Jacquelyn Mitchard is driving home after a library visit in Marinette, Wis., and she is thinking, as usual, about stories. But not her stories. These days, the author of The Deep End of the Ocean, the novel that launched Oprah’s Book Club in 1996 and has sold five million copies, is thinking deeply about other people’s stories.

Mitchard, now editor-in-chief of Merit Press, was hired two years ago to create a YA-only imprint for F+W Media without so much as a stack of unread submissions to start with. “When I asked, ‘Where are the books?’ they told me, ‘You have to acquire them!’ ”

As Mitchard recalls, “It had the feel of, ‘Let’s fix up the barn and put on a show!’ ” but at least she wasn’t alone. Over the past several years, more than a dozen others have conjured YA-only imprints from the ground up, trying to capitalize on a unique moment in publishing: the Teen Wave.

Consider the scene at the library Mitchard had just visited. It was a huge crowd, she reports, “of aspiring writers, teens, parents of teens, parents of parents. And when I asked them, ‘How many people here have read a YA book in the past year?’ it looked like every single person raised their hand. YA is where the big emotion is right now. YA is where the stories are right now. Readers go to where the stories are.”

“Extremely Challenging”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that a startup YA imprint is a license to print money. For this story, PW spoke with many at the helm of these fledgling publishers; most would second this statement from Georgia McBride, founder and publisher of Month9Books, whose YA-only list contains speculative fiction, fantasy, and romance in paperback and digital formats: “I would say if you’re expecting to get rich, it’s probably not for you. There’s a big learning curve and the business is changing so much right now that, to do this, you have to have a passion for it.”

Merit Press, like many of the more established YA imprints at major publishers, is casting a wide net in terms of the type of books it seeks to publish. Mitchard’s credo is, “Ordinary kids in extraordinary trouble, with some sort of twist to push things to the edge of the envelope.”

Other new imprints are aiming for specific slices of the reading pie (see our Smells Like Teen Imprint sidebar). Soho Teen and Poisoned Pencil want edgy mysteries. Blink, the new YA imprint from Christian publisher Zondervan, wants stories that “inspire and uplift” teen readers.

Young Europe Books seeks novels set in the former Soviet Bloc nations that will demonstrate to U.S. teens that the region “comprises more than just a bunch of stodgy old former Communists,” says publisher Paul Olchvary. “Quite to the contrary, the former East Bloc [is] a landscape abounding in youthful energy, emotions, and fantasy.” Olchvary initially planned a list of four to six titles per year. “Then realism set in,” he says, “and our decision [was] to select only the choicest submissions that were in line with our mission.”

Reality is a harsh master. One YA-only startup, Angry Robot’s Strange Chemistry, which hoped to fill a niche by publishing a line of SF and fantasy, folded in June citing “market saturation.”

“It is an extremely challenging environment,” says Andrew Karre, editorial director at Carolrhoda Lab, which is approaching its fifth anniversary, making it one of the granddaddies of the YA-only field. (Penguin’s Razorbill imprint, at a decade old, qualifies as the great-granddaddy.)

“The market is definitely saturated and certainly oversaturated in some areas,” says Daniel Ehrenhaft, editor of Soho Teen, an imprint founded in 2012 by the literary fiction and mystery publisher Soho Press. “But there are opportunities. Publishers are starting to realize that the readership is more sophisticated than they ever thought it was and that the range can be as broad as it is in adult books.” (Soho Teen’s first release? What We Saw at Night, a YA mystery written by... Jacquelyn Mitchard.)

Natashya Wilson, executive editor of Harlequin Teen, says all the competition is forcing each imprint to work harder to find its audience, and uncover the best way of delivering content to it. “There are a lot of highly competitive new imprints out there, but that’s because there’s more attention and focus on YA than ever before,” Wilson says. “What we’re doing is thinking about all the new ways there are to publish: cell phones, online, digital downloads. We’re considering every option we can think of to get our stories directly to where teens want to read them.”

Different Approaches

For Karre, starting an imprint meant first determining why he was starting an imprint. “You have to have something to say. An imprint has to have a personality that grows and refines itself,” Karre says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Carolrhoda Lab, a division of the Lerner Publishing Group, set out with a goal of publishing boundary-pushing books. “We chose the name ‘Lab’ intentionally,” Karre says. “We wanted an imprint that was a home for experimentation and one that satisfied our appetite for risk. It’s not in our DNA to chase trends.”

