Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The More the Merrier? by Keren David

A small but beautiful indie children’s bookshop. The owner has a pile of new releases for teens stacked on his desk. ‘My problem is that there just isn’t room on the shelves,’ he tells me.

A few casual conversations with editors who publish YA and MG titles. They use almost exactly the same words. ‘There’s just too much good stuff out there.’ 

A chat with a school librarian. ‘I’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with all the new releases.’

And then, my own experience A TBR pile that grows by the day. A sneaking feeling that my latest book is jostling for space with rather more books than  my previous books had.
Advance copies, packaged to catch the eye

So I put up a few questions on Twitter and Facebook, to try and find out if my instinct was right. Are there too many YA books published in the UK?  I asked.  Can you keep up?The replies were fascinating. 

Fiona Noble previews children and YA titles for The Bookseller. She’s noticed a sharp increase in the books sent to her this year so far, and September is another huge month.  She expects a bumper Spring 2016 as well.  The increase, she says, is in home-grown teenage fiction - the UKYA that British authors and bloggers have put so much work into promoting. It seems the industry has taken notice. ‘The US is still dominant but the big increase in YA published seems to be coming from UK authors,' she said.  She estimates that UKYA titles have increased by 30% since last year.

This is great for British writers -  and readers -  but Fiona pointed out the downside: fewer reviews, less shelf space. Her colleague Anna James thought it was an industry-wide problem, not confined to YA. She finds it impossible to keep up with all the new releases she’d like to read, which makes her sad. ‘I think it's in line with too many books being published generally in all age categories and genres.’ Indeed, statistics show that the UK has more books published per person than any other nation. 

Most people who replied rejected the ‘too many’ line, although a few felt that there were too many similar YA books, and one reader said, bluntly ‘Yes, and they’re crap.’

More typical was blogger @emmaswriting who tweeted: ‘Impossible to keep up, but I love the diversity. There are YA books for everyone being released! Too bad I can't read them all!’ and @IamRachA201 who said:  There are loads of books, but they're all so diverse and i wouldn't give up that variety- plus that's what readathons are for.'

For booksellers, the increase in titles is good for customers, although several used the word 'overwhelming,' and mentioned shelves crammed to capacity. 

Laura B Main Ellen, lead children’s bookseller for Waterstone’s Piccadilly  said: ‘As a bookseller don't think there's too much, readers need choice and variety. Can feel a little overwhelming from blogger point of view though.’  

Independent bookseller Cat Anderson of the Edinburgh Bookshop sells YA to customers aged 8 to 80, and has had to increase shelf space for YA books to accommodate the growth in titles. ‘ A quick survey showed our customers are not influenced by social media. All choices down to me and word of mouth. This makes it tough on me to keep up. What if I'm denying my customers something truly awesome?’

The pressure on space means she’s having to rotate titles more frequently than before.
Far more are sitting unsold than previously so they have to go.’

She loves publishers who make their advance copies stand out with special packaging -  Hot Key was singled out for special praise -  showing me pictures of books tied up in twine, and Benjamin Zephaniah’s Terror Kid which came in a police evidence bag. Basic information about the likely readership for a book was also appreciated.  ‘Covers are SO important to us,’ both in ARC and finished copy. 

‘YA is awesome but I feel like I'm perpetually missing out on something,’ she said. ‘We're missing the quieter quirkier voices championed by booksellers because there's so much noise.’

Librarians can also struggle to keep up. Matt Imrie, a Carnegie judge this year said: ‘The term "Golden Age of Young People's Literature" gets bandied about a lot but it is so true for quality, quantity & availability!’

But he warned: ‘With so many public library book selections having moved to supplier selection many quirky 'niche' YA books will be missed.’

How do librarians decide which books to read?  Rachel Maskelyne used to rely on reviews and shortlists, but finds her priorities have changed since joining Twitter.

When lots of people tweet about a book you want to read it to be able to join in the conversation. I find myself being pulled into the publication hype surrounding a book without really stopping to think if the book will appeal to me or suit my taste. I've found myself skimming and reading books quickly to keep up and it has taken away a little of the enjoyment to be honest. I've really struggled in the last week or so to find a book to hold my attention and I think I need to slow down and be more selective.’

