So what does it mean to say that “several hundred people have actually purchased my book”? The great fear of any author is that your friends will buy your book, just to be nice, and then no one else will ever buy or read what you spent years to write. At a certain point, however, it becomes obvious that something magical has happened - people you do not know, have never met, and would not recognize if they met you on the street, have gone through the trouble of buying and reading your book. And then some of them, in a further act of remarkable goodheartedness, have reviewed the book (on Amazon or Goodreads) or even just recommended it to a friend. This month several dozen people I have never met downloaded The Secret Root on Kindle - more than in any other month since the book’s release. I have no explanation for that - only a huge smile. So thank you, and keep on supporting The Secret Root while I work to write book 2!
I had no idea they sliced things that thin, but how cool! And if you haven’t bought a copy, it is still on sale for Kindle for $0.99!
Especially when it seems to happen randomly, with no apparent cause. Suddenly, 20 people download The Secret Root, and I picture them reading it, and all seems right with the world. It’s on sale now at Amazon for $0.99 - what are you waiting for? http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009LK59FG?ie=UTF8&force-full-site=1&ref_=aw_bottom_links
The amazing YA thriller The Secret Root is on sale for $0.99 on Kindle! Now you have ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE NOT TO READ IT! Buy it here.
The Intertubes have been on fire these past several weeks with intense and provocative discussions of gender and YA. There have been extensive ruminations on gendered book covers, gendered readership, the role of gender in creating a best-seller, the role of gender in critical appraisals…you get the idea.
These bomb-throwing exercises have been predictably fascinating, primarily because the folks leading the discussion are among the leading lights of the young adult world: Maureen Johnson, John Green, Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, and Professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Barnes has a particularly interesting post up about the role of male privilege in literature more generally, but it certainly applies to YA more specifically. Barnes argues (quite convincingly) that a statistical analysis of book releases overall undermines the oft-cited proposition that the best selling writers are women, so there is no gender issue in the world of writing. But Barnes, while a welcome antidote to a facile reading of the best seller lists, doesn’t reach perhaps the most interesting issue in all of this: the identity of the reader.
There is little question in my mind, as a recovering literature major with a weakness for critical theory, that certain expectations are brought to the table when a cultural production like a book is sent out into the marketplace. In the YA market this is particularly vivid. Adolescent girls and adolescent boys are taught to adopt certain narratives by the larger culture, and the way that books are marketed to them reflects those choices. I have a thirteen year-old son, and (as a YA author myself) I speak to kids pretty regularly. I can tell you that peer pressure among boys not to read is intense and pervasive, and that even being seen as being interested in a “girl’s” book is verboten. Thus, women are often encouraged to use their initials (S.J. Kincaid, S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, etc.) if they are explicitly writing a “boys” book, because that helps prevent boys from making gendered assumptions at the point of sale. Even books like the Hunger Games and Legend took a long time to crack into the boy market - older sisters may have been the secret weapon there.
Girls are free to read a wide variety of books, but are ironically not viewed as a “sophisticated” audience by the publishing industry itself. Girls are (based on the way that YA books are marketed to them) seen as superficial, interested only in romance, and suckered into purchase decisions by the presence of a girl in a long dress on the cover of a book.
When I first submitted an earlier version of my book The Secret Root to agents, one of the common responses I received was “I love the book, but boys don’t want to read about a girl protagonist, and girls don’t want to read hard science fiction, so you’ll have to add a male protagonist.” Now, ironically, this happened to make sense for my book - book 2 of the series was already going to feature a male protagonist prominently, so I merely had to shift things around and it did improve the narrative. But I was insulted and struck by the narrow-mindedness of the industry.
But another irony here is that the “critical establishment” functions from an entirely different point of view. To the critic, it would seem, only a book written by a man can be “universal.” While women write best-sellers, critical enthusiasm is almost inversely proportionate to popularity, and the rare instances of convergence always seem to involve a male writer. When the New York Times decided to put together their list of the best novels of the past 25 years, they chose “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as the winner, but the runners up included 25 books by men and only one other book by a woman (“Housekeeping” by Marianne Robinson). In the YA world, this is not quite as relevant on a day-to-day basis: the majority of YA book bloggers, best selling YA novelists, and YA readers are women, But, when a book escapes the YA jail and gets “literary” credit, the chance that the book was composed by a man increases disproportionately. NPR’s list of the best YA ever is headed by Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling, but 7 out of the top ten are by men.
