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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

YALSA and Booksellers: Building a Bridge
Shannon Maughan -- 6/1/98
The library and bookselling communities work together to promote teen reading
Since the late 1960s, when it first emerged, the amorphous publishing category known as young adult literature has been discussed, debated and redefined by librarians, publishers, booksellers and readers. While experts agree that literature dealing with the adolescent and coming-of-age experience is a necessity, no one has been able to pin down exactly what that literature should be, or to what precise age range it should be targeted. More difficult still have been decisions regarding where to shelve young adult books in libraries and bookstores, and how to make these areas more attractive to teens. And, of course, the question inside publishing is how to make this niche both more popular and profitable. Such topics have become particularly timely given recent demographics indicating a steep rise in the number of teenagers in the United States.

While the issues surrounding YA literature are not new, an official, focused effort to help solve the problems is something that has recently become urgent for many professionals working in publishing, education and bookselling. Within the past year the library and bookselling communities have opened up a dialogue in support of young adult literature. The key component has been a task force on creating a liaison with the bookselling community, which was formed by the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) last year. The first meeting of the task force took place during the ALA annual conference in San Francisco in July 1997. A follow-up meeting was held at the ALA mid-winter conference last January in New Orleans. The fruit of these sessions is a recently released statement on how libraries and bookstores can collaborate to build a "power alliance for teen reading." PW spoke with several task force members about the process and the outcome.

The task force was organized by Patty Campbell, a former librarian, YA expert and columnist for the Horn Book. Her Horn Book piece "Rescuing Young Adult Literature" in the May/June 1997 issue addressed concerns about "the loss of the older adult reader and the potential demise of hardcover young adult literature" and helped get the task force ball rolling.

"I hung out in bookstores all day every day for a week," Campbell recalled of her research for the article. "I realized libraries and bookstores were in a vacuum in relationship to each other. But they have the same goods and they also each have strengths to share."

Campbell had many conversations about the subject with YALSA president Michael Cart, who had moderated a lively panel at the 1996 ALA annual conference about creating a market for older YA titles. "My idea was that we in the library knew too little about what was driving sales in the bookstore," Cart said. "I felt we could learn from them." According to Cart, Campbell volunteered to bring together representatives from libraries, bookselling and publishing.

"Both the chains and independents were more than eager to meet with librarians," Campbell noted. Task force participants include Marc Aronson, senior editor at Henry Holt; Marilee Fogelsong, New York Public Library YA Services coordinator; Jim Conlin, YA buyer for Borders; Steve Geck, director of children's and YA books for Barnes &Noble; Ken Weatherup of Children's Hour Bookstore in New Orleans; and Toni Negro, AASL liaison.

"There were some big surprises at the meetings," Campbell said. "The bookstore people did not know the depth of background knowledge of librarians. They weren't aware that librarians did book talks, which are very similar to handselling."

In addition, Aronson remarked on some preconceptions held by both sides. "Bookstores had never heard of basic review journals, or reading lists like the Best Books for Young Adults," he said. "Librarians didn't know that bookstores had outreach programs. Each side came to it with certain attitudes. Bookstores were pictured as greedy; librarians were thought of as stiff and schoolmarmish. At the meetings, we discovered more cross-fertilization potential than we expected."

As talks continued, librarians were further enlightened about the book-buying process of bookstores, especially at the chains. During the January meeting in New Orleans, Geck of Barnes &Noble explained that he must select books four to five months ahead of publication and often makes decisions based on an author's established track record, publishers' catalogue copy and current YA trends. At the San Francisco meeting, Conlin of Borders described how he selects YA titles by a number of criteria including the book's format (digest format is more often shelved in the intermediate section) and reviews in Publishers Weekly. Campbell noted that librarians were heartened by the news that bookstores "were committed to quality YA reading and not just paperback series" and that they purchased more titles in hardcover than originally thought. She also said that many librarians were surprised to learn that authors make bookstore appearances free of charge, but charge a fee to appear at libraries, where they do not have the opportunity to sell their books.

The Right Environment

Both sides felt that aesthetics are extremely important for attracting teen readers. "The environment in a bookstore is not monitored," Aronson said. "It d sn't feel like you're in school. Teens are free to roam." Jan Clifford, a regional community relations coordinator for Barnes &Noble, supported Aronson's assessment. Clifford had emphasized at the New Orleans meeting that B&N stores get lots of YA traffic; teens hang out in the cafe, read the magazines, lounge with books on the floor.

Libraries are also striving to create teen-friendly environments, as noted by Albert Johnson, a Los Angeles librarian, at the San Francisco meeting. He described the lounge-like Teenscape department at that city's Central Library, which includes a homework center with computers in addition to popular "high interest" YA reading material.

But despite these efforts, Aronson feels the older YA reader is still often lacking support. "Up until kids are age 14, adults feel comfortable buying books for them. Once the kid is fully teenage, you have to sell to the kid himself," he said. "Many children's-only stores cannot serve the older teenager; the nature of those YA books naturally clashes with the children's books in the store."

As a result of all this in-depth discussion, the task force has drafted a statement and tip sheet that can be viewed on the YALSA area of the ALA Website. Entitled "Libraries and Bookstores as a Power Alliance for Teen Reading," it contains numerous ideas and information on how bookstores and libraries can collaborate and share resources, including displaying each other's events calendars, co-sponsoring major events like Banned Book Week programs, and joining together to publicize national book awards.

So far, task force members have been very pleased. "It was very healthy," Cart said of the meeting process. "I'm particularly happy we actually got folks to the table." Aronson agreed. "The meetings were very, very fertile," he said. "We've broken down some barriers. [The tip sheet] is a good start toward getting people motivated to get involved. I hope that people out in the world will start to do what we did around the table."
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