Jim Dean, the hard-working blogger who does so much to promote new books, with his monthly #countdownYA and his various blogs, has also noticed an increase in books. He’s disappointed though that relatively few feature the diversity that we hear so much about when YA is discussed. He calculates that only 12% of 385 teen books published in the UK this year feature diverse main characters (his diversity categories are People of Colour, Transexual, LGBT, physical and mental health issues). Only five books had main characters fitting into two or more of those categories, my This is Not a Love Story is one, with James Dawson’s up-coming All of the Above; Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here; Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give you the Sun and Leah Thomas’s Because You'll Never Meet Me.    This suggests that while we hear and talk a lot about diversity, in practice, most of the books out there are super-cautious about truly reflecting our diverse world.

So, what does this all mean for writers? Is it good news that so many of us are getting published? Yes, it has to be, surely?  As Holly Smale, writer of the best-selling Geek Girl series put it, ‘More readers, more buyers, more money = more published.

But she agrees that the pressure to succeed is greater, adding:  ‘Easier to get in, harder to stay in maybe.

The growth in UKYA is something to celebrate, I think, but it does make it harder for authors to make a living. All those books are also competing for the shortlists that get us noticed, and the foreign deals that earn us money. How can we translate more books into more sales and more readers? 

We need booksellers to reflect the increase in numbers by selling like Cat Anderson does -  in more space, and to all age groups. We need the publishing industry to come together more, to promote UKYA as a distinct brand.  Why have posters for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which has already sold ten million copies, when you could be promoting a ‘Best of British’ selection, which could bring new readers into bookshops to discover so many more writers?   We need events, awards, readathons and blogs. More review space in newspapers would be nice too.  The Bookseller's YA Prize which showcased a wide range of YA fiction was an inspired idea. At YALC this month, publishers have a chance to promote all the books they produce, not just those of the authors handpicked for the panels. We've also seen more author-led events, and I think that's only going to get bigger. 

And we authors need some luck and tenacity, and the ability to sell without being obnoxiously in-your-face. We need to get our books noticed and talked about, while not forgetting that boosting UKYA as a group helps all of us.  Most of all we need to write quirky, individual, books that stand out. 

Because it’s hard to get noticed in a crowd.

(PS. My new book This is Not a Love Story is out! Best for 14+,. Amsterdam setting, unconventional love triangle, ground-breaking because it features British Jewish teens. And bisexuality. Heart-warming, modern, fun. Great cover. I can tie it up in twine if you want me to.) 


K.M.Lockwood said...

I can definitely agree about reading to catch up as a book reviewer!
My TBR pile is a cliff threatening to over-topple constantly.
Still - I love the variety for young people to read nowadays.

Nick Green said...

I've done chronic illness, brain damage, racial diversity, homosexuality, disability and a Quaker, and no bugger'll publish my books anymore.

Stroppy Author said...

Sadly, if there are lots of brilliant books, it's inevitable that each author will make less money, so it's harder to make a living. Simple supply/demand curve. Great for readers, less great for writers :-)

Keren David said...

Unless demand can be increased along with supply, surely Stroppy?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fascinating post Keren. The key: 'Most of all we need to write quirky, individual, books that stand out.'

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I was talking to a public librarian who said sadly that her library was buying through suppliers, the kind who cover and process the books for you; it saves the library time and money for staffing. I buy according to what the kids want - they happily plunge their hands into the display boxes and come out with their choices and cries of delight. Sometimes I ask them to choose only the books they just can't bear to be without and then they choose carefully and thoughtfully. I buy books that are on various shortlists. I donate review copies I know I won't read again, but that the kids will enjoy.

While I have sympathy with the notion of "we need diverse books" I have found, as a writer, that there are publishers who demand you give them everything on a shopping list "one kid in a wheelchair, one kid with a mental illness, one kid of colour..." And then there's appropriation...

All I can do as a writer is write the best story I can and hope a lot of children will enjoy it, whether or not they see themselves in it.

And the more books, the better the chance of variety! :-)

C.J.Busby said...

Really interesting post, Keren. I was struck by the comment 'Easier to get in, harder to stay in' and I think that's exactly right. The sheer number of new books make it harder for yours to stand out or find shelf space unless you're very lucky/win a prize/are already a celebrity or have 5 million twitter followers. Which means inevitably if that hasn't happened after 5 or 6 books (and that's when children's writers in earlier generations were just starting to get going!) you may find it harder to get a publisher to take you seriously. I'm not sure about growing the market to compensate - I think it's growing a little bit, but not anything like as much as the growth in published books.