Monday, 8 August 2016

YA in the UK, some thoughts. By Keren David.

I have a new book out. Go me! And as I’ve got a new book out, I’ve been hanging around a lot in bookshops. You know what it’s like. First you find the section, in my case teen or Young Adult. Then you look for your name. You find your shelfmates, who are often your friends in real life. And then you count your books, rearrange them face out, stroke them and try and use mind-melding techniques to get any browsing shoppers to pick them up and buy them.  
Is the answer more self-promotion? 


That’s if there are any books, and if there are any shoppers.


I visited a big bookstore the other day. It’s one I go to every now and again, as it’s in a city I visit maybe once a year. I love it. It’s got a huge range of books, comfy chairs, hand-written recommendations and there are always lots of people browsing and buying.


In the last few years it developed a teen section. It was brilliantly positioned, right by the adult fiction, somewhere to showcase a wide range of books that might appeal to readers of various ages. 


But on this visit, that section had disappeared. I walked around the shop and could not find it. In the end I found a separate room marked ‘Children’s section’. I walked past Gruffalos and Peter Rabbits, past early readers and Lewis Carroll, past Roald Dahl and David Walliams…and more Walliams…. And there I found the teen/Young Adult section. Tucked away in a corner. 


There were no teenagers there. There were no twenty-somethings there. There was no one there except me. 


I checked for my books -  they had several (the new one wasn't out yet). I looked for the books written by friends and found many. I saw a lot of great books that  people would love to read.  I did a little rearranging. I did no invisible mind-melding, because there was no one to meld with.

I left for  adult fiction. As I looked around there I noticed that one YA book had escaped from exile. Multiple copies were piled onto a table in a  prominent spot. Its very own table.  There was a  hand-written recommendation, proclaiming it an important book. And yes, it is a good book.I was glad to see it promoted to readers of all ages.

 But where was the nudge in the direction of other, quite similar, books? Where should readers go who want to read more books like this? No nudge, no suggestions, no context. The marketing ploy for YA in this particular store seemed to be to make one  YA book look special and different by hiding the fact that there are a whole load of other books which also have important themes and capture a young person's viewpoint. 

At the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) last week, there was a fabulous atmosphere. There were many teen readers, often accompanied by parents. There were many 20-something readers and older adults too.  But it also seemed  - despite the enthusiasm, despite the energy, despite the general wonderfulness of the whole event - that the market for YA in the UK is pretty small. Niche was the word that sprang to my mind. 

 Blame it on our crazy exam system, blame it on kindles and Youtube, blame it on library cuts, whatever you want, Young Adult is still a small market in the UK. We have the talent. We have amazing publishers. But where are the readers?  

This week I had a conversation with a work colleague. He’s 26. He loves reading Young Adult books, he assured me. The coming of age themes resonate throughout your twenties, he said. Other colleagues of a similar age agree. But by YA they means the books that make it into the mainstream media, or are heavily promoted by publishers and booksellers. John Green. Rainbow Rowell. Veronica Roth. Sarah J Maas. They’re not looking further. They couldn’t name any British YA writers. 


This made me sad. And it also made me feel like a bit of a failure. A few years ago I , alongside fellow authors Keris Stainton (who did all the work) and Susie Day set up a website and started promoting UKYA. We wanted to raise the profile of British authors and British books. We succeeded, up to a point. #UKYA is a hashtag to be reckoned with. There are regular #UKYAchat sessions on Twitter. Lovely bloggers set up #UKYA events and shout about #UKYA books. And many more British YA authors are being published. 

But has the market for YA in the UK grown? Not that much, I suspect. 

 Authors that I know are asking themselves whether they should  age down, go for that popular ‘clean teen’ market? Or is the answer to age up a bit and leave the children’s section behind? Maybe we need to think less about the ‘young’ bit and more about the ‘adult’? After all, John Green’s  massive hit The Fault in Our Stars was published as an adult book in the UK. 


Is the answer more self-promotion? Does social media make a difference? Or are we expending time and energy on reminding the same people again and again that they might like to read our books? Is it possible that the YA market in the UK is going to be entirely dominated by people who have become famous by making videos on YouTube?  Should I be writing a book that Zoella might like?

