Young adult novels heating up the charts
Publishers, stores embracing trend
Employees at the Brookline Booksmith kept getting the same questions, over and over.
“Where’s ‘Twilight?’ ’’ Or “Where are the Stephenie Meyer books?’’
The staff response: “Young adult books are in back.’’
Staffers noticed that, curiously, most of the inquiring customers were not young adults at all. Many were middle aged. And that led to a revelation: Young adult books are no longer for that audience alone - and, as a result, sales are often outpacing grown-up bestsellers, sometimes by millions.
The Booksmith now keeps its best-selling young adult titles in the front of the store, displayed prominently on tables among the adult bestsellers and new releases.
It all began with the “Twilight’’ series, which has the first of its two final movie installments, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1,’’ hitting movie theaters this weekend. The book ignited a publishing industry trend that continues to see adults purchasing books written for teens.
The market shift is considerable. An example: Jonathan Franzen’s much-anticipated novel “Freedom’’ has sold more than 600,000 hardcover copies since it was released in August 2010, according to Nielsen BookScan, while Suzanne Collins’s “Mockingjay,’’ the third book in her “Hunger Games’’ trilogy - released that same month and geared to young adults - has sold more than 1.3 million single, hardcover copies to date.
Hardcover copies of books for young adults (known as YA books) are a few dollars less than adult releases, but the huge sales numbers still have the books earning more money at the register. As of last week, all three books in Collins’s “Hunger Games’’ trilogy were on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list. They beat out “The Help’’ and Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’’
This reader-driven trend has changed the scope and priorities of the publishing industry. Six years after the release of the first “Twilight’’ book, literary agencies have restructured themselves to account for strong young adult sales. Publishers continue to increase the number of YA acquisitions.
Respected adult-market novelists, such as Meg Wolitzer of “The Uncoupling’’ and bestseller Harlan Coben, are now writing young adult books (Coben’s YA debut, “Shelter,’’ came out in September). And Barnes & Noble - which had already expanded its young adult collection after the unprecedented success of the “Twilight’’ vampire novels - now devotes so much real estate to YA that paranormal teen romancegets its own section, separate from regular YA.
The trend can be traced back to Megan Tingley, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, who can take credit for bringing “Twilight’’ to shelves. Tingley acquired “Twilight’’ after falling in love with the manuscript on a plane ride. Tingley agrees that it was Meyer’s book that kicked off a trend of YA book being read by adults, a change that turned a long list of YA titles into international bestsellers.
Harry Potter, she explains, was an exception to the rule as a series of middle grade books that drew older readers, but “Twilight’’ turned the concept of the crossover hit into an industry expectation.
“Everybody’s looking to be the next big thing,’’ she said.
To do that, Tingley said, publishers have had to define YA and pinpoint why the best-selling titles appeal to more than just one generation. In her mind, it’s not only about having a teen narrator or main character, it’s about having characters who live in the moment. In an adult novel, “You’re reflective about why you behaved the way you behaved.’’ But in YA, there’s no need for that kind of accountability.
As Winchester young adult writer Elaine Dimopoulos bluntly states, it’s about self-absorption. Dimopoulos, who was last year’s children’s writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library, has long been a fan of the YA model. “There’s almost an egocentric feel to the book. You’re deep inside the protagonist’s head,’’ she says, explaining the appeal.
Dimopoulos thinks that the egoism involved in YA books - including her own - might be the draw for grown-ups. How often do adults get to think only about themselves - and to experience love and sex for the first time? In addition, unlike much contemporary fiction, “There’s always some degree of hope at the end of YA novels,’’ Dimopoulos said.
Candlewick Press, a Somerville-based publisher that built its reputation with picture books, has changed its course to reflect the growing demand for the young adult market. The company has acquired so many new young adult titles that it recently came up with a new logo for its older readers. Instead of a cute bear carrying a candle, which is emblazoned on Candlewick’s books for children, the YA books get a sophisticated single candle.
Cambridge writer M.T. Anderson, author of the successful Candlewick series “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,’’ says that while adults were interested in his books before “Twilight,’’ the publication of the vampire novel brought him - and other YA novelists - more attention from grown-up readers. He has been approached about his books by members of adult book clubs. In the early days of his career when he told people he wrote YA, they often assumed he was writing about the prom. Now, Anderson jokes, “They assume that you’re the one actually making money.’’
Anderson, 44, believes one of the myriad reasons his peers in Generation X started turning to YA is to escape their destinies. “We as a generation are having trouble coming to grips with being adults.’’ He also believes that in a post-“Twilight’’ world, some authors who would have sold their books as an adult novel with young characters are now pitching it as young adult because that’s where the money is.
“I honestly think that people will look back on this as a historic literary moment,’’ Anderson said.
Lauren MacLeod of the Strothman Agency, who is followed by more than 10,000 young adult novel fans on Twitter (she’s @BostonBookGirl), said that the goal of the YA agent now is to find the book that defies easy characterization, the YA book that’s actually for grown-ups. She has her fingers crossed about her client Jodi Meadows’s romantic read “Incarnate,’’ which comes out in January.
Reviews have already been posted on Goodreads.com by members whose pictures show they are, in many cases, middle-aged women. To those adults who might give the book that magic YA crossover status, the ones who are discussing “Incarnate’’ and its merits, it’s not about borrowing from a genre; it’s about finding a good story.
After all, that’s what Meyer was trying to do with “Twilight.’’
“She never set out to write a YA novel,’’ Tingley said of Meyer, who was 29 when she wrote “Twilight.’’ “She wrote for herself.’’
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.