Come Watch Me Be an Ignorant Boob About the YA Market

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a young adult, new adult, or even any kind of actual adult. I’m outside that particular pen at the zoo. I recall there were books for kids and books for adults and hardly anything in between. Now we have YA and NA and I feel like everything’s gone all fucky.

Here’s why:

It seems to me that there are far more YA titles produced than there are genuine young adults to read them. Yes, I know it’s not just young adults that read them, but more importantly there’s no way I’m convinced young adults read that much. Where in the everloving hell did all these book lovers come from? Was there some revolution in American public education for which I missed the announcement?

I don’t believe it.

So who’s buying and reading all these young adult books if it’s not actual young adults? Well, it can only be people who are either older than young adults, or younger than young adults. I’m not any more sold on the idea of younger-than-young-adults suddenly reading so much, either.

That leaves adults. If adults are the ones who are reading a significant portion of the YA books sold, then how, exactly, is the YA market a Thing? And why would adults be so compelled to buy YA books? What’s the appeal? Are the stories just so fantastic they jump the market fence with ease? Are adults so stupid and prudish they got tired of adult books and found the YA books more understandable? God, that is such a condescending question, but when comes to anti-intellectual stupidity in America I learned long ago not to be surprised.

Now let’s flip this situation around to the writer’s perspective.

Nowhere have I ever read writing advice that says: You should totally write for the market. Figure out what’s hot, what’s selling, and write that shit. Forget what you thought you wanted to write, it wouldn’t have sold, anyway. 

No.

A Thousand times, NO.

The advice is always: write the book you’d want to read, if you saw it on the shelf at a bookstore you’d snatch it up. You’d feel an instant kinship with the cover and the title, read the blurb and get excited, and read the first page and get hooked. Everything else in the world would disappear. That kind of book.

The advice is to forget markets, forget genre, even. That’s for publishers to figure out and deal with.

Now everyone, it seems, is all “Look at me!” Sticks finger up nose and crosses eyes “I’m writing a YA novel, hurr de-durr-durr!”

Am I some kind of idiot who doesn’t know what’s going on? Hey, it’s entirely possible.

Help me out, here, you guys. Am I just not supposed to question this? Will the YA police come take me away and force me to play a game or run a maze?

I know no one is saying I can’t write whatever I want. But why are people jumping on this bandwagon against all good writing advice and why is it selling so well when there aren’t even enough young adults who read to buy the stuff?

photo credit: gadl via photopin cc

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4 thoughts on “Come Watch Me Be an Ignorant Boob About the YA Market

  1. I think it’s a complex issue.

    Publishers would not publish YA novels under a grownup label. I don’t know why. They get away with lower quality (or different quality that most reviewers think is lower) under the YA label but the people reading the books don’t need ten dollar scrabble words and complex plot twists. They are there for the story.

    While most of the dystopian YA novels could (should?) be published within the Fantasy genre, that won’t happen because the novels don’t fit there, quite, either. They are not books a Fantasy publisher would look and and be excited about. I have no idea why. I’ve read a lot of Fantasy but don’t’ know anything about publishing. They feel different to me but I can’t put my finger on why.

    Authors learn to write what they love but then there are these massively popular books many authors very much do not love that are being read by everyone. Some authors decide they want to try their luck and get published with a YA novel (how hard can it be?) and then figure they will use the newfound popularity and money to write their “real” novel. It is the false hope that comes with ignorance. Authors feel that these “so horrible” books are easy to get published. Instead of looking to understand why they are popular they assume they can do it better. This results in a good writer trying to write something they don’t love which is a recipe for failure.

    As for the people reading them? I am one example. I love YA novels. Another example is the adult YA book club at my library which is probably a common feature at most libraries these days. Then there are the goodreads book clubs that include YA novels. I think YA is easier for adults to enjoy because the stories work better as an in-retrospect coming of age journey.

    I do think more teens are reading YA, too. There is now a cool factor to being the person who read the book before the movie came out. I feel this is because YA is easy even for not-great readers to get through. The accessibility of the stories is what opened it up to making it trendy. Almost everyone can participate in a conversation about The Hunger Games or Divergent or Starters or Shatter Me with the same language and basic level of understanding. This is, of course, based on what the kids are reading in my kids’ school and not on any scientific or statistical information.

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    • Thanks for your comment and insights. I’ve noticed that YA has its own sub-genres that mostly replicate adult genres. Whatever it is you can’t put your finger on regarding the differences that would cause a book to be rejected as adult is intriguing. Makes me wonder, too.

      I’d like to think that authors who think YA is easier and an instant money machine would be fooling themselves, but it’s not that simple. You definitely seem to be saying that the quality of YA fiction is at least different if not lesser than adult fiction. Cory Doctorow is an already highly-accomplished sci-fi/spec fiction author, and one I personally enjoy reading and admire. He wrote a couple YA books and I can’t imagine he slacked off on them or made them lesser than any of his other fiction. So, here’s a case where an author deliberately wrote YA books. And those books are a big hit, partly because they’ve been banned in at least one city. I haven’t read an interview with Doctorow about why he did it, but I suspect it was for two reasons: one, he’s really big on preventing abuse of surveillance and human rights, which is a big part of what these books are about; and two, he’s grooming future buyers of his adult books.

      Doctorow’s well-established and, if I remember correctly, award-winning. He can write any damn thing he wants. But for someone just starting out as an author to go for the YA market trips all my cynicism alarms.

      The movies also indicate to me this is a massive greed-fest. The success of Twilight led people to look for the next big hit, which was Hunger Games. Hunger Games just blew the door off and now it’s a mad scramble to publish the next big book which becomes the next big movie so a few folks can get rich. Authors imagine selling film rights for fat cash and dollar signs appear in their eyes. I’m not against making money but shit, if you wanted to be a whore, there’s easier ways to do it than writing a novel.

      I’m curious as to why you say you love reading YA novels. Why do you love them? What is it about them you love?

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      • I love YA novels because the plots tend to be much more predictable. They are usually coming of age stories or “discover your calling” stories. Also, with very few exceptions, they have happy endings.

        I love literature and accept happy endings are not a given but it is a rare YA novel that ends with something other than happily ever after. Sure not everyone gets to enjoy the happily ever after and sometimes characters die but YA seems to require the story have an ending and that ending satisfy the question the story asks.

        I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of putting my feelings into words. I can’t pick out the writing dynamics that make the books different in the way I would like. If I could explain it well I would have quite the magic formula on my hands, wouldn’t I? grin

        I think the differences are lesser from the standpoint of someone who considers themselves An Intellectual (which is vastly different from a person who happens to be intellectual) and that contributes to the lack of critical appreciation. The Hunger Games an example of a great story overcoming sub-par writing. (I love The Hunger Games but I listened to it on audiobook high as a kite on painkillers after a major surgery. So I cannot actually attest to the quality of writing other than hearing from many, many people the writing was awful. Do you think it was poorly written?)

        Part of me thinks YA is judged by publishers more on the story than the quality of writing which makes it perfect for movies in a way that literary fiction (on the whole) does not. It explains why some people look down on YA and why movie people can’t get enough of it, too.

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        • Thanks so much for your reply. In fact I have not read any YA novels. I think you have a good point about great stories vs. great writing. That certainly is not unique to YA books. Case in point: anything by Dan Brown. Those books are tightly-plotted and the juicy reveals keep people riveted to the page, but the word-by-word writing in them is so bad I laughed out loud at it several times.

          I’m pretty sure I don’t want to write to the YA market. It would be disingenuous of me. But it’s such a juggernaut market force, I can’t help but ponder it all.

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