No Smelly Yucky boyz Allowed in!

By Dave Freer (with a little help from Ms. Strident Rable)

“Sisters! I’ve just got a call to arms in the shape of these statistics! 75%* of all fiction sales by value go to MEN or women passing as men (vile traitors), with male lead characters.  We have to rectify this situation. It’s blatant discrimination and exploitation. And it’s even worse if you leave the cooky Religious and Inspirational sector out. Why, then the miserable chauvinists rise to 83%** of the market. That’s just 17% for us. It’s an OUTRAGE!!! How are we supposed to find books that to stimulate reading among women…
What? What do you mean, the wrong way around…?

Well, um, nothing to see here. It’s a healthy situation! They can just adapt, and it serves them right. We had to put up with it for years, and we managed. The answer is clearly more feminism!   That’s worked to stop this becoming a problem so well up now.  And I’m not sorry ! Why should it matter? We deserve to be top of something. It’s not like reading affects education, or we’re not discriminated against there!

( er. Sorry Ms. It does affect education, and education shows a growing disparity: US parity to college by 1980, rising now to an extra 1/3 female intake every year –  , Parity in Australia in 1978 , –UK –  an extra third – I can’t find the other reference – but parity a good 20 years back.)

Oh.  But men still get more money.

(than JK Rowlings and Stephanie Meyer)

Well. Rights…

( Such as?)

Oh look! There’s a monkey tap dancing. And he’s got lovely powder-blue whatchamacallits. How unfair! That’s plainly sexist discrimination because more male animals get mentioned than female ones in children’s fiction, even if it has been 21 years since male : female character parity was achieved…
What do you mean, ‘well, that about wraps it up for Bambi’?…”
Ms. Strident Rable, chairperson extra-ordinaire, Manhaters Ink.

ok.  Snark mode off…  17% is a lot of books, and most of us cheerfully don’t care about the gender of the lead character or author. But for those who do care, who feel women are under-represented or under-supported in their little niche of fiction, the figures are an embarrassment. Make it very awkward to call for say more women hard sf authors,  when that’ll shift 83% of fiction sales to 85% of fiction sales. It’s rather like women (fair enough) want more women in Engineering or Physics at College… where the ratio is already an overall 2/3 female and equal representation there would shift it to a worse situation.  We know what is going on in Romance.  So what is going on in YA?

The more I look at this issue, the more I think we’re trapped in a writers’ version of this story. A bar in a Texas town decided to vastly enlarge its premises. The local Baptist church campaigned against it, held prayer meetings about it… and lo, two days before the grand opening it was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The church celebrated until the bar-owner sued. At which point they became vehement in their denial that they were responsible. And the judge, faced with this said “I don’t know what I’m going to decide here, but on one hand I have bar-owner who believes in the power of prayer, and church congregation who say they don’t.”

And we seem to have men who believe women are their equals or superiors – and women who believe they are, on one hand, and ‘feminist women’ who believe not only that men think they’re inferior, but also seem to think that they are inferior, and would fail in open competition, on the other. To someone like me, who has grown up with, and spent most of his life with women who not only were my mental equals or superiors, who couldn’t be a more solid supporter of equal work for equal pay, and equal access to opportunity, I find this bizarre.

It’s been said that the YA situation is a reflection of market demand.  Now… Ms. Rable… you’re an atheist, but you believe in market forces dictating book trends (well, except we need more women on the TOC’s of sf collections. That’s DIFFERENT). Hmm. It’s strange that you should express blind faith in something that would be very easy to prove… if it existed. There’d be a neat linear relationship between the literate population times their disposable income (A) and the number of books sold (B). Only, as the various figures show, the increase in book sales hasn’t kept up with the literate population, let alone their disposable income.  Oh, and it would go UP at times of recession. Except, for the last 20 years… it’s gone down every recession.

