In a previous post, I mentioned the debate concerning Barnes and Noble’s new categorization of teen books. I only scratched the surface of the consequences of this categorization for writers and readers, and those consequences can be disheartening.
In her November 8th post on her excellent blog, www. kidlit.com, Mary Kole addressed the question asked by many of her subscribers (many established and fledgling YA writers) “Is Contemporary YA a Difficult Market?”. As an agent for the Andrea Brown Agency, Mary Kole knows her stuff, and for those toiling away at contemporary realistic YA fiction, the news was not overly optimistic.
She notes the trend we’ve all witnessed since the Harry Potter-powered resurgence of YA lit over a decade ago — that paranormal and fantasy continue to rule the shelves right now — though she sees dystopian fiction gaining a strong foothold as well recently. (When I attended the annual regional conference for the New England chapters of the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors, many echoed that after the success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, dystopian fiction was the Next Big Thing in publishing). Kole writes that she has “heard countless editors discuss how difficult it is to get a straight `contemporary/realistic’ story through their acquisitions committees”. But she feels that there’s hope for such narratives if there is a romantic element to them, as “romance is a huge hook” as romance just may be, after all, the “number one thing” teens of both genders are interested in. She concludes that any narrative that is going to pass muster with an agent, editor, or acquisitions board has got to have a “really strong hook” right now — a unique voice, a new twist, a compelling story.
But before we struggling YA writers raise arms against shortsighted editors, there’s another piece to this paranormal stranglehood on the market, and that’s the fact that so much of what is acquired and published by any publishing house is based on the dictates of a market controlled by a few megasellers (ie. Amazon and Barnes and Noble). As one successful YA writer told me, as long as a handful of people get to decide what sells and where, in these megachains that have taken over for independent booksellers, and those few sellers like paranormal or dystopian fiction or stories about striped talking dogs, then what’s going to be widely sold is paranormal or dystopian fiction or stories about striped talking dogs.
This doesn’t mean that you should shred your realistic, gritty contemporary teen novel and start writing about ghosts or wizards or vampires if that’s not your thing. One of Kole’s readers commented that they see a “renewed interest” in contemporary YA fiction among readers, an idea seconded by others, including a librarian who gauges these things. Hopefully, the buyers and marketers at the behemoth chains will notice this.
Until then, it is better for all of us to take the advice of the venerable YA writer Ellen Hopkins: “Write the story that speaks to you. Don’t worry about the market, because once you do that, you’re always behind.” So keep writing what you want to write because you really want to write. And with a little luck, talent, perseverance, and that holy grail of a hook, you’ll be on the shelves of a bookstore some time (or the warehouse shelves of Amazon, wherever they may be). Best of luck to all of you out there with contemporary teen novels burning to be told. I know plenty of us would like to read them.