Thursday, March 25, 2010

Creative Thinking and the American Publisher

I have had published an epic historical novel which has received rave reviews, enjoyed time on the best seller list and has just been nominated for New Zealand's children’s book awards (in the YA) section.
My wonderful NYC agent has been working very hard to generate interest in the US but, though it’s been out since late May 2009, there hasn’t been any takers. In a recent email he told me this:

"The reason it hasn’t hit to this point (and it’s rare that one issue comes up as often as this has, to the point that I can really look at it and say THIS is why), is because, unlike in NZ where Penguin (smartly) published it on the adult list but still pushed it to the Young Adult market, in the US the lists are very compartmentalized. If you recall, Disney (Hyperion) wouldn’t even LOOK at [it] because [main character] was over 17 when it began. And that’s the problem—it’s a YA book with characters older than the American YA market typically deals with. Now, mind you, they are behaving like teenagers, and this is a totally marvellous coming-of-age story. He just happens to be 21 instead of a teenager. And that shouldn’t matter, but it clearly does."

My question to you is this: wouldn’t an editor look very hard at a submission of a book (by an agent for an established author*) which has ALREADY been edited and polished with all the work done, is a best seller, has had and continues to have rave reviews and has been nominated for a national book award? My agent also made the comment that more submissions go to children’s editors than the adult section and that there are more submissions than editors which is why it takes a long time. I’d be interested in your thoughts about the ‘compartments’ comment.
Well, it's tricky. It sounds as though you've written a very good book. But you've also put your characters in an age demographic that buys very, very few novels-- they're mostly buying textbooks and using the college library.

Still, it sounds like a question of the correct marketing to me. Penguin NZ may have had the right idea-- something like this might be better aimed at adults with the hope that it will cross down to teens (perhaps with the help of the Alex Awards). So maybe it's about finding the right adult publisher who sees how to aim it at both markets. Or maybe it's about finding the right children's publisher that has some guts and wants to take a chance on this.

Either way, though, this book is going to call for some creative thinking at its publisher. Good luck!

16 comments:

Claire Dawn said...

Interesting read. I write for the same age group as well. And I remember that at that age I was forced to read books about 15 year olds or jaded 30somethings. Nothing was a fit, but there wasn't much of a choice.

Ashley Girardi said...

Situations like these really hit home the point that publishing is a business.

Sometimes writing the book you love the best way you can just isn't enough.

As much as it undermines the idea of art over product, keeping the market in mind as you write might save you grief later.

Good luck.

christine tripp said...

>So maybe it's about finding the right adult publisher who sees how to aim it at both markets<

I know less then zero about YA/Adult novels but my first thought was along the lines of your suggestion EA.
I think adults are willing to read down, to an age group younger then themselves and teens are willing to read up. In fact, as an adult I don't seem to care how old or young the MC is in a story.
Having the book released as an Adult novel might be the ticket. My only concern would be the author mentions the 21 year old character ACTS like a teenager, and I would want to know what that really means. If too extremely childish, then it would likely turn the adult reader off.

Torgo said...

Mal Peet's (excellent) recent books are all about adults and sell in the US as YA; they're published by Candlewick Press.

Chris Barton said...

This makes me wonder, EA, whether any examples come to mind of imported YA novels where the age of the main character has been changed for the U.S. market.

Not that I'm suggesting this author should do so, though I'd be surprised if the question/consideration hadn't already come up...

Sarah Miller said...

"...cross down to teens."?

Ouch.

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is interesting. I am currently working on a manuscript that I had thought of as YA/teens because the characters all act like teenagers, but they are in their first year of college (so they're 18 years old - so they're still teenagers, right?). This post directly applies to what I am doing.

I wonder if what I am doing is a bad idea, or if I'll have trouble marketing it. Or maybe since YA and adult are blurring in many ways, more people will be coming out with manuscripts like the one in your post and like mine? Aside from the age of the characters, what distinguishes YA from Adult?

EA, I'd appreciate any resources you can point me to that would make this distinction clearer.

Seven said...