Last year, the Minneapolis-based imprint published Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex and Violence, a first novel that was lauded for its frank depiction of teen sexuality and was named a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. Next year, Karre will publish The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks, which won this year’s Carnegie Medal in the U.K., setting off a firestorm of criticism and leading one reviewer at the Guardian to lament that the novel “shoehorns every contentious issue”—heroin addiction, attempted rape, torture, murder, and enforced imprisonment—into a “vile and dangerous story.”

For its first five years, Lab focused on making its list known to libraries. “The next phase is about improving our position with independent bookstores, and that’s going to require an equivalent effort,” Karre says.

Capstone’s Switch imprint, founded earlier this year, is taking a different tack: compiling a list that has a something-for-everyone feel, according to Ashley Andersen Zantop, Capstone’s publisher: westerns, romance, historical and realistic fiction, science fiction, how-to, illustrated memoir, and graphic novels. Next year, Capstone plans to add nonfiction with Love & Profanity, a collection of short autobiographical stories from authors about their teenage years; and Yoga for Your Mind and Body, self-help for teens. They’ve also expanded a partnership with DC Comics and signed up a series about the early exploits of Superman’s girlfriend, titled Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond. “What’s unique about this is that we are bringing a classic popular culture icon to life as a strong modern teenager in YA fiction format,” Zantop says.

Switch plans to offer contests and advance reader giveaways on social media to build an audience, and use Wattpad to feature previews of forthcoming titles and provide opportunities for readers to connect directly with authors.

Sourcebooks Fire, the YA-only imprint of Sourcebooks, has also found value by teaming with Wattpad—acquiring novels that first appeared on the site, re-editing them with new chapters and bonus material, and providing general bookstore distribution. Wattpad, which attracts more than 16 million visitors per month, offers a fan-funding feature that can drive preorders of books, and gives readers a chance to offer their own input about jacket covers, character names, and more.

Mitchard says the books on her list are gaining traction with a focus group of teenagers, dubbed “Merit 66,” who receive prepublication books once every three months in exchange for posting their reactions on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. “It’s starting to gain momentum and it’s a way to get some grassroots attention for the books we’re most excited about,” she says.

At Bloomsbury, Cindy Loh, who took over as publishing director for both the Bloomsbury and Walker Books imprints in 2012, made a quick decision that the way forward lay in retrenchment. “Our list was dominated by YA, but a lot of it wasn’t performing,” she says. “We made a conscious decision to pull back on YA acquisition and focus on our biggest hits to create a smarter, stronger list.” Loh concentrated Bloomsbury’s resources on Sarah Maas, who is under contract for three more books, both in her Throne of Glass series and in a new series, which will begin in spring 2015 with A Court of Thorns and Roses. The publisher is also putting its weight behind Nick Lake, publishing director for HarperCollins U.K., who won the Printz Award for his debut novel, In Darkness, and has a new release coming out in January titled There Will Be Lies.

Late Adopters

For all the effort publishers are expending trying to reach teens on screens, the one digital experience teen readers still don’t seem to have wholeheartedly embraced is the e-book. Though the Association of American Publishers reported e-book sales in children’s/YA were up 53% (to $110 million) in the first five months of 2014, individual publishers report that for them, the YA portion of that is up only slightly. Soho Teen issues all its books simultaneously in print and digital formats (and occasionally runs promotions where print editions come with a code that allows a download), but, “the [YA] e-book market is not like it is for adults,” Ehrenhaft says. “It’s growing, but it’s a slow climb.” Same story at Carolrhoda Lab. “It’s not increasing as quickly as it once was but I wouldn’t want it to go away,” Karre says. “It’s a nontrivial piece of the pie in the monthly report.”

Publishers speculate that because teens already spend so much of their day reading and writing on screens, reading for pleasure may mean deliberately getting away from electronics. And though many teens are inseparable from their smartphones, they’re using the devices to text, check Snapchat, or post to Instagram, rather than to read books.

For teens, there’s also a collectible quality to today’s hardcover new releases. “It’s sort of a badge to be seen with the latest John Green, the equivalent to having the most latest popular album was back in the day,” Ehrenhaft says. In addition, hardcover books are the kinds of thing a parent is often willing to spring for, and, as he points out, “Bookstores are safe places for teens to meet. Parents approve of them and approve of teens spending their discretionary money on books, whereas a lot of parents might not want to encourage their kids to spend more time looking at a screen.”

