A decade into the boom in YA literature, agents’ in-boxes are as full of manuscripts-in-want-of-a-publisher as they ever have been. Josh Adams estimates Adams Literary gets 10,000 submissions a year, a slight majority of which are YA. Same with Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Agency: “I’m still getting an enormous volume of manuscripts, partly because it’s an amazing time to be writing YA.” But the ground beneath their feet is shifting a bit. Certain YA trends—paranormal love triangles, apocalyptic aftermaths—have become played out; what was once a fledgling segment of the market, kids 12 and up, has matured into a vital category.
Books we sold five or 10 years ago would have difficulty selling now because the market has become more sophisticated,” says Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management. “Everybody involved takes YA literature very seriously these days.” Agent Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. agrees: “I actually think manuscripts have gotten stronger,” she says.
As books for teens, and the adults who cross the aisle to read them, continue to be a bright spot in the market, the stakes have risen, as has the competition.
“There are so many more agents involved in YA these days,” says Crowe. “By the time you read something and realize you really like it, five other agents have read it, too. Everything is more competitive, but I think that’s a good thing in the terms of the quality of the books we’re selling.”
What will those books be like in the next few years to come? We asked agents to tell us how they see the market changing.
Can John Green Be Cloned?
“We flooded the market with as much paranormal as it could stand,” says agent Michael Bourret of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. “What everyone wants to be working on right now is contemporary realistic.” Credit, in part, John Green, whose latest, The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton), has nearly 2.5 million copies in print 19 months after its release. Green also played a part in launching 2013’s breakout YA debut: Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Griffin), which he wrote about in the New York Times Book Review, producing a blurb worthy of a tattoo: “[It] reminded me not just of what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” St. Martin’s has gone back to print 16 times for a total of 150,000 copies since Eleanor & Park’s March release.
Of course, contemporary realism has long been a mainstay for teen readers (The Outsiders, anyone?), but, says Rennert, “this is a moment when it can be really, really successful.” Agents say two elements are key: a strong voice and a good hook.
“It can be about anything—romance, mystery, thriller—as long as the voice is great,” says Crowe, who points to her client, Nina LaCour, as having the right kind of authorial command of her narration. LaCour will follow 2012’s The Disenchantments with Everything Leads to You, a Hollywood mystery, which Crowe recently sold to Dutton’s Julie Strauss-Gabel in a two-book deal.
But producing a distinctive voice, agents agree, is a lot harder than adding some fallen angels or risen zombies to an otherwise standard romance. “Pulling off that really authentic, quirky, individual voice is definitely hard to do,” says Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency. “When it’s done right, it reads as deeply sincere. It’s not something you can fake.”
The other critical ingredient is just as tricky: “Everybody is looking for stories with the hook that will allow them to break out of the pack,” says Rennert. Bourret agrees: “It’s always going to be easier to sell a high-concept idea because it’s easier for publishers to sell a high-concept story to readers. There’s a real challenge when you can’t describe a story in one sentence.”
According to Rennert, editors are also keen to find writers with the potential to be category killers, like her client Ellen Hopkins, whose novels in verse release straight onto the bestseller list. Hopkins’s hard-hitting subjects—drug addiction, prostitution, mental illness—are definitely part of the appeal. Like Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why (Razorbill), a novel about suicide that spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list following its 2007 release, Hopkins’s novels demonstrate the voracious appetite that exists among teens, and a crossover adult audience, for gut-wrenching fiction. “There’s an absolute hunger for books about deeply emotional topics, no matter how tough a subject it is,” Rennert says.
Bent agrees, but adds that because the YA audience is overwhelmingly female, there’s an equally insatiable market for engrossing romances, pointing to a recent sale by Alloy Entertainment to Little, Brown’s Poppy imprint for Lara Avery’s A Million Miles Away, about a 16-year-old who hides her twin sister’s death from the sister’s boyfriend, who is on military duty in Afghanistan, and winds up falling in love with him herself. It was pitched as “Nicholas Sparks for teens.”
“My sense is that this is where YA is going right now,” Bent says. “Intense, emotional, contemporary fiction.”
Bent is less certain that the recent frenzy over thrillers has real staying power, despite selling Lynn Weingarten’s Suicide Notes for Beautiful Girls, a book she pitched as Gone Girl meets 13 Reasons Why, to Simon Pulse for a 2015 release. “I’m not confident it’s more than a thriller boomlet,” Bent says.
Other agents are more enthusiastic. “Everyone is looking for a YA Gone Girl,” says Jaffa. (Even Gillian Flynn might be penning one—in November she signed a two-book deal with Random House that included an untitled YA novel for Delacorte.) Crowe sold Kim Savage’s After the Woods, a psychological thriller about two best friends and the aftermath of their kidnapping, to Janine O’Malley at FSG for a 2015 release. “I think there’s more room for books like it on my list,” Crowe says.
Bourret, who has also had thrillers in his sights, sold Underneath Everything, a debut by Marcy Beller Paul, to HarperCollins’s Balzer + Bray imprint for fall 2015 publication. He calls the story, about two girls entangled in an obsessive friendship, “juicy, dark, and sexy.”
