Ever since the Age of YA dawned with the release of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (Little, Brown, 2005) people have anticipated that, eventually, the wave would crest. Maybe it has finally happened.
Agents report sales are, if not exactly soft, then softer. The bestseller lists evidence no predominance of a certain kind of hit, no clear trend other publishers can grab onto and run with. Teens (and their parents) continue to buy books—no one is happier to see John Green return with a new novel than booksellers preparing for the gift-giving season—but editors and authors report the whole marketplace feels slightly preoccupied. “A couple of years ago we might have cited other forms of media as distracting from book-buying, but now I think we’re also seeing core teen readers becoming more politically aware and active,” says Pam Gruber, who edits YA at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “To be clear, I think that’s great, it just makes me wonder if teens see reading and buying books as a distraction when they—and all of us!—need to be so hypervigilant about the news.”
That is not to say that those working in YA view the outlook—short or long-term—as gloomy. Bright spots abound. Graphic novels, which were not a factor a decade ago, continue to stake their claim, carving out an ever-widening slice of the YA pie. And books by members of once-neglected social groups occupy multiple spots on the bestseller lists, and the debate over who gets to tell which story continues to roil on social media, where YA is discussed, dished, dissed, but most of all, prized. The teenagers who cut their teeth on Bella and Katniss are now adults reading Alexie and Anderson, Cabot and Collins, Yang and Zusak.
“The readers who were teens when Shiver and Looking for Alaska and The Hunger Games first hit are now in their twenties—and they’re still not just reading YA, but excited about YA,” says David Levithan, v-p and publisher at Scholastic. “Clearly, we’re doing something right.”
We asked editors, agents, and authors to reflect on what’s happening in YA right now, where the challenges are, and where the category seems robust. What they revealed is a segment of publishing that continues—a lot like the teens it serves—to push the envelope.
Jim McCarthy, an agent and vice-president at Dystel, Goderich Bourret, thinks the YA market may have reached saturation.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the number of major deals in the YA space is down.
There are the occasional blockbuster deals that everyone hears about—Tomi Adeyemi’s seven-figure deal for her debut, Children of Blood and Bone (Holt, Mar. 2018), blew up YA Twitter when it was announced—as well it should. It was an extraordinary deal for an outstanding novel. That evening I heard from agents who were beating themselves up for having missed out on it. But those kinds of deals are becoming rare, as publishers are more cautious with the money they’re laying out.
The simple fact of the matter is that YA sales don’t seem as strong as they were five years ago. Partly, the market is flooded—everyone saw money to be made and publishing did as publishing does, and everyone threw themselves at what already seemed to be working. The question now, though, is what’s going to work next? Because the market has become spread too thin. While there are still blockbusters to be found, from The Hate U Give (HC/Balzer + Bray, 2017) to This Is Where It Ends (Sourcebooks, 2016), the overall number of books selling in large quantities seems to be down. There are crossover hits, but there are fewer of them than there were a few years ago, especially in the series space.
The good news is that the market self-corrects. When houses overpublish, everything suffers, but then they pull back and the market renews itself. There are periods of waxing and waning. And while we’re in the midst of a relative lull, there’s every reason to believe that more cautious purchasing on behalf of publishers now will lead to a renewed vibrancy in overall sales a year or two down the line.
Pam Gruber, a senior editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, says the pattern now is there is no pattern.
There’s no one genre that’s winning right now. Ten years ago, you knew you could publish a paranormal romance and it would sell; now you look at the bestseller list and almost every genre is represented. Which is fantastic! But it’s also a challenge because there’s no longer such a thing as a sure thing. And sometimes you need those sure things in your back pocket to allow you to take bigger risks elsewhere. YA fantasy has been running strong for much longer than I think we anticipated. Every week there’s a new book coming out with a crown on the cover! I happen to love fantasy, so this is personally gratifying, and we saw that success with our own Frostblood series by Elly Blake and Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer. I’m also heartened by how many diverse voices are showing up on the bestseller list week after week, and how many auctions are being held for new projects representing diverse experiences. It’s exciting to see change in action and to be a part of it. There’s still work to be done, but I love that the YA industry is responding so energetically to this call for representation.
Zareen Jaffery, executive editor of Salaam Reads, a new Simon Schuster imprint focused on Muslim stories, says today’s YA needs to meet teens where they’re at.
