Sunday, August 21, 2011

The decline in boy readers and boy protagonists. Relationship?

The decline in boy readership is well-documented. In a recent New York Times article by Robert Lipsyte, a number of reasons are suggested for this disturbing trend.
  • Boys gravitate toward nonfiction;
  • Books with story lines about disease, divorce, death and dysfunction sell better for girls than do similar books for boys;
  • While teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters;
  • Today’s books for boys are simply inferior: supernatural space-and-sword epics that read like video game manuals and sports novels with preachy moral messages, and which often seem like cynical appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Whatever might be the actual root cause – and there is some debate – there is little debate that the YA market today largely caters to the female reader demographic. To quote Lipsyte: “At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-­quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires.” 

In other words, acquisition and marketing decisions by publishers are being made with this female readership in mind, and this indubitably affects other considerations down the road such as cover design and promotion strategies. The end product is leaving the teenage boys cold. And so the downward trend continues. Or so the theory goes.

Anyway, without entering too deeply into the current debate, I thought it might be interesting to see what percentage of YA books being released in the remainder of 2011 features a male protagonist. If the theory is true that teenage boys will rarely read books with a female protagonist (Hunger Games excepting), and if the Harper executive is correct (boys are only 25% of target audience), then you’d expect to see about 25% of the YA books featuring a male protagonist.
My analysis is by no means an exact science, and I certainly don’t hold it out to be one. Using the list of upcoming YA titles through 2011 from, I took a tally of the number of books with male (and female) protagonists. I did not include MG books or anthologies. To aid me in deciding the gender of the protagonist, I used the book’s description on Amazon; where that was inconclusive, I looked at the book cover to further guide me: did it predominantly feature a male or female? On occasion, where even that proved to be insufficient, I would check out the author’s website for more information. You can look at my full results here (and of course, let me know where I made a mistake! Again, this was just a rough-shod tally. Give me an intern and 5 hours, and I’ll give you an error-free analysis!).

There were times when I simply could not discern the gender of the protagonist. Sometimes, the book’s description gave inadequate information. Other times, the book’s synopsis suggested male and female main characters, and the cover featured both a male and female model. Paul Griffin’s Stay With Me is a good example of this. A few books, like Marie Lu’s Legend, feature alternating perspectives of a male and female protagonist. For books such as these, I decided not designate a male or female protagonist, and did not include that book in my final tally.

The result: Out of 104 YA titles coming out in the remainder of 2011, 27 of them feature male protagonists. That is 26%.

Which is pretty darn close to the aforementioned 25%.

Some other interesting tidbits of info:
Number of female authors who wrote books with a male protagonist: 10
Number of male authors who wrote books with a female protagonist: 1 (Clive Barker’s Abarat 3:Absolute Midnight).


  1. I read Lipsyte's op-ed yesterday too, and then I sent it to the members of my (all-female, by coincidence) crit group. I thought it was important for us to think and talk about.

    After reading Saundra's response, and the thoughts of my crit group, I'm not sure I wholeheartedly agree with the op-ed's concerns. This year, only 25% of YA books feature male protags, but historically, "boy books" have had a strong (if not dominant) showing.

    That said, many of Lipsyte's concerns are valid. Only, I don't think it's just boys who want books besides Paranormal Romance and Gossip Girl. Plenty of young female readers would prefer other stories too.

    So I guess I'm netting out at the same place I often do in debates: in the middle. There needs to be balance between "girl books" and "boy books," girl heroes and boy heroes. And there needs to be more of an emphasis on equality of gender acceptance -- boys reading girl books just as much as girls read boy books.

    Perhaps one start would be for all of us (myself included) to stop categorizing books as being gendered...

  2. Good point about young female readers wanting more than PR and GG books. I think most authors would love to write that magical book with universal appeal, that taps into themes that cross not only gender but generational lines. But Harry Potter and Boo Radley are few and far between, sadly.

  3. Thanks for doing the math on that. Veeery interesting!

  4. Hey Jon,

    I was actually thinking of your book "Exclusively Chloe" as I was tabulating the results. You're one of those rare male YA authors who wrote a book with a female protagonist!