On Publishing: 6 aspects of writing YA that surprised me

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I loved David’s recent post on the five things about the business that surprised him and I agree on all fronts.  Then I got to thinking about whether there was anything in particular about writing YA that surprised me (since I try to bring the YA perspective to the table whenever I can).  While there’s a lot of overlap, I thought I might piggy-back off of David’s post and add my own thoughts about what surprised me in publishing YA.  Most of these are just my observations and, like any other thoughts about this industry, there are always exceptions to the rule.  

1.  The time — there is a lot of it between selling and book release and in casual conversations with adult authors I’ve found that YA seems to (more often) have a longer lag time between sale and release [for an overview of this process, click here].  I sold my first book in October 2007 and it didn’t come out until March 2009 and that was considered on the short end of time for my friends (close to 2 years is standard).  If I sold a book today it likely wouldn’t come out until fall 2013 (if I were lucky) and more likely would come out in 2014.  Contrast that with a romance writing friend of mine who is still drafting her fall 2012 book.

Part of this is because the editing of YA books is often very intensive.  All editors and all authors are different in terms of the level of editing they require but on average there are at least three rounds of editing before the book goes into production: a large scale story edit (or, more often, two), a line edit (or, more often, two), and then the copy-edit.  Then the book gets type-set and sent through for another copy-edit/proof.  It’s not at all uncommon for YA authors to rewrite large chunks of their books several times during the editing process.  I don’t think this is exclusive to YA, but I’ve definitely talked to a few adult authors who were surprised by this schedule when they moved into writing for teens.  

2.  Marketing — as David said, a lot rests on the author’s shoulders.  This is pretty much true across the board for all genres and all authors everywhere and not exclusive to YA at all.  I’ve definitely been part of discussions about whether YA authors tend to be more focused on social media because that’s where so many of the readers are, but I get the impression that, again, this isn’t exclusive to YA.  There’s also a very large “book blogging” community of teens (and adults) who review YA books online.  Again, this may not be exclusive to the YA world, but these bloggers can carry a lot of influence and are passionate about what they do.  

There definitely seems to be a much larger focus on school visits and marketing to libraries.  School visits seem intuitive — that’s where so many of our readers are.  Because so many high schools are focused on testing it can be hard to fit into their schedule so more often than not I find myself visiting a lot of middle schools (which took some getting used to as I tried to figure out exactly what age range my book would be appropriate for).  A lot of YA/MG/PB authors I know actually make much of their living through these kinds of paid visits.    

At the end of the day, Kalayna hit nail on the head in her comments — in both YA and adult publishing, there’s a ton of time spent on the business and NOT writing.

3.  Ebooks — this is an interesting and constantly shifting landscape for both YA and adult authors.  There are a lot of very successful YA authors who started (or are now focused almost wholly) on ebooks (Amanda Hocking is a great example).  In the comments to David’s post there was discussion on this topic so I don’t have much more to add.  Only that whenever I hear someone say, “Amanda Hocking was so successful at it so I’ll give it a try,” I want to say, “Yeah, well, Stephanie Meyer was so successful but do you expect to be her if you dash off a YA?”  There are breakout stars in every genre and every format — just because the ebook landscape is still so new doesn’t mean anyone should expect easy success.

Anecdotally it seems that, while sales of ebooks are growing for YA authors, it’s still not as big of a chunk of sales as print books.  There’s a lot of discussion about why this might be, but one guess is that teens just don’t have ereaders on the same scale as adults.  They’re still expensive and we haven’t hit a point where enough parents are willing to hand their kids another $100 piece of technology that could be easily broken.  Personally, I think this landscape is shifting rapidly and every time a new generation of ereaders is released it means parents are handing down the older versions to spouses and kids.  So it likely won’t be long before teens are reading electronically in the same number as adults (lots of teens read on their phones — this makes me feel old when I think “how can they spend so much time with such a small screen!?”).