In acquiring young adult fiction, I try to balance the need for depicting the world as it is and offering hopeful escapism. Teenagers today have access to an incredible amount of information. This perpetual stimulation can feel overwhelming—for adults as well as for teens. But for teens, this barrage of information is coming at a formative time of life, as they are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to become.
I find myself seeking out books for teens that address identity in a truthful way that doesn’t shy away from complexities. The debut teen novel for Salaam Reads is Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali (June), which beautifully conveys the protagonist’s need to understand the world and find a place in it.
Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact (Mar. 2018) is a love story between a boy and a girl who avoid social interactions, and for the majority of the novel are only able to interact via text message. Our next YA novel, The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (spring 2019), is set in 1969 during the race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and follows the journey of a teenage protagonist with severe OCD. Among the many things I love about all these books is their honesty about the difficulties in life, the way they authentically depict characters from backgrounds we don’t often see in pop culture, and their ability to transport readers into a world where they can feel seen, safe, and inspired.
David Levithan, YA author and v-p and publisher of Scholastic, has a name for YA’s latest phase.
I think it’s hard for any fiction to be keeping up with reality right now—but I think the books that connect are going to be ones that tap into what’s going on in our world, either directly or thematically. I’ve been heartened because nobody’s really been asking if YA is relevant anymore—if anything, we’ve doubled down on being relevant, and on trying to engage in the stories and voices we feel our world needs right now.
I would call what we’re in an “era of genuine voices” right now—by which I mean that readers are looking for compelling, original voices instead of rehashes of popular trends. If you look at the bestseller list, it’s full of authors who have something to say—whether it’s the realistic fiction of Angie Thomas or John Green, the speculative worlds of Maggie Stiefvater or Leigh Bardugo or Marie Lu, or authors who merge the realistic and the speculative, like Adam Silvera or Patrick Ness. In our school channels in particular, we are seeing that, when teens get to pick their own books, they are going for authors like Sarah Darer Littman and Donna Cooner, who talk honestly in their novels about the way things like social media and social anxiety shape teens’ lives.
Leila Sales, an editor at Viking Children’s Books and the author of six YA and middle grade novels, sees social media from both sides of the desk.
As an editor and author, I’m grateful that social media gives me new ways to promote my books and to connect with readers and colleagues all over the world. When I see teens in Turkey Instagram about how much my book meant to them, it just about blows my mind.
Of course, social media is also inarguably terrible. My most recent YA novel, Tonight the Streets Are Ours (FSG, 2015), was about this, specifically about how damaging it is when you believe the perfect online pictures that people paint of their lives. I wrote a whole book about this, so you’d think I’d know better now, but I still experience deep despair every time a Facebook friend gaily posts about how she’s run a marathon and then come home to make almond milk from scratch. My next YA novel, If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say (FSG, May 2018), deals with what happens to the victims of online public shaming campaigns.
Public shaming happens across all corners of the internet, and the YA community is no exception. We all know about the white authors who get dragged for writing ignorantly about race, the one-star Goodreads campaigns against authors who include stereotypes in their books, the calls on publishers to cancel books with plots that sound like they will be offensive. And it puts many of us in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with the goal while disagreeing with the methods.
When you don’t know someone beyond her avatar and 140-character bio, it’s so easy to criticize her, to tell her that she doesn’t deserve to be a writer, that you’ll never read her abhorrent books again and neither should anybody else. I see tweets and reviews like that every day, directed at many different authors.
Writing is hard under the best of circumstances, but it becomes almost paralyzing when you understand just how much power strangers can wield to punish you for writing the wrong thing. The more reachable social media makes everyone, the easier it is to drag anyone down.
Brooks Sherman, an agent with Janklow Nesbit, says the effort to diversify the published voices has only just begun.
One of the biggest challenges facing the YA publishing world—and frankly, publishing as a whole—is how to build on the steps we’ve recently taken to highlight marginalized voices and stories, in order to better reflect the diversity of the world around us. I should be up front, as I weigh in on this subject: I am a white, male, cisgender, heterosexual literary agent. It is crucial for me to acknowledge my own privileged identities, which, in turn, afford me a very privileged position in the industry.
