Teenagers. Suddenly, they're everywhere. In fact, young people aged 14-17 are currently a demographic group 15.6 million strong according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are also largely a group with plenty of pocket money to spend in today's strong economy. It's no surprise, then, that the whole country has taken notice of this youth culture force and that industries readily market to it. More than ever before, teens are the target audience for retailers, clothing companies and myriad television shows, films, pop music acts and magazines. Where do books for teenagers fit into the picture? PW recently spoke with several teen book experts to find out.
Children's book publishers have long been aware of the needs of teen readers, and created the young adult genre of literature especially for them more than 20 years ago. Certainly, many librarians and booksellers have been tireless supporters of YA books. But the job of capturing teens' attention has never been an easy one. A traditional reading drop-off in the teen years coupled with a general confusion about where best to shelve young adult books, and even what to call them, have been ongoing problems. As 2000 approaches, and adolescents face not only more demands on their time but more entertainment choices than ever, getting word to them about books has never been more important. Happily, the current willingness of the culture at large to embrace all things teen is providing a variety of new opportunities for publishers to promote their titles.
When it comes to reaching teens, two common-sense principles of marketing prevail: give them what they want and go to where they are. Typically, what teens want are books that speak to their experiences, books that talk to them in their language, not down to them. One of the biggest advantages publishers have in providing books to fill that demand is a track record. From The Outsiders in 1967 to Smack in 1998, publishers have consistently released books by talented authors who speak directly to a teen audience about sophisticated, though teen-appropriate, concerns. Because of the "dark" subject matter of some of these titles, some adults have questioned whether they are appropriate for teens to be reading.
Sharyn November, senior editor at Puffin and Viking Children's Books, offered this observation: "Gatekeepers often underestimate what teens can handle. They [teens] know a lot. They self-censor when they read -- they skip over what they don't understand and focus on what makes sense to them at that point in their lives."
Adolescence is typically a time of introspection and self-discovery -- a factor that has a bearing on teen book purchases. According to Kendra Smith, spokesperson for Borders Inc., self-help books for teens "are doing really well for us." In addition to the blockbuster Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and its spin-offs, including Teen Love: On Relationships,she cites such fall books as Daily Reflections for the Highly Effective Teen by Sean Covey and Don't Give It Away by Iyanla Vanzant among the strong titles that will be included in one of the chain's holiday promotions.
Teens, creatures of pop culture, are also eager to read about what's hot. Outstanding sales of celebrity biographies of actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and music groups like 'N Sync and a spate of media tie-ins bear out this trend. Keeping up with ever-changing teen tastes is a challenge publishers take seriously; having a keen eye counts for a lot. Editors and publicists routinely track other media -- movies, television, movies -- and hope to catch a trend (or a star) on the rise.
Getting the Right Look
The prevalence of striking images in an increasingly visual culture has prompted publishers to take new approaches to teen book formats and design. A number of booksellers have noted the latest wave of provocative or unusual jackets, like those for Violet & Claire by Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins/Cotler) and Tomorrowland: Ten Stories About the Future by Michael Cart (Scholastic) as being particularly attractive to teen shoppers.
Though most booksellers contend that rack-sized paperbacks remain the format of choice for teens, publishers continue to experiment with trim sizes and formats. In fall 1993, Harcourt began releasing select YA titles in distinctive-looking simultaneous hardcover/paperback rack-size editions. According to Harcourt publisher Louise Pelan, the program was discontinued in 1997 for economic reasons; the paperbacks cut into hardcover sales. Last month Delacorte launched a line of rack-size, unjacketed hardcovers by top authors like Caroline B. Cooney and Lurlene McDaniel. "We wanted to keep the books at an affordable price point, but we also wanted to give our readers more than a paperback," explained Andrew Smith, executive director of marketing for Random House Children's Publishing. It's too early to tell how booksellers and buyers will respond.
Last May, Avon Books launched a trade paperback imprint for teens called Tempest. A mix of reprints and originals, the line consists of books that "we expect to have a long life," according to Elise Howard, v-p, director of paperbacks for HarperCollins Children's Books, where Tempest is now an imprint. So far the line has gotten a "great response from booksellers," Howard said, "though it's a little early to tell from consumers."
Pocket Books has also just launched a primarily rack-size teen imprint called Pulse. Publisher Nancy Pines explained the genesis of the line: "We could see that this new generation of teen publishing was going to be more sophisticated than what we were doing in the Archway imprint. We needed to say to consumers, 'This is not for 12-year-olds.' We didn't want people who knew what to expect from the Archway imprint to be fooled." At present, Pocket/Pulse consists of Francine Pascal's new Fearless series, tie-ins to TV programs Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek and Charmed, and reissued titles in the Roswell High book series, which has been adapted for television. As for the teen books in other Pocket imprints, Pines said, "We're trying to be fiscally responsible, but we have taken steps to jazz up the books, play with type sizes and design. Anything that gives the books more energy than a typical novel. It's an extra expense, but it's worth it."
