Making young bookworms: looking to the future
Today’s post comes out of a librarian acquaintance commenting on the new YA and MG list he had to buy from, and this post on YA from David Farland. Now, David Farland is one of the mildest and politest people in the entire writing world. He makes a genuine effort to be supportive of other writers, and he goes out of his way to be nice and kind – even to those who really are behaving like their up-bringing was done in a sty. You can read his post here, and you might want to consider rewarding a decent man by buying the YA book he mentions at the end.
I spent a fair amount of my life trying not to offend people who were just desperate to start delightedly shrieking: ‘Help help I’m being repressed’ for as little as a typo (See Boggy Whatsisname gender freak-out). Eventually, I got sick of it. Honestly, you get precious little thanks for the effort, and are as likely to get called sexist, racist, misogynist etc. whether you are or not, or there is any evidence at all. So: I’ve kind of given up trying to avoid conflict with these types. I haven’t changed my behavior, my writing, my views, my way of thinking or anything else – and the accusations are as frequent and as much drivel as ever. I’ve just stopped wasting much time attempting to answer what amounts to hysterical name calling from people who have nothing else. As the ‘typical Nazi’ I’ve been repeatedly accused of being, I used Clara Immerwahr as the breakpoint for my alternate history. It’s just the sort of person your average misogynist would pick. And my hero in CUTTLEFISH plainly shows the sort of Aryan characteristics your typical white racist would make a hero of.
So if you can bear reading the sort of racist sexist misogynist oh and anti-semite who would make someone like… Immerwahr an icon in his books, do read on. You must be a ‘typical Nazi’ too. I was going to write about the intersection between David Farland’s comments and the comments from the librarian – who was citing some of the appalling books he had been given to choose among… and yes, lamenting the fact that while there ample gay/lesbian/feminist choices – there was basically nothing an ordinary heterosexual boy, with typical boy outlooks and interests might be tempted to read.
This brings us full loop back to David’s comments. YA for boys, chosen by people who know and understand their interests is nearly as rare as Hugo winner who is a white heterosexual conservative or centrist male. It’s been a problem (and in fact one librarians and educators back in South Africa were aware of back in 1995 or so, when my WITHOUT A TRACE was a shortlisted finalist in a competition for school reading books. They saw the problem, were going to use my book… got scared and decided to publish a PC one about a gay boy instead… which was utterly hated by kids. It was tragic and actionless, a typical SJW guilt-fest (I talked to a lot of kids at school with my kids trying to assess my own direction at the time. It was loathed – particularly by the young black boys who largely came from cultures where homosexuality was very much out of favor – to put it mildly. And then the Education Dept. solved the problem buy just not buying any books the next year.) WITHOUT A TRACE has the unusual distinction of being accepted by two – not one – publisher – and each time them woosing out, because despite being described as just the sort of book to get young boys reading… it’s not politically correct , just honest and fair. It’s quite specifically targeted for a South African audience, and while I did bring it out as an e-book, I’m still sad it didn’t reach the target audience.
Now, in general, given the fact that independent publishing has opened up and given writers a route past the gate-keepers, David Farland is right. You should look on the absence of books that you might like to read as a possible golden opportunity – especially if that unserved niche is large and real. Let me explain ‘real’ – You go to Jerusalem and discover that no-one there is selling pulled pork rolls. There is a market, but it is limited by other factors. It’s not the same as going to US town finding the absence. You have to understand your possible audience and what it wants. That said – there are lots of badly underserved markets, many of which are fairly large and existent. The problem is merely to reach them, not always easy thing to solve.
It gets still a bit more complicated in MG and YA, because the theoretical target audience (boys and girls from say 10-17) are very often not the people making the decisions about which books get bought. Think of it as your 10 year-old buying you music or vice versa. Yeah, often not going to end well! As Farland points out, often the choices come from the tastes of middle-aged women living in New York (and, I may add, as professionals who have often put career before family – people who have almost no contact with the target audience, and while they might, possibly, have been teenagers once – that was twenty to thirty years ago. I know it is tempting to assume they sprung into existence fully formed, or emerged from the primordial slime of the black lagoon shaped by the mind of Cthulhu… but there is no actual evidence of this. Well. None the FBI will release that is not so heavily redacted as to make actual content unintelligible.
The world has changed. So have they. They’re pretty bad at choosing for their own sex and social background. When it comes to ‘What would a boy of thirteen living on a ranch in North Dakota like to read’ – they’d have more clue what Martians would like to read. This only gets made more complex by the fact that, in actual fact, a lot of YA customers… aren’t buying for their children or nieces and nephews – but for themselves. Quite a substantial part, apparently, of sales go to people who didn’t like the trends in adult fiction, and wanted to skip the blood and gore and graphic sex for an entertaining feel good, appealing to their particular demographic subset. Hell, I’m one of them, having been a loyal Diana Wynne Jones customer for years.
