Eyeing the massive success of YA bestsellers like The Hunger Games and Twilight, many Christian publishers in recent years have positioned themselves to meet the fiction needs of readers in the 12–18 age bracket. For many, however, that market has proved an unexpectedly difficult nut to crack.
"It is a tough genre," says Katara Patton, acquisitions director for children and family at Tyndale. From roughly 2002 to 2007, Tyndale had a dedicated imprint just for teens called Thirsty. "We published several books in that line, but it wasn't sustaining itself. We needed to look at our whole fiction line and see what would hit with our audience, and focus on that," Patton explains.
Tyndale's not alone. FaithWords had two major YA series in 2008, but has now chosen to focus on expanding its adult fiction line, while Moody Publishers, whose five-book Payton Skky series by Stephanie Perry Moore sold nearly 200,000 copies a decade ago, is no longer acquiring YA fiction.
Even publishers who have been highly successful in Christian YA caution there be dragons here—and not just the fantasy fiction variety. "It's not a category to jump into casually with thoughts of making a quick dollar," says Allen Arnold, senior v-p and publisher for fiction at Thomas Nelson, which has sold more than a million copies of Ted Dekker's Circle series and published other reader favorites by Jon Lewis and Andrew Klavan. "It's an audience and a niche that requires skilled acquisition, a knowledge of the reader, and a long-term investment in terms of authors, staff, and marketing dollars."
A Challenge to Sell
Part of the problem is infrastructure, reports Julie Gwinn, manager of the fiction line for B&H, which made some inroads into YA several years ago, but has since scaled back. "We found that it's almost a completely different business model," she says. "The media that you pitch to is completely different. The consumer base is completely different. You have to go after the teens and the parents, which means you have to spread your marketing dollars really thin."
Moreover, in the retail market, a publisher's sales reps have to get to know a new set of buyers. "It was like starting over," Gwinn says, but she hasn't ruled out a second foray into the YA market. She says the press is "thinking about getting back in, but doing it in a strong way instead of dabbling in it. We would have a dedicated editor for children's and YA, and a dedicated marketer who could go after both the homeschool market as well as the parents and teens."
YA's ambiguous status in the children-adult continuum often seems to be a problem. Teens don't want to shop in a children's section at the bookstore, yet some booksellers have been slow to accommodate teens with their own section. Squeaky-clean content raises another issue. Some insiders think that Christian YA has actually been a victim of the success of adult Christian fiction. "I wonder if a contributing factor is that adult Christian fiction doesn't have content some feel is objectionable for teen readers," says Christina Boys, editor at FaithWords and Center Street.
Online and Digital Opportunities
But where serious challenges exist, there are also great opportunities. Shannon Marchese, senior editor for fiction at WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, expresses optimism for the future of YA sales—especially online. On August 1, WaterBrook Multnomah launched the Lamp Post (www.thelamppost.us), which features author blogs, exclusive downloads, and behind-the-scenes information. The site will primarily showcase the YA fantasy fiction that the house has been known for, especially with the robust sales of Donita Paul's DragonKeeper Chronicles series.
Everyone in the industry is looking toward the Next Big Thing, which appears to be e-books. Teens have not been as quick to get their own e-reader devices as adults, but teens are already reading digitally in some form. "Young adults may not be carrying e-readers, but they do carry smart phones and laptops," says Dave Hill, Kregel's executive director of sales and marketing. "The increased sophistication we look for in YA fiction isn't just in content, but in medium."
Even publishers who aren't actively acquiring new YA are excited by the repackaging possibilities for digital editions of backlist. At Moody, for example, the Payton Skky series will be repackaged as a set in September with a steep discount. "We believe that for voracious readers, they're going to want to have access to the entire series," says v-p and publisher Greg Thornton.
