Is YA (Young Adult) publishing about to come of age in the UK? There’s certainly been a lot of activity of late, with a flurry of new ventures springing up all over. Penguin launched their Razorbill list last June, and since then, Orion Children’s Books, Egmont and Hodder Children’s Books have all announced the creation of new YA imprints. So what’s behind the trend? Caroline Sanderson investigates.
‘The success of Stephenie Meyer and Twilight has changed the market radically,’ says Amanda Punter, Publisher at Razorbill. ‘Twilight prompted an explosion in high concept, aggressively commercial YA fiction. There’s been a cultural shift going on too. Entertainment trends are becoming ever more blurred with films like Avatar being enjoyed by all ages. There’s a real appetite for entertainment and escapism and much less concern about what age-range it’s for.’
At Chicken House, Publisher Barry Cunningham also talks of cultural shifts. ‘It’s no coincidence that the explosion in YA publishing has coincided with the growth of social media. When I was at Penguin it was felt that we couldn’t publish for YA because it would have to get past the gatekeepers – parents and teachers – first. Whereas now, YA is a proper consumer group in its own right.’
Stella Paskins, Publisher at Egmont which launches a new, as yet unnamed YA imprint in Spring 2012, concurs. ‘It’s a very different target market, and one which likes discovering things for itself. These are avid and passionate readers who expand their own universes. They don’t like being told what to like.’
US or UK YA fiction?
The success of the Stephenie Meyer and other paranormal series has also prompted UK retailers to take a longer, harder look at how they sell YA.
Says Amanda Punter, ‘For years the received wisdom was that YA commercial fiction was very difficult to publish in the UK, even though in the US it was thriving. The difference was that US retailers took it seriously. When UK retailers saw the potential for sales, that all changed. Waterstone’s started to push Dark Romance as a separate section, drawing in readers who would never darken the aisles of the children’s section.’
So far, so good for business. But with YA publishing and in fact the whole YA community in the US much more developed and sophisticated than it is here, is there a danger that home-grown commercial YA fiction will lose out to more established US authors?
Orion’s new YA list, Indigo, launching this September, features novels by a number of big US names, including Cinda Williams Chima, Holly Black and Harlan Coben. Publisher Fiona Kennedy says they are far from dominant however. ‘I think that with authors like Marcus Sedgwick, Sally Gardner and Alan Gibbons also on the list, it’s actually pretty UK led. And it’s not a question of nationality anyway. What makes a book from the US work in the UK is the same as for any book – voice and story. We look for this above anything else.’
Barry Cunningham believes that in any case, it’s a two-way street. ‘There’s a swathe of US books here at the moment, but before that, the US was dominated by UK fantasy. Waves go both ways. At the moment we’re engulfed by vampires, but the tide is receding. And UK thrillers have traditionally been strong.’
‘We are slightly playing catch-up in the UK,’ says Amanda Punter. ‘There has traditionally been more noise in the US, more writers’ communities, more discussion of YA. But we’ve got some great UK writers and we’re keen to develop this and have more of them working internationally. They need to be good though. We don’t in any way want to be tokenistic about it.’
An international focus
The international possibilities offered by YA authors in the UK do seem to be the subject of increased focus by publishers for an audience which can so easily find out about any book, from any country.
‘We’ve always thought internationally,’ says Fiona Kennedy. ‘Ours has always been a very rights-led list at Orion. Having said that, it is getting harder to buy world rights.’ Territories it seems, ain’t what they used to be. But do all authors naturally cross from, say, the UK to the US?
‘Even though the US has led the publishing because they have a more established market, we’re becoming more global in our successes,’ says Punter. ‘If you compare Book Scan with say The New York Times bestseller list, you see a lot of the same books. All the markets are becoming closer. That’s why we’ve shifted to doing global publication dates where we can, like we did for Diary of a Wimpy Kid.’
Barry Cunningham has a similar view. ‘This is the most international of all children’s age-groups. They have the same experiences, they use the same media, meaning that we can publish globally and simultaneously as recommendations go across borders.’
Not only has YA gone international, but it seems that it is no longer the exclusive preserve of children’s writers. An increasing number of adult novelists are now eyeing up the genre. Indigo’s launch list for example, includes Shelter, the first young adult novel by US thriller writer, Harlan Coben which features the nephew of his regular adult protagonist, Myron Bolitar.
