Eyeing the massive success of YA bestsellers like The Hunger Games and Twilight, many Christian publishers in recent years have positioned themselves to meet the fiction needs of readers in the 12–18 age bracket. For many, however, that market has proved an unexpectedly difficult nut to crack.
"It is a tough genre," says Katara Patton, acquisitions director for children and family at Tyndale. From roughly 2002 to 2007, Tyndale had a dedicated imprint just for teens called Thirsty. "We published several books in that line, but it wasn't sustaining itself. We needed to look at our whole fiction line and see what would hit with our audience, and focus on that," Patton explains.
Tyndale's not alone. FaithWords had two major YA series in 2008, but has now chosen to focus on expanding its adult fiction line, while Moody Publishers, whose five-book Payton Skky series by Stephanie Perry Moore sold nearly 200,000 copies a decade ago, is no longer acquiring YA fiction.
Even publishers who have been highly successful in Christian YA caution there be dragons here—and not just the fantasy fiction variety. "It's not a category to jump into casually with thoughts of making a quick dollar," says Allen Arnold, senior v-p and publisher for fiction at Thomas Nelson, which has sold more than a million copies of Ted Dekker's Circle series and published other reader favorites by Jon Lewis and Andrew Klavan. "It's an audience and a niche that requires skilled acquisition, a knowledge of the reader, and a long-term investment in terms of authors, staff, and marketing dollars."
A Challenge to Sell
Part of the problem is infrastructure, reports Julie Gwinn, manager of the fiction line for B&H, which made some inroads into YA several years ago, but has since scaled back. "We found that it's almost a completely different business model," she says. "The media that you pitch to is completely different. The consumer base is completely different. You have to go after the teens and the parents, which means you have to spread your marketing dollars really thin."
Moreover, in the retail market, a publisher's sales reps have to get to know a new set of buyers. "It was like starting over," Gwinn says, but she hasn't ruled out a second foray into the YA market. She says the press is "thinking about getting back in, but doing it in a strong way instead of dabbling in it. We would have a dedicated editor for children's and YA, and a dedicated marketer who could go after both the homeschool market as well as the parents and teens."
YA's ambiguous status in the children-adult continuum often seems to be a problem. Teens don't want to shop in a children's section at the bookstore, yet some booksellers have been slow to accommodate teens with their own section. Squeaky-clean content raises another issue. Some insiders think that Christian YA has actually been a victim of the success of adult Christian fiction. "I wonder if a contributing factor is that adult Christian fiction doesn't have content some feel is objectionable for teen readers," says Christina Boys, editor at FaithWords and Center Street.
Online and Digital Opportunities
But where serious challenges exist, there are also great opportunities. Shannon Marchese, senior editor for fiction at WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, expresses optimism for the future of YA sales—especially online. On August 1, WaterBrook Multnomah launched the Lamp Post (www.thelamppost.us), which features author blogs, exclusive downloads, and behind-the-scenes information. The site will primarily showcase the YA fantasy fiction that the house has been known for, especially with the robust sales of Donita Paul's DragonKeeper Chronicles series.
Everyone in the industry is looking toward the Next Big Thing, which appears to be e-books. Teens have not been as quick to get their own e-reader devices as adults, but teens are already reading digitally in some form. "Young adults may not be carrying e-readers, but they do carry smart phones and laptops," says Dave Hill, Kregel's executive director of sales and marketing. "The increased sophistication we look for in YA fiction isn't just in content, but in medium."
Even publishers who aren't actively acquiring new YA are excited by the repackaging possibilities for digital editions of backlist. At Moody, for example, the Payton Skky series will be repackaged as a set in September with a steep discount. "We believe that for voracious readers, they're going to want to have access to the entire series," says v-p and publisher Greg Thornton.