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Boys need books

The gendering of publishing has gone too far

About a decade ago, I was on my first panel at a writers festival, enjoying a brief flush of literary success. A librarian in the audience dared to ask the forbidden question — why aren’t boys reading? Her actual question was more nuanced — did I, a male author, feel my work had been feminised, given the publishing industry was dominated by women? Of course not, I said. What a notion. Oh, how we scoffed. Then, obviously, the librarian was rapidly escorted to the door.

That question came up in a different form at every festival I attended thereafter. My debut novel, a young adult fantasy adventure, featured a feisty female protagonist — partly because they were in vogue, but mostly because those were the sort of girls and women I had grown up with. It hadn’t occurred to me that a strong female lead might put anyone off, but soon after the book came out, a publisher asked if I had ever thought about writing for boys. I thought I was.

Publishing is now dominated by women. It’s one of sexual equality’s great success stories. Women now publish more books than men. A recent study by the World Economic Forum found that women’s share of published titles increased from around 20 per cent in the 1970s to over 50 per cent by 2020 as the industry expanded. By 2021, female-authored books sold more copies on average than those written by men.

Where prize shortlists were once reserved for men, in recent years notable prizes including the Miles Franklin and the International Booker have fielded lists where five out of six nominees were female. Here in Australia, women make up 65 per cent of Australian writers, 77 per cent of employees in Australian publishing and 61 per cent of “frequent readers”. The numbers in the UK are similar, with around 70 per cent of marketing and editorial roles held by women.

This transformation should have helped smash gender norms around what an author looked like. Begone tweed jackets and pipes! Women have always written great literature, whilst the men stole (most of) the credit. Instead, this triumph for sexual equality seems to have led to publishing — and reading — to become more heavily gendered than ever. We have swapped one set of stereotypes for another.

Around 80 per cent of books sold are sold to women

When I wrote my book, a female-led adventure was still something of a novelty. It now seems the default. As the dad of two young girls, I’m delighted. I do sometimes wonder what the boys are reading, though. The answer is that they’re not.

There is a mountain of evidence that boys are reading less than girls, with knock-on effects for their learning and, I suspect, their general humanity. Despite that evidence, it’s a question that is often dismissed out of hand. I was on a panel about the gender-reading gap some years ago, and I was genuinely startled when a fellow author said she didn’t care if boys were reading or not. We live in a patriarchy, after all. Boys are doing OK without books.

Are they, though? I tend to agree with Thomas Chatterton Williams when he said that identifying as someone who doesn’t read books “suggests a much larger deficiency of character”. I like to think that reading made me a better man. Look at the men currently hoarding power and imagine what they might have been like if they had read more fiction.

There is often little sympathy shown for the boys and men who won’t read books by or about women — books that are frequently marketed as being explicitly not for them. Those of us who have been boys know firsthand how fiercely masculinity is policed. Reading has long been gendered as a “feminine” activity, but publishing now seems to be leaning into that perception. It isn’t hard to see why it might be more difficult than ever for a boy to pick up a book.

Does publishing increasingly skew female because more women read books — or do more women read books as publishing increasingly skews female? There are undoubtedly economic factors at play. Around 80 per cent of books sold are sold to women. In a financially precarious environment, it makes sense for publishers to chase an enthusiastic market.

We can see this at work in the impact of BookTok (the booming TikTok literary community), which is being celebrated as the next great saviour of publishing. It is thought to be responsible for a slight lift in adult fiction sales this year, but a look at the sort of books BookTok is promoting — overwhelmingly romance and Young Adult fiction — reveals a reinforcement of the same gender stereotyping.

The majority of BookTok legends are young women. The books they promote are the books that are already being marketed directly at them, in a never-ending (and heavily gendered) feedback loop. If the problem is half the world’s population turning away from books, then BookTok hardly looks like any kind of solution.

The sexes are encouraged to inhabit different political universes

There is another economic factor at play that is less often acknowledged. There may well be more women writing and working in publishing for the simple fact that men often refuse — or simply can’t afford — to work in low-paying industries. When men do work in publishing, it tends to be at the top end. In a world where it remains more usual for men to be the breadwinners, the meagre pay-packet most writers take home is simply impractical. To build a career as an author (or an editor), it helps to have a partner with a proper job. This might explain why, although women dominate publishing, they are yet to make as much headway in creative industries (film, for example) that make more money.

Ideology is another factor. There has, rightly, been a conscious push towards equality. The problem with a hard-fought campaign is a tendency to extremism in victory, however. I know of a leading Melbourne-based magazine whose staff were infamous for gloating about their successful purge of men from the editorial team. It’s probably no coincidence that the two leading genres on BookTok have been heavily policed on ideological grounds in recent years. These are books that appeal to a narrow ideological spectrum, where young (mostly female) editors reportedly refuse to work with authors or content with which they disagree.

The result is a broadening of the gender divide that stretches beyond publishing. In short, American girls are becoming more progressive whilst their male counterparts are becoming more conservative. It seems no coincidence that this reported political chasm between young men and young women is expanding at a time when books are seemingly becoming more gendered. The sexes are encouraged, however inadvertently, to inhabit different political universes of lefty books and rightwing YouTube stars.

Publishing needn’t be a war of the sexes. Some women, including Hachette’s Sharmaine Lovegrove, have expressed concern that men publishing books for men have been replaced by women publishing books for women, arguing that “we should be publishing for the whole of society”. Let Toys Be Toys have run a campaign applying their gender-free approach towards toys to books.

Often lost amidst questions about why boys and men don’t want to read is the fact that, well, maybe they do. Jonny Geller, chief executive of literary agency Curtis Brown, has pointed out that, whilst the fiction market is currently very female-oriented, much of that is based on the assumption that men will only read non-fiction books — an assumption that simply doesn’t have much data behind it.

The boom in graphic novels and series such as Dog Man and Captain Underpants (not to mention the much-derided David Walliams books) can be seen as evidence that boys will always want to read when we make it easy for them. This doesn’t mean publishing simpler, dumber or more “accessible” books, but rather making sure we resist the idea that reading has to be a gendered activity. In other words, making sure that we’re publishing books for everyone — not just the half of the world that is already reading them.

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