Genre focus: teenage kicks

Genre focus: teenage kicks

If sex sells, then the possibility of sex with a hot, mysterious teenage boy sells even more. In the past five years the young adult fiction market has grown by a whopping 170%—to £47.1m in 2010 from £17m in 2005, according to Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market.

In January 2006, the publication of a book about a certain vampire-human love affair changed everything. The Young Adult genre originally began its ascent across the pond, with the US market ahead of the UK both in terms of publishing and retail space. But as Samantha Smith, editorial director of Little, Brown's YA imprint Atom (Stephenie Meyer's UK publisher), says: "The Twilight phenomenon was really a watershed moment for us in Britain, it was the first big book that bought teenage girls to the market, and that area of the bookshop, in droves." Following the success of the Twilight books (total sales of which have reached close to £52m) publishers embraced the YA market fully, with books subsequently flying of the shelves. In just a few years the YA market has developed from a part of the children's section to a respected retail genre in its own right, with huge selling power.

Hannah Sheppard, senior commissioning editor for YA and crossover fiction at Headline, claims: "The UK has definitely been taking YA more seriously than we ever have due to amazing sales, but in the US you permanently get a strong YA section in bookshops, and it would be great if we could have a move in UK to slightly separate out YA a bit and have a bit more freedom about what can go on those shelves. There are some bookshops that do this brilliantly, but it's a broad area and there are some books that are published as adult books that could happily sit on the YA shelf, that currently aren't."

Some publishers had a dedicated presence in the YA market before paranormal-romance bared its fangs: Pan Macmillan launched its Young Picador list in 2002, as did Little, Brown with its YA imprint Atom. In the past two years, however, a flock of YA imprints have cropped up on the scene, growing the market even further. Penguin Children's Books published the first three titles under its new YA imprint Razorbill in June 2010, as did Simon & Schuster Children's Books with its new paranormal romance and urban fantasy imprint Simon Pulse.

Last summer also saw the start of a Walker and Canongate partnership, which published new editions of four Canongate titles with covers redesigned specifically for the YA market. Further to this, Harlequin Mills & Boon launched its teen imprint Mira Ink, and in September Orion Children's Books will launch its new YA imprint Indigo, with Shelter, thriller writer Harlan Coben's first foray into teen fiction.

As Sally Oliphant, publicity manager at Macmillan Children's Books, says: "The YA market has expanded in recent years and has had more media attention. Macmillan has been publishing in the teen and young adult market for many years, with fantastic authors such as Judy Blume and Meg Cabot. However, the market has grown and more YA titles are published, more are sold, larger sections in bookshops are dedicated to them and they have more media focus." She adds: "Importantly, not all the people that are reading YA books are teenagers. The market has expanded because adults are buying, reading and enjoying the books too."

Alyx Price, consumer, marketing and communications director at Scholastic UK, agrees: "The biggest impact in YA comes from titles that have true crossover potential, and we saw that with the ‘Twilight Moms', who were all women in their late 20s and early 30s. At a recent signing with Maggie Stiefvater [author of Scholastic's successful Wolves of Mercy Falls series, the first two of which, Shiver and Linger, have reached combined sales of almost £800,000], we had a lot of excited mothers in their late 20s and it's great to know that we are reaching up to that early 30s market."

Bursting bubble
So far, so fang-banger. But 2011 could be the year the YA bubble bursts, or at least the vampire loving bubble—sales for the first half of the year are much less buoyant than in 2010, with sales in 2011 (£13.1m) down by 37% from 2010 (£21m). The market started to decline in 2010 (which was down by 7% compared to 2009's total YA fiction sales of £51m), but the fact that only three dark romance novels have sold more that 50,000 copies at UK booksellers this year—compared to 15 in the first half of 2010—suggests that teens (and mums) are in need of the next big thing.

Smith suggests: "YA publishing is challenging because teens are at a challenging age. If they read a couple­ of books that are a bit second-­tier or not for them, then perhaps they're going to think they're over YA, and move onto the adult section. So Atom's big thing is making sure we really don't have too much of one thing, which I know sounds silly because everyone thinks of us as the paranormal publisher, but you do need to be a bit different now. An angsty girl on the cover isn't really doing that anymore . . . and no more red and black."

So, the million-dollar question for all those YA imprints is: What is the next big thing? Dystopia is leading the pack, with sales of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy (Scholastic) reaching almost £1m (and set to rise further with the release of a film adaptation in 2012), but ghosts, angels, psychological crime thrillers and humour titles (following the successful release of the female-led comedy film "Bridesmaids") are all genres that are being touted—the publishers' speculative list is endless.

