Monday 8 October 2018

What next for UKYA? by Keren David

Amid the flow of statistics and insights that came from The Bookseller's recent children's books conference, was a list of the top five bestselling Young Adult books in the UK in 2018 so far. 

Here they are: 

They are all good books. They also prove that there is a real taste for diversity in the market, with BAME authors and themes, and  -  twice over - a LGBT+ love story.

They are also all American buy-ins.

When this was pointed out on Twitter, Fiona Noble from The Bookseller was kind enough to work out the top five for Irish and UK writers. Here  they are:

Perfect - Cecelia Ahern Things a Bright Girl Can Do - Sally Nicholls A Skinful of Shadows - Frances Hardinge Clean - Juno Dawson It Only Happens in the Movies - Holly Bourne

These books have sold between 20,000 and 10,000 copies in 2018. They are between 11th and 25th of the overall list. As Fiona explained, this is normal. "You could look at any YA sales chart from the past decade and the story would be much the same, media tie-ins and the big US names always dominate."

Hmm. It may have always been that way, but why must the Americans dominate? These authors are not the big hitters with established fandoms - the Rainbow Rowells, the John Greens - all these US books are debuts. But their reputations were established in the US, and so were their film deals. And their British publishers had a great boost when they came to promote them. The words 'US best seller' seems to work like a magic charm on marketing budgets and bookseller's choices.

What can we tell from the (excellent) list of UKYA books? Promotion works. The best-selling UKYA books are the ones where publishers took a chance and paid for advertising, pushed hard on publicity and invested in their authors. But too many writers don't get that effort or spend. Why would they? Their publishers have US buy-ins to push.
Some years ago, a group of us, all British YA writers,challenged the assumption that YA = US. We set up a website, and invented the hashtag #UKYA. Did we fail? Well, not altogether. UKYA became a thing - but not quite in the way we expected. Rather than inspire a marketing buzz, we created a community. Friendships were made, chats happened. And a lot more UKYA authors got contracts. But the American best-sellers continued to dominate. No wonder many British YA writers are abandoning ship. Many people I know - wonderful YA writers - are 'escaping' to write adult books, MG books, screenplays, computer games. I question my commitment to YA all the time too. And when I hear (from the same conference) that there's been a huge drop in YA sales overall, then I despair even more.

But it makes me angry that I feel this way. Because, frankly, the American authors, talented though they are, are not any more talented than we British writers. Their books have universal stories and messages, but I believe strongly that young adults need to read stories set in their home country as well as in the US, so that they can see that their lives, their dramas, their contexts are important, their voices are heard, and that they, too, can be writers.

And I also wonder why this is a YA thing? Why do children grow up with British books, and then switch to the US for YA? Could it possibly be that they just aren't hearing about the books from home-grown authors? We need a concerted effort by publishers and book shops, the media and librarians to promote British talent. Hurray for The Bookseller and its YA prize, for UK and Irish writers. Wouldn't it be great if a Netflix executive was drafted in as a judge?

Don't think I'm being a Little Englander, about this - I would also love to see more books promoted that are translated, hear more voices from other parts of the world. But the US already dominates TV and film created for young adults. Why should it be inevitable that it also rules the YA book charts?


Sophia Bennett said...

Absolutely, Keren. Couldn't agree more. I'm currently writing non-fiction for this wonderful age-group. Then on to pastures new ...

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Very interesting stats! Something I hadn't really thought about. Maybe it's easier for publishers to push YA stuff here because if it has already done well in America then most of their advertising is already done for them and we've probably heard of the book via the internet.

Rowena House said...

Very well said, Keren. Books being low investment (relatively speaking) ought to be one market which bucks the 'show business' trend of US dominance.

Barbara Band said...

I don't think it's an abandonment of UK YA by young people, I think it's the lure of a story and characters they can identify with but in a setting that has more appeal. These readers grow up with a media dominated by the US - most of the films they watch are set in the USA, they follow US culture with their clothes, food, music, etc. It's no wonder that they want to read about that world too. I know when I'm in New York I feel as if I'm on a film set, definitely don't feel like that when I'm in London (which I should add is my favourite city in the world as well as being my home town).
They want to read about teenagers with the same issues they have, dealing with the same problems, facing the same situations … but put all that in a US setting and it probably feels more edgy than if it was set in a run-down council estate which is probably all too familiar to them.

Penny Dolan said...

Keren, an excellent & well-grounded post which I missed yesterday and which makes me angry too.

Barbara, that's a good point about the apparent "glamour" of the US setting against the dull (and rainy?) every-dayness of here, yet when there are few UKYA books pushed & promoted and fewer linked to tv or films, the odds don't seem rightly or kindly stacked. How do the kids get to hear of the books and voices?

Keren David said...

I'm not sure that I agree, Barbara. I think that teenagers are happy to read British-based books, and will borrow them from school libraries, say. But when people - not just teenagers - buy books, they tend to go for the ones linked to films or TV. And if you look on a Waterstone's table, for example, most of the YA books there are American.