Consider the delights that await YA fans at BookCon in New York next month: oodles of giveaways, a Hollywood movie premiere, and an “immersive experience” in the main lobby of the Javits Center’s Crystal Palace, where attendees can enter a photo booth to create animated photos based on book covers.
And that’s just the scheduled hoopla for Leigh Bardugo, who will be promoting a Wonder Woman tie-in, Warbringer (Random House, Aug.), and a short story collection, The Language of Thorns (Imprint, Sept.), set in the world of her bestselling Grisha trilogy.
Bardugo will, of course, be joined by scores of other authors spending the weekend with their fans in an atmosphere that highlights one significant direction in which publishers have taken YA to compete in a fragmented media landscape: call it fan engagement, or interactive fiction, but the emphasis is on connection.
“What we have started to do is think of these events as if we were throwing a party,” says Allison Verost, v-p of marketing and publicity at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “We encourage fans to dress up, we have a special giveaway you can only get if you come, and fans have let us know they want that experience.”
Increasingly, marketing YA books means meeting fans where they’re at—online—and in municipal buildings across America: New York, Seattle, or San Diego, Calif., for Comic Con; Charleston, S.C., for YallFest; or at Santa Monica High School in California for YallWest. Readers are turning out in droves for the chance to meet favorite authors while collecting tchotchkes, autographs, or memorable selfies with artful backdrops.
“It’s gotten exponentially more popular over the past few years,” says David Levithan, publisher and editorial director at Scholastic. “It used to be that there were only a couple of big conventions a year. Now there’s a different con every weekend.”
Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, known as C2E2, had its biggest single day ever this year, with 80,000 fans turning out. New York Comic Con shattered its record last year, bringing in a crowd that topped 180,000 over the four-day event.
“Movie, TV, and comic book character cosplay has made room for literary cosplay,” says Brett Cohen, president of Quirk Books, which appeared at its first Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2009 to promote Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and solidified its con cred with Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a photograph-heavy novel that is a cosplay fan favorite. “That type of personal expression from our fans is a really exciting thing for us to see as a publisher. Those fans literally wear their hearts on their sleeves.”
Other publishers have doubled down. Scholastic has been at comic book conventions for more than a decade with its Graphix line, as has Macmillan, promoting graphic novels from its First Second imprint. But both companies have added more conventions to their schedules and expanded their presence to include their YA offerings. “These events are important because it’s an opportunity to reach people who don’t necessarily identify as YA readers,” Verost says.
We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat
Perhaps inevitably, one result of all the time that authors and editors have spent meeting fans in person is a dramatic increase in the number of manuscripts with plots that feature fandom, cons, and cosplay. Chris Colfer’s Stranger Than Fanfiction (Little, Brown, Feb.) imagines a celebrity who has a meltdown at a fan convention and escapes by accepting an offer from admirers to go on a road trip. The title character in Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (Greenwillow, May) has a worldwide fandom but fears fame, so she publishes her webcomic under a pseudonym—until she is accidentally unmasked. The pivotal action in Sarvenaz Tash’s The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love (Simon & Schuster, 2016) actually takes place at New York Comic Con.
“The literature is beginning to reflect the culture,” says Levithan, who, like other publishers, has signed up his share of books with story lines straight outta con town. Next January, he’ll publish Cecil Castellucci’s Don’t Cosplay with My Heart (Scholastic), a romance about a teenager who connects with a potential soul mate at a cosplay competition. It’s the novel, Levithan says, that Castellucci was born to write. “Cecil is the original sci-fi fan geek,” he says. “She waited outside in a tent for weeks before [a] Star Wars movie came out. She has a Princess Amidala tattoo. She has geek credibility to spare.”
Levithan will also publish The Pros of Cons, cowritten by Michelle Schusterman, Lindsay Ribar, and Alison Cherry (Scholastic, Apr. 2018), about three girls attending different cons within the same convention center—one for drummers, one a fan fic affair, and the third, a conference on taxidermy. A mix-up at the hotel brings the three together. “I love this book so much because, if you go to a lot of cons, sometimes at the smaller ones, there is more than one event going on at the same time,” he says. “It’s a great metaphor for how teens are often thrown together with people who are not like them and how they make that work.”