The organization We Need Diverse Books, founded in 2014, cannot be credited enough for the work it’s done. I also give a lot of credit to #ownvoices, a fantastic social media movement started in 2015 by YA author Corinne Duyvis, to highlight stories involving marginalized identities that are written by authors who share those identities. Today, however, I often see terms such as “diversity” and “own voices” employed as marketing tools, which creates the potential for pigeonholing authors of marginalized backgrounds to tell only one kind of story or, worse, fetishizing their identities. From my perspective, we must continue to diversify the voices being published, and we must attend to the intersectionality of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and manifold other identities.
Since the emergence of WNDB and #ownvoices, there has been an ongoing debate over who has the “right” to tell stories dealing with marginalization. I do think authors should be able to write outside of their identities—but they should also be held accountable. In my opinion, authors who choose to write about characters or cultures outside their own need to work much harder: researching the material, actively seeking out sensitivity readers, taking feedback and revising accordingly, accepting that they will be questioned and critiqued. They must resist defensiveness. That last step is key: an author’s first priority should be to make sure they do no harm to readers, not to shield themselves from criticism. Oh, and no more “white savior” narratives, please—it’s time to show some fresh perspectives.
This is not to say the responsibility to portray diverse stories in a sensitive and nuanced manner lies with authors alone. We as an industry have claimed that diversity is not a trend, so it is on us—publishers and literary agents—to seek out, vet, and elevate stories that follow through on this pledge. Making efforts to diversify the kinds of people working in publishing—which starts with examining who has access to and can afford to take jobs in the industry—will help exponentially in working towards this goal.
Calista Brill, executive editor at First Second, says that, even though the YA graphic novel market has grown exponentially, there’s room for it to get bigger.
Starting from zero means you can grow a lot before you start to reach all possible readers. Consider: five years ago, graphic novels were just starting to become mainstream. First Second had American Born Chinese, Anya’s Ghost, and Friends with Boys—our YA program was just beginning. Now we have other hit teen graphic novels like In Real Life, Spill Zone, Spinning, and Pashmina, and a wealth of exciting projects in the pipeline.
The YA graphic novel market is a huge opportunity for bookstores, especially as we and other publishers ramp up our programs. We hear from bookstores and comics stores all over the country that they’re starting to echo the work done in YA library spaces and create their own sections for teen comics.
Five or 10 years ago, there wouldn’t have been a reason for bookstores to build a dedicated YA section because there weren’t enough [graphic novels] to put in it! But today, with the explosion of the market, that’s definitely changed, and a strongly curated and promoted YA graphic novel section is becoming possible—and vital!—in the teen space. Plus, middle grade graphic novels are a huge category right now, and those kids are rapidly growing into teens who are still hungry for high-quality graphic novels that speak to their experiences in the world.
Daniel Ehrenhaft, YA author and v-p and editorial director at Soho Teen, says the only constant in YA is the quality of the people working in it.
I find the trend towards promoting diversity and #ownvoices in YA these days simultaneously wonderful, inspiring, and frustrating. I couldn’t be more thrilled that Angie Thomas has owned the New York Times YA bestseller list this year. It’s a clear case of deserved commercial success for an exceptional work of teen literature. I want to believe that teens themselves, our putative readership, were the biggest contributors to that success—though as we editors know, data shows that teens do not account for the majority of consumers of YA novels in trade. On the other hand, that is totally cool. But it means that grownups who read YA, for pleasure or with their adolescent children or in any capacity, are the vital tastemakers.
My frustration is that extraordinary YA and MG novels featuring teens and preteens with diverse backgrounds—novels written by authors of diverse backgrounds—have been around for a very long time. Even recently. Take 2010: in my opinion, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia should have been where The Hate U Give is now—and that’s taking into account that both MG and YA were funneled into the same New York Times list. Of course, that’s also the beauty of the book business. It’s entirely subjective, bias and prejudice aside. Who cares what I think?
The challenge for me as an editor is the same as it’s been: to find unique voices and stories. I am not terribly concerned about screen competition. Maybe that’s foolhardy. But it’s obvious that there is a growing army of awesome teen book nerds. I love that they’re social media–savvy and that they use screens to proselytize about books. In short, I have never been more energized or excited by the infinite possibilities of teen literature, as evidenced by my TBR pile, which is… taller than I’d like to admit. Also, going on 25 years, I’ve found that 97% (give or take) of YA authors, editors, booksellers, librarians, sales reps, and readers are lovely human beings. It helps.
Jennifer March Soloway, an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, just closed her first deal and is actively, but cautiously, building her list.