3b.  Speaking of format, I think it’s much more common for YA authors to be released in hardcover and then in trade paperback a year later.  My impression is that for other genres hardcover is the exception, rather than the rule whereas it’s the opposite for YA.  At the same time, the price point of a YA hardcover is lower than that of an adult hardcover (and the royalty rate for authors is different as well — YA tends to start at a lower royalty rate and rarely escalates as high as what is common in adult).  Part of this emphasis on hardcovers may have to do with the importance of libraries (hardcovers tend to last longer in circulation), but that’s speculation on my part.

4.  The importance of libraries.  Before I sold, I had absolutely no idea how important libraries and librarians are in the YA world.  I heard YA authors talking about it, but didn’t understand until someone explained to me that, according to the ALA, there are just under 10,000 public libraries in the country (~16,000 if you count each branch separately), and just under 100,000 school libraries.  Now think about what it does for your sales if every library bought a copy (or two, or three) for their library?

As an adult author, that could add up to an additional 10,000 sales.  As a YA author that could add up to over 100,000 in sales (because you can be carried in both the school and public libraries).  Not only that, but school librarians are an amazing wealth of information — I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited a school and watched a student ask the librarian what they should read next and then watched that librarian spring into action.  They’re amazing!  Furthermore, librarians make up most of the major award committees for kids books (Printz, Newbery) and each state has its own book lists that schools often use for summer reading, classroom reading, or just to figure out which books to purchase for their libraries.

In the kids universe, librarians and libraries = full of win!

4b.  Conferences.  There are a lot of library/school conferences (ALA but also individual states like Texas Library Association (TLA), as well as National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), etc) and authors are often invited to attend.  This can be a fantastic opportunity to meet with teachers, librarians, and to market yourself and your book.

At the same time, I also think that the YA community is small and (I like to think) helpful and inviting.  Because of this, many authors become friends with each other, with librarians, teachers, bloggers, and readers.  To this end, I’ve gotten the impression that networking that’s purely about marketing isn’t as effective.  So while these conferences can be a great place to network and market yourself, the true benefit is in becoming part of the community and making friends.  After all, everyone there is passionate about books which means they’re all awesome :)       

5.  Flavor of each house.  This isn’t exclusive to YA at all, but before I sold I didn’t really understand the distinct flavor and style of each publishing house and imprint.  To me, they were kind of all the same.  Perhaps I pay closer attention now or maybe I just know more authors at the difference houses, but it’s much clearer to me now how different each house can be in terms of advances paid, marketing provided, edginess allowed, etc.  Some authors use this knowledge to better target their books, but most I know just use it to understand why a project might get rejected from one house but picked up by another.

6.  Percentage of adult readers.  I think there’s a common misconception that YA books are mostly read by teens.  Perhaps that used to be the case, but with the popularity of Twilight, Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments, Vampire Academy, etc., there have been a lot more adults hanging out in the YA section.  While I’m sure it varies from author to author, I’d say that at least half of my readers at any given event are adults (many of them appear to be in their 20’s/30’s).  

As I said at the top, there are a lot of similarities between the business of writing for kids and for adults but there are also some differences beyond just your target audience.  It’s still a great gig and I absolutely love it :)  Hopefully this post helps give an impression of the landscape — let me know if you have any additional thoughts or questions!

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9 comments to On Publishing: 6 aspects of writing YA that surprised me

  • Carrie, I had no idea that the YA publishing world and life was so very different. It almost seems that you have *more* face-to-face marketing opportunities with YA than with adult, which can do huge positive things for the career of the outgoing writer-turned-speaker. Have you done a lot of library asso. meetings, and how did that go?

  • Carrie, thanks for this. It’s interesting to me in particular since I’m writing MG which is in many respects similar (except in the deviance from hardcover and increasing prevalence of e-readers). I’m particularly struck by what you say about editing in point 1 which is absolutely in accord with my experience in MG. I’ve never been so rigorously, attentively and exhaustively edited in my life as with the MG stuff I’m doing now. It’s very time consuming but makes for the best work, at least when you have great editors as I have done.