Let’s bite a reality bullet here. Tough surgery without anaesthetic time. There hasn’t been a real connection between demand and supply for upward of twenty years. The situation has become so skewed by marketing and distribution that we don’t really have a clue, besides the far outliers – Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowlings (and even there, there is reason to suspect manipulation in the original distribution and marketing) — they made it big, but there is very good chance that thousands of other possibly equally popular, or even more popular books, didn’t even get past the gate. What we’re seeing is guesses (cheated to make the answer ‘right’ to keep the acquiring editor in a job), based on other guesses (also cheated), biased by editorial preferences, and a bunch of very panicky people in a market that’s maybe 40% of what it should be, and declining fast, trying to 1)be safe, 2)keep their jobs 3) guess the next big thing by following a trend (which is as likely to be the result cheating, distribution and marketing and guesses).

Here’s the reality: all we know is males are 50-ish % of a possible market, and there is no intellectual reason why they shouldn’t read as much. Historically they read far more than they do now.

We do know that -especially among teens of both sexes, social peer pressure has a lot of effect. If you want boys – or girls – to read you’ll need it to be cool, or at least have won’t get you laughed out of the park covers. Try (if you can) to imagine a boy with one of Saundra become-a-feminist’s covers.  It’s not going to happen. Not without boys becoming morlocks first, and starting the process over – maybe in 100 years… we’d arrive at her dream.  Can you imagine the results in the meanwhile? Not pretty, is it?

We also know that, in reality, while teens may take books out of the library, a lot of the purchasing is done by… adults (and, duh, for the library too). Part of this is on demand, but part of this reflects the adults (parents, relations) own tastes. So no, it’s not just what the youth would like to read. It’s also, sadly, getting through to MEN who don’t buy books for their sons (because those the sons might read). That’s going to be a challenge.

It’s also not evidenced in any way that books which were aimed at attracting boys too (or boys instead) would threaten the existing YA sales. There seems to be this perception there, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad, that more ‘boy-attractive’ books would have their ‘girl’ audience desert the existing authors, and that would leave female writers with female lead characters without publishers. “We’re dominant now, we must hang onto it or else those wicked males will steal it!” It’s a sort of delusion that the pie is at its biggest, and they’d have to suffer some kind of ‘affirmative action’ to change the situation. Which is maybe how they felt, breaking in, but seeing as the male audience (which they don’t have) is what is being chased… I don’t get it. They should welcome the chance to grow a readership. I believe it is possible… unless Lois Bujold and Elizabeth Moon’s popularity with male readers is just an illusion, to say nothing of Anne McCaffery and Andre Norton. And oddly, all of those were bought by male editors, at least for parts of their careers. What we’re talking about is growing a part of the market that’s been shrinking for 20 years at least. Yes… some girls would prefer less girl-cooties with their stories. They were probably going to lose them anyway. But there is a chance to catch some boys in exchange. If the YA shelf becomes a just romance section for younger girls, those of us who delight in one of YA’s strengths (that it is not so categorized, so cross experimentation happens) will see that vanish completely.

Where editors choosing this stuff and the authors so gloating in their Schadenfreude fall short is having a false assumption – one proved false by the shrinking book sales over last two decades. “If there is nothing but what we want it to be, the conservative/male/flyover country/Christian (take your pick)  scum will just have to suck it up. And that’ll teach them how they ought to behave. Educate them into the right way of thinking!” Which might work really well… if reading were a total addiction to all readers, and there was no other reading matter available.  However, for a good 80% of literate people, it is at most a habit (and for some a chore),  and there really are lots alternatives, so you have to make it attractive. They are not alcoholics who will pay for funny sweet drinks with fruit and umbrellas, or methylated spirits even, just for the ethanol, when they want a beer. If they want a beer… they actually want a beer.

Which leaves us facing a situation where we’re in danger of a pendulum situation. Honestly, if these so-called ‘feminists’ have something to fear and try and avoid, that should be it. Common sense says ‘let’s aim for a 50:50 ish situation, where everyone wins.’ Holding the pendulum back or pushing it further just means a more violent swing. And those who shouted loudly and cheered the current situation will find themselves facing ostracism along with the champions of Apartheid, who trumpeted how right that was.