So what’s the attraction? ‘In Harlan’s case he really wanted to write for this market – he has four children of his own,’ says Fiona Kennedy. ‘I’m generally a little sceptical of adult authors writing for young adults: it’s very easy for them to write down and patronise. But Harlan has a very good voice and he writes a pacey story. More generally, I think it’s become a tempting market for adult authors, since Harry Potter.’
‘You do often find that authors, when they have children themselves, want to start engaging with younger age-groups,’ says Amanda Punter. ‘Charlie Higson is one name that springs to mind in this context. I think it’s also a market thing: adult fiction is such a challenging area at the moment,’ she adds.
This tension between market forces and the actual audience that a book is suitable for is nothing new. We are now well used to the concept of the crossover novel, but the edges between what constitutes a YA novel, and what belongs in the adult fiction arena do seem to be getting blurrier. Often, it’s the market that decides, not the author. Jason Wallace, author of the Costa-winning and CILIP Carnegie shortlisted Out of Shadows, originally conceived of his book as a novel for adults, only to be told that he might stand more chance of having it published as a YA novel. The result was a prize-winner for children’s publisher, Andersen.
Teenage and Young Adult
Given the blurring at the top end of the YA age-group, the very adult content of some YA novels (Long Reach by Peter Cocks is a recent one that springs to my mind) and the fact my 9-year-old daughter happily reads Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘teen’ novels, should we now be making a distinction between Teenage & Young Adult? Or are the terms still interchangeable?
‘The question of whether YA and Teenage books are diverging is a tough one,’ says Fiona Kennedy. ‘On the one hand, any reader of 12 years and over could read any Indigo book, but that said, the list is also intended to give us an entrée into a wider, older market.’
‘There is a distinction in my mind,’ says Barry Cunningham. ‘YA is about the experience of growing up, of giving older teens different perspectives on life as it changes radically before them. But I think this area should still be the province of children’s publishers.’
Stella Paskins is less sure of the distinction. ‘I certainly think the audience is a tricky one. At the moment I use the terms YA and Teenage interchangeably. However a 12- or 13-year-old is very different from a 15- or 16-year-old, and this is where packaging and positioning is very important.’
Publishers do seem to agree, however, that they should still bring a sense of responsibility to the books they publish aimed at older teen readers. ‘You can’t just distil any experience into these books unfiltered,’ says Barry Cunningham. Fiona Kennedy agrees. ‘We’ll still be very careful about how we handle subjects like sex and drugs.’
Dystopia on the way out?
However you define it, the YA genre does seem to be in a transitional period. The old definitions are blurring, it’s gone global, and there are plenty more developments in the pipeline. So are vampires dead? And whither – wither, even – dystopia?
‘Dystopia is on the way out,’ Barry Cunningham assures me. ‘The word on the street is that we’re in for a wave of historical time-slip books, and that the zombies are coming. Also SF. And Animal stories for this age-group would be my outsider tip. Someone at Bologna was trying to persuade me that Westerns are coming, but I’m not so convinced of that.’
Stella Paskins is in broad agreement. ‘Yes, we are in a dystopian phase. Led by Hunger Games, it’s obviously been huge in the US and the film might see it really take off here. But I’m not sure it will be as big in the UK.’ Both Amanda Punter and Stella Paskins also see signs of an SF trend. ‘That excites me because it’s something that I enjoyed as a teenager, when I read authors like Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham,’ says Paskins.
‘The paranormal is still selling in vast quantities. It’s far from being over,’ says Fiona Kennedy. Stella Paskins also believes that reports of the death of vampires have been greatly exaggerated. ‘Dark romance à la Twilight is only one aspect of vampires: there is much more to them. I think the fatigue with vampires is retailer-led rather than reader-led.’ In September, Egmont publishes Blood, the first book in a trilogy by K J Wignall, who has previously written adult novels under the name Kevin Wignall. The trilogy features vampires, but not in a dark romantic way, apparently.
And for youngish adults like myself, with a taste not for the red-blooded or dystopian, but for something a little more here and now? Amanda Punter tips a new series for Spring 2012, ‘Three Little Words’ by UK writer Joanna Fox. ‘We’re calling it Judy Blume for the 21st century. It’s an honest portrayal of teen relationships which doesn’t shy away from telling how it is in terms of sex etc.’
Whatever your taste, with all these new developments on the block, it looks as if YA publishing is going to be a gripping area to watch for some time to come.
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor and the author of Kiss Chase and Conkers, a book about traditional games.