What if publishers created a subgenre and nobody read it? In the case of "lad lit," the answer appears to be that they would produce even more titles. Despite disappointing sales of fiction and nonfiction that turns chick lit's self-deprecating gaze on young men and their dating woes, a slew of new books are on the way. Whether that's a result of stubbornness or sexism, the bottom line for booksellers is "the only place lad lit exists as a viable genre is in the imaginations of publishers," as Borders's fiction buyer Leah Rex put it.
It's not that there's a shortage of media coverage for these boy books. The New York Times and the Associated Press have recently published trend-spotting articles about them, while largely sidestepping the issue of their slow sales. Reviews aren't helping. Kyle Smith's first novel, Love Monkey (Morrow, Feb. 3), has been covered everywhere from Men's Health to Time and received both a daily and a Sunday review in the New York Times, yet the hardcover has sold only 1,716 copies in six weeks, according to Nielsen Bookscan. "I don't feel like we've yet hit the level that I expected relative to the pre-pub buzz, but there's still a lot happening," said executive editor Dan Conaway.
When it comes to sales, girls still rule, according to Villard editorial director Bruce Tracy. "We did Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About [a 2003 paperback by Mil Millington], and we were pleased, but if it had been Things My Boyfriend and I Have Argued About, we would have looked at the numbers and thought that wasn't what we were shooting for," he said. Still, Villard will publish Dave Itzkoff's memoir Lads, about coming of age while working at Details magazine, in September.
If there's a patron saint of lad lit, it's Nick Hornby, whom Brad Thomas Parsons, senior editor for literature and fiction at Amazon, termed "the go-to guy in this genre." Yet even Nick Hornby isn't all he's cracked up to be. While Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (Viking, 1998), launched the chick-lit category after selling more than two million copies in hardcover and paperback, it took Hornby six titles in trade paperback to hit that level of sales.
Hyperion executive editor Leslie Wells thought she had the next Nick Hornby when she edited Men and Other Mammals by British author Jim Keeble. By the time the trade paperback original came out last May, however, the announced 50,000-copy first printing had shrunk to around 15,000 copies. A quote from Nick Hornby and the book's selection as a Barnes & Noble Discover title "didn't translate into readers walking out of bookstores with it," said Wells. "I don't think [lad lit] is an area we'll be avidly pursuing."
Some chick-lit imprints have removed the "no boys allowed" signs from their clubhouse doors. Harlequin's Red Dress Ink imprint will go co-ed this May with Michael Weinreb's Girl Boy Etc. It's the first title by a male author to be published by the two-and-a-half-year-old imprint and, rather surprisingly given the weak sales of lad lit, its third hardcover.
Pocket's Downtown Press imprint is publishing three paperback originals with announced first printings of about 25,000 copies apiece: Mike Gayle's Dinner for Two (June), John Scott Shepard's The Dead Father's Guide to Sex and Marriage (July) and Simon Brooke's Upgrading (Aug.). Louise Burke, executive v-p and publisher, doesn't expect the titles to draw male readers. "These women are reading chick-lit books like popcorn, so you have to keep giving them an eclectic selection," she said.
But it's far from clear that focusing on female readers will spark sales of lad lit. There don't seem to be enough young male book buyers to allow the subgenre to survive without crossing gender lines. And so far, it hasn't consistently attracted enough female readers to become commercially viable. For women, the appeal of lad lit may be "spying on the other side, getting a look into the locker room," said Lynda Fitzgerald, events coordinator for the 10 Barbara's bookstores in Chicago. But she noted that Barbara's had yet to sell a single copy of Love Monkey or Scott Mebus's Booty Nomad (Miramax, Feb.).
That kind of performance has scared off other chick-lit imprints. Avon Trade is focusing on lateral expansion, with chick-lit titles featuring multicultural heroines, such as Kim Wong Keltner's The Dim Sum of All Things (Jan.) and Sonia Singh's Goddess for Hire (July), about a young Indian-American woman. Kensington's Strapless imprint is eschewing lad lit as well. "I just don't think there's a market for it," said editorial director John Scognamiglio. "I haven't seen anything published by anybody else that has found an audience."
Hope Springs Eternal
But for every chick-lit imprint that chooses to sit on the sidelines, there's another publisher with the conviction that, although hearts have been broken in the past, its next lad-lit book could be "the one." On April 6, Delacorte will publish approximately 30,000 copies of Jonathan Tropper's The Book of Joe, about a young man who moves back to the hometown that was the thinly veiled setting of his bestselling novel. Warner Bros. has optioned the book, and Amazon's Parsons mentioned it as a promising contender, although he cautioned, "I haven't seen any one lad-lit title spike."
In June, Morrow will publish a hardcover anthology of personal essays by men, The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom, edited by Daniel Jones. Morrow executive editor Henry Ferris said he expected the necessary female buyers to turn out for the 50,000-copy first printing, especially since the book can build on the successful performance of The Bitch in the House, the bestselling women's anthology edited by Jones's wife, Cathi Hanauer. Ferris echoed many lad-lit publishers when he said, "Women have been wondering what men have been thinking for years, and we've got it between two hard covers for you right here."
But booksellers aren't convinced that what's worked for the geese will work for the ganders. Ann Christophersen, co-owner of the bookstore Women & Children First in Chicago, ordered only two copies of The Bastard on the Couch, despite having sold 28 hardcovers and 33 paperbacks of The Bitch in the House. "The trend is definitely away from women buying books about men," she said. "Reading time is precious."