For Smith, however, the popularity of YA books is less to do with what new genre is hot, and more to do with the classic themes within them: "Everyone talks about post-apocalyptic and dystopia being the next big thing, which is wonderful, but the reason people are picking those books up is that at the core there is a wonderful romance and a coming-of-age story. It's then just what the trend is to package those themes in."

With the genre guessing game a difficult one to win, Elizabeth Bewley, editor at Poppy/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in the US, explains that the books must be good books in their own right, regardless of setting: "The YA shelf is a crowded one, but the books that stand out are always just really good stories at their heart. Genres like paranormal romance, and chick-lit before that—these things come and go. I wouldn't be surprised if we get another wave of Bridget Jones type novels soon, so what I try to do is just focus on really great stories that are well told."

Alison Ruane, associate publisher in HarperCollins' children's division takes this one step further, explaining: "Yes, we have all these genre settings, but actually sales are really led by great content, strong characters and strong stories. What readers are getting is an opportunity to immerse and escape, and the setting and narrative is almost secondary to that." She adds: "It can be hard to position your books within a popular genre and still be distinct. It can be quite a difficult balance to strike, so it all comes down to the fanbase you can build."

Reaching teens
Whatever the hot genre du jour is, when it comes to building fanbases and creating customer loyalty, the YA marketing rule is simple: be where teens are. Claudia Symons, Hachette Children's Books' brand marketing manager, explains: "When you're marketing for teens, you need to look at where they get their information from, and teens spend an inordinately large amount of time on the internet and on Facebook.

"Teens are influenced by their circle of friends, communicating instantly with each other online and making their likes and dislikes of brands—including books—known openly. Engagement is key, and teens who are on the internet all the time expect immediate responses, so it has been an education for us in changing the way we market, having to be instantaneous."

To tap into the craze for all things vampire, in January HCB launched BooksWithBite.co.uk, promoting paranormal romance titles with author videos, book trailers and competitions. The site has seen "great growth in the last six months", says Symons. "It has allowed us to get directly to our market and we can post jackets, get teens' opinions and get them involved with the books at a really early stage. Traditionally as publishers we'd only want to push our own books, but with BooksWithBite, what we're quite happy to do is to talk about the genre as a whole, so we're more than happy when teens tell us how much they love Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series (Razorbill), because they are great, and we can say: ‘If you like those, you might like these.'"

Walker has also been running a dedicated campaign this year for its YA titles at Undercoverreads.com. The rationale behind bringing all its YA books under the umbrella of the Undercover campaign was clear for the publisher: brand recognition. Similarly, MyKindaBook.com is Macmillan's teen book community website, which also has a Facebook counterpart. Oliphant says: "Social networking sites are very important in building brands, and having a consumer-friendly brand like MyKindaBook means we not only have a space for promoting our leading authors but also for introducing readers to new writers.

"The online community is also a way of giving young people what they really want—a chance to talk directly to their favourite authors and get immediate and personal responses. And obviously all this word of mouth—or the online equivalent—is great for a book's profile and for building a sense of it as a brand."

Alongside a strong social networking presence, Scholastic adopted a more "retro" approach to marketing recently, when it handed out close to 60,000 ­copies of The Next Big Thing, a ­specially-created newspaper with information about the film ­adaptation of The Hunger Games, an interview with début author Moira Young about Blood Red Road (the first book in a post-apocalyptic ­trilogy which ­Scholastic published in June), ­sections on "what to wear at festivals" and what ­Maggie ­Stiefvater is listening to on her iPod.

Price says: "It was a case of marketing by stealth, and we are really pleased with how it went. We handed the newspaper out outside clothes shops in cities across the UK, so hopefully we will reach teens who might not be regularly popping into bookshops."

The blogger's perspective: Jenny Davies from Wondrous Reads

"When I started my blog there wasn't half as many YA books as there are now. Paranormal romance was just taking off and The Hunger Games (Scholastic) was just about to put dystopia on the map. I think dystopia will be the big thing for a while longer, but I think mythology and ghosts could have their time over the next year or so. Ghosts are an under-used area of paranormal YA, but with established authors like Michelle Harrison now writing about them (Simon & Schuster Children's Books will publish ghost story Unrest in 2012), I think next year could see an influx of ghostly titles. Zombies also seem to be making a comeback, and I think Lia Habel's Dearly Departed (Doubleday Childrens) will be a big seller.

I think blogs are very important to the YA market, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a blogger. We're all enthusiastic about what we read and we spread the word and reach large audiences on the internet. I think blogs and bloggers have really gained momentum this year, and a lot more publishers now seem to have realised how important and helpful they are. I get an average of 18,000–20,000 unique visits a month, and fellow bloggers, authors and readers all comment on posts, and sometimes we can get a great discussion going."

A former bookseller for Borders and now a bookseller at W H Smith, Davies started WondrousReads.com in January 2009.