Marc Aronson, a senior editor at Henry Holt who has extensive experience publishing YA books, most recently in Holt's Edge imprint, sees more changes ahead. "We're at the beginning of experimenting with format," he said. One of his current projects is a graphic novel called Pedro & Me by Judd Winick, due out next fall. In it, Winick, a former cast member on MTV's Real World, chronicles his friendship with Pedro Zamora, a fellow cast member who has since died of AIDS. "It was a revelation to be editing this very different-looking book just like any other book I've worked on," Aronson remarked. "The borderline between print and image is not holding firm."
Aronson noted a few trends on the rise. "I think that we'll see more books that overlap into performance and other media," he said, citing Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff and the multi-voiced works of Paul Fleischman as examples. "There will also be more awareness of the older reader -- the older teenager and into college age. People have been talking about this for awhile, and the Printz Award [see sidebar] will certainly focus more attention on it," he added.
Teens Talk Back
New Heights for Teen Magazines
One of the most attractive placements for teen books of late is in a hot new teen magazine. Publishers as well as chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and online bookseller Amazon.com, have advertised in Teen People, the runaway success story of the past year with a guaranteed circulation of 1.3 million, up from its January '98 launch of 500,000 copies.
Teen books are regularly featured in the magazine's "Now!" pop culture section. Slowly but surely, teen books are also being featured in, among others, Jump, Twist, CosmoGirl and the just-launched Entertainmenteen, an entertainment magazine from Primedia aimed at girls 14-17.For slightly older (ex-Sassy)readers, Jane offers a review page with an attitude. Seventeen, the grande dame of teen magazines, contains the most extensive coverage of teen books thus far. In October, magazine space devoted to teen books included several different reviews of Violet & Claire and notices about Teen Read Week, October 1-23.
The far-reaching influence of these magazines has sparked some innovative partnerships with publishers. Scholastic collaborates with Teen for the Real Teen book series, launched last month. Based on actual teen diaries, a total of six titles will be released, approximately one per month. --S.M.
Another obvious but less conventional way to determine what teens want to read is to talk to them. November of Puffin has made a point of working directly with teen readers; for the past three years she has been visiting students at a school in Westchester County, N.Y., to discuss teen books and issues. She sends them books to read and takes their feedback seriously, often using their opinions to fine tune jacket art or make other changes. "They are smart, funny and honest," she said of a core group of students she knows well. "It's a treat to get a window into what's going on in their heads."
November also corresponds with teens via e-mail, polling them about their reading preferences, and she has created a Web site (www.sharyn.org) that contains links to sites of teen interest. But November eschews the term "focus group" when describing her outreach methods. "I don't consider this a focus group. It's not cold-blooded. Many of these kids have become friends of mine and their parents appreciate that they have someone to talk to.
And I'm definitely not buying their opinions. If these kids hate a book, they say so."
A more traditional kind of focus group of teens is also becoming more prevalent in the book world. In August, Borders began to coordinate its own teen focus groups. "We can find out about their interests, what they like," Borders spokesperson Kendra Smith said. Though the idea is still very new, she suggested that the groups "could help us choose what books to feature in the store, which teen titles have the best potential."
Avon offers teen readers a chance to participate in a "Forecasts Club," which is advertised in the back of some Avon titles. "They are supplied with books and in exchange we ask them for comment," Howard said. Holt's Aronson pointed out that teen reading groups are a growing phenomenon in libraries, and provide important feedback. "It's one of the ways we can get a sense of their reading world," he said. Because they are reading books already published, Aronson said, "we're not treating teen reading groups as focus groups. It's more about opening a dialogue with readers who have traditionally been pretty inaccessible to publishers. Teens are suddenly very present and we are finding new ways to connect with them. It gives us the sense that we're in touch with someone out there, and not just claiming to connect to something."
Location, Location, Location
While it's evident that a broad array of teen books is available, without a peer recommendation or guidance from a trusted adult, many teenagers never discover the books written for them. "The biggest obstacle to teens is not knowing what to read," said Tracy van Straaten, associate director of publicity at Simon & Schuster Children's Books. "There are excellent books out there, but kids don't know what they are or where to find them." As a result, many teens completely miss this body of coming-of-age literature and move directly to adult titles.
The best location for teen books within the bookstore is still a point of contention. If teen books are too close to the children's section, teens won't even attempt to browse through them; if they're too deep in the adult section, they become buried. And few teens consider themselves "young adults." Obviously, the confusion won't be cleared up anytime soon.
