Hey, old people, do you remember the song “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News? Of course you do. Young people: find the video, you might like it.
I bring it up because after nearly a decade of hearing “I like it, but I don’t know what shelf it goes on” about my book Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I want a new shelf. One where parents aren’t nervous wondering what to do. One that makes us read like families used to do. Okay, enough with the song.
Here’s a revelation for some people: the age of the audience is not a genre. When I was pitching Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I spoke with famed science fiction agent Cherry Weiner. Off my pitch, she had requested a full manuscript, which she liked enough call me.
“This is not sci-fi,” she said.
Not sci-fi? It’s Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. How can that not be sci-fi?
She continued: “It’s not sci-fi, and you don’t want it to be. It’s YA.” She also said she didn’t represent YA, so she was passing on the manuscript. I was devastated for about 30 minutes. That’s when Emmanuelle Morgen called. She also liked it, but saw it more as middle grade. After a round of changes to age my narrator down, we went out with it. Some editors saw it as YA, others saw it as middle grade, depending on whether they identified with the narrator or the subject of her narration. They saw this as a problem. I disagreed.
Target marketing by age has been around long enough that most people think it’s the only way to sell books, but if you take a longer view of commercial art, you’ll see that excluding the majority of your potential audience is a new concept. And by “new,” I mean since the turn of the previous century.
Before radio, movies, television, and the internet split audiences into tiny chunks, there were basically two markets: children and adults. Even at the beginning of these technologies, artists had to create work that would satisfy whomever might receive the signal from the air. Going back even further, when books were expensive to print and buy, one book had to entertain the entire family.
Look at Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers. Look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Look at anything by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Twain. They all contain elements that today would get an author the dreaded “I don’t know what shelf it goes on” rejection. These elements include the following:
● Characters of various ages, or the entire lives of characters, not just kids
● Sex being left to what anyone might witness in public
● Age groups being targeted by beats within each story, not the entire work
I said that Kiya and the Morian Treasure is unapologetically Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. I worked on Xena and saw the numbers: they were equal across all ages. In some markets, the show aired on Saturday afternoons for kids. In others, you could catch it Saturday at midnight for the college crowd.
Publishing might think this is an outlier, but anyone like me, who has worked in film and television since Huey Lewis was big, can tell you it’s typical 8 p.m. programming. If you’d like a trip down memory lane, you can find loads of network TV schedules from the past. Scan them and you’ll also find titles that have become franchises, stories enjoyed by people of all ages—and they aired before 9 p.m.
But back to publishing. Everything old is new again, so let’s try something old as an experiment: a new shelf. Call it the family shelf. Here will be books with characters of various ages, in which sex will be limited to what one might see in public and age groups will be targeted by beats of each story, not the entire book.
What books will go on this shelf? Say there’s a YA book with great reviews, but it’s a little too middle grade and a little too sci-fi. Put it on the family shelf. It’ll find an audience. That YA book all your adult friends are reading, but don’t want to admit it? Put it on the family shelf, so they can tell their friends that’s where they found it. When a single parent comes through the door with a scowling teenager, point the parent toward the family shelf while the teenager mopes on their phone.
Barnes & Noble, Amazon metadata folks, independent bookstores: I’m serious about this. If you start a family shelf with books that already meet this criterion and it works, then the phrase, “I’m looking for something for the family shelf” will resonate through the industry, and crossover sales will become the norm, not the exception.
R.S. Mellette is an author living in San Clemente, Calif.