So what have we learned? That facile presumptions about gender and YA are a bad idea? Well, of course. But I think the lesson here is that we all need to work exceptionally hard as writers, readers, editors, publishers and critics to ensure that our presumptions about writers and readers are not biasing our choices. There’s too much good stuff out there to allow us to judge a book by its cover (or its author). UPDATE: Tumblr somehow erased every link I had embedded in this post. In the spirit of laziness, I am not going to bother fixing it, because it is Sunday and I have work to do!
(1) Secret Root Book Release Party, April 24! (2) Dr. Bombay plays House of Blues to support City of Hope, April 25! (3) I visit Hannah Beardsley Middle School, April 26! Definitely an improvement over last week! So much excitement that I can barely handle it….
I don’t typically engage in public complaints about the marketing of a book, especially a book by an author I adore, but something about the marketing of Leigh Bardugo's Siege and Storm just rubbed me the wrong way. As a YA reader and author, and the father of a teenage boy who reads YA, the publishing industry presumption that all readers of YA are teenage girls drives me nuts. And in fact, there is little question that my son’s rapid evolution away from YA into more adult fiction is partially due to the fact that so much of what is out there is directed to girls - even when the stories themselves would undoubtedly appeal to boys.
The reaction I received to my little outburst was gratifying in some respects and amusing in others. Gratiying in that Leigh Bardugo herself actually responded, in a thoughful and engaging fashion. She understood the issue, and understood why it was important, even if I think she is a bit dismissive of the impact of the specific promotion at issue (nail polish as the main giveaway for preorders of Siege and Storm). In any event, she understood that I was trying to start a conversation, and that’s all I can ask for. And I’m looking forward to reading the book when it comes out in June!
It was amusing, however, in seeing how many folks completely missed the point. Either they acted like this was an absurd concern (boys, they say, will take anything free, even if it is nail polish - a preposterous suggestion that had me and my son in tears) or they acted like I was trying to attack Bardugo for doing something nice for them. Most bizarre, some others believed that I was suggesting that YA be marketed in a gender neutral fashion - of course I don’t think that is necessary, or wise. Most readers of YA are, in fact, girls. The idea is that publishers should expand their thinking and realize that certain types of promotions are more exclusionary than others (in that they send a message that you are not wanted).
Regardless, an interesting experience and I’m glad that so many people engaged and thought about it.
I love Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. It’s a wonderful, awesome book. It’s like Harry Potter written by a 19th century Russian novelist. It’s difficult not to enjoy, and it has the same sweeping, romantic feel that a lot of great YA shares with big, enveloping fiction for adults.
But publishers think that only girls will read it.
In fact, they make the same assumption about Graceling, about Incarceron, and about too many other great YA books to mention. What do I mean? Well, the cover art says a great deal, but it goes deeper. When Leigh Bardugo’s new book, Siege and Storm, was announced, I was enormously excited. I wanted to get my 13 year old son to read it. But on Facebook, do you know how the publisher decided to promote it? If you preorder, you get FREE NAIL POLISH. I’m sure that the average 13 year old boy who loves books will be lining up to read something promoted like that.
Almost all of the YA books on the shelves are designed to appeal to girls, even when the stories would almost certainly appeal to boys. Examples? How about Divergent or The Hunger Games, two dystopian YA books that boys universally loved. Notice that the covers of those books did nothing to encourage readers to prejudge the content as being “gendered” in one way or another. But publishers either believe that they need to go over the top in making books sound and appear feminine in order to attract girl readers, or they don’t believe that boys are interested in the first place and they are completely ignored.
Now, I am not disinterested in this phenomena - I wrote a YA book with a male and a female protagonist, and I am explicitly trying to get everyone to read it. But I also spent several years closely observing the Barbie v. Bratz copyright war in a variety of California courtrooms, and I know a fair amount about the way that marketing is focused on gendered assumptions about boys and girls. And the fact that publishers do everything they can to exclude boys from stories they would enjoy (If they don’t think that the story of a female teenage assassin like the one found in Graceling would be unappealing to a 13 year old boy they clearly have no idea what they are doing and should be relieved of their positions immediately).
So, in short: publishers, knock it off! How about trying to sell your books without appealing to the idea that only one sex is interested in a good story.