I love YA. I love writing it and I love reading it. I love the YA books that I read when I was young – books by Honor Arundel, KM Peyton, Joan Lingard. I love the books that I read now. I believe that books read as a young adult can change your life. I also think that it’s important that YA books should come from all over the world, reflecting young people’s experience and opening their minds to other cultures as well. 


But how can we find a broader audience? Any ideas?


Cuckoo by Keren David was published by Atom on August 4th. 

8 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

Keren I think we suffer from the massive USA market when we are a tiny wee island, why should readers read authors they have never heard of when american authors who are big here have the hand up of being a known quantity in the states proven sellers and here with their marketing budgets the like of which we can only dream of. I agree we have the talent, as I expect France and Germany and any other country does, but we can never compete with america's population. Also if you look at what does sell in numbers, and there are stillwriters who do it does tend to be fantasy doesn't it? We can't compete with magic. x

Catherine Johnson said...

Keren I am so sorry to sound deadbeat!

Fiona Dunbar said...

This is the received wisdom Catherine, but I would question the idea that it needs to be that way. Imagine you were saying exactly this about the adult fiction market – then think of some of our home-grown successes: Hilary Mantel or Ruth Ware. Imagine publishers and booksellers saying about Wolf Hall, 'oh, it's too LONG. It's HISTORICAL. It won't sell.' Or about In A Dark, Dark Wood, 'well, cracking thriller, but you know, only young women of about 24 will read it.' We have our Hilary Mantels and Ruth Wares writing now, in YA. I think Keren is right: YA should become a sub-section of Adult rather than of Children's.

Ann Turnbull said...

I've no answers to your questions, Keren, but I visited our town centre today for the first time for many months and looked for YA books in both Waterstones and the new library.

Waterstones used to have their YA bookcase near the children's section, though definitely outside it. Today it wasn't there. I eventually found it right at the far end of the shop, in the adult section that caters for sci-fi, horror, fantasy etc. These books were nearly all black and red, and all the YA books seemed to be black and red too, so maybe that limited what was available, but I didn't see any names I knew. Whether this strategy will work, I don't know, but clearly Waterstones are thinking about the problem. There were only a few people in the shop, and no teens at all - but then it WAS before midday!

The new library is a lovely friendly space and that was where all the readers of all ages seemed to be. The librarians do that new modern thing where instead of putting the books alphabetically on the shelves they distribute them around in clumps under headings, such as "Fantasy", "Realism", etc. As I usually know what book I'm looking for I find this method a bit of a strain as it involves so much searching, with ever more categories tucked around corners. But perhaps young people prefer it. At least I saw a few of them there, reading.

As for your questions about YA, I just don't know. But I did notice that in the library there was no clump labelled "Historical", which made me rather sad.

Karen said...

I think that YA as an age group is rather new as well. I'm from Belgium originally and when I was YA age it just didn't exist. I feel like it's improving all the time and the readers are there but just aren't as visible I feel. I agree that Twitter is a great resource and meeting place.
As far as writers aging up or down I feel like: NO! Write what you want to write!

Patrice Lawrence said...

Gosh. I was in Waterstones near my workplace this afternoon and there's still a decent children's and teen section. It's a weird store, lots of floors, lots of staircases and beloved of students. It did remind me how artificial the category YA is. Our protagonists are younger, but not sure why they should only be read by teens. However, as a debut author, I don't think an adult publisher would have been interested in me. I think I'd be seen as easier to market to a teen market.

Patrice Lawrence said...

Gosh. I was in Waterstones near my workplace this afternoon and there's still a decent children's and teen section. It's a weird store, lots of floors, lots of staircases and beloved of students. It did remind me how artificial the category YA is. Our protagonists are younger, but not sure why they should only be read by teens. However, as a debut author, I don't think an adult publisher would have been interested in me. I think I'd be seen as easier to market to a teen market.

Linda Newbery said...

A bit late to this, but I remember writing along very much the same lines at least twenty years ago. It seems that not much has changed. On the one hand, YA seems to be thriving - a great many new authors are being published and promoted. On the other hand, the books still seem invisible to the majority of readers. It is only the rarities that make the jump to read public consciousness - Judy Blume then, John Green now.