Call it magic, call it a cosmic shift – whatever it was, something changed in children’s publishing a few years ago. Maybe it was a perfect storm of influences that included the expansion of social media and an audience of young (and some not-so-young) readers hungry for story-driven books. In any case, as S&S publisher Justin Chanda explained at a recent panel called “Pop Culture Publishing: Young Adult Megahits,” the concept of blockbuster children’s books is a new one that didn’t exist when he entered the field in the 1990s. Series like Harry Potter and Twilight, which he said have achieved “cultural phenomenon status,” have changed the industry – and in some respects, those integral to discovering, publishing, and marketing such blockbusters, are still reeling.
Joining Chanda, who moderated the discussion, were Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books; Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio; and Megan Tingley, senior v-p and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Sponsored by the Center for Publishing and marking the first-ever New York University Media Talk event to highlight YA literature, the event drew a sizeable audience of publishing students and industry professionals. Chanda opened the discussion by noting a milestone for one of the blockbusters he helped to shepherd: the film trailer for Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on Cassandra Clare’s urban fantasy series, premiered that day. He asked the group to reflect on their first impressions of the manuscripts that would become enormously popular “megahits.”
Tingley spoke about her first reading of Twilight. Stephenie Meyer’s novel resonated with her almost immediately, profoundly defying her expectations: “I’m not a horror or romance reader,” she said. While Tingley could easily envision “a fully finished book,” and anticipated that it would be very successful, she “couldn’t have imagined that the author would become a rock star.” After all, Meyer was a stay-at-home mom without major literary aspirations at the time she submitted the manuscript.
For Stimola, who represents Suzanne Collins, her discovery of The Hunger Games was less serendipitous: Collins was already one of her clients. Stimola admitted that, if any other author had approached her with an idea for a book in which a group of children in a dystopian society battle to the death, she “might have hesitated.” But having worked with Collins on her middle-grade series, The Underland Chronicles, Stimola already knew of the “wealth of info” that Collins typically brings to a project, along with her ability to create complex worlds and characters that function beyond dichotomies of black and white or good and evil. Among the earliest concerns that she and Collins discussed was how to keep Katniss sympathetic in spite of “the harshness and deprivation she has endured.” Stimola also revealed that The Hunger Games was sold to Scholastic based on a “four-page proposal” from Collins.
Despite their different origins, both Twilight and The Hunger Games had one thing in common: they quickly became in-house favorites, which helped to contribute to their pre-publication buzz.
Though Katz said she supports every book on her list, she agreed that being a particular hit among colleagues in-house certainly helps provide momentum. She also emphasized that social media promotions are hugely influential. Nevertheless, there’s always an element of uncertainty: sometimes you can have a great story, and do everything right in terms of an online marketing plan, but the book just doesn’t take off in the market. Though blockbusters are somewhat more common in the YA realm, Katz underscored that achieving megahit status is still pretty rare.
Circumstances did come together in a “perfect storm” for Twilight, Tingley chimed in. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was big with teen fans, Sex and the City was showing the potential for crossover appeal between adults and teens, and Stephenie Meyer developed a vital connection to her fans in social media and at readings. Harry Potter had also “created the notion of spoilers,” Tingley maintained, which contributed to the flurry of excitement surrounding the release of new installments in a particular series.
With the super-fandom surrounding the Twilight and Harry Potter books, authors, agents, and publishers have also had to manage the colossal expectations and very strong opinions of invested readers. Stimola described the “grand learning curve” inherent in ushering in a blockbuster, particularly when a property is headed for the screen: “You have to expand your thinking and your team,” she said, in order to achieve a “grand collaboration.” The education that she’s gleaned from fostering a megahit, Stimola feels she can now apply to new properties that deserve the same enthusiasm and support as “a Twilight or Divergent.”
Writer as Superstar
Naturally, an author’s life changes dramatically when a book catapults into success. Suzanne Collins has remained largely out of the spotlight by choice, though she has provided steady input for the Hunger Games films and worked directly with Gary Ross on the scripts, says Stimola. She has also remained carefully guarded of her writing process, and insisted that she complete Mockingjay before any film developments began so the book would not be colored by outside influences.
Adding to the new pressures that a megahit author might face, Tingley said, is the “level of passion, anger, and hostility” that comes from deeply devoted readers; she described it as “kind of freaky.” And while an author may enjoy financial freedom following a book’s success, there are plenty of new pressures that come hand-in-hand with fame. The great irony, Tingley added, is that writing can sometimes take a backseat to other obligations.
Katz pointed out what must be an inherent challenge for blockbuster authors, describing the process as “an incredibly private act” that is transformed into a “very public experience” once the book reaches a certain level of notoriety.
