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Chris Goldberg

Chris Goldberg

Posted: December 19, 2008 04:03 PM

Dudes Don't Read: The Book Biz's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

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By now we know the book business could be spiraling into the trash heap of history along with the CD business and the US auto industry. The layoffs and the handwringing are well documented, and the problems that plague publishing are too numerous to recount here.

But as a guy who has worked in the book world for several years, I'd like to take this opportunity to call attention to my pet peeve about publishing. When the dust settles, the "restructuring" is over, and industry leaders have had a chance to look at themselves in the mirror I hope they'll think about it.

When I talk to book editors they repeat the mantra almost religiously: "Dudes don't read." They've all resigned themselves to the fact that women buy most of the books -- especially novels -- and so it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They're right. Dudes aren't reading. But is it our fault? Or have publishers just given up trying to publish and market books that we'd want to read?

Just glance over a list of book deals on Publisher's Marketplace and you'll see houses acquiring the same stuff day in and day out -- almost all of which fits into pre-existing niche categories dominated by female readers.

A good example is Jane Austen-related books. In three years in my current job I've seen The Jane Austen Book Club, Jane Austen's Guide to Dating, Jane Austen in Boca, Jane Austen in Scarsdale, Austenland, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen: A Novel, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Lost in Austen: A Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure, What Would Jane Austen Do? and, appropriately, Jane Austen Ruined My Life.

I joked with my cubicle-mate when Twilight became big that it was only a matter of time before we had a Jane Austen vampire book. It didn't take long. In June Publisher's Marketplace announced Jane Bites Back, pitched as "the humorous, sassy account of Jane Austen as a modern-day vampire," to be published by Del Rey Books.

After The Devil Wears Prada there were dozens of "assistant lit" books. After The Nanny Diaries there were dozens of "nanny lit" books. As the former assistants and nannies get married and have kids there are now "mommy lit" and "divorcée lit" books.

Meanwhile, it's gotten to the point where a lot of the more business-savvy literary agents won't even bother to represent a young male novelist anymore. If they do actually sell a guy-centered book, it's usually a direct-to-paperback deal with practically no publicity budget. (Something like I Just Want My Pants Back by David J. Rosen.)

When, by some freak occurrence, publishers somehow land a commercial male novelist who's at the top of his game they seem to have no clue how to market or publicize the books -- especially to male readers.

Exhibit A: Jonathan Tropper. You've probably never heard of him even though he's optioned almost all of his novels to major Hollywood studios for millions of dollars. He's still never cracked the bestseller list, but I don't blame him. His second novel The Book of Joe was hilarious and should have appealed to men and women, but just look at this cover.

This cover would never pass the subway test. In other words, no dude would be caught dead reading that book in public. Basically, the publisher chose to make their product man-proof.

Now, there are exceptions to what I'm talking about. There are the already established authors like James Patterson, Stephen King, and John Grisham of course. And there are even some agents and some editors willing to gamble on a young male author once in awhile. A lot of times the gamble doesn't pay off, so who can blame them for being risk averse? Still, can the publishing industry as a whole survive into the future while essentially ignoring young male readers? If dudes like me are not buying books now, what happens when we get older? When female readers have aged-out to the point they're reading "retired lady lit" will that signal the End of Days for commercial fiction?

Where are the badass young male writers of today? Would Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Vonnegut or Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney or Alex Garland or Chuck Palahniuk even get book deals if their debut novels were written today? How can we make reading novels -- and writing them -- cool again for guys under thirty?

I'm not sure of the answers, but I hope the current publishing shake-up will force people to consider them. Maybe someday I'll walk into a book store and see a book I might actually want to read alongside The Friday Night Knitting Club and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Or at least I'll be able to go on Amazon.com and download one onto my Kindle.