALL series by Brian Jacques, and most famously, HARRY POTTER by J.K. Rowling. These are books with boy protagonists, with girl protagonists, with mouse protagonists–written by man or woman, it doesn’t matter. There is something timeless about the books he chooses, something that transcends whatever notion of “boy vs. girl” we’ve constructed for ourselves.
In the end, I believe him too. There are only good books. We just need to find more of them.