“It’s a thriller,” he explained, “but I think it’s also the kind of book people are looking for when they say they want contemporary fiction. Contemporary doesn’t mean ‘quiet literary debut.’ Editors still want a high-concept story.”
Ding, Dong, Dystopia’s Dead
With the second installment of the Hunger Games franchise coming to theaters in November, this may change, but one of the toughest sells in YA these days is anything that has “even a whiff of dystopia about it,” says Adams. Jaffa agrees: “There are editors who you sense want to curl up and die when you mention it.”
That doesn’t mean people have stopped writing dystopian novels. Agents report they are still getting plenty of queries from writers inspired by Katniss Everdeen & Co. When the story is good, the challenge is to reframe it so it gets a fair hearing from war-, famine-, and apocalypse-weary editors. “There are ways a writer can revise a story that will downplay the elements that make it feel dystopian while focusing on the parts of the book that make it strong,” says Crowe. “I don’t immediately say no to a query if I think the story has potential. Although, if it’s about some kind of natural resource being gone? We’ve all seen too much of that.”
Vampires Need Not Apply
Similarly, after a long run, paranormal is on the wane. Stories about creatures of all kinds—“werewolves, shapeshifters, selkies, mermaids, or anything with a tail or wings,” is how Jaffa puts it—are simply not selling.
The irony, says Bourret, is that a lot of already published paranormal is still selling well. “But there are just too many books in the category, and because it’s overpublished, it’s a lot harder to have a hit.”
There’s always an exception, of course, for a book like Holly Black’s new The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (Little, Brown), a vampire story that “completely turns the genre on its head,” Jaffa says. “Literary horror? I think there’s still room for that.”
Agents are also reporting “sheer joy” in selling stand-alone novels, especially if it’s part of a two-book deal for a second, undefined book—maybe a companion, maybe another stand-alone. “Editors are definitely a bit tired of stories that come in threes,” says Rennert, who described pitching Maggie Stiefvater’s 2011 stand-alone The Scorpio Races (Scholastic Press) as “incredibly fun.”
Adams reports his agency is still completing a lot of three-book deals but often they’re for a “duology and a third book. There was a time when it was actually easier to sell a trilogy than a stand-alone but today it’s probably even odds. Publishers are being more cautious, wanting to see how the first book performs before committing.” Adams also senses the real fatigue may not be from publishers but from the retail market. “I think the backlash is more from book buyers than editors, but it’s still an important consideration.”
Jaffa says shying away from trilogies is also natural in a market that’s hungry for realistic fiction. “A lot of contemporary fiction doesn’t need a sequel. Rainbow Rowell’s book [Eleanor & Park] or Andrew Smith’s Winger [a sports story set at an elite boarding school; S&S]. These are beautifully written, complete stories. I would love to see more of that.”
Like a teenager who experiences a growth spurt that leaves him a little gangly, YA is still filling out its frame. Rennert is looking forward to seeing YA submissions with more visual elements or multimedia components. And several agents worry about how to lure more male readers into the YA fold, a problem, Rennert says, that results in an unfortunate Catch-22. “Without the readership, there’s a precipitous drop-off in material for older teen boys. “We need more super-smart guy books like Winger,” she says.
Maybe that’s the next big thing? Super-smart guy books?
“People get frustrated because there is no current trend,” says Bourret. “Everyone has to rely on their own personal taste and instincts as opposed to following whatever’s hot. But no one ever knows what the next big thing is going to be. We only know it when it happens.”
What Turns an Agent On
Agents are constantly deluged with submissions, so we asked them what they’d be thrilled to find in their in-box. Here’s a selection:
Josh Adams: “Something unforgettable and completely unexpected. I don’t want to see more of the same. I never know what I’ll fall in love with until I read it!”
Jenny Bent: “I love a good fairy-tale retelling but, at this point, it would need to be a really original retelling. I’d love something else along the same lines as Splintered [by A.G. Howard], which took Alice in Wonderland and made it really dark.”
Michael Bourret: “Something unique, surprising, challenging, original, and smart, but also accessible and unpretentious.”
Sara Crowe: “I’d love to find a contemporary YA with a big story like [Maria Semple’s] Where’d You Go, Bernadette. And a love story. I would also like something noir or gothic—a horror or mystery. And a crime novel as good as John Ford’s The Morgue and Me.”
Molly Jaffa: “I’d love a contemporary novel with a fresh concept and stellar writing that stays with me long after I’ve read it, like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and Andrew Smith’s Winger. In middle grade, I’d like to see something that makes me cry while still being a fun read (Wendy Mass’s Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is an all-time favorite).”
Laura Rennert: “I’m always excited about incredibly strong work in any category or genre, but right now I’d be most excited to find an incredible contemporary YA, something at the nexus of literary and commercial, character-driven, rich in figurative language, with a high-concept hook. Something where a lot is at stake for the main character. I’m a fantasy girl at heart, so I’m always open to that, but my favorite is where the fantasy is grounded and intelligent, more about character rather than world building, along the lines of Maggie [Stiefvater’s] work. And I’d love to see a YA with intriguing visual elements. Teens are so visually oriented. I feel like there’s an opportunity there, especially with multimedia. There are so many different ways you could execute the visuals.”