Books for Teen Boys: A Moral Obligation

booksLong before my agent said it, I knew there might be difficulty finding a publisher for my book. I had researched the Young Adult market, and come to the conclusion that books for teens over the age of 13 tended to be written and marketed primarily to girls. This was especially true several years ago, during the initial Twilight frenzy, before a handful of books like Shipbreaker and The Monstrumologist came along to offer glimmers of hope for boys who weren’t interested in reading about books mired in the sappy romantic entanglements of girls torn between vampires and werewolves.

Although my agent felt we were going into a difficult market during uncertain economic times, he was convinced we would eventually be facing a bidding war for Darius Logan: Super Justice Force (the original title of my YA novel). Much to his disappointment—and, I must confess, mine as well—all we got were rejections. And with each rejection, there came a few very interesting comments as to why the book was getting the shaft. The three things we heard most consistently were “teen boys don’t read,” “not girl-friendly enough,” and “there’s no market for a book like this”—which I suppose covers both teen boys not reading and not being girl-friendly enough. I can’t recall how many rejections I got—but add up all the major publishers in North America and you’ll have ballpark number—and every one of these rejections pointed out that either teen boys didn’t read, my book was not girl-friendly enough, there was no market for the book, or sometimes, combinations of these three truths.

As difficult as it was to be rejected, that was not what bothered me the most. The thing that got under my skin, eating away at me like some deadly virus, was the matter-of-fact dismissal of teen boys as being non-readers by nearly every publisher in North America. It would have been one thing to not get a publishing deal because my book sucked—I’m a grown man with a thick skin can handle rejection based on the quality of my writing or lack thereof. But to not get a deal because “teen boys don’t read” was a bitter pill that I refused to swallow. If, in fact, teen boys aren’t reading books, it seems to me that there must be reason, and that this reason should be addressed immediately, lest we become a nation populated by illiterate men who didn’t read when they were teenagers.

Educational reform began in this country in 19th century, with the state of Massachusetts passing the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1825. More states followed suit, until eventually all states had laws requiring children to at the very least attend elementary school. Despite raging debates over budgets, over-crowding in classrooms and the fiasco of No Child Left Behind, the United States still pays a fair amount of lip-service to the importance of educating its children. Unfortunately, it seems that quite often this interest only extends to the most rudimentary of educations, and after a time, many young people are left to fend for themselves.

I believe that it is not only important to educate children and teach them to read, it is important to give them things they will want to read. To do any less is a violation of a moral obligation that comes with the educational process. And the pervasive and nonchalant attitude of publishers that teenage boys don’t read is not only a violation of this moral obligation; it is an abandonment of an entire portion of the population that has been deemed to not be commercially viable. In other words, there is no profit in boys reading books.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of things in these tough economic times vying for the attention of teenage boys. Capturing a percentage of that audience is not easy, but it is necessary and morally correct. There are teenage boys out there who like to read. I hear from them, their parents, and their teachers on a regular basis, and everyone tells me basically the same thing: “It’s so hard to find good books for teen boys.”

I submit to the publishing industry as a whole this simple truth: it’s not that teenage boys don’t read, it’s that you aren’t publishing anything worth reading. Some publishers are better than others, and there are some awesome books out there—the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness is amazing, and Charlie Higson’s The Enemy is one of my favorite YA books of all time. But overall the market of books for older teen boys vacillates between bleak and pathetic.

As the publishing industry struggles to define itself amidst the rising popularity of electronic books and the closures of both independent booksellers and national chain stores, there is no better time to rethink the old strategies that clearly aren’t working. Rather than turn its back on an entire segment of the population, now is the time for publishers to start putting out books that will appeal to boys. This means books with subject matter that boys will be entertained by, with covers that will appeal to them (you would think both would be no-brainers, but trust me, they aren’t). I guarantee, once publishers actually start putting out good books for teenage boys (and marketing them properly), teenage boys will start reading books. Of course, I know that they already do.

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