Smaller publishers also aren’t benefiting from Amazon’s co-op-driven pricing, and though some have experimented with fluid pricing—Lab occasionally discounts the e-book price on an author’s previous books in the run-up to the release of the next one—that alone is not driving sales to the degree some hoped. “Something like an all-media bundle—e-book, hardcover, audio... that certainly would appeal to me, but that is not a place where a publisher of our size can lead,” Karre says.

Bloomsbury’s Loh thinks it might be confusing to consumers that “e-book pricing is all over the map.” Loh has a special interest in the topic, since she was instrumental in launching Bloomsbury Spark, an e-first imprint for YA, new adult, and crossover books. “E-readers are voracious readers, but [sales] are not increasing at the same rate they were before,” Loh says. “The interesting thing from my seat is that, though the YA piece is stable, middle grade is picking up.”

Wilson of Harlequin Teen also senses a shift. “All of my younger nieces and nephews have e-readers,” she says. “When these eight- to 12-year-olds who have grown up reading on Kindles become teens, that may be when we see a big bump.” Wilson says that right now, her hunch is that it’s mostly adult YA readers who are buying her list’s e-books. “Our experience has been that certain authors translate really well to e-books but that it’s mostly those who have an adult crossover readership,” she says. “Some authors—Jennifer L. Armentrout, Gena Showalter—have a huge adult readership and those readers read e-books.”

The Pricing Issue

Just five years ago, the teenage segment of the U.S. population was the largest it had been in human history. Now the teenage population has shrunk a bit while the YA segment of the book market keeps growing.

“All the statistics are showing that adults are reading YA fiction more than they ever have, perhaps because a lot of those adults grew up reading YA,” Ehrenhaft says. Or maybe adults just know a good deal when they see one: most YA hardcovers are still priced 30% to 40% lower than their adult equivalents.

Carolrhoda Lab’s Karre says he’s “not invested in who reads our books so long as they are read,” but the price has to go up in order for small publishers to stay solvent. “We’re done with $16.99, and I think the future is $18.99. It’s bonkers. It’s not like [YA] authors are taking any less care with their work.”

Consider Soho Teen’s lead title for spring: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin. Ehrenhaft hired a model, Giza Lagarce, to pose for the novel’s many photographic elements. The book received considerable national media attention (the Washington Post called it “an intricate, intoxicating novel”). Lagarce, who has 100,000 followers on Instagram, helped build buzz herself.

But a book laden with photographs is expensive to produce and Ehrenhaft admits the $17.99 retail price is artificially low. “The problem is when you want to appeal to teens, you have to keep the price within their range,” he says. “It’s tricky. We do parse the market to see where [other publishers] go up, and the price is rising on certain books, but going over $20 to me feels like this is not a YA book.”

Mitchard agrees. “The books are not worth less,” she says. “John Green could probably charge $44.99 for his next book and get it, but the more we charge, the fewer people’s hands we’re going to get these books into,” she says.

The pricing is complicated, especially for small publishers, by rising design standards in the YA market. Paper quality is higher, deckle-edge is the norm, foil or other (expensive) elements on the jackets enhances their worth as collectables.

Publishers would love to charge more, but nobody wants to be the first to price themselves out of a sale. “We’re keeping in line with what the market can sustain right now,” says Harlequin Teen’s Wilson.

As the YA market continues to mature, publishers are reevaluating many traditional practices. No one has a strict timetable for paperback releases anymore; Harlequin Teen, whose first lists were mostly paperbacks, has done an about-face. “We used to be 75% paperback and 25% hardcover and we’re the reverse of that now,” Wilson says. “That’s just the nature of the YA market right now. The expectation is new books in hardcover.”

The appetite for acquiring hits from the self-published market seems to have cooled, too. Mitchard, especially, is skeptical. “I’m trying to keep the guard at the gate,” she says. “I still believe there’s a good reason for the narrowing passages of traditional publishing. It results in a better product.” It’s one more publishing issue she’s had to develop an opinion on in her two years with a new job title, a period in which she learned that writing the books may not be the hardest part after all.

“It’s more satisfying than I ever though it would be, but it’s also a lot harder,” Mitchard says. “But no one would ever do anything if they actually knew going in how hard it was going to be.”

For a listing of the new YA imprints and their areas of focus, click here.

Correction: an earlier version of this story referred to author Nick Lake as a British journalist; he is publishing director of HarperCollins U.K.