Sourcebooks will take a look at the darker side of fandom with Follow Me Back (June), the debut from A.V. Geiger, a popular Wattpad contributor, in which “the fine line between fandom and obsession is crossed.” The company is also publishing Paper Hearts (July), second in Ali Novak’s series about a teenager who gets an inside look at fandom when she has an unexpected romance with a boy band heartthrob. Novak is also a Wattpad sensation who, like Geiger, has an established fan base of more than 250,000 followers.
At St. Martin’s Press, which can arguably claim to have kick-started the fandom novel trend with the 2013 publication of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, editor Sylvan Creekmore published Lily Anderson’s The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You (2016), about academic rivals at a cutthroat high school who bond over their love of comic books. Anderson, an elementary school librarian, follows up this year with a companion, Not Now, Not Ever (Wednesday, Nov.), featuring a different character from the same high school, a science fiction fan intent on winning a college scholarship by besting all the other nerds at a summer camp's academic decathlon.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say not only has this wave not crested, it’s not going to crest anytime soon,” Creekmore says. “I don’t think you’re seeing more books based in fandom because geeky is a trend; I think it’s because the fandoms they appeal to are growing.” She is particularly encouraged about seeing more story lines that feature characters from groups that feel “a hunger for representation.”
“Part of fandom and fan fiction and fan culture is taking something from a story that spoke to you and making it your own, and that’s incredibly potent in communities that feel underrepresented in popular culture,” Creekmore adds.
If You Write It, Fans Will Come
One undeniably appealing aspect of fandom-based books for publishers is, of course, the opportunity to capitalize on an already existing audience for the story.
At Simon & Schuster, editorial director Liesa Abrams was brainstorming with Simon Pulse editor Sarah McCabe about how to expand the Buffy the Vampire Slayer line in YA fiction, as the TV series marked its 20th anniversary this year. Early copies of a coffee-table-format guide for fans, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 20 Years of Slaying by Christopher Golden (Simon Pulse, Oct.), had longtime fans in the office clamoring for their own copy. But with the show having been available on Netflix for years, Abrams felt there was an entire generation who had only recently discovered the show. One of the show’s stars, Amber Benson, says she is recognized more often nowadays by teenagers than by people who might have been fans when the show originally aired. “Young people are still discovering the show and falling in love with it,” Abrams says.
McCabe suggested a new story line based on the show’s final episode, in which Willow awakens a new group of potential slayers. Abrams signed up author Kiersten White, who was wearing a Sunnyvale High T-shirt the first time the two met years ago at San Diego Comic-Con. The initial plan is for a two-book series, the first of which is titled simply The Slayer (Simon Pulse, fall 2018), but Abrams, a self-described fangirl who got married in a Batman-themed wedding held at a comics museum, thinks it will grow. “The world of the Buffyverse is so rich, I think there’s a lot left to mine.”
Quirk Books, which just published Geekerella, also developed the idea for the novel in-house. “Editor Blair Thornburg loved the idea of telling the Cinderella story from the perspective of somebody entrenched in fandom,” says publicity director Nicole De Jackmo. Thornburg drafted author Ashley Poston to write “a love letter to nerd culture.” The heroine is Elle, who has the requisite rotten stepmother and stepsisters, but who works for the Magic Pumpkin food truck, serving vegan treats. The fateful ball has been replaced by a cosplay contest. Quirk partnered with Icey Designs, which makes candles themed for books, to create a pumpkin-scented “Once Upon a Con” candle for book bloggers and Instagrammers. A book trailer that premiered on Hypable demonstrated a special Geekerella look created by Espionage Cosmetics, which offered fans a 20% off coupon to its store.