A number of children's publishers believe that the key to drawing teens to bookstore shelves is to create a type of teen boutique within the store. "What would work is a discrete section that's everything teen -- books, music, magazines," said Aronson. "Ideally, they should combine selling with a cool setting, which some record stores have done successfully. But real estate is at such a premium, it's a risk." Suzanne Murphy, marketing director for S&S Children's Books, concurred: "Booksellers always talk about moving the YA section, but someone has to make a break and test the idea of placing the teen books closer to the magazines or to the cafÃ©."
Though Borders has not changed its YA fixtures, according to Kendra Smith, the chain has begun a quarterly promotion of teen books, music and video in the front-of-store area, a plan that is scheduled to go monthly next year. Endcap merchandise displays of teen-oriented items, backed by a poster reading "Look What's in Teen People," is another recent phenomenon.
Two independent stores in Albuquerque are among the first to get rid of the "young adult" terminology and give teen books prominent store placement. Recently, Bound to Be Read placed its teen books in a section called Avid Readers, located near the adult history and fiction sections. And at Page One Books, teens can now find appropriate titles (and some teen magazines, too) in the Teen Readers section, which has been placed in a high-traffic area of the store. Dan Dekker, a manager at Page One, has noticed that the change seems to be working. "There are definitely more people browsing in the section now because it's easier to find," he said.
While bricks-and-mortar stores struggle with shelving issues, online booksellers are leading the way to the future. Both Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com have separate teen areas on their sites. "We separated young adult from the children's area in 1998," said Branjien Davis, editor, teens at Amazon.com. "Earlier this year we changed the name from young adult to teens, in response to customer comments and a general trend in the industry. We wanted to make the area hipper. We're getting a lot better response now," she said. According to Davis, the top titles, in terms of sales and teen comments, include The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a Gurl by Esther Drill et al.
Jamie Brenner, teen editor at barnesandnoble.com, describes a similar situation. "When we launched in 1997, we called the section Children and Young Adult. As the site evolved, we realized that teens deserved their own area. Featuring a book such as Dancing on the Edge by Han Nolan next to a children's picture book was confusing for our customers." The teen section launched in May 1998.
Traditional stores are searching for the types of events that will draw teen readers. Children's bookstore Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis recently held a Battle of the Garage Bands contest, to tie in with Graeme Base's The Worst Band in the World. The prize was four hours in a recording studio. Co-owner Collette Morgan said that such events gain exposure for the store, especially among kids who've never been there before.
Writing workshops and "Chick Lit" book talks at a local high school are among the other bookstore-sponsored events that Morgan said have appealed to teens. A Friday "game night" has been a teen pleaser at Bound to Be Read. "The kids really enjoy having something active to do in the store," said marketing and specialty projects director Mina Yamashita. "We get lots of teens playing chess, checkers and go."
Getting the Word Out
Teen book publishers face enormous challenges when it comes to promoting their titles. Trade and library journals routinely review teen books, but these books rarely receive coverage in newspapers or magazines. "Adult book reviewers won't touch these books," lamented van Straaten of S&S. "Many adults have the misconception that teen books are too babyish. People aren't embarrassed to watch Felicity or Dawson's Creek, yet they wouldn't dream of reading a teen book." Van Straaten believes that film reviewers are a good model. "There's no adult-children's split," she said. "Roger Ebert reviews American Pie as well as the latest Harrison Ford movie."
Teen book publicity is also hampered by limited advertising budgets. It is cost-prohibitive to tout teen books on TV and radio, and consumer print ads are placed selectively. This reality has forced book publicists to be more creative about reaching their audience. "We try to reach teens where they spend most of their time -- at the movies, in record stores," said Smith of Random House. To that end, Random and other teen publishers have placed free promopostcards in the Max Rack spinners found in movie theaters and restaurants.
Pocket has printed 150,000 brochures touting its teen books, many of which will be used as a giveaway during a shopping-mall tour sponsored by Seventeen magazine and Atlantic Records. S&S has also had great success with its mall book giveaways, something that Murphy says the company would like to do more often.
On the music front, Random House has become a leader in teen-oriented book/music cross-promotions. Several years ago, before the Backstreet Boys hit it big, readers of Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High series received a promotional cassette sampler by the group.
YALSA Raises a Flag for Teens
YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the ALA, continues its mission of reaching teen readers with two very visible developments. First is the establishment of national Teen Read Week (Oct. 17-23). When YALSA inaugurated Teen Read Week last fall, the overwhelmingly positive response from teens, librarians, publishers and booksellers insured that it would be an annual event. "Everyone wanted to be a part of it," said YALSA president Jana Fine. "Suddenly we were saying, 'Why didn't we think of this before?' " The profile has been raised considerably this year, with well-publicized events planned all over the country and figure-skating champion Michelle Kwan serving as national chair.
