Thursday, June 16, 2011

The YA Juggernaut

I have to admit, I've begun to find it frustrating how open the industry seems to be to new YA authors while seeming so reluctant to take a chance on new authors writing in other genres.

Yes, I know that the industry is pretty much fueled by what readers are buying, and over the past decade Harry Potter and Twilight have had such success among all ages of readers that it's made YA look like a frontier full of endless promise. Adult fiction is still selling, but I know of more first-time sales going to YA and to a smaller extent MG authors than to other new novelists. And I see more agents specializing in YA/MG to the exclusion or near-exclusion of adult fiction.

In some ways, this is an awesome development. When I was a kid, there was no marketing category for YA. Ender's Game was considered an adult novel. "Juvenile fiction" was the industry term for the catch-all category that ranged from picture books to Judy Blume. Probably a useful label for people working in the industry, but not for shoppers. And can you see an adult reader buying a juvenile novel for herself to read? There was definitely some societal judgment attached to that label. So I am glad for writers and readers that YA exists and has become "a thing," as Stefon would say.

On the other hand, it's become such a thing that it can feel to a writer trying to get her first novels published that if she's not writing YA, she's doing it wrong. I have noticed that people with a YA novel to sell appear to have an easier time and a shorter road to publication than I've experienced. Logically, I know this is probably just a misguided perception. But it is hard to ignore the sheer numbers of writers working in YA on forums such as Absolute Write. And it is hard to ignore the fact that most weeks there are lots of sales announcements for YA and MG contracts in Publisher's Lunch, but not as many adult novels selling.

I felt for quite a while that my only hope of getting published was to write a YA novel. I thought it might be the only chance I had. So I tried to write one. I developed a few characters and a situation and a setting, and I was ready to go with it. But when I tried to actually write the book, nothing would come. I just had no emotional connection to the idea. I had no desire to write that story. It didn't do anything for me. I actually felt quite a measure of despair over this. I worried that if I couldn't write a YA novel, I might as well kiss my chances of ever publishing any novel good-bye. YA was all that was selling. It was my only hope. I kept kicking myself for not being able to get into it.

But the truth is, I don't feel any particular draw to YA in general. I do read the occasional fantastic YA novel and have a great time doing so, but I don't seek it out. I always end up reading these books because friends recommend them so strongly. I don't keep an eye on what's coming out next in the genre. It's just not my thing. (Which is weird, because I loved my teen years and would do it all over again if I could...but truly, even when I was a teen I was reading adult novels. I've been reading adult fiction since I was eight years old.)

I received the feedback a few times from a few different sources that I should rewrite my first novel, a historical, to make the main character older than her thirteen years at the opening of the novel. Or that I should rewrite it as YA. Multiple professionals suggested this, and I thought about their advice carefully each time. I finally decided not to. I decided I'd rather not publish that book at all than change it so dramatically. Altering the character's age would mean changing actual history more than I'm comfortable with, and changing it so much that it would work as a YA novel would mean turning it into a dramatically different book in story and tone. That wouldn't be my book; it would be somebody else's book with my name on it. I wasn't willing to do either, even though I probably could have sold a historical novel set in ancient Egypt.

I am just not a YA person, I think. It can feel so easy to give into hopelessness, recognizing that about myself. Everybody is writing YA. Everybody is selling YA. Everybody is buying YA. Everybody wants to represent YA. But I don't know what to do, other than to keep writing what I feel I should be writing, even if that means I have way less of a chance of selling it than my friends who are working on YA novels.

Oh well. :/


  1. If your heart isn't in it, there's no point. I don't think that YA has eclipsed adult fiction that much, but maybe it's different in the USA.

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  3. I honestly don't remember there being a 'YA' when I was in that demographic. Maybe I was just too busy at that time to really read it, but when I read, I was into the adult stuff, too.

    Don't feel hopeless about not being a YA person. Not everyone is, it only feels like it sometimes! Don't force yourself into writing what you don't want to write. Remember, all those people reading YA are going to outgrow it, and they'll need good, adult books to read.

  4. Jeff -- not sure how old you are, but I was born in 1980 and when I was a teen there definitely was not YA as a marketing genre. It wasn't all that long ago -- 10 - 15 years. I'm not sure when YA became so ginormous, but my guess is that it coincided with Harry Potter's U.S. release (which was when the HP thing really took off.)

    Nobody needs to outgrow reading YA, and there is a lot of fantastic writing and storytelling in YA.

    I guess in a way I resent that writers are no longer "allowed" to write novels with teen-aged protagonists without labeling it YA. And if it's labeled YA, it has to meet certain industry standards for content. Not that most contemporary YA is puritanical -- it's not -- but there's a level of darkness and depravity you just can't explore in a YA novel and still expect to sell it.

    (Similarly, you can't write a good book with animal protagonists anymore and expect to sell it as anything other than MG. I find it silly and offensive that the industry thinks adults don't yearn for more masterful allegories like Watership Down. And the success of books like Andrzej Zaniewski's "Rat" would contradict the conventional wisdom that no adults will put down money for animal stories.)

    I have read a lot of good YA novels but I have always preferred adult fiction, since I was eight years old. I think it's obnoxious that we've so sequestered literature by marketing labels that a person can't expect to sell a novel with heavy adult themes and a young protagonist. I'd say this is one of the better excuses for self-publishing, but self-publishing is still severely crippled by so many factors, not the least of which is that most of what is self-published is total crap.

    It's a frustrating industry.

  5. Libbie, I'm 15 years older than you. I remember certain books that were probably more 'Middle Grade' -- anything by S.E. Hinton, and other stuff like 'The Chocolate War' and 'I am the Cheese'. Most of that stuff I read in school because we had to, but I definitely don't remember anything geared specifically for so-called 'YA.'

    The compartmentalization of books mirrors what's happened in so many other areas of society, and I guess it all has to do with money. I have to listen to about five different radio stations now to get the sort of variety I used to get on one or two stations thirty years ago (and this was after 'free-form radio' was already pretty much dead). Everything gets squeezed into smaller and smaller boxes by marketeers in order to capture dollars most efficiently. I think that's what leads to the 'genre-fication' we are stuck with now.

    Sheesh, I hope that made sense. I've been up since four a.m.