Ask Your Booksellers

August 21, 2011 at 9:00 am (Industry) (, , , , , )

I come from a rather specific viewpoint when it comes to books and the book industry. I’m an enthusiastic reader, I’m a hopeful writer, and I’m a bookseller. It looks a little bit like this:

The one thing that marks all three of these is passion. As a reader, as a writer, as a bookseller, I bring passion to what I do. The thing is, that same passion marks a lot of people within our industry, no matter what part of it they’re in. From the writer’s mind through so many other hands until it finally reaches the reader, it isn’t just a job. It’s a life. Even where there’s the coldly practical element of needing a job to pay the bills, we’re there because we want to be there, because we want to be working with books and the people who love to read them.

What that also means is that we have a tendency to get very excited when people attack a perceived flaw in our happy little world. Back in early June, the Wall Street Journal (always a dubious source when it comes to YA) published an article saying that YA was too dark. There were some excellent rebuttals, including that of Maureen Johnson , as well as an impromptu #YAsaves on twitter, wherein thousands of people, within the course of just a few hours, sent in personal, impassioned, brutally honest confessions of how reading YA has helped them in their lives. (To be fair, the WSJ did collect some of these to present as a slideshow on their site.)

When I read that article, I was pissed. Not at the writer- though I certainly had a few choice words about her opinion- because I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions most people have about YA. Even people who read YA sometimes voice the most appalling, ill-informed inanities until it’s all I can do to nod and smile and bite my tongue. It was actually the bookseller that really got me pissed. It isn’t remotely reasonable to expect that booksellers will know every book on the shelves. We all have certain types of books that we prefer to read.

The thing is, any bookseller worth his or her salt also knows what the other employees read. Everyone on staff knows that I’m the one to ask for anything kids, and they know I also read in Sci-fi/Fantasy, History, Science, writing reference, and skim through mystery, fiction, and some others. I don’t read horror but I know who does. I don’t read current events or business, but I know who does. If a customer asks me about something I don’t read, I know who to take them to. If that person isn’t there, I can pass along books I’ve heard them mention, and I give the customer their name so they can come back for more recs. My co-workers know to pass customers to me for middle grade or teen questions.

So why didn’t that bookseller do the same thing? When Amy Freeman of Bethesda, Maryland walked into her bookstore, why did the bookseller- who admitted she didn’t know the section- sit and pass uninformed judgments rather than handing the Ms. Freeman over to an employee who did know the section?

But the thing was done, and the furor eventually died down.

And then there’s a new article. It’s the New York Times this time. I made a post a while back talking about the difference between boys and girls where reading is concerned. By the time they become teenagers, boys are reading substantially less than girls. It’s largely a function of how reading is perceived by society as a whole and the fact that boys aren’t encouraged to read the way girls are. Can part of it be blamed on packaging? Absolutely. Girls don’t mind reading a book with a boy on the cover.

Most boys wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with a girl on the cover, because to be seen with such a thing would, of course *insert sarcasm here*, be a grave insult to their masculinity and be the equivalent of committing social suicide. Saundra Mitchell has some great things to say about that.

To paraphrase probably more than I should, the new article basically says that boys aren’t reading YA because there are too many girls in it. Editors are purposefully seeking female-centric manuscripts at the expense of books that boys would read, publishers are marketing too much to girls at the expense of boys who might otherwise buy books, etc etc.

To which I say: SHENANIGANS.

Maureen Johnson – who really is an amazing person, and if you don’t follow her on twitter you should (the passionate defenses of reading are balanced by sheer insanity, it’s lovely)- pulled out a post from her blog archives that answered that beautifully. It speaks to the way we’re educated, the overwhelming mindset that forms the way we view books and reading and gender.

But this also goes back somewhat to the bookseller mentioned in the WSJ article. What this really highlights is the amount of people talking about the books in the teen section that have no idea what’s actually in the teen section.

Are there dark books in YA? Yes.

Are there a lot of female-centric books in YA? Yes.

And?

THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER KINDS OF BOOKS THERE AS WELL.

What about Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series? Or Charles Higson’s Young Bond? Or the Cherub series? All high-octane, high-action spy thrillers aimed towards teenage boys. Anything Orson Scott Card, John Green, David Levithan. How about Scott Westerfeld? How about Suzanne Collins? Boys are devouring The Hunger Games, and the fact that it’s written by a female doesn’t factor into that at all- her MG series, Gregor the Overlander, is also a boy favorite. How about Hannah Moskowitz’s books, which are by the way narrated by boys? Catherine Fisher’s books? Too many books about vampires? Vladimir Tod is a vampire, and his story has certainly sold- TO BOYS. He mentions Walter Dean Myers, but what about Christopher Paolini and Christopher Pike and Riggs Ransom? What about Sherman Alexie? Markus Zusak? James Dashner? Paolo Bacigalupi? How’s about Michael Scott? Want me to keep going? D.J. MacHale, Neal Shusterman, Joseph Delaney, Michael Grant? And that’s not even continuing the list of female authors who write strong, central male characters.