As a new agent, navigating the YA market has been tricky. Fewer titles are being acquired as the market evens from the glut a few years ago. Book sales are down, and I think many of us are still reeling from the election. With so much uncertainty, it’s been hard to gauge what will appeal to readers. The teens I know are overscheduled and stressed out. Beyond homework and extracurricular activities, there’s social media, YouTube videos, online games, and bingeworthy TV all competing for what little downtime teens have left.
That said, I think competition has resulted in better quality books. Good writing is selling! Voice-driven realistic YA, fantasy, and graphic novels all continue to be popular, and we’re seeing a renewed interest in historical and science fiction. Better yet, books by writers previously underrepresented in mainstream publishing have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers. Diverse stories are profitable!
The YA community is also thriving. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook offer fantastic opportunities for editors, agents, and readers from all over the world to connect. I’ve been fortunate to find amazing talent through online events and contests like #DVPit, and I hope to find more in the future. Personally, I’d love to see more YA thrillers and horror. Editors tell me those categories aren’t selling, but I think we have yet to find the right project. Maybe the perfect thriller will land in my inbox tomorrow. Fingers crossed!
Regina Brooks, CEO of the Serendipity Literary Agency, says fantasy is a constant, and superheroes are in ascendancy.
I’m constantly trying to keep my finger on the pulse of YA, because even though I tell my authors not to write to trends, there are always certain styles or categories that are trending out or trending in. After I wrote Writing Great Books for Young Adults (Sourcebooks, 2014), many of the agents I knew with adult authors who hadn’t been in the YA market were suddenly saying, “I need to get my adult writers to write YA.” The number of people doing that skyrocketed, in part because editors were paying a lot for books. Now, publishers are continuing to pay decent amounts for YA books but the level of scrutiny on those kinds of projects has definitely risen. You will have projects that go for six figures and then you are scraping to get 20,000 for another.
What I’m excited about now is the new attention on African-American writers, publishers finding space for them, and understanding that there is an audience for them. One way I have for years tried to get new writers into the marketplace is this contest I do every November, called the Young Adult Novel Discovery Competition. Other people are doing similar things now but the original concept—an entry of 250 words, essentially the first page of a manuscript—still helps me see the tropes that seem to be coming up again and again.
Superheroes are big right now. Fantasy never goes away. Even when I tell writers publishers are looking for contemporary, they write fantasy, I think because it allows a lot of flexibility and creativity. Paranormal has become impossible to sell, not just because of publishers but because consumers have become very sophisticated in their evaluations.
Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director of Candlewick Press’s Walker Books U.S., sees a parallel between what she wanted to read as a teen in the tumultuous 1970s and what teen readers are demanding now.
For me, the most noticeable change in YA in the last 10 years is a movement back to realistic, topical novels, not unlike the ones I grew up with in the ’70s—books like John Neufeld’s Lisa Bright and Dark, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, and Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger. The 1970s were also a time of great social change, with teens often on the front lines—in the case of Vietnam, literally. The first young adult novels—it was a new category then, often just a single spinner rack at the library—confronted the concerns of the times as frankly as adult books but with a welcome recognition of how teens were affected.
I remember how anxious I was about authenticity when I read those books. They were communicating complicated, sometimes frightening new realities, and I wanted to know that they were based in truth. That the ideas for navigating the world they provided might actually work. Some of you may remember that Go Ask Alice purported to be the actual diary of the protagonist, and I remember how angry and tricked I felt when I realized it was a novel written by an adult. I think the important conversation we are having now about authenticity, though it is at times a painful one, stems in part from this desire for—and from—teens to have the most honest picture of this complicated world that they are in the process of inheriting.
Jane Lee, senior manager of content and community at HarperCollins’s Epic Reads, says that reaching teen readers means creating a comfortable space in which to meet them—online.
The world is rapidly changing, and it’s easy to get buried in the noise. That’s one of the biggest challenges in YA these days—how do we keep the attention of readers, ensure that books are up there with other forms of entertainment, and stay relevant? With Epic Reads, we have strived to build a community across social media platforms where book nerds want to hang out. That means creating content and engaging readers on their terms in a fun, visual, and organic way that also fits the social climate and what’s happening in the real world. Whether it’s a new digital platform that we should be investing in or a demand for different stories to be told, we need to be pushing our industry to adapt and to challenge itself so that it can continue to grow and therefore stay relevant to current and future generations of readers.