In the age of social media, YA fandom is as much about the celebration of books as it is about the online interactions between fellow readers and their favorite authors. From Twitter to Tumblr to Instagram and beyond, a number of publishers are finding new ways to connect with teens—and adults—who read YA.
Scholastic was the first children’s publisher to launch a web initiative dedicated to YA lit, This Is Teen, in 2011. The campaign began on Facebook before expanding into other online platforms. “We were the first teen community out there. We wanted to figure out how to best reach teens, and social media was really blowing up,” said Rachel Feld, senior marketing director at Scholastic. Feld heads a team of three marketing managers, working closely with Scholastic’s publicity and editorial departments on digital content and strategies.
Scholastic launched I Read YA Week, a Twitter series named after This Is Teen’s official tagline, “I read YA,” in May 2015. The social media celebration, which coincided with BookExpo America, featured a special red logo and hashtag. “The campaign was really successful; we got so many people in the industry to change their profile images for the week,” Feld said. In reviewing the success of the event, the team sought both to build on the buzz and to reach more readers, including adults. “This Is Teen was very teen-specific. We asked ourselves, ‘How do we make it more inclusive?’ ” Feld recalled. With that goal in mind, the I Read YA tagline became the title of the new brand, which now spans multiple platforms. The initiative encompasses Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and an e-newsletter, with more than 175,000 total followers.
I Read YA Week has since taken on more of a consumer focus. “We decided to move the campaign to July as a kickoff for summer reading,” said Feld. The third annual I Read YA Week, which took place July 10–17, featured the slogan “YA Stands For.” Across social media, a diverse group of 21 YA authors, including Daniel José Older, Maggie Stiefvater, and Bill Konigsberg shared videos inspired by the slogan. “The response was incredible. We saw more than a quarter million impressions and 5,000 total engagements,” Feld reported. She measures success in terms of these online interactions: “Are people responding, sharing, and liking? That’s the most important thing to us.”
Handles and Hashtags
Penguin was another early adopter of social media as an outlet for YA discussion and discovery, having established its Penguin Teen brand on Twitter and Facebook in 2011. According to Rachel Cone-Gorham, executive director of digital and social media marketing, Penguin Teen “organically expanded into other channels as the reader community grew.” After cultivating a following on Tumblr, the house launched a dedicated YA website in March 2016. The brand now boasts one million followers across social media channels and the Penguin Teen newsletter. Cone-Gorham described the site as “a place to engage with readers in light fun way, where we can all collectively fan over authors and books together.”
Penguin Teen features a steady stream of cover reveals, listicles, and articles. Content runs the gamut from articles on favorite book boyfriends to meatier thought-pieces, including ones tied to Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Cone-Gorham compared the site’s inner workings to a yearbook committee, bringing together the voices of Penguin staffers across all departments, along with posts from guest authors and social media influencers. One popular feature, Ask a Penguin, allows fans to get book recommendations from Penguin marketing and publicity employees via live chat. Unlike some of the other YA sites, which take a publisher agnostic approach, Penguin Teen spotlights Penguin titles exclusively. “We really focus on our authors and our books,” Cone-Gorham said.
Penguin Teen’s engagement with fans extends beyond the digital sphere to festivals and conventions. In 2017, the brand reached more than half a million readers at YALLFest, BookCon, and New York and San Diego Comic-Con. “At the end of the day, we want readers to love being part of the Penguin Teen community, on and offline, and to know that in being part of it they will have unprecedented access to our books and authors—because that’s really what this is all about, discovering your next favorite read,” Cone-Gorham said.
HarperCollins’s Epic Reads community was also created to serve as a hub for YA fans, initially on Facebook. After receiving a positive response, the team launched the Epic Reads website in May 2012. Colleen O’Connell, senior director of digital marketing, said that the site was envisioned as “a central location where YA readers could talk to one another and discover their next read.” Members of the children’s digital marketing group set the content strategy for the brand. O’Connell said that Epic has also proven a unifying thread across all divisions, “Epic Reads became a way for us to bring the voice of the YA community to different departments and it has helped the company make informed decisions when it comes to acquiring, designing covers, developing marketing and publicity strategy, and planning sales promotions,” she said.
O’Connell described the current enthusiasm, both in-house and within the Epic Reads community, for book four in Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series, Restore Me. “We are having so much fun planning the campaign and cannot wait to revisit this world with everyone,” she said. As with I Read YA, the emphasis is on cultivating close connections with fans. “Our focus has always been on engagement. We try to provide an always-on and personalized experience to readers across all channels, so they get excited, share our posts, and help us champion the books and authors that make the YA community possible in the first place,” O’Connell said.
Macmillan’s Fierce Reads community is likewise built on fan engagement. The brand originally took the form of a group YA author tour when it launched in 2012. According to Allison Verost, v-p of marketing and publicity at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, “The brand really resonated with YA fans as both a community of readers and a community of authors. We realized we had something special.” While the Fierce Reads site was initially designed as a source for tour details, it has since expanded its digital reach. Across all social media platforms, Verost said, “Fierce Reads is really about fandom and YA.”
