The young adult market these days is a bit like a nephew you haven’t seen in years: transformed from a little darling into a hulking almost-grownup who is maybe even a little scary. Teen titles dominate publishers’ fall lists, and those books overwhelmingly feature menacing creatures, forbidden romances, and apocalyptic versions of this and future Earth. “Blood” is a common word in titles, as is “dark,” “death,” “deadly,” and even “darker still.”
Wait, that is an actual title. Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber (Sourcebooks, Nov.)
“I don’t think the readership is tired of these types of stories,” says Rosemary Stimola, the agent who represents Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games. “This is a population of young people who don’t remember a time when the country was not at war. It makes perfect sense that their literature would allow them a way to exercise their thoughts about the nature of good and evil, and that it might reflect violence and great loss.”
YA continues to shine in an industry clouded by uncertainty. A decade and a half after Harry Potter kick-started a fantasy boom, hardcover fiction remains the star category,
“There are no more taboos; YA covers every category,” says Alessandra Balzer, v-p and copublisher at HarperCollins imprint Balzer + Bray. “Retailers have caught on to the enormous potential. People are paying more attention. The teen market operates now a lot more like the adult book market, including that there’s a lot more money to be made.”
The YA Decade
If Rip van Winkle were a publisher’s sales rep who fell asleep in the kids’ section (of an independent) 15 years ago, would he recognize the (chain) store where he awoke in 2011? (“Where are the mass market paperbacks?” is one question he might immediately ask.)
While Rip was sleeping, Harry Potter made the acquisition of a hardcover book a status symbol among the playground set. And then Twilight aged the trend upward. Whereas it was once standard wisdom that no self-respecting teenager would spend $15 to $20 of her hard-earned babysitting cash (do teens still babysit?) on anything other than music, snagging the latest release from Maggie Stiefvater or Cassandra Clare on the day it comes out has become de rigueur.
“In spite of what is said about reading in our country, we have an audience that is constantly hungry for content,” says agent Barry Goldblatt.
In those pre-Harry days, one persistent worry was that the YA category was losing the upper half of that audience—15–19-year-olds—to Danielle Steel and Stephen King. Nowadays, the traffic is going the other way: adults are shopping in the YA aisle.
“Since bookstores moved the teen section away from the kids’ department, YA books lost the stigma that they were somehow inferior because they were written for teens,” says Jennifer Laughran, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, who is also a bookseller at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “People found out there are some really good stories in the YA section.” She’s sold adults on Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, Stiefvater’s Shiver trilogy, and most recently Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick, a title Laughran represented, which she describes as “The Passage [by Justin Cronin] for YA.”
Books with crossover appeal have been helped by elegant packaging. Goldblatt cites the cover for The Hunger Games as getting it just right: “gender neutral, age neutral, and sharp.” Paying careful attention to design, Balzer says, is important if a good part of your audience is going to be buying the book as a gift. “It’s become a hardcover market, fueled by that collectability issue, so it’s important to create a beautiful package,” she says.
A few concerns are voiced consistently: YA’s transcendence may have come at the expense of middle-grade, which most believe is undersold. Picture books have yet to rebound. And within the YA category, there’s an industrywide case of paranormal fatigue.
“I was at a writer’s conference a few weeks ago and got four different pitches for an angel series in one day,” says Curtis Brown agent Ginger Clark, who was in London last month to shop her agency’s list to British publishers. “Almost all the editors I saw said they are not buying new paranormal. There was some agreement that readers might not yet have paranormal fatigue, but a lot of editors do.”
“Everything in my in-box is paranormal, but the problem is, I’m not interested,” Laughran says. “It can’t be just two shiny guys and a girl anymore.” Instead, the books that are going to be successful, she believes, are the ones that do something different with the paranormal elements. She cites Maureen Johnson’s just-released The Name of the Star (Putnam) as an example. “There’s a paranormal element, yes, but it’s super funny on one page and super scary on the next.”