And you know what? If boys- and their parents and friends and teachers- didn’t get so hung up on what the covers look like, there’d be even more amazing stories for them to discover, books with strong stories and strong guys. Authors like Sarah Rees Brennan, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare offer stories that should not, under any circumstances, be limited to girls. Holly Black’s White Cate? It’s about a boy from a family of magical con artists. IT HAS A BOY ON THE COVER. I wouldn’t call that a female-centric book, never mind that it’s written by a female author or that it includes female characters.

It isn’t about the number of males writing in YA (male writers make up most of the adult fiction ranks and yet it’s mostly women who buy the books), it isn’t about the books that are out there. The books are there.

What we need to change is the attitude that keeps the boys- and the parents- from finding all of the amazing options that are already out there.

Teens, parents, as a bookseller, I am begging you: ASK US. Ask your booksellers. If you’re looking for books for boys, for younger precocious readers, if you’re looking for books that stay away from the magic or the vampires or the sex/drugs/angsty issues, ask your booksellers. Ask your school librarians, who work so hard to keep up to speed on what kids want to read. Ask the blogging community, ask twitter, but ask us. We’re out here. YA isn’t just my passion or hobby, it’s my JOB. Don’t be content with people who don’t actually know the section. If that bookseller doesn’t know, ask if there’s another employee who does, and when they’ll be there. Ask us.

It makes our day as well as yours.

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The Difference Between Boys and Girls

May 10, 2011 at 9:00 am (Industry) (, )

Wow, there are a lot of ways this could go.

But we’re still talking about books here, people. Promise.

I got an interesting assignment at work the other day. We had a school contact us needing books for an in-school book fair, ranging PreK through 12, and with their discount, the books needed to average about five dollars a piece. Then came the really interesting part: every book had to be for boys AND girls.

And suddenly the project got a LOT harder.

It’s one of the first questions I ask people when they’re looking for recommendations for kids. What’s the gender, and what’s the age? It makes more of a difference than people realize, and if you track through, it starts a pattern that continues with us well into adulthood.

At the youngest age group, books are gender-neutral. Board books are, almost without exception, good for both boys and girls. At that age, there aren’t really preferences yet. They’re more interested in the colors and the patterns, in the visual stimulus.

It’s during preschool that this starts changing, and I think it’s safe to say Disney is to blame for a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney, I grew up on Disney, but it’s certainly a huge contributor to gender distinctions. One word: Princesses. Movies like Cars, Invincibles, Toy Story are geared a little bit more towards boys, but girls love them as well. The princesses are less boy-friendly. It’s hard at any age for a boy to be concerned with girls in big poofy dresses, especially when they’re prancing around with animals and singing. If you look at the Disney preschool section, about three quarters of it is Princess; the other quarter is a mixture of Pixar movies and Clubhouse Mickey. We start telling kids at a very young age that boys and girls don’t like the same things. We give them different toys, different books, different movies and stories, so even at so young an age, boys are being told that fairy tales aren’t really okay, and girls are being told that G.I. Joes are boy toys.

This actually levels out a little during kindergarten, specifically during the process of learning to read. You can thank teachers for this one. Because they have to administer to a mixed classroom, they look for the neutral titles, like Biscuit and Little Critter and Berenstain Bears, etc. It’s about recognizing the words and the characters, not the story. You still have the princesses and fairy tales, and girls are typically steered away from dinosaurs or soldiers, but within the classroom, they’re all reading the same things.

When we get to beginning chapter books, it’s amazing how even things are. Junie B Jones and Magic Tree House are pretty much staples, whether boy or girl. Same with My Weird School, or the A to Z mysteries. Even things that feature girls- like the Franny K Stein- are still weird enough that the boys love them. However, this is where things start getting a bit interesting. There are girls’ books like the Disney Fairies and the Ivy and Bean books, but it’s harder to find boys’ books that girls don’t also read. When it comes to reading, girls are omnivores. Boys are more picky. Girls will read books that feature boys but the opposite rarely holds true, especially as we get older.

Look at two of the biggest selling kids’ series: Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Main character? Boys. But girls devour them just as much. It’s not like it’s at all subtle, either. The boys are on the covers and in the titles but the girls just don’t care. They love the characters and the stories and it just doesn’t matter to them that it isn’t a girl in the main role. You hand a girl the first Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or Bobby Pendragon book, the boy on the cover isn’t going to turn them away. Then pick up Dragon Slippers or Ella Enchanted or Julie Edwards’ Mandy. If they’ve been raised to be polite, they may read the back or study the cover, but as soon as your back is turned, they’re putting it down. Sometimes you can convince them- tell them it’s about dragons who save a country, or someone who fights a curse of obedience, or an orphan who wants a home. If you can sell them on the story, they might be willing to overlook the fact that it’s female. Once they start reading, if they get sufficiently hooked, they’ll forget the girl and focus on the story. You have to get them past that.

