Words & Pictures Editor Claire Watts tries to get to the bottom of it.
I’ve been collecting a steady stack of rejections for my YA manuscripts for the last few years, so when a recent report in The Bookseller revealed that YA sales were down by 22% in 2018 compared to 2017 I sat up and took notice. Why is YA such a hard sell in the UK? And why are there so many more big-name YA authors in the US than here? I asked fellow SCBWI-BI members for their thoughts on the matter and here's a summary of the responses.
SIZE OF THE MARKETThe size of the UK market compared to the US market has to be a factor. There are so many more young adults in the US, so there’s just more money to be made over there. That makes publishers more likely to take a risk on new authors and to support authors whose sales are relatively small.
It also seems like publishers in the UK went crazy for YA a few years back and burned their fingers by massively over-publishing which has led them to be much more cautious currently.
EXAM PRESSUREThe educational system is a factor. In the UK older teens are so busy preparing for exams that they don’t have time to read for pleasure. It’s possible that the US system piles the pressure on later, after teens have already established a habit of reading YA.
LEVELLING OUTIt may be that it’s just not currently YA’s moment. A few years ago, the Twilight books and Hunger Games books were massive bestsellers in their own right and then went on to make even greater sales when the movies came out. Before that, there was the Harry Potter phenomenon. Nothing on that scale has come along recently.
MOVIESWhen a book is picked up for a movie it makes a huge difference to book sales. John Green was a pretty big name in YA before The Fault in our Stars was made into a movie, but the success of that movie made him into a YA megastar. And just take a look at those massive YA movies again – The Hunger Games, The Fault in our Stars, Twilight – what’s key in them is that they have a strong crossover appeal. It’s been a while since any British YA has been turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.
DIFFICULTY REACHING THE TEEN AUDIENCECould it be that UK publishers just haven’t mastered the trick of how to reach the teenage audience? It’s not simple: with MG it’s mainly parents buying the books, but teens like to discover things for themselves. UK publishers are keen to nurture teen book bloggers who can influence their peers, but they haven’t had the kind of success this approach has in the US – again probably simply a question of numbers.
SUPPORT FROM SCHOOLSIn primary schools where children are learning to be fluent readers, there’s a focus on reading for pleasure but, while there may be some focus on reading in the early years of secondary school, it soon peters out as exam preparation becomes more important. If teachers, librarians, and parents were not themselves brought up on a diet of fabulous YA, they may undervalue YA, considering it no more than a step on a reading ladder, to be passed through on the way to the lofty heights of adult books.
SUPPORT FROM LIBRARIESIn the US, the American Library Association sponsors awards and reading programmes and has a big presence in schools and libraries. There are YA awards in this country, but they are fewer and less influential than US ones. And as anyone involved in the book industry is aware, the cuts in funding for libraries means fewer new books, less access to books and fewer qualified librarian with expert knowledge. On top of this, in UK libraries as well as bookshops, YA is often simply a shelf or two in the children’s section which can make it off-putting to its teen audience and less likely to be looked at by adults.
OTHER MEDIA DRAWSIt’s possible that for some young people, books have had their day. So much media made for and by their peers is right at their fingertips 24/7. If young people don’t already have the habit of reading, becoming immersed in the world of a book takes a lot more effort than losing yourself in the internet or binge-watching TV shows while messaging your friends.
LACK OF CELEBRITY AUTHORSNow here’s a thought – writers tend to have a huge grudge against celebrity authors gobbling up more than their fair share of the market. But celebrity authors get people who don’t usually read reading, they get people spending money on books as presents and so potentially they lead to buyers looking at what’s on the table beside the celebrity title. The more money publishers make, the more risks they may be inclined to take on new authors and developing authors. MG is saturated with celebrity authors. Why not YA?
ANY ANSWERS?Perhaps the key is about changing the way YA is perceived. When YA is confined to the children’s sections of bookshops and libraries, teens who don’t want to be thought of as children may not seek them out and adults who influence their reading will continue to see YA as some sort of stage on a reading ladder that people pass through and grow out of as they grow up. And there’s one positive to take out of all this. The fact that so little YA is being published means that the bar is currently set very high and the books that are published are particularly wonderful and inspiring. With authors of the quality of Philip Pullman, Patrice Lawrence, Patrick Ness and Sarah Crossan (to name the first handful that spring to mind!) producing YA in this country, teachers and librarians and parents need to start paying attention.
*A little disclaimer here: there's a lot of opinion in this piece and no hard evidence at all. If you want figures, have a look at The Bookseller here and for a well-thought-out opinion based on the figures from an establish UKYA author, see Keren David's piece for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure here.
Header image: Coral Walker