Friday, October 23, 2009

Boys & Book Cover Shame: Will e-books get boys reading more?

So recently on the amazing twitter #kidlitchat that's on Tuesday nights (6pm west coast time), a discussion of e-books came up, and it was mentioned that Romance is the biggest selling category of e-books.

The theory was Book Cover Shame. The idea that it's embarrassing walking around with a book whose cover is pretty much the equivalent of you SCREAMING:
"I'm reading a bodice-ripping romance novel because I need more passion in my life!"

In contrast, an e-book is completely anonymous. You could be reading about Proust's remembering his pastry (Remembrance Of Things Past) or Orwell's dystopia (1984) - nobody knows what you're reading except you.

And I think that there's an amazing upside to this idea.

See, there's this parallel concept in Children's and especially Teen publishing that boys won't read books that they don't want to be seen with. Hence, boys won't read any books that "look" girly. And thus most of the marketing and promotion of Teen books - especially any books with female protagonists - skews towards girls, because they are the "readers." This makes "girl book" covers look even MORE girly, to appeal to girl readers.

Boys, if they read, are seen as reluctant, and only willing to read about boy protagonists on "manly" adventures. Boy book covers are macho.

Much of the time the cover art pretty much conveys to everyone if the book is considered a "girl book" or a "boy book." Look for yourself:

Girl covers:

Boy Covers:

But enter e-books. If I'm a 15 year old guy, I may LOVE vampire stories, but I don't necessarily want the other kids at school seeing me walking around carrying "Twilight." Especially after the movie and all those sparkly-in-the-sunlight Edward moments. Now I can read it. If I want to read "Wintergirls" or "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" - well, now I can. And nobody has to know, unless I tell them.

Think about what this means for GAY books. Boys AND girls can now carry around and read the amazing GLBTQ titles here on this blog anonymously.

Nobody will know if you're reading "The God Box" or "Gravity." Nobody will know if you're thinking about "can I be Gay and believe in God?" or if you're thinking about which Jonas Brother is cutest... err, most talented. If it's on your e-book, you could be reading ANYthing, and no one across the cafeteria would know.

E-books allow everyone access to stories and information in a way that's private. And there are moments as a teenager when I would have LOVED that level of privacy (After all, I read Anne McCaffrey's fantasy novels with girl protagonists!)

So while I love paper books (or as I recently heard someone call them, "the dead tree versions of books") I think there's quite an upside to this whole e-book transition.

And sure, I look forward to the day when anyone can carry around ANY book and not be embarrassed or made to feel bad about themselves because of what that book is. But for right here, right now? E-books mean that boys and girls are going to read more. Without fear of Book Cover Shame.

And that's a great thing.

What do you think?
Have you ever experienced or seen Book Cover Shame in action? Do you think e-books might change that?



Esther said...

Interesting idea, Lee, that book covers often deter boys. I think you're right and perhaps ebooks/ kindle readers might change that. Also graphic novels. How can we get more men to write for kids, I wonder. And do you have a recommended book list geared toward boy readers? I've got a 5-year-old grandson whose reading skills I want to nurture, over time.

Greg Pincus said...

I think there's truth to this, Lee, but I wonder if there aren't other potential privacy issues that come up as a trade-off. WHen you buy a book with cash, there's no record of what you've got. Library records are protected by law. Are your ebook purchases? Can someone track what you read if they get hold of your reader? At the moment, this hasn't become a real big issue and in most cases it doesn't matter (nor will it ever come up). Still, it can't be ignored.

But in answer to your original question - yes, if no one sees you with the cover, that's a definite level of remove and safety. I suppose kids could start wrestling readers out of each others hands to see what someone's reading, but that takes way more effort than simply looking at a cover and drawing a conclusion!

Brent Hartinger said...

Oh, it's impossible to overstate how the "pink book cover" drives boys away from books. It takes an existing problem and makes it MUCH worse. And since boys are currently such a small niche in YA publishing, publishers don't even really care. Unfortunately, I suspect this problem is more pronounced along familes with lower incomes (speculation on my part), and the Kindle/e-reader is TOTALLY out of reach for them. In fact, it may create a new problem (or reinforcing an old one): "reading" is for rich kids.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I think you've made a really interesting point. We all judge a book by its cover on some level. So I think you're right that e-reading will allow people to explore genres they may have ignored before. Great post!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Great comments, everyone.

Esther, a great site with recommendations for boys is - though if he's only 5 most of those titles will have to wait. Certainly take a look at my "picturebooks I wish had been read to me when I was a little kid" section - there are some great titles there.

Greg, it's a good point you make about privacy in terms of lists of what you've purchased - I wonder if there's some kind of system for controlling that information. Right now I think the books you take out of the library are theoretically "protected" but in actuality, I wonder if the "authorities" wanted to see all the books I'd checked out if they'd have such a hard time getting hold of that information. (they'd find a lot of picture books and YA on the list!)

Brent, I think your point about e-books expense possibly leading to a "reading for the rich" culture is a really scary one. Hopefully the price of e-readers will drop, and maybe we'll even get to the point where kids get them from schools (lighter, cheaper for the schools in the long run with not having to buy new textbooks - how many textbooks for one kid to get through junior high and high school, compared with one e-reader? The math might end up working to have all kids - rich and poor - get them that way.

I'm really enjoying this discussion - thanks!

Lawral the Librarian said...

