'YA débutants are finding it harder to break into the mainstream'

'YA débutants are finding it harder to break into the mainstream'

Publishers are failing to take on début Young Adult writers and are instead concentrating on established UK YA writers and US imports, according to some leading figures in the industry.

Imogen Cooper, founder of The Egg Academy, which tutors unpublished writers, said there was “definitely resistance” from editors about taking on new YA authors at the moment. “Agents are turning down [submissions] because they are struggling to place the YA authors they already manage. There’s a narrowing down in the market,” she said. The proliferation of celebrity book deals may also be part of the problem, Cooper added, claiming: “Celebrities are given all the money in the first place. It’s tough at the moment.”

Natasha Farrant, a children’s/YA author and literary scout, agreed that the market for new YA is tough compared to a few years ago, when publishers had “unrealistic” expectations about the size of the market. She told The Bookseller: “The industry had huge successes with paranormal or dystopian series like [Suzanne Collins’ Scholastic- published] The Hunger Games, then John Green [The Fault in Our Stars, Penguin]. Those successes distorted the market because they were obviously selling to adults as well.

“Now that those series are coming to an end, publishers are realising the market for ‘proper YA’—which is hard to define, but it’s what I would call ‘coming-of-age’ stories—is much smaller. There was an enormous rush to publish YA which wasn’t sustainable, so publishers are pulling back now.”

Farrant said there was a similar pattern in international markets. “UK publishers are cautious about YA because it’s now harder to sell foreign rights unless they have a strongly commercial proposition.”

Emma Lidbury, commissioning editor at Walker Books, said she was not against acquiring new writers, but said it made business sense for Walker to focus on the YA authors that it already publishes. She said: “I wouldn’t say that publishers aren’t buying YA at all, more that there’s been so much strong, original and innovative YA in the past few years that it’s provided rich pickings for publishers, so they can afford to be more focused than ever about what they take on. Certainly at Walker we hope to be able to continue working with talented YA authors on their third, fourth, fifth books, which takes time and investment.

“The other thing to mention is that at various times a publisher’s strategy would be to launch fiction in hardback, and at other times straight to paperback. There is currently more of an appetite for hardbacks than, say, five years ago, which is great. But the result of this is, of course, a higher title count on publishing lists, as each book is being published twice [leaving less room for débutants].”

For Ellen Holgate, editorial director for fiction at Bloomsbury Children’s, the amount of attention YA receives may be distorting aspiring authors’ perception of the market. “YA gets a lot of media attention, while middle-grade [MG] doesn’t necessarily get the coverage. It could also be something to do with the attention YA gets on social media.” She added: “Literary [writing] courses may have something to do with [the number of authors writing YA]. Because you have to produce a body of work that has to be a certain length, does that encourage writers to write for older readers? I don’t know.”

Holgate, Lidbury and Cooper all pointed out that début UK authors are also competing against buy-ins from the US. “If you’re looking for a perfect book and you don’t want to do much editing, it’s easy to go for US fiction,” Holgate said.

However, many of the industry figures The Bookseller spoke to agreed that there were still opportunities in the market for UK YA authors. Holgate said publishers were always on the look-out for the “next big thing”, while Lidbury said YA was experiencing the downturn of a natural cycle. “When a publisher has a lot of YA fiction on its list it inevitably shifts focus to the younger age group. However, there were probably a few years when YA grew at such a rate that some publishers took their eye off the ball on eight to 12 [years] fiction,” Lidbury said.

Stripes editor Ruth Bennett said the retail market was “challenging”, but that the Zoella Book Club, in conjunction with W H Smith, would “invigorate” the market.

She added: “Our approach is to try and reach actual teens, not the crossover market, so to look for books with authenticity. Sales strongly demonstrate that MG is having a moment, but it could turn around. YA is still an exciting area of the market and the quality of the writing is still there.”

For Mulcahy Associates agent Sallyanne Sweeney the popularity of events such as the Young Adult Literature Convention show there is demand for home-grown YA. But Cooper urged publishers to think long-term. “There is some wonderful stuff out there, so it’s a shame people are being short- termish. I want writers to get book deals if they are talented.”