With reading for 50% of the population affected (which – beside the loss of money to authors and to publishing, has vast ramifications to society in which we live) we’d be damned stupid to have a fingers in our ears and ‘la la la’ concert.

There is opportunity for all. There is a very poorly served large niche market, which can benefit adult and ‘female’ YA writers and readers. Only… it needs as much push as the other half got given, it needs careful work to establish what is actually popular (and not just in NY with the sons of NY editors). It needs thought about cover art. It needs to use Magna and computer gaming. And, probably most difficult, it needs to get dads to buy books for their sons.


*These figures are at best indicative, and taken by mashing 2009 Romance Writers figures  the proportions for YA (which I assume weren’t listed) from here , taking 2/3 of those as female author female lead, and assuming that women authors and women lead characters were at least 40% of the rest — a figure which will probably be over for Westerns and hard SF, and under for literary and fantasy and murder mystery.
**I just took religious and inspirational (some of which isn’t fiction, strictly) out.


Edited to add:  Thanks to Glenn Reynolds and everyone who has linked over after the instalanche!


    1. Well, let’s be as fair as possible, fiction isn’t in any way representative, and there are some minorities who are worse off. But none of them represent 50% of the market.

  1. This relates to a panel that I’ve done from time to time at cons (usually at written SF&F themed cons): “Is an SF Renaissance right around the corner.” My opening gambit is to ask how many people in the room are under thirty. Usually, at best, one or two hands go up and I follow up with, “that’s the problem right there. If we want SF to grow enough to call it a ‘Renaissance’ then we need to be attracting more younger readers.”

    Of course, con goers is not the same thing as readers but I do think that if we really drew in the numbers of readers we’d need, _some_ of them would be attending cons. So there are, IMO, two problems: not attracting enough young readers in general (who go beyond the latest, greatest fad, whether Harry Potter or Twilight to more broad reading), and the skewed demographics of the books that _are_ selling. In the end, who knows.

    1. I can only agree with you. If I had to choose to support only one, I would choose more kids reading. I have a feeling the two may inter-relate.

  2. Well, when I’m part of the “minority” that gets blamed for everything bad, I get tired of hearing from the other “minorities”, but that’s getting too close to the big P subject.

  3. So how do we get that half of the human race to increase their reading? Is it as simple as “remove the cooties?” Get rid of the imaginary nasty girl stuff and the Dads will buy, the boys will leap to read?

    Hey! OMike, I need a pen name, style male. What do you think? See if Demi God is suddenly more suitable for boys.

      1. Anyone recall the “adult” covers for Harry Potter?

        The idea was that adults wouldn’t want to be seen reading a “kid” book in public.

        When I went to RWA meetings and got the magazine I remember a good deal of talk about fixing the covers so that they were less embarrassing. I think they decided that the racy covers got more sales than they lost in the end, but my point is that this idea of fixing the cover of a book to appeal to different markets is not revolutionary.

      2. There are a lot of science-fiction and fantasy books that I would otherwise be interested in, if it weren’t for the fact that they look like fargin’ romance novels. To put it bluntly, a good amount of the fiction produced these days has on its cover the blatant statement “If you have a penis, your money is not wanted.”

  4. This requires leaving one’s ideology at the door, and first observing what boys do read (manga, and gaming tie-in novels). Then note what the common themes and tropes are.

    That gives a nice obvious starting point. It’s not a coincidence that Harry Potter just happened to use some of the most popular themes and tropes, with a twist that hadn’t been seen in YA for a fairly long time – at least, not mainstream YA. If it hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have become as huge as it did (no, that doesn’t mean J K Rowling planned the books that way. It means she happened to hit on something that a lot of people really want to read about).

    1. But Kate, if we leave our ideology at the door, how will children learn the one true way? It’s not like they can realize it is the right way, considering all the signs are that it just doesn’t work.

  5. When you don’t want to play the victim, it’s easy to get stepped on, but young boys wouldn’t even know what’s happening. I guess to them the current state of affaris is normal.