Macmillan has another foot in the digital world of YA with Swoon Reads, its crowdsourced YA imprint. While the children’s marketing department oversees social media for both brands, the focus of each remains distinct. “Swoon social channels are focused on pulling back the curtain on the publishing process, whereas Fierce Reads is about celebrating the books,” Verost said. For Verost’s team, “Success is in watching our audience grow and knowing the brand recognition is there.” True to its origins, Fierce Reads has a presence at festivals and conventions, having recently announced the lineup of its fall YA author tour: Jennifer Mathieu, Anna-Marie Mclemore, Mitali Perkins, and Caleb Roehrig.
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers launched its NOVL community in 2013, with the goal of boosting discoverability for the publisher’s teen titles. Emilie Polster, executive director of marketing, said, “NOVL was founded on the idea of content marketing and customer engagement. Reading in and of itself is a very individual experience, but shopping is social—particularly for teens.” The emphasis is on inclusivity; as the official motto states, “all readers are welcome.”
NOVL’s “signature campaigns,” according to Polster, include NOVLbox, a monthly mystery prize pack curated by a guest author and unboxed live on social media, and NOVL Book Squad, the newly rebranded community for ARC requests. NOVL is also Little, Brown’s digital YA imprint for e-novellas and full length novels. Fans are involved in the publishing process by way of frequent cover votes.
Another hallmark of the NOVL brand, according to Polster, is the attention to design, as seen in artfully staged cover reveals and unboxing videos on Instagram. “Our brand identity is based on the visual. We’re living in an increasingly visual world, and teens are very much motivated by images.” She added that, in an age of digital multitasking, “we have a brief moment to capture someone’s attention. And images can stay with someone in a way that text can’t.”
New to the Party
This June, Random House unveiled its new YA community, Underlined. The brand, which is active on all major social media platforms, launched at BookCon in New York City. Kate Keating, director of digital marketing, said that Underlined had been a year in the making. “We worked with a consumer insights team, conducting focus groups and surveys. We also talked to high schoolers and middle schoolers.” One of the main takeaways from these studies was that teens don’t want to feel like targets in a publisher’s marketing campaign. As one 10th grader from Michigan said, “We hate being force fed.” The research appears to have paid off; just three months after launch, the site has reached 100,000 subscribers. To support the effort, Random House brought on Elizabeth Ward (previously of Epic Reads) as associate director of digital content strategy.
In contrast with other publishers’ sites, Underlined doesn’t position books as the primary focus. Featured content includes recipes, listicles, and quizzes, with books woven throughout. “You might see a module to click and read an excerpt or to add a book on Goodreads, almost like an afterthought. The number one goal of the site isn’t conversion,” said Keating. Articles are tailored to current trends, many of which emerged in focus groups. “We’re not looking at traditional teen sites from publishers,” said Keating. “We’re looking at someone like Teen Vogue, which is at the forefront of digital-only content that resonates with teens and the adult crossover [audience].”
Phase two of the Underlined launch will take place this November at YALLFest in Charleston, S.C., for which Underlined will serve as presenting sponsor. Keating described plans to announce a new writing community, featuring member profiles, Goodreads-style bookshelves, and an extensive influencer campaign. Random House’s First in Line initiative, which gives readers an early look at forthcoming titles, has been folded into the Underlined site as a sort of rewards program.
HMH Books for Young Readers is also new to the digital scene, having launched the HMH Teen site in 2016. Rachel Fershleiser, executive director of audience development and community engagement, has led the way in developing the HMH Teen Tumblr, which serves as the publisher’s homepage for all things YA. Fershleiser is no newcomer to the platform; prior to joining HMH, she was director of publisher outreach at Tumblr. HMH Teen’s goal, she said, is “to directly reach teens and YA readers where they’re already hanging out.” In particular, she hopes to reach teens who are familiar with HMH’s extensive backlist, but may not be as aware of its contemporary YA titles. The core message: “You’ve grown up with us. And now here we are for your coolest teen self.”
Launched in 2016, Simon & Schuster’s Riveted provides a forum for fans to get exclusive content and connect over teen books from a variety of publishers, not just S&S. Lauren Hoffman, v-p and director of marketing and publicity, described Riveted as a community that is distinct from Simon Teen and the house’s other social media platforms. “Riveted is not a corporate voice. It’s the voice of our true love of YA. It’s a community discussion of what we’re reading and what we’re excited about,” she said.
The site is overseen by an editorial board consisting of “YA lovers from across [S&S], and people outside the company: authors and avid YA readers, and former interns.” Hoffman gauges success in terms of community-building. “Our success is in our engagement: when we’re out seeing teens in the real world.” She also highlighted the site’s potential to introduce backlist titles to new generations. “Readers of YA are constantly regenerating; we’re constantly getting a new audience,” she said.
Though their strategies differ, publishers agreed that their YA-focused sites reach a mix of teen readers and older fans of YA, the 20- and 30-something crowd. “You have the opportunity to have these cross-generational conversations. It doesn’t matter if one person is a high school student and one is a high school teacher,” HMH’s Fershleiser said.
That spirit of inclusion extends between publishers as well. Feld at Scholastic described a playful online interaction that took place this past winter. “There was a snowstorm and lots of publishers were closed. Someone started a snowball fight on Twitter, tagging all the YA publishers,” she said. Soon, publishers across the country were joining in with banter and GIFs. For Feld, “What’s fun is seeing what we’re all doing. My favorite part is when we all play together.”