I think the boy readers vs. the girl readers thing can get really tricky. A lot of girl readers have no problem reading "boy books," and there doesn't seem to be a stigma attached to carrying around books with more masculine covers. But boys who carry around the pink books or the books with period dresses on the cover definitely get called names, regardless of what the book is really about. Unfortunately, those books with period dresses on the covers are selling like hot cakes to girls, leading publishers to put them on any historical fiction novel they can manage, whether it's warranted or not. This is, I think, exactly what happened with the US edition of The Red Necklace which I reviewed on my blog earlier this month:

My Resources for Young Adults class in grad school focused on a different genre every week. The week when we looked at queer lit, we all noticed that books we read from the library all had a rainbow sticker on the spine indicating that these books had queer themes or that the book was in the "queer genre." We had a huge discussion about whether this helps teens find the books they need/want or deters them from checking out the books they need/want. If we can get e-readers to work in a school or library setting, taking into account the privacy and cost concerns mentioned, I think they could make book selection a lot less potentially embarrassing for guys and readers of queer lit.

Anonymous said...

I think so. I actually went to a book signing with recently where two mega-fans of the author in the audience (both boys) looked very skeptical about her new book. The book features a teenage girl emerging from the water (no, not in a wet-t-shirt kind of way), and their mother actually said "I think the cover of your new book is putting my sons off."

Terry Doherty said...

The boy cover v. girl cover has been around for a while, but I had never really thought of eBooks/eReaders as a way of neutralizing the discussion. Now you've got me thinking ... thanks, Lee.

Liviania said...

I'm a girl reader, and I can say there are definitely girl books I hate carrying around. Think about it: romance is by far the best-selling genre in print too. How often do you see a clinch cover on the bus? At least chick lit is slightly more respectable.

My mom has encouraged me to be less worried about it . . . mostly by laughing at me. In general, she says about people judging her romance novels, "They aren't reading. They don't get to look down on me." But it's a very hard POV when you're younger.

Ditching embarrassing covers is useful. But I did feel rather proud of myself last week. In front of two guy friends I handed a girl friend a book with a girl spilling her out of her top on the cover.

"You have to read this! I fell in love after the prologue."
"Ooh, it looks salacious."
One of the guys, laughing: "Read a page."
She does, picking a scene in a brothel. "Thanks! I can't wait to read it. Got anything else good for me?"

Two years ago I wouldn't have admitted to *owning* the novel. I don't think my girl friend would've either.

(I also learned the important life skill of being able to spread my hand into any number of contortions over a mass market to make it utterly unidentifiable. Yes, important, since this clearly qualifies me to be a spy.)

Lori Calabrese said...

Lee, fascinating post. Certainly gets you thinking about ebooks in a new light.

Like you commented to Greg... I always wondered about tracking library books. They say there's no way of finding out your history of books taken out from the library, but everything's on computer these days, how could they not?

Great discussion everyone!

Wendy said...

For a moment I thought "YES!" to the idea that e-books would make it more private for teens to read gay books... but then Greg's comment made me remember that when I was a teenager in the 90s, I read almost all gay books at the library or bookstore without checking them out or buying them--it was all surreptitious. You can't take an e-book into a dark corner and start reading with ANYONE knowing, or anyway without any record of it. It's not that I would necessarily have been afraid of someone looking at my record of e-books and figuring out that I might be gay, but the idea of claiming that identity in such a concrete way would been scary, perhaps scary enough for a while to keep me away from those books.

Paul Greci said...

Interesting Post.
I taught at an alternative school for fifteen years and had a mostly male reluctant reader population. I didn't notice my boys shying away from books with more feminine covers. And, I never saw anyone getting harassed for the books they were reading. From what I've read this is a big issue in more mainstream environments. My school had just twenty students, a last stop for the ones who had exhausted all their other options, so I really can't compare.

I basically tried to get my boys to read anything I could. It's a trick matching a book to a boy when you've got both content and reading ability as variables, and then if the cover turns them off, or they think they might get harassed for reading it, ouch!

E-books might fill some type of need, however, I tend to agree with Brent that it may be out of reach for many boys.

Some of my most reluctant and struggling male readers found their sea legs with Paul Langan's books, many of which have girls on the covers. I'm not sharing this as a contradiction but rather as a silver lining to a dark cloud. I think, in my classroom that the kids who were actually reading were envied by others who weren't.

Now I'm writing full-time and I hope my YA novels will draw in the male reluctant reader.

Rita said...

My first thought was similar to Greg's--that this could create a whole new issue regarding getting "caught" with certain books on your e-reader, kind of like if one kept indiscreet photos or texts on their phone (tsk!) and someone else got a hold of it. If we're talking about high school.

But I love the idea of e-books as the ultimate plainwrap. Didn't Harry Potter sell more copies after its British publisher issued a plainwrap version for adults? (Or is that just a myth??)

What I've never understood is, if girls are so fine with reading "boy" books, and if boys are so fearful of being seen with "girl" books, then why don't all books look like boy books? Because, honestly, I'm embarrassed by super girly covers, too.

pussreboots said...

Both my son and husband like much girlier book covers than I do. My husband reads loads of romances while I tend to stick with adventures, thrillers and mysteries. The only things we seem to agree on is science fiction and manga. I don't see ebooks having any significant change in how either of them read.

Greg Pincus said...

Just a quick followup - library records exist, but by law you need a subpoena to see them. Video store records, too, I believe (remember Judge Bork?)... but librarians tend to know more about protecting privacy than video store clerks (of which I was one!).