In 2010, St. Martin’s editor Sara Goodman grieved when she was outbid for an adult manuscript she adored. A year later, when she got the chance to read a new, contemporary YA novel by the same writer, she acted with deliberate speed.
"I pitched it before anybody in-house had read it, so I’m sure there were people who know my reputation for issues-driven YA who probably thought, ‘Okay, she loves it, but this will be another tough sell,’ ” Goodman says. Then the manuscript made the rounds and Goodman says the reaction from colleagues was, “Run, don’t walk, to get this manuscript under contract.”
The book was Eleanor & Park, a stand-alone, YA debut by Rainbow Rowell, a newspaper columnist from Omaha, Neb. Goodman secured it from agent Christopher Schelling of Selectric Artists. “There was definitely no bidding war,” Goodman recalls. “Contemporary YA was not really selling at the time.”
Goodman was ahead of the curve, to say the least. St. Martin’s has gone back to print 28 times for a total of nearly 500,000 copies since Eleanor & Park’s March 2013 release. Combine that with the astronomical success of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012)—more than seven million copies in print—and you have a one-two punch that has gotten the entire publishing world’s attention.
“Harry Potter threw open the door for fantasy and I think one could argue that John and Rainbow have done the same for contemporary fiction,” says literary agent Jill Grinberg, who has three realistic YA novels among the fall 2014 titles she represents. Like other agents—and editors—Grinberg reports a surge in the number of submissions she’s receiving that are contemporary stories.
“I’m sure there are editors all over town saying, ‘I’m comping this to Eleanor & Park, or to The Fault in Our Stars,’ ” says Joy Peskin, v-p and editorial director at Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, whose favorite genre is suddenly red-hot. “Right now, taking on a contemporary book is not seen as an indulgence,” says Peskin. “It’s not, ‘Oh, boy. Another one of Joy’s transgender verse novels.’ There’s a recognition that there are opportunities to break these books out.”
Especially if the books have crossover appeal, says Beverly Horowitz, who edited Delacorte’s big spring YA title, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, a title she believes will also appeal to large numbers of adults. “We’re all gamblers because trends come and go,” Horowitz says. “But a book like Liars that ignites honest emotions and gets at the complexities of human relationships is the kind of read that satisfies. The taste for that never really went away; it just became less fashionable during our decade of dystopia. So now we’re back.”
Contemporary, realistic YA fiction is, of course, as old as YA itself: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) is frequently cited as the book that kickstarted the category, and the pioneering work of Robert Cormier in the 1970s was contemporary, gritty, and firmly rooted in real-world settings.
Goodman at St. Martin’s traces her own devotion to the genre to Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes (1981), about a teenage girl coming to terms with her father’s sudden, violent death. “That book has always been the gold standard in my mind of what I’m looking for in terms of the quality of the writing and the characterization,” Goodman says. “[Blume] was really ahead of her time with heroines who were such strong girls.”
Like John Green, however, Blume quickly developed a fan base eager to read anything she wrote. One of the challenges of publishing stand-alone fiction from lesser-known writers has always been getting attention for books that aren’t part of a series or a trilogy, or don’t have grabby, high-concept plots.
“If it’s the beginning of a series or the first book in a trilogy, the house is going to make a bigger commitment, throw more resources at it, because we know we have to make the first book a hit,” says Margaret Raymo, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “We all wish we could do the same for the one-offs.” Raymo cites The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, a just-published novel in verse “that will make you cry for sure,” as a book she hopes will get some traction from the increased interest in contemporary stories.
Schelling, Rowell’s agent, notes that Eleanor & Park benefited greatly from the decision at St. Martin’s to hold the book for a publishing season and do more spadework before its release. “A lot of times when you hear from a publisher that they’re holding a book, it’s really not good news, but in this case it was,” Schelling says. “They embraced it so thoroughly that by the time Rainbow actually got to their office to meet everyone, everybody had read it, loved it, even wept over it.”
Macmillan is trying to meet the marketing challenge by grouping contemporary books under an umbrella campaign called ReaLITy: Real Books for Real Teens, the lead title of which is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a stand-alone novel about a teenager who is raped at a party, published 15 years ago with a first hardcover printing of just a few thousand copies. Two-and-a-half million copies later, it’s a backlist powerhouse that serves as an ongoing reminder about the potential size of the audience for books that address uncomfortable topics.
“Speak is one of those books that opened the gates not only for other so-called ‘serious’ books to be published, but which continues to gives us an opportunity to start a conversation with readers about the real issues teens face,” says Peskin.
Next spring, Jason Schmidt’s YA memoir, A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me, will be the first nonfiction title included in the ReaLITy campaign. A darkly humorous but searing account of his childhood, Schmidt’s memoir is reminiscent of Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, according to Grinberg, his agent. “It’s an inspired idea to group Jason’s book with novels that also tackle tough topics,” Grinberg says. “I’d like to think the rising interest in contemporary fiction will extend to interest in real-life stories, and we’ll see more memoirs out there for teens.”
Agent Kate Testerman of KT Literary says one thing writers can do is craft stories that invite readers to return for subsequent books, as both her own client, Stephanie Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss, Dutton), and the uber-popular Sarah Dessen have done. Dessen’s readers have come to expect that each new book will have a different story set somewhere in the cozy world of the Carolina beaches; Perkins elevates the minor characters from one book to a starring role in the next. “It’s very smart writing, because there is instantly a fabulous sense of familiarity in a new story,” Testerman says.