Then we hit the teenage years. There are a number of male YA authors out there, but let’s be honest: if you look at the shelves in a bookstore, they seem like a distinct minority. There are a lot of female authors out there and most of them write more-or-less female-centric books. A notable exception is Hannah Moskowitz, who writes males protagonists, along with Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. By this age, though, boys are generally being discouraged to read. They’re told to go out and play sports, or that reading is sissy or a waste of time. The ones that still read have generally skipped over most of the teen wall and gone straight into the general genres (usually the Star Wars/Halo/D&D novels, or the hardcore fantasy sagas of Jordan, Goodkind, or now Sanderson). They go into the Tom Clancy or the David Baldacci, but they don’t tend to go through the teen wall very often. There are exceptions (always, always exceptions).

So we get back to the original problem. How do I pick a stack of books designed to appeal equally to boys and girls? This is where it’s possible that I read too much: I know SO many amazing books that boys would probably love if they could just get past the girl on the cover. But- I’m not the one handing them the book. The books will be spread out on tables and they’ll be told to wander through and pick without anyone who knows the books well enough to sway them past the fact that the main character may be a girl.

I found a healthy number of books that I think fit the bill, and I’m pretty satisfied with the choices, but it really is such a strange thing: why do we tell boys and girls from suhc a young age that they should read different things? Why do we set them into this pattern that leads straight through adulthood?

Any thoughts? Ideas?

Until next time~
Cheers!

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YA Mafia and Other Sour Grapes

March 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm (Industry) (, , )

There are a lot of places you can find mention of the YA Mafia right now. Follow a YA author on Twitter or blog chances are you’ll run across it at least as a passing reference. It’s a Really Big Thing.

And in my opinion, it’s kind of ridiculous.

I don’t say that to belittle any of the players involved- obviously it’s something about which people are very passionate. It touches on a number of sensitive topics that start when we’re in preschool and somehow just compound along the way to maturity adulthood.

What it boils down to, for anyone who’s missed the wildfire in the past two days or so, is that some people believe in the existence of a YA Mafia- an uber-clique of Young Adult authors who are all friends, blurb each other’s books, freak out over bad reviews, and somehow exercise the mysterious ability to either ruin people’s careers or even prevent them from ever getting started. This shadowy mob despises newcomers- seeing them as competition- and they’re out to destroy book bloggers who say anything negative about their published treasures.

If you switch around a couple of words, doesn’t it sound like the House Committee of Un-American Activities?

The thing is, like any Big Deal, this has some- SOME- foundation in fact.

Fact One: many YA authors are friends. Um…duh. These people are colleagues, they co-panel at conventions, share stops on tours, cheer each other on, and celebrate the victories. Like in any group of people that comes together with similar interests and personalities that fit together, friendships form. The thing is, they cheer on YA as a genre, as the embodiment of the fact that teenagers (and a large number of teenage minded adults) are reading. In this day and age, when there are so many other things vying for attention and time, that is always something to celebrate. They support each other in the way that friends do, and get excited for word counts and email answers and all sorts of things that don’t meant anything to the general public.

Fact Two: they blurb each other’s books. When a publisher is trying to attract people to a new series, or a new author, it’s smart business to ask for a blurb from an established author with a dedicated fan base. If it’s a YA novel, it makes the most sense to ask the favor of a YA author. So yes, they blurb for each other. And yes, as with any favor, blurbs are a matter of personal taste and preference. If an author doesn’t actually care for your book, why should they lie and say it was amazing? And if you’ve attacked them as an author, why should they even do you the favor of reading it in the first place? A blurb is a selling point, a way to catch someone’s attention and make them say “Hey, I really like this other author, maybe I’ll like this one too”. It’s like using someone as a reference on an application. If you have thoroughly pissed them off by attacking the work they do, are you really going to ask them for a positive reference?

Fact Three: book bloggers can feel pressured to only post positive things.

For me, this is one of the stickier parts, probably because it has more to do with¬†common sense than anything else. No book is perfect. No book is so utterly amazing that there aren’t places it could have been improved. No sensible person expects there to be only gushing in a review. A review is a balanced critique of a book, a measured account of what- for you- worked or did not work, what the author did well or not well enough. There are good points and bad points and meh points that all factor into an overall opinion of the piece.

It’s not a rant.

We’ve all seen these kinds of reviews, full of venom and vitriol that shred not only the book but the author and the industry with the questionable taste to publish it. It does not take into account dissenting opinions and may even attack anyone with the temerity to question it. Heaven forbid you be foolish enough to actually attempt an argument or discussion. Even the most negative reviews focus on the book. In a rant, the book is only the starting point.

