Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Does anyone love books for boys? Anyone? Anyone?

I have written a YA book which is targeted at older teenage boys. It's been well-received by (allegedly) grown-up blokes as well, and I believe it fits into that "crossover" area that stretches into both YA and adult markets. Nonetheless, it was conceived and written for 15-17 year old boys. It's a military science fiction story. As you would guess, it's heavily skewed to action, but also has strong characters and explores themes that go somewhat beyond military hardware. I'm now out in the world seeking an agent, two of whom have asked to review the full manuscript, so – without getting too far ahead of myself – I'm comforted there's at least a level of interest, and that my writing is of an acceptable standard.

My first question is this: is there an easier way for me to identify agents who are actively seeking works for the male YA market? In all my research, I have only found one agent who claims this area as a particular interest. Invariably, even for those agencies that are open to YA sci-fi, I find I am writing to female agents, a number of whom make no bones about the fact that they're looking for books that are primarily written for girls. Many also say that they want books with strong female protagonists. One agent went so far as to invite me to rewrite the manuscript and turn the hero into a heroine… (Sorry, no.)

I assume this is not just a display of industry-wide sexism (!), so I'm guessing it's market-driven. I haven't seen any stats on this, but maybe teenage girls just buy more books than teenage boys? If that's the case, it brings me to my second question: would I be better off submitting my work direct to some of the more obvious sci-fi publishing houses?

I'd appreciate any insights you can offer.

I love young adult fiction written for boys and look after quite a bit of it, but I can't tell you my secret identity so there goes that opportunity to submit ... unless you already have. Let me go and check ...

Yes, it's true that literary agents in Australia tend to be women. That's probably because there's not enough money in the job to tempt men, and also because the publishing industry has a lot of women on the editorial/publishing side of things, which is where agenting sits (sales and marketing is more evenly matched, if not weighted towards those in possession of XY chromosomes). As to whether or not there's a way to more easily identify the agents' tastes in books: peruse their client lists and if that doesn't provide illumination, ask them. As I've said before, if agents don't make their submission guidelines clear enough to enable you to send in a submission (or not) you should ask them to clarify (which, in turn, may make them have clearer guidelines).

It is believed that women and girls read and buy books more than men and boys. Women often buy books for the men in their lives, and they often reach for books that seem 'likely' - books on war and Ben Cousins, for example. Publishers are thus trying to publish books that the women-who-buy-for-men can easily identify as being books for men. The same probably goes for books for children and teenagers, which are primarily purchased by parents and schools.

It is a truism of publishing and bookselling that women and girls have more eclectic taste in books - they'll give most books a go - but men and boys don't, usually. Part of the conversation around 'men's writing' and 'women's writing' is that women will read books written by both women and men, but men don't return the favour.

There are very few books published that are explicitly for male readers of any age; usually we're trying to appeal to both men and women (boys and girls) but we know, deep down in our ex-library-monitor hearts, that we're more likely to have female readers than male. I suspect this is true of all countries that have a publishing industry and there's probably a PhD that's been written about it somewhere examining the reasons why.

Hopefully that answers your first question. The answer to your second question is: yes. But that 'yes' has more to do with the fact that many agents and publishers don't touch science fiction and/or don't understand it, not with the fact that your manuscript is written for boys.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cutting out or cutting through?

Over the past year or two I've noticed calls for submissions from major publishers such as this one:

being passed around the social networking sphere. In your opinion, might this be an attempt to cut agents out of the picture or is it perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the changing state of legacy publishing? Or something else?

I'm going with your answer (c) - 'something else'. And that something else is 'trying to find good manuscripts'. Publishers know that agents can't possibly find all the good stuff - although they do like us to do that, as it helps cut down on their own slushpile reading. We all get sent far more submissions than we can handle, and agents tend not to have the resources to read absolutely every submission in the country. So if the publishers have the resources to put towards reading submissions, they will. Not all of them do; some of them do some of the time. Some publishers always have submissions open and some will never have them open. It's nothing new, it's just that it's easier for word to spread when they announce online that submissions are open. In the olden days you had to phone their switchboards to find that out.

Publishers and agents aren't enemies, by the way - we're all working towards the same goal, of seeing great books by great writers out in the world - so it's unlikely any agent would see this sort of news as an aggressive gesture by a publishing company. And if they did, well, that's their business. Ya can't please all of the people all of the time.