    My daugher reads everything, Harry Potter, Twilight, Keys to the Kingdom. Doesn’t care about gender. My son, he can’t find much he likes. He doesn’t like girlie stuff and I don’t blame him. I never liked it either. Not sure a substituted cover would make a difference. It’s content that drove me to read. My copy of LOTR has the lamest cover ever, but as a 12yo, I wanted to read about elves and trolls and goblins.

    1. Chris L Try him on Schmitz ‘DEMON BREED’ – I think it is available from Baen. And if you can find it, Jack Vance’s BLUE WORLD. Both SF of a sort, but I loved them (still do) as youngster, and my sons both thought them great books. Otherwise the Flinx books, Icerigger (Alan Dean Foster) are good teen boy stuff, I reckon. My younger son reckons Wizard of Karres (which, um, had something to do with me) is the teen book – which is why he’s managed to give away every copy I owned, or I’d send you one.

      1. He’s eleven and to be honest, up to now he’s steered away from fiction, towards books about nature and planes.

        I’ll track down some of the suggestions though. Thanks.

        1. Marshall reads some fiction, but prefers books on how things work.

          And it’s not true that men don’t read due to something inherently male. Men don’t read much fiction these days (As a rule, my husband and kids read) because it’s aggressively slanted for girls. I’m amazed the same women that look at sf in the 50s and claim all female characters are men with breasts don’t see that the male characters today are, more often than not, females with penises.

      2. Chris L,

        If you can track them down the Bazil Broketail series is pretty solid. Or at least the first four or five are. I’ve also blogged a couple YA suggestions over at my diggs over the last year or two. Susan Cooper’s “the Dark Is Rising” series is good and the books are fairly short, ditto any of the Roald Dahl stuff (James & The Giant Peach is a fave, ditto Danny The Champion of the World) and of course preorder Cuttlefish 🙂

      3. The early Andre Norton’s are good teenager reads, and mostly with male main characters. If you can find them, the Time Traveler and the Solar Queen novels are excellent.

  6. Boys don’t read if Dad doesn’t read. I’m amazed at the numbers of men who don’t read. Then again men like to DO things. Harry Potter is well written but it is still a book that most men would never read. Boys, girls, women… then again, these are all my “opinions” and not based on statistical data.

    Suggestion for getting more boys to read. Publish books that appeal to boys in the early grades. Hire more MALE teachers and stop the feminist propoganda.

    1. Yeah. My Dad read, Mom read, I didn’t read much until i was 7 or 8 when I realized the teachers didn’t care what we read as long as we did outside of class assignments.

      The other thing my parents did that was smart was not pressure me to read what they read. Dad was into westerns, Mom mysteries.

      My Side of the Mountain was another good boy-book.

  7. Books for Boys that Girls will love: The Great Brain series. Seven fantastic books, delightful to read. I am not affiliated with the author, drat the luck.

  8. Video Games are the story telling format for young men today. They are getting exceptional (Mass Effect series, etc. all)

    1. I’d agree that they have taken the place of, but as a guy who writes books, has sons (and hopefully has grand-kids one day) I’d argue that there is potential in a book which is not there in any video game at any level. Headspace, as it were.

    1. I do wonder, myself. I think ‘children’s – and the young adult got absorbed very rapidly by female editors. (wry smile) Your feminist SHOULD think of this as sexist, because I’d guess it would be seen as lower status (stupid idea – I want the best for my kids) and women as the child-nurturing sex.

  9. An excellent column. I’m 50, and have been an avid reader since I was about 11, plowing through (literally) thousands of SF, Mystery, Thriller, Espionage, and Military fiction over the years. But in the last 10 years, I find I’ve simply stopped finding new work that I am interested in, because the female domination of publishing has led to nothing but female-supremacist fiction.

    I took a count, about 5 years ago, and realized that 90% of the female-authored work I bought had debased male characters, and female characters that simply assumed female supremacy, and just gave up buying works by female authors. I’m also careful with male authors now, as some feminists have taken to using male pen-names (not initials, but specifically male names, like “Rob Thurman,” who is actually Robyn Thurman, and whose male characters are only socially acceptable if they’re bisexual, and submissive to women).