When you said 'put your characters in an age demographic', does this mean that the majority of book buyers only buy books where people are their own age? This is very different from my buying habits, and makes no sense to me. Why is a story about a 21 year old not appealing to a 15 or 16 year old? Don't teenagers read up like middle grades? I know when I was a teenager, (some time ago, things have changed) I shopped adult sections because YA tended to be immature. Now I find YA to be more interesting, adult stuff tends to be dark and depressing (in the genres I like) but the YA stuff more upbeat. You would know the buying practices of the general public better than I would, but this just sounds very off to me.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't that why Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld got turned down initially -- the character was a teenager, but the literary aspects of the book (denser writing, and an emphasis on navel-gazing intropection over plot) made it a better sell to the adult market?

For that matter, the Book Thief was pushed as YA and it was an adult title in OZ.

So it can be done. How incredibly frustrating for this author, to know it has been done, but not for her/his book. Sometimes it seems as if publishers are working against successful authors instead of for them. But please, by all means add another not-really-written-by-James-Patterson-but-his- name-is-on-the-cover YA book to the display tables, cuz hell if there aren't enough of those!

Editorial Anonymous said...

Sarah, I meant "down" in age only--not in any other sense. (C'mon, a little faith!)

How strictly readers read to their own age is something I'm not convinced about; but I know others in publishing who think of this particular age group as a market low point for novels.

Kids tend to read to approximately their age and a couple years older.

Adults tend to be rather more flexible, and read within a decade or two of their age in either direction.

Certainly I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak has done fine, and the MC in that is 19. The Maggie Quinn series is published as YA and has a MC in college. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is published as adult, and the MC is 12. (and thanks, readers, for other examples!)

So I WOULD say that things are changing-- there's more and more evidence of adults reading YA, and of audiences generally being more flexible about age of character. But there are still plenty of people in publishing who are shy of experiments, and that's what this writer is up against.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Ishta, re: where the dividing line is between YA and adult--

There is no simple answer. It depends who you ask, and so you have to be aware that the person who sees a MS at one house will think it's one thing, and the person at another house will think it's another.

But children's books and adult books are different markets, so it does matter that you find a publisher who knows what to do with the book in hand.

Jeania Kimbrough said...

Great post! After visiting a book buyer at an event in a local bookstore last Saturday, I also started wondering if I was doing the wrong thing pitching my new novel as YA, when it should really be in the Adult section. The book store buyer told me she didn't think YA novels were set in the past (my novel is set in the 80s)and always asked her reps whether there was sex in a YA novel, which sometimes swayed her decision if she was sitting on the fence about buying it. For more details on the visit you can check out my blog. I've only sent a few queries out as YA so far, but now I am rethinking the whole thing.
Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

The book is being read by everyone here: middle aged women, teens (male and female), uni students, male and female. And this from S&S
"I read [...]right away and was so impressed. All the history, romance, and danger—very exciting! I haven’t read anything like this in a while, and it was so refreshing. That said, I do think this would work best as part of a young adult line, not just because of the age of the main character, but also because of the tone of the writing. It just has the feel of something written for a younger audience, and I don’t think it would translate as well to the readers we target.


I’m going to pass, but I thoroughly enjoyed this! I wish you lots of luck finding [...] the perfect American home."

I'm staying anonymous because I don't want to be seen to be using EA's blog to promote myself.

As to the question about the maturity of the character - no, not childish at all. When I wrote it, I intended for it to be read by the age of the kids I teach (high schools) and the genre I'm known for so it was with delight that it has been enjoyed by all age groups. He just happened to be a young man when he camed to me a fully formed character.

Bethany said...

Quite interesting post today. 17 just seems right. To learn the truth about love and beauty queens but also for nearly every Disney princess' age, yes?

R.J. Anderson said...

Well, I hope SOMEBODY brings this book over to North America, because having looked it up using the clues provided in this letter, I think it sounds fascinating.

lynnet said...

I would buy books targeted to that demographic if there were any to buy.

I'm a reader, not a writer, and the more blogs about publishing I read, the more I realize that it's publishers' who aren't publishing the books I want to buy, not writers who aren't writing them. It's very depressing