But just as you’re about to classify paranormal as “done,” a press release from Sourcebooks announces Embrace, “the first in a multibook, paranormal romance saga debuting March 2012.” Another, from Bloomsbury, announces Diabolical (winter 2013), a paranormal thriller trilogy with “a dash of the creepy and supernatural on the side,” set at a premier ballet academy. Goldblatt teases that he can’t yet release the details of a sale he made recently (“waiting on the press release,” he says), but it involved a vampire novel that should have been “absolutely unsellable” these days. “And yet it did.”
Dystopia: Still Growing
The “next big thing” has already arrived—dystopias. Fueled by the success of The Hunger Games, publishers have responded with many read-alikes, and the trend is expected to accelerate with the release next March of The Hunger Games film.
“The Hunger Games’ audience is clearly growing, not shrinking, and it’s reaching adults in a big way,” Goldblatt says.
Indeed, the paranormal fatigue people are feeling now may have less to do with the books that followed the success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series than with the second wave of paranormal fever, which followed the 2009 release of the Twilight movie. Many believe The Hunger Games movie will unleash a similar echo.
“Publishers are realizing that The Hunger Games is a pop-culture phenomenon in the same way Twilight and Harry Potter were,” Clark says. “I fully expect the release of the film is going to greatly influence the next two years of publishing as well.”
Agent Stimola, who sold Suzanne Collins’s juggernaut to Scholastic back in 2007, estimates she receives 10 dystopia pitches a day, but she’s not biting. “A lot of what I’m seeing is very derivative,” she says. “I have been to the dystopian mountaintop, and if the agent who sold The Hunger Games is going to advocate for another dystopia, it’s going to have to be completely special.”
Teens Live Online
Whatever comes next, marketers will be selling it to teens online. More than 300,000 people “like” The Hunger Games on Facebook, and though it’s not possible to parse how many of those are actual teens, many people think social media is the first form of marketing that actually suits a teen audience. “How many kids read newspaper reviews?” Goldblatt asks. “With social media, we can go right to where they live, and they live online.”
In May, Scholastic launched thisisteen, a dedicated Facebook page, for its young adult offerings, featuring author videos, blog entries, and contests. Creating a place online where all its YA authors have a presence allows Scholastic to “leverage the combined social media footprint” of all of them, says Stacy Lellos, Scholastic’s v-p of marketing. Meg Cabot fan, meet Libba Bray fan. Suzanne Collins fan, meet Markus Zusak fan. “It’s a massive number of eyeballs,” says Tracy van Straaten, Scholastic’s publicity v-p.
“And they’re not just ‘liking’ the page,” Lellos says. “They’re deeply engaged with it. They talk to each other and answer each other’s questions. You can watch the conversation shifting. It’s incredibly viral.”
A recent post revealing a blurb from Collins touting The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch—“an excellent, taut debut novel”—drew 200 comments in one hour.
A fall campaign targeting boys (Lellos estimates thisisteen’s readership at about 70% female) seeks to reach those teens who aren’t necessarily updating their Facebook statuses frequently. Stiefvater recorded an audio spot about her new release, The Scorpio Races, which will play on grooveshark.com, a free Internet music site.
“The thing about social media is it’s not just Facebook and Twitter. It’s also about the other places teens are online and figuring out how to capitalize on that,” Lellos says.
Looking for a Breakout
With the forecast calling for hardcover YA fiction to continue selling strong, everybody’s on the hunt for the next book with potential to crack the toughest nut: the New York Times chapter book bestseller list.
(“The New York Times has a children’s bestseller list?” Rip van W. asks.)
Many believe (hope?) it will come from outer space; Clark of Curtis Brown has high hopes for a “straight-up science fiction” series she’s shopping titled The Julian Path by Washington Post writer Monica Hesse. But she gushes, too, over Code Name Verite by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion, 2012), a historical novel about two girls working in Britain’s Royal Air Force during WWII. “Oh, it will make you weep,” she promises.
Historical fiction as the next big thing? Who knows?
“Who would have thought that the next big thing after Harry Potter would be Twilight?” Goldblatt asks. “Followed by... Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Followed by... The Hunger Games? All it takes is one book to start a new trend and no one will see it coming. That’s the fun of what we do.”