Though most books don’t start out being auctioned for screen, film, and TV, adaptations of YA books are becoming more of a mainstay, and the adaptation process is happening with increasing speed. Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series, marketed as “Desperate Housewives for teens,” was an Alloy Entertainment property established for TV before Shepard was selected to develop the concept into books. Harper obtained the rights from Alloy Entertainment and Shepard with the plan to “publish quickly, more than once a year,” said Katz. She emphasized that the “TV show was an integral, integrated part” and has proven to be an “incredible enhancement” for the books, which also stand on their own.
With the YA genre’s hugely invested fans and superstar authors, there has also been a shift in terms of how movie and television studios regard the source material. Chanda described his shock at the way in which studios appear to “understand the value of an author” these days. Tingley pointed out that a savvy movie executive will recognize that “if we alienate the fan-base, we have no movie.” Typically, fans feel so connected to the books, the characters, and storyline as it has been written, that they don’t want the films to deviate. In fact, Tingely said, there’s almost an expectation that an author must “bless” the casting choices and final product in order to satisfy fans.
According to Stimola, in these days of YA megahits, agents and publishers often find themselves serving as “gatekeepers” for an author and property, simultaneously fostering a book’s success while protecting it from being reduced to “a commodity.” Another challenge for the “keepers” of blockbuster books is maintaining a balanced focus on the other titles on their lists. Blockbuster books can change the level of expectation for new titles in terms of first printings, sales, and reader reception. However, big-selling books can also provide publishers with the necessary resources to invest in quieter properties that aren’t as likely to sell as strongly. Tingley is well aware that “series come to an end,” and that part of managing a blockbuster like Twilight means cultivating other books and other authors: “I can’t let the rest of my list go,” she said.
Katz noted in agreement how from a business perspective, “nice, steady, consistent growth” is always a benefit, as opposed to “volatile” sales. So, keeping those fires burning in the form of diverse properties – even while a megahit is being aggressively marketed – is essential.
It’s a heartening message for writers who aren’t overly influenced by genre zeitgeists. While the slush pile will continue to overflow with queries claiming a manuscript to be “better than Twilight,” the panelists continue to seek strong, original stories that don’t capitalize on a previous book’s success. Stimola said that if a book features a rebellious girl facing down a totalitarian government in a post-apocalyptic world, she’s likely to pass: “I’ve done that.” To do it again, the manuscript would have to be “really fresh” and resonate with her in the way that a book like Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again did. From a marketing perspective, Lai’s novel sounded like the kiss-of-death: it was historical and written in verse, not ingredients that typically scream “bestseller.” But Stimola was still thinking about the book two days after reading it and that’s how she knew she wanted to champion the project, which went on to win the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as a 2012 Newbery Honor.
Young Adult, ‘New Adult,’ and What’s in a Cover?
Questions from the audience yielded a discussion of the “New Adult” category, which the panelists defined as being books that likely contain more graphic content or mature themes than YA. Chanda greeted the concept with some skepticism, voicing the concern that “New Adult” might transform into “Not Teen,” and thus thinly veiled YA books might lose their core demographic. Also, he pointed out, authors like Ellen Hopkins have been writing “breathtakingly raw stuff” throughout their careers, and there has never been a need to re-categorize the material.
However, speaking of classifications, Tingley described how books that don’t have a clearly defined niche – in terms of age range, audience, or genre – can sometimes slip between the cracks. Also, not creating a “strong consensus between jacket and title” can lead to uncertain positioning.
Graphic cover images are a safer bet than photographic ones, in order to reach the broadest audience, the panelists agreed. And, Tingley added, that brings to mind one benefit of e-readers: using one is essentially like removing the cover of a book. “It’s why romance and porn are doing so well,” said Tingley, to the obvious amusement of the audience.
In conclusion, the speakers circled back to a core question about what goes into a YA megahit – the most essential ingredients undoubtedly being strong writing and a great story. Once you have that, savvy marketing, a strong social media presence, and an author who connects to his or her fan base are important aspects of achieving blockbuster success. But “publishing’s not chemistry,” said Stimola. There is always an element of uncertainty, which can be “frustrating at times and exhilarating at times.” Regardless of a book’s potential to sell 10,000 copies or one million, passion on the part of an agent or publisher is vital.
In the spirit of that sentiment, Chanda urged that his industry colleagues not scoff at 10,000 copies. You’re “blessed,” he said, to have megahits – so you can publish the book that is meant to sell 10000 copies. After all, that’s “10,000 readers whose lives have been touched.”