Of course, the master of marketing contemporary fiction is Green, who has millions following his Twitter feed, viewing the YouTube channel he produces with his brother, and reading his frequent updates on Tumblr. Editors and agents not only respect his writing, but are grateful for the media attention he has brought to the entire YA category. “Everybody benefits from his popularity,” Peskin says. “He’s brought countless readers into stores, and a rising tide lifts all ships.”
Unfortunately, no one has quite figured out how to replicate his success. “I have heard of a few authors say, ‘I want the John Green treatment,’ and my reaction is, ‘Well, then, maybe you should be John Green,’” Peskin says. “Being John Green is a full-time job. He’s like a rock star. Nobody’s going to be able to create that for you.”
Other than being Green, there is another surefire way to bring a standalone, contemporary book to the attention of the reading public: get Hollywood’s attention. The millions spent advertising films made from books is exponentially more than any title could ever hope to receive without a Hollywood deal. Two contemporary YAs should see a big sales boost when their adaptations arrive in theaters later this year: Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (June 6) and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay (Aug. 22). Publishers are eager to ride on their coattails.
“When the film of The Hunger Games came out, it created so many marketing opportunities for other dystopian fantasy because everybody wanted to have something to put in those ‘If you liked…’ displays,” says Natashya Wilson, executive editor at Harlequin Teen, where half the 2014 and 2015 lists are contemporary realism, a marked shift from the imprint’s recent emphasis on fantasy and paranormal. “Now with The Fault in Our Stars coming out, everybody is asking, ‘What do we have that we can put next to it on the shelf?’ It’s just natural to look to feed the appetite for that kind of story.” One forthcoming Harlequin Teen title, Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid (Aug.), has a plot that sounds like it could be right out of the John Green playbook, centering on a mysterious girl on an epic road trip and the lives she changes along the way.
Eleanor & Park has also been optioned for film, by DreamWorks, with shooting scheduled to begin in 2015. “If the film actually gets made, that’s huge for a book,” Schelling says. “Even if the movie is bad, it’s a new endorsement for the novel and there are always nice, big sales.”
Librarians say films are probably the most powerful drivers of circulation. Even books that have been out for years get a big boost when a film version is made. At the Darien (Conn.) Library, nine of the top 10 circulating YA novels have either already been made into a movie or are in development.
“Teens who didn’t read these books the first time around either want to read it before they see the movie, or in preparation for the next movie in the series,” says teen services librarian Erica Gauquier. Christine Carlson, a young adult librarian with the Central Rappahannock (Va.) Regional Library, said the titles in her “What to Read After Divergent” display are moving just as quickly as The Hunger Games read-alikes did but so, too, are the books she’s promoting to teens who liked The Fault in Our Stars. “Teens want to see all their books made into movies, and it’s huge for them and us when they are,” Carlson says. “It brings teens to the library who don’t normally read, and helps get them hooked.”
Of course, that almost missionary zeal about getting teens to read is akin to the passion editors feel about continuing to publish certain kinds of books even when they aren’t enjoying commercial success.
Peskin, who works with homeless and incarcerated kids in her free time, recalls being told by a New York City librarian about teen patrons who would ask for books about a character with a hard life where things turned out okay in the end.
“Those are the kinds of books I want to publish: books that give kids hope, books that literally could save somebody’s life,” says Peskin.
On the Horizon
The bottom line, says HMH’s Raymo, is “if you read a brilliant contemporary realistic novel, you’re going to buy it no matter what the trend is because they are so hard to find.” Raymo signed up an Australian title, Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts, which will be released here in fall 2014 but which pubbed Down Under at the same time as The Fault in Our Stars. “It’s a cancer novel so we’re going to get the, ‘Oh, another Fault in Our Stars knock-off,’ but [the author] had worked at a hospital and had been writing it for years.”
The frenzy to find a “YA Gone Girl,” Raymo believes, will likely deliver more contemporary thrillers in the coming year, including Ask the Dark by newcomer Henry Turner (HMH, 2015), which she calls “incredibly suspenseful.”
Goodman of St. Martin’s is excited about two fall 2014 releases: Sway, a debut novel by Kat Spears that puts a modern spin on the Cyrano de Bergerac story; and The Good Sister by Jamie Kain, a family drama. “Both of those have the caliber of writing that holds up to my Judy Blume standard,” Goodman says. Peskin has just signed up Tonight the Streets Are Ours, a YA novel by Leila Sales (This Song Will Save Your Life, 2013), about a suburban teen who becomes obsessed with a blogger in New York City.
All that said, the appetite for fantasy and paranormal is still healthy. Librarians report the audience for realistic fiction is building, but slowly. A majority of their teen readers still look “to be swept off into a faraway land,” says Carlson of the Rappahannock Library, “and just check out for a couple of hours.”
Or maybe the Next Big Thing will be a mash-up of fantasy and realism. Scott Westerfeld’s fall release, Afterworlds (Simon Pulse), fits that description. It’s two stories told in alternating chapters: a paranormal thriller about a teenage girl who survives a terrorist attack by so thoroughly pretending to have already been killed that she actually visits the world of the dead (where she meets a really hunky guy), and a contemporary story about the teen author of Afterworlds as she goes through the process of becoming a published YA writer.
“It’s both contemporary and speculative fiction together, and I like to think the buzz around Scott’s novel is reflective of the marketplace and readers’ continuing appetite for both,” says Grinberg, his agent. “It’s not that speculative fiction is disappearing, it’s that there is room for both kinds of stories.”
Not only that, but Afterworlds contains a minor character described as the Sultan of Social Media, a YA author with a million followers and “a dozen YouTube channels about his YouTube channel.” That sounds suspiciously like… John Green.