Zondervan is looking not only to have all its YA books available on digital devices, but also to upgrade the experience with a world of enhancements. "Now that the abilities within an enhanced e-book are approaching those of apps, it's a great time to finally do the things we've wanted to do for some time," says Annette Bourland, senior v-p and publisher for Zonderkidz. E-reader content might consist of video clips of the author and/or a "celebrity," instructional video, audio excerpts, music clips and music videos, and more.
Word of mouth is also increasingly the province of the digital world. Some publishers have experimented successfully with offering digital downloads of books for free for a limited time, to drive attention to the book. At David C. Cook, v-p of publishing Don Pape says Travis Thrasher's new novel, Gravestone (June), book two of the Solitary Tales series, was offered free for two weeks. The promotion resulted in approximately 25,000 downloads in just the first two days. "The response has been phenomenal," he says. Thrasher is also at work on "a separate downloadable backstory that won't be available in print" to support the Solitary Tales series. The publisher has not yet decided on pricing, but "it would be a nominal charge, like a 99-cent download."
The Super-Sizing of Author Platforms
Another reason that Gravestone and Travis Thrasher's other books have been commercially successful, says Pape, is that the author is "a shameless promoter at book clubs, signings, etc. Any publisher would love that." Increasingly, such aggressive author promotion is not just a bonus for publishers but a prerequisite for manuscript acquisition.
"I think that might be the thing that's changing the fastest," says WaterBrook Multnomah's Marchese. "Previously, if an author had a great story and was really dedicated to growing in the craft, and malleable, we would just buy the manuscript and go from there. We would work on personality and the author's comfort in front of a crowd sometime in the future." Those days are gone, for better or for worse; authors need to be in the driver's seat and have a built-in platform—especially online, where teens are found.
"It's extremely important that authors develop their own promotional opportunities," says Rebekah Guzman, editorial director and TH1NK line manager for NavPress, one of the few Christian publishers that still has its own dedicated teen imprint. "They need to be proactive online, in blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. Successful writers will establish a platform, build a list of fans, find speaking engagements, and take advantage of media opportunities." One such author is the prolific Melody Carlson, whose teen novels for NavPress and other publishers have dealt with grittier themes like teen pregnancy, cutting, and unwed mothers—all of which are issues that some readers want to discuss with her through social media.
As everything changes in YA publishing—and the pace of change in publishing itself accelerates—authors and publishers who can anticipate the trends will be the last ones standing in the industry's own version of The Hunger Games.
Editorial Roundtable: What Trends Do You See in Christian YA?
Annette Bourland, Zondervan: Dystopian is still going, but shifting into more unique directions. Writers aren't simply using the Hunger Games template, and are looking to dystopian worlds centered around steampunk, highly realistic scenarios, or using the dystopian genre to explore other political, social, or environmental issues. Paranormal romance is like the Energizer bunny. Witches and deep magic seem to be the new paranormal trend—fairies seem to be fading, and the mermaid trend hasn't caught on like the darker stuff. Zombies are still hanging on by their decaying fingers; there's a lot that could be done with them, but zombie romance isn't likely to catch on. No one wants to kiss a zombie unless you're already a zombie.
Allen Arnold, Thomas Nelson: I'm seeing a continued push into the surreal and the supernatural. In the general market, this includes a mashup of werewolves, fairies, vampires, undead, and demons. But the stories of the fantastic and supernatural actually make more sense within the context of Christian fiction. These stories involve angels, demons, and the unseen but eternal reality that surrounds us.
Rebekah Guzman, NavPress: Fantasy and romance novels are popular right now in the market. However, YA fiction can be hit-or-miss. One of TH1NK's goals has always been to stay relevant to what teens are facing. Teens don't want to be told what to do.
Shannon Marchese, WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group: Our acquisitions position right now is that we have a strong program in YA, but it's specifically stories of fantasy and adventure, primarily focused on middle grades (ages 8–12) with some that's for ages 12 and up.
Julie Gwinn, B&H: Dystopian fiction and roboapocalypse fiction, where tech turns on us and the machines start revolting.