  • Carrie, this post really rang true for me, because I write YA *and* I used to work in the Youth Department of a public library. Kids and teens go nuts over books, and devour them at a wild rate. And yet I somehow hadn’t factored in schools and libraries when thinking about what a future for me might be like (beyond stopping for a visit at my old workplace and high school, that is!) That’s great to know about the opportunities out there.

    And there are a lot of great YA and MG writing communities out there, on Twitter especially. That’s how I found out about SCWBI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which has chapters and conferences throughout the US and Canada. I still haven’t joined, but it’s something I’m definitely considering.

    Thanks for this perspective!

  • Mikaela

    As a reader, I can say that in Sweden 95% of the books are released in hardcover first. Smaller publishers opt for trade instead since it is cheaper.

    This was an interesting post. One thing that fascinated me was the multiple rounds of edits. It is such a contrast when it comes to the rapid pace among Adult YA. I wonder if there is a difference between publishers and genres? ( I suspect not. But one thing that would be fun to read about is the variations in different countries.)

  • Okay, next post I’m doing is going to be SEVEN things that surprised me about historical fiction. Two can play at this one-upsmanship game, Ryan!

    Seriously, this is great stuff. I am fascinated by YA/MG and hope to have something published in the genre eventually. Thanks for this info.

  • Faith — I do think there are a lot of opportunities for YA authors to do public speaking though I think it can be hard to get that information out there and start getting booked. I’ve been to several of the big library conventions which are amazing and I’ve done many many school and library visits (I’m guessing over 200 at this point?). Much of that comes from tour — YA authors will often have up to three school visits every day while on tour so that can add up. I LOVE such visits — it’s a huge rush and such a great opportunity to connect with readers. I do feel lucky that I used to teach and so I’m not as intimidated by public speaking — I think for many people who aren’t comfortable with that it’s really a difficult part of the job.

    AJ — interesting to hear your experiences with editing are similar. It can definitely be time consuming and work intensive — I think the flip side is that that’s probably the reason most YA/MG authors are on a yearly release schedule rather than every 9 months!

    Laura — it took me a while to understand the influence and awesomeness of libraries/librarians. I think just seeing it in action was pretty inspiring. You’re totally right about the online communities for YA authors. Another great one is the “Blueboards”: http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php

    Mikaela — I think one aspect of YA/MG is that there isn’t a huge variation among genres — the contemporary books are next to the romance are next to the historical and fantasy and SciFi on the shelves. I’ve found from talking to friends that all of our experiences have seemed the same regardless of what kind of YA we’re writing. It’s very interesting to see how other countries approach it!

    Lol David! I tried to keep it to five but I’ve never been good at not talking :) Glad you found it useful! When you’re here for ConCarolinas we should have some drinks and chat about it more! Especially since AJ is also on the YA/MG bandwagon :)

  • Carrie, this article is right on target. I write MG and YA for MuseItUp Publishing and the timeline is precisely as you said. I’m currently editing a YA novel that’s due out in March. It has been through a major rewrite and 2 rounds of editing so far. But each time through it becomes tighter and better. I appreciate having the time and editors to make sure my books are critically ready to read.

  • Nice one. It’s been pointed out to me that my current epic fantasy could be pitched at a YA market because its central character is young (22, not 14), there is no swearing, sex or gratuitous violence (I don’t specifically avoid it, the story and style just doesn’t suit it). But you raise a couple of questions for me:
    1. Given the apparently greater rigour of the editing process does that mean it is harder or easier to make a sale? Does it mean your presented work needn’t be as close to finished as in an adult market because it will go through so much editing anyway or does it mean you need to be closer to finished because it is expensive and time consuming to go through so many edits?
    2. Is the rigorous editing so the book is more likely to be selected by schools? ei: Is it more important to have the work grammatically correct despite artistic style? Does the moral of the story need to be in line with what 15 -18 year old readers should be exposed to by some magical standard? etc…

  • Oh, also. Were you surprised by the amount of “adult” content allowed / preferred or by how little was acceptable?
    I just noted my above comment sounded like a story lacking swearing, sex and gratuitous violence is automatically YA. There are a number of adult situations / social interaction that might make my book hard to understand or that might need more context to be added for a younger reader to fully appreciate.