"What's hot in teen fiction?" As a literary agent with a special interest in young adult and middle-grade novels, I'm asked this question by dozens of writers. It's tempting to offer the well-worn response—"edgy"—because recent young adult novels do treat controversial subjects, and they are edgy in tone. But then, young adult fiction has always challenged audiences and pushed against the mainstream. Think Forever; The Outsiders; Annie on My Mind. Isn't there something different about today's edgy YA?

To understand what's really hot in teen fiction, we need to look at how the genre's books are being created and presented to the public. To borrow a term from Hollywood, contemporary YA is "high-concept." Just as movie directors have drawn in audiences with catchy titles, quickly grasped premises or "hooks," slick writing and storylines linked to topics of popular fascination (Jurassic Park; Phone Booth; Snakes on a Plane), so in YA have writers refined the hooks and topics of their novels for maximum commercial effect. And what effect: high-concept YA novels like those in series like Gossip Girl, the Princess Diaries and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have all proved enormously successful, commercially.

But it wasn't always this way. Yesterday's bestselling YA novels were murkier, conceptually. Can anyone summarize in one sentence the hook of The Catcher in the Rye (which, incidentally, has one of the least catchy titles of any classic)? Did 1962's A Wrinkle in Time tap into pop culture fads of its day? Hardly. Yet these are great books that have sold in the millions to worldwide audiences.

What's changed? Perhaps one of the biggest forces driving today's high-concept trend—and it is a trend; every day I see more queries for it—is book packagers. Of course, packagers have been involved in teen fiction for years, and they've traditionally helped publishers by delivering labor-intensive and series books (packager Stratemeyer Syndicate was responsible for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, for instance, while 17th Street Productions packaged the Sweet Valley High series). But packagers are getting savvier—and more influential. The current industry leader, Alloy Entertainment, produces some 40 books a year, and counts among its successes the series Gossip Girl, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the A-List, and the Au Pairs; and its titles often command huge advances and get slated for film or TV development.

Typically a packager will develop an outline with a publisher, and then hire a writer to produce the finished product, which is then sold to the publisher. (Alternately, writers working in-house for the packager may do all the writing; in these and other cases the packager retains the copyright.) It's not surprising that Alloy, which began as a marketing and merchandising company, has so cleverly used the high-concept formula of Hollywood: catchy titles, irresistible hooks, references to pop culture (many Alloy books make frequent mention of cell phones, handbags, shoes, movies and beauty products). The formula has been so effective that single-title YA novels by solo authors are also borrowing high-concept elements; books like The Boyfriend Listand Goy Crazy have a similar emphasis on the quickly grasped hook.

So where does this leave aspiring writers of teen fiction? Commercial writers might choose to follow the high-concept trend and come up with a hot proposal to shop to agents and publishers. But there will be competition—not only from book packagers, but from the hundreds of other writers who've already caught on to the trend.

Maybe there's another way: write a work of highly individual imagination and flair. Build a world. Push the culture in a new way. Explore a taboo. Reinvent a classic. Experiment with the language. For the packagers do have a weakness: they're good at sniffing out what's hot now and producing that book, but they can't create the Harry Potters, the Book Thiefs, the Looking for Alaskas—works that are ahead of the pop culture or beyond the vagaries of time. For a writer—and for publishers, too—that's a pretty good place to be.

Author Information
Stephen Barbara is a literary agent and contracts manager at the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York.