    Fortunately, with self-publishing, some male authors are getting access to the ebook market, so one can find male-positive fiction if one looks hard enough. But, one has to look, and accept that such authors have been largely denied access to professional editing, proofreading, layout, etc., so the works have more flaws than traditionally published materials.

    1. Some female authors — Sarah says, seriously, clearing her throat — are quite male-appreciative, thank you so much. 🙂 However, the fact that I too find myself leery of buying female authors, unless highly recommended by friends I trust, leaves me with no room to complain. Most of my fans are male, nonetheless. I’m not sure what that means. I don’t write to attract males specifically. I just write what I like.

      1. Thanks, Sarah – I’ll look your work up! And, I didn’t mean to imply that I won’t read any female authors, I still have a few that I trust. And, quite a lot of male authors have left my “trusted” list in recent years as well. John Scalzi, for example. Old Man’s War was about men and women doing great things, “Ghost Brigades” was basically “Men are stupid, SuperJane rocks,” and “Last Colony/Zoe’s Tale” was basically, Men are stupid, SuperZoe and her mom SuperJane rock!”

        A few authors still are hold-outs…Jim Butcher avoids the whole “men can do no right” thing, as does Barry Eisler, Dean Koontz, Lawrence Block, Rick Riordan, Steven Saylor, Nathan Lowell, the “Starfist” guys, and a few others across various genres (Yes, I like Space Opera! :)). Even J.K. Rowling managed to finish the HP series without going for the “girls rule, boys drool” mentality that seems to dominate publishing today.

        1. Try Darkship Thieves. Yes, Athena is Super Athena but Kit is more than her match and he IS a strong, silent male with a feeling of obligation and protection for the weaker. And I think it is, in its own way, uplifting. Okay, in its very own way. And I was giggling at how many of the same favorite authors we have, including Steven Saylor which is rare for sf people to share with me. Actually I started getting annoyed in the eighties with the “wicked father” mentality. And while I have that in Athena, I’d like to point out that while Thena’s SORT of falls in this category it’s not “paternal oppression” — gag So for a long time I’ve been doing my best to avoid female authors.

    2. Baen’s selection, and Sarah Hoyt, would probably appeal. The trouble as I see it, is give a dog a bad name and holds onto that reputation forever, and it spoils everyone else’s party too. Which comes back to my how do you get today’s adult men to buy new books for sons/nephews/boy cousins — when they feel men are being derided in most of the books they have experience of. It’s a tough question, and I don’t have any quick, easy answers. I’m hoping that e-books and self-pub will push the industry (because of demand from many male readers) back to a more centrist position. Where you have the female supremacists (all men are inferior and they owe us and our great great great great grand-daughters servitude and obedience) and the ‘all wimmin are Ho’s’ (which, duh, is what you’re going to reap if you get men to give up reading) as little outliers for their little camp of weird followers.

      1. When my kids (8-4) are bored, they often go on youtube searching for something cool (cartoons they know, video games footage, or nature videos). The oldest sometimes goes to the library room and looks for books.

        I think all we need is to have the books out there on the Internet and easily accessible. The kids will find them, and then ask that somebody buy them the 2nd, 3rd, or 10th book of the series.

      2. Dave – Thanks for the reply. I agree, I think there’s hope in the e-book/self-publishing realm, and look for potential new authors there regularly. Still, I spend more time looking back into the catalogues of writers I like, and filling in books that I’ve missed, than I do looking for new books any more. Of course, the same is true of movies now: try to find a movie that has either a decent male protagonist, or an uplifting theme….and you’ll have to dive back into the 1980s or earlier for all but a few.

      3. Reply to Ken Green (this doesn’t let us stack deeper than 3)
        “or an uplifting theme” — (grin) you DO know you’re preaching to the bloody choir here, don’t you? I can’t stand these ‘oh the wicked men did this EVUL thing and now we must all crawl into the corner and die of misery’ stuff.

  10. My son is 25 now but when he was a young’un he didn’t want to read at all other than comics. Being dyslexic didn’t help. I would buy him graphic novels and audio-books and the kind he always chose were superheroes, space-related and he especially liked books where the underdog won through. I’d agree on the covers. At the library he would always go for the ones that had either boys, superheroes or space scenes on the cover.