Now, this part of the market will choose your book off Amazon. BUT the big, major-keep-publishers-afloat part of the market is the library orders – once again, library services are heavily female dominated, and while some are excellent – quite possibly not that in touch with some of their audience. I have come across a few librarians determined to inject their socio-political agenda into the children’s reading. I just hope they’re rare. But – they still work off a list: which, by and large, excludes indies, and draws entirely from the choices of the middle-aged women editors from a New York – a very narrow insular group in their social, political and educational background. It’s elevated on that list by the choice for literary awards (which once again are controlled by that same narrow group).
So: despite there being no pizza available in the town, and the fact that around 50-75% of the possible readers would buy it, it is a much harder sell than adult fiction. Somehow one need to penetrate that system: get your book into the face of people buying for their children, get into the library system, get into the recommended reading lists for home-schoolers… get the book seen and read.
You know, perhaps I am too much of an idealist, or too long-sighted, but this is one of those pieces of gender-bigotry that really is in no-one’s interest. You’re a rabid feminasty and want women of you social and political class to triumph to get all the publishing slots, all the awards, all the library purchases, all the shelf space. Boys can like it or lump it, they must learn their place, and it is women’s turn now. Payback time!…
For whom and achieving what? The boys weren’t even born when there last a gender imbalance in the favor of men in YA/middle grade publishing. Hell, good odds their parents weren’t born. And, well… even if you want to advantage young women over young men – do you want your daughter/niece/younger female generation growing up in an environment where 95% of the people they look to as future mates… don’t read? Because it’s not ‘they’ll read what is good for them and get educated/indoctrinated into my way of seeing things.’
They just won’t read.
What always strikes me about these situations is that the editors and authors and their supporters seem totally incapable of putting the boot on the other foot. I have two bookworm sons – I worked hard to find books they’d love to make them that way. They’ve married two bookworm women. I’m looking forward to bookworm grandchildren. I would have been saddened and worried if my kids had found partners who didn’t read, and I’d know my chances of non-reader grandchildren were much higher. I feel this way their happiness is far greater, their worldview is far wider… If there were no books for young women (books they’d love, not books I’d love), I’d be campaigning and working furiously to change the situation.
Rock-climbing – long a male dominated sport, was one where I personally put in a lot of effort to get women to at least try it. I was far from the only one doing so – most climbers love their sport and want EVERYONE to climb. There are rare individuals who want to exclude people, who fear for their status or are just bigots – but the general consensus is ‘If you’ll try climbing we’ll make a plan to help you.’ Over the years I’ve had people of most races, several handicaps, various orientations and sexes and from every social, religious and political niche I can talk into it on the end of a rope. Over the years, similarly, I’ve invested in anyone who wants to write, also across the spectrum. If they succeed… I win.
So: what the hell is wrong with the kind of people who CELEBRATE that sf/fantasy, that YA/MG are the territory of a narrow demographic clique? Who will literally try to destroy reputations and livelihoods, let alone not allow entry into ‘their’ bastions? It takes short-sighted to ‘blind beyond one micrometer’, as well as mind-numbingly stupid.
But it is: which kind of leaves us making pizza in a town that is run by a mayor who detests Italians and their food and culture, and whose councilors own all the other fast food places in town.
Firstly – make that damn Pizza! I am putting my money and time where my mouth is on this. Quite a lot of what I write is YA (there are even a couple of MG efforts -PADDAVISSIE). CUTTLEFISH, STEAM MOLE, CHANGELINGS ISLAND, WITHOUT A TRACE were written principally for either a mixed audience of younger readers, or really, young males. Quite a lot of my other work – the Karres books and TOM are ones I’d happily have any 12 year old read.
I’m busy with HOW MUCH FOR JUST THE CRAZY UNCLE? at the moment.
Every one of them has hit ‘resistance’ because I was trying to sell Pizza in a hamburger town. My success has been… moderate with getting in, great with readers. Such success as I’ve had largely owes itself to having an adult readership already. Overwhelmingly, they seem to like my YA as much, if not more than my adult books. Hey, if it’s good enough for kids it better be good enough for adults. Bookstore sales have been pretty much a failue – largely because neither Baen nor Pyr were much good at getting them into they YA system. My sales have been overwhelmingly through Amazon.
My library success has been dreadful. I donated a lot of books to a lot of libraries. Don’t. Or don’t unless you have an agreement that it will go onto the shelf. Otherwise donations simply get sold. The correct answer is to get as many people as possible to request books at their local libraries. (and if possible to take them out, maybe even a few times).
I really think we need to build and encourage the use of YA lists to give home schoolers and parents who want their children enjoy reading – but don’t want the only choice to be the latest PC indoctrination to find.
So why not tell us about a YA/MG that fits that bill?
And why not buy a book of the kind you’d like that God-child, niece, nephew, son, daughter, grandchild to read as a gift? After all, that’s a long-sighted intelligent thing to do.