Another thing a review is not? A platform for bitterness and jealousy. On this one I speak not just as someone who enjoys reviewing books (and a bookseller who’s expected to do so on request), but as a writer not-so-patiently slogging through the mass of work on the way to the magical place of Getting An Agent/Editor/Shiny-Happy-Book-On-Shelf-Emotional-Breakdown-Day. As a writer, I kind of get this one. Kind of. We’ve all read awful books, books that make us cringe with every page and it’s a contest of wills (or maybe a point of principle) to force your way through to the end. The characters are flat stereotypes, the prose limps along like an afternoon drunk, and the story has about as much direction as the aforementioned drunk, and the entire time you’re battling reading this book, all you can think is “how does crap like this get published when my wonderful, amazing, LIFE-CHANGING novel lives neglected on my hard-drive?!”. We’ve all had the dark, nasty thoughts. But before you go running off to the blogosphere, there are a few things to think about.

Thing One: that piece of crap in your hands? That author thought the exact same things about his/her novel that you think about yours. Some agent saw it and was willing to put his/her reputation behind this book; an editor saw it and was willing to put money into this book to produce and publicize it; a bookstore buyer saw it and was willing to put money into it to get it in stores and on shelves. And- here’s the kicker- you saw that book and thought there was something interesting about it, or you wouldn’t have started reading it in the first place. People were willing to stake money and reputation on this book not being crap.

Thing Two: this is your opinion. This is not a commandment from God. I have friends who worship at the altar of Faulkner. They think As¬†I Lay Dying is the most genius thing ever written, can quote half the book, and expound- at length- on exactly what was so stellar about it. I hated it. I cringe when people ask me for that book at work. There are hours- days, even- of my life that I will never recover and the only reason I pushed through to the (very) bitter end was because I was a grade riding on it. I loathed that book. So who’s right? Well…none of us. It’s an opinion- it’s not really right or wrong. It can be unfounded, unreasonable, uneducated, maybe even hard to swallow, but it’s an opinion, and everyone is entitled to one.

Thing Three: if you’re reviewing in the blogosphere, it’s not because you want a private notebook to reference when you need to find a new book. You’re reviewing in the blogosphere because you want people to see it. What do you want them to see? The unrestrained, rabidly frothing rantings of a juvenile mind? Or a well-constructed critique that’s honest without being a) timid, b) tactless, or c) totally useless? You don’t have to dance aorund or lie about your feelings for a book. If I’m coaching an employee, I’m not going to start the conversation with “Okay, this is why you suck”. Um…no. I’m going to approach it as “this is what you’re trying to do, this is why it isn’t working, here’s some ways we can fix this”. A review should be approached in the same way.

Thing Four: if you can get established as a reliable reviewer in the blogosphere, people will want to send you free books. Free. Books. Just to keep doing what you were already doing anyway. Do you really want to jeopardize that for a temper tantrum you can scream at your wall instead of posting?

Thing Five: why aren’t you published if such-and-such can manage it? Well…are you trying? Are you crafting a novel, writing it, finishing it, polishing it, giving it to others to rip to shreds so you can put it back together better, polishing it, researching agents who represent what you write, crafting a query (package), getting query critiqued, polishing query, sending queries, sending queries, sending queries, dealing with rejection, sending queries, oh my God an agent wants me now the real work begins! and all that jazz? Or are you sitting on your blog waiting for them to discover you?

Hate to tell you this, kids, but Cinderella was only one girl at the ball. Bet you anything, most of the other girls saw the prince falling all over himself at the cute new girl in the shiny shoes, marked him off their lists, and went right on to the next good chance. This is called working for what you want. As a society, we’re so entranced by the Cinderella stories that we forget that they’re NOT NORMAL. We hear about them because they’re rare. Everyone else does this thing called legwork. So, if you’re not published, do you race to your blog to rant about those who are, or do you sit down and really try to figure out why you’re not?

Writing is a hobby.

Publishing is a business.

In a business, there are certain professional standards to be maintained. It doesn’t mean you claim to love books you loathed, it doesn’t mean you don’t point out the parts that don’t work. I once read a professional review where the book was described as having “prose so purple it’s nearly incandescent”. Um..OW. But the reviewer never attacked the author, and each negative point was supported by examples. And you know? That book has been on the bestseller list.

I almost wish the YA Mafia did exist. It would be so much easier to blame a shadowy cabal than to knuckle down and do (HARD) work. But- and here’s the REALLY BIG THING- the ONLY person with that much control over your career is you. You are the one who can put in all the (HARD) work and patience and frustration and passion and- finally- accomplish something amazing. You’re also the one who can screw yourself by treating it like high school instead of a business.

Until next time~

Cheers!

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