Creekmore at St. Martin’s expects to see more stories with plots driven by pop culture. “Part of it is that it makes sense to build on fan bases that are already established: here’s a book about a girl who loves Doctor Who for all the other people out there who love Doctor Who,” she says. “But part of it is an acknowledgment that teenagers today consume most of their media in something that isn’t in book form, so the characters they obsess over come from video games or TV or movies or comic books.” Books about those fandoms, she explains, “is a way of us saying, ‘We get it.’ ”
Booktubers and Other Evangelists
There’s this, too: books about fans are a natural sell to fans with a demonstrated interest in books. With the rise of book bloggers, booktubers, and bookstagrammers; fan-created websites; and all manner of book-related chatter on social media, not only is it a lot easier for a campaign to hit its target, but the target will often help a publisher spread the word.
“There has always been that impulse, after you read a book you love, to find people who have also read it to talk to about it,” says Tracy van Straaten, v-p of publicity and education/library marketing at Scholastic. “The internet delivered a platform for things that used to exist only among you and your buddies. It took the traditional word of mouth and cranked it up to 10. That’s unbelievably powerful.”
Surfing for hits on social media is now a part of every publicist’s day. Bess Braswell, senior marketing director at HarperCollins Children's Books, says that when her staff finds organic chatter about a book or series, they act to capitalize on it, as they did with Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, whose fans have now been dubbed “the Scarlet Guard” after the rebel organization in the series.
“We first noticed the fan activity on Tumblr, and we wanted to support them with additional opportunities to connect about the series,” Sun says. “By tracking what fans are sharing and which characters and aspects of the story inspire the most conversation, we are able to tailor our content to what interests fans the most.”
Similarly, Macmillan is revving up excitement for Marissa Meyer’s forthcoming superhero YA novel, Renegades (Feiwel and Friends, Nov.) with a “Join the Renegades” campaign, says publicity director Molly Brouillette Ellis. Fans will be invited to complete missions at conventions and festivals to win superhero-themed promotional items. There will also be online missions for fans who can’t make it to a show.
Meyer’s fan base is nurtured by the author, who, like Bardugo, has an active social media presence. Meyer saw fan art online based on her Lunar Chronicles series and suggested that the artist’s work be included in The Lunar Chronicles Coloring Book. It was. “We’ve found that rewarding the creativity of her fan base is the best way to encourage future engagement,” Ellis says.
Little, Brown has done something similar for Laini Taylor fans, displaying their artwork (based on Taylor’s novels) at tour stops and commissioning one of Taylor’s favorite fan artists to create official character artwork for Strange the Dreamer, which the publisher printed as decals to distribute at events.
At Bloomsbury, a fan named Charlie Bowater, who created artwork for Sarah J. Maas’s bestselling Court of Thorns and Roses series, now has fans herself. “We had a giveaway with proof of preorder for Court of Wings and Ruin for a poster featuring the map from the book, which Charlie colored and created a special border for,” says marketing director Erica Barmash. “People were really excited to get the map [in large part because] Charlie was involved.”
Perhaps the ultimate fan engagement exercise is also a Bloomsbury effort: the forthcoming Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy (July), edited by Ameriie, a Grammy Award–winning musician who has a popular YouTube channel as Booksbeautyameriie. The collection pairs prominent booktubers with established YA authors who each created a story based on a booktuber’s prompt. According to Barmash, author Nicola Yoon, for example, received a prompt to “gender flip the god of war, so she wrote a story about a female god of war.” Each story is followed by the booktuber’s reflection on the resulting stories. Promotion started with a cover reveal on Entertainment Weekly’s site, about which several of the booktubers created videos.
Barmash says the booktubers “were super excited to get to work with authors that they’d been fans of for years, and we’re really excited to have 26 partners in promoting this anthology, all of whom have their own fan bases and their own audiences.” She estimates that the booktubers involved in the project, which includes Christine Riccio and Jesse George, have a collective reach of more than a million subscribers worldwide. The collection recently became the “most-added” book on Goodreads for July 2017.
Little, Brown also hopes to capitalize on video fandom by publishing Ryan Higa’s How to Write Good (May). Higa is a 26-year-old Japanese-American booktuber with 19 million subscribers on YouTube and 3.1 billion views on his main channel, according to LBYR publicity director Jessica Shoffel. Each new video he produces gets an average of four million views in its first week, she says.
And if that’s not enough to create an audience for his forthcoming book, Shoffel also offers this: “Ryan will have a huge event at BookCon this year!”