    1. Yes. Those covers for me too.

      Georgette Heyer wrote the book which was recommended for a clear understanding of the Napoleonic wars for Sandhurst (which my American friends is the prepartion college for British Army officers). Yet, with the fluffy girly covers of her regency ‘romances’ most guys would rather die. Which is pretty sad really, because there is no better writer of repartee to learn from.

  11. I love YA fiction by both male and female authors. To be fair, a lot of the feminist backlash at the moment is in reaction to a Times piece by Robert Lipsyte. He essentially said “Girls will read boy stuff and boys won’t read girl stuff, so YA fiction should be about boys and shouldn’t have to have yucky female characters”. He was also deeply condescending about the female authors currently in the field. While there is plenty of froofy nonsense in some parts of YA, there are good books by both men and women with both male and female main characters, and his implication that women were being unfairly published and that they only wrote things about gossip and romance was highly offensive.
    I do think more YA books directed at boys would be a good thing, but frankly I also think that the disparity in reading doesn’t come down to what’s available. There are wonderful gender neutral books out there like the Potter series, and books about boys that have wide appeal like the Giver and Holes.
    Women are somewhat more motivated to be educated these days (look at college admission rates), and reading is a part of that. There are a lot of factors involved in that, and I’m not sure what the solution is. I do think that it’s more culturally acceptable at the moment for girls to want to be smart than for boys. Girls who are studious are just being “good”, and good is a perfectly socially acceptable thing for girls to be most of the time. Boys who are studious still have to fight the stereotype that smart = foppish/weak/nerdy. I’m a proud geek, but most people don’t want to be seen that way in high school, except possibly in the cooler computer/gaming sense.
    I also think that boys are probably a large portion of the younger spectrum of the Graphic Novel/Manga market, which is perceived as cooler by a lot of boys. I don’t see any problem with that; as far as I’m concerned reading is reading, and graphic novels can foster an appreciation for or even active interest in art as well. I think the best way to push reading among boys might be to encourage graphic novel reading and advertise YA books in conjunction with them (maybe with an insert in the back).
    Just my 2c.

    Abigail Hanley (can’t get Twitter or Facebook to sign in properly)

    1. So: run this past me slowly, because I’m a stupid male. The ‘feminist backlash’ to a very real problem pointed out by someone whose answer they thought wrong (and I don’t think it’s a complete answer either) was to to behave like sexist bigots themselves and say that MORE of the same situation would somehow make the problem go away? And we should not criticize this because well, um…?

      There are many avenues that are going to have to be pursued if we’re going to turn this around. But the most essential and first step is to accept there is a real problem, and good for all of us to fix it. And that means accepting more of the same will NOT fix the problem. Those who say it will–your ‘backlash’–are part of the problem.

  12. As a side note, I despise the word strident. It’s a way of saying female with an opinion. When did you last hear a man called strident.

    1. But Ms Strident is a female with an opinion. She thinks it would be a crisis if 83% of fiction were written by men, but just fine if it is the other way around. Which seems a bit more important than her name to me. So which do you think is more relevant? Or is this more ‘feminist backlash’ – ignore the problem and focus on trivia?

      1. It’s not “feminist” — like other fine words, like “strident” that word doesn’t mean what they’re trying to make it mean. “Bigoted androphobe” doesn’t mean “feminist”. Frankly, if aliens had come up with a philosophy to drive humans apart so they’d stop reproducing and thoroughly damage the offspring produced, they couldn’t have come up with a better one than this androphobia that calls itself feminism. No, not even its reverse-coin side that makes women dress in slipcovers, you know, those women that feminists have no sympathy for because going around covered head to toe and stumbling into traffic that you can’t see, and being told you’re inferior and should always devote yourself to please your assigned husband — let alone, of course, be stoned to death if another man rapes you — is part of a quaint colorful costume. It’s just as valid as our culture, by gum. And the problem is men who don’t spell it womyn and stuff.

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