Publishers have been happy to embrace this promotional opportunity. Harcourt, for example, created a Teen Read Week kit containing a guide for teen book discussion groups, bookmarks and bios of Harcourt authors.
YALSA has so championed teen books that it is sponsoring a new award for them. At the ALA midwinter conference in San Antonio next January, the winner of the first Michael L. Printz Award will be announced. The prize will be presented to the author of the best young adult (ages 12-18) book of the year.
"The Printz Prize will really help announce the quality of these books," said Marc Aronson, senior editor at Henry Holt, who was part of the nine-member task force that created the award. Chaired by former YALSA president Michael Cart and including such teen book experts as Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman,librarian Ed Sullivanand S&S executive editor David Gale, the task force worked with YALSA and ALA to put the award on the fast track. Along with determining the operating procedures, the task force voted unanimously to name the award in honor of the late Michael L. Printz, a much-respected high school librarian in Kansas.
Hoping that the new prize will quickly assume the prestige of the Newbery Medal, Aronson commented, "It will be interesting to see the sales effect it will have."
That early effort paid off for Random. For last year's 'N Sync: The Official Book, Random teamed with Jive Records to promote the book on an insert in the band's holiday CD. Sales of the title have topped 750,000 copies. Now, according to Andrew Smith, "record companies come to us. RCA called months ago about us doing something with [chart-topping teen singer] Christina Aguilera. They knew we were reaching teen girls through our books and selected us to help them get the word out on their new artist."
November Sweet Valley titles will be driving readers to the Sweet Valley Web site (www.sweetvalley.com), where they can order a free Christina Aguilera sampler. Smith pointed out that the situation is mutually beneficial. "Being able to do something special, like give them a sneak peak at the next big thing, keeps our readers loyal." Jive Records and Random have teamed up for a cross-promotion involving the soundtrack to the just-released teen flick Drive Me Crazy, based on a novel by Todd Strasser, and the Delacorte release of Rob Thomas's screenplay for the movie.
Random and Pocket have tapped into teens' TV viewing as well, offering sweepstakes involving the soap Passions and hit show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, respectively. Random has also placed a teaser spot on the video rental version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was inspired by the Lois Duncan book.
Another place publishers are likely to find teen readers is on the Internet. With more teens than ever online, Web site marketing has become a fairly inexpensive way to target teens. Browsers will find teen books featured on such sites as Teenreads.com, Alloy.com, Gurl.com and Gettingit.com. Pocket Books has recently teamed with Alloy.com to create a content-rich Fearless area that promotes and extends the Francine Pascal series, offering biographical tidbits about the books' lead character, Gaia, and a tour of New York City through her eyes, among other things. Sometimes, publishers can also tag along with other larger media campaigns to gain book exposure. S&S, which publishes the tie-in edition of the novel Drive Me Crazy, received a small plug on Fox.com's Drive Me Crazy page. Publishers also design features for their company Web sites and according to Smith at Random, a Teensatrandom.com site will launch later this year.
Publishers are still developing more traditional promotions as well. This month Tempest calls on teen writers to strut their stuff by participating in a writing contest. Details can be found in the October Tempest reprint The China Garden by Liz Berry. According to Howard of HarperCollins, Tempest will publish 20 of the best entries as an August 2000 paperback original.
The teen explosion has created new opportunities for retailers and publishers to work together. Target, the discount store chain, is implementing a teen book section within its stores and approached Random House Children's Publishing about providing a promotional magazine for it. The first one, which contains write-ups on Random House Books among other content, hits stores this month.
Hip California footwear retailer Skechers USA has taken a new approach to mail order with its Skechers by Mail "magalog." In addition to offering a catalogue of sh s, the company provides magazine-style articles on travel and reviews of CDs, TV shows and books, including Doing Time by Rob Thomas (S&S), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (MTV Books) and Ophelia Speaks by Sara Shandler (Harper Perennial). "Our belief is that content adds to the readability of the [magalog] and increases the pass-along factor," said Jennifer Clay, editorial director of the publication. The fall magalog shipped to 1.3 million people in August; October's issue will go out to 2.1 million, with the pass-along factor bumping the issue's circulation to approximately five million.
Teens may soon be able to buy their books via mail order as well, as there has been enthusiastic discussion in the industry about the possible launch, in the near future, of a teen division of the Book-of-the-Month-Club.
With the country's awareness of teens at an all-time high, there's never been a better time to reach a larger teen readership. And it's clear that publishers are willing to spend the time, money and effort to achieve that goal. Their success could signal important changes for a new generation of readers. Howard typifies the current state of industry-wide enthusiasm when she says, "The more that everybody else is doing, the better it is for all of us."