SPECIAL FEATURE Is YA the canary in a dying publishing industry?

The Bookseller Children's Editor, Charlotte Eyre, talks to Lucy Van Smit.

Three months ago, Charlotte Eyre reported on a massive slump in YA sales. The social media furore and grievances derailed her question to editors and librarians on what caused it. Now adult fiction paperback sales have dropped 8.8% - and by way of explanation a young gleeful Times journalist claimed Netflix gobbled up her leisure time and was better value than a Waterstones paperback. So, is YA the canary in a dying publishing industry? And if so, why and how should we reverse the trend?

After a recent howler in the Guardian claiming that YA is a teenager that began with Harry Potter, The Bookseller Children’s Editor, Charlotte Eyre cites YA as upper teen, from age 14 to early twenties. She says “when a YA book gets it right, and hits the right audience, and covers the right subject, it can hit people at time when they really need it. Adolescence is kind of early adulthood. It's a time when your personality is in flux, often you're very confused, you don't know what you want, you don’t know what to think. You don't necessarily have the confidence to be yourself or do what exactly you want to do.”

21-year-old Junk by Melvin Burgess was Eyre’s favourite YA book as a teenager and she read about “heroin addiction and prostitution and kids who run away from home from my cosy middle-class life in Shropshire and it was just eye-opening. Malorie Blackman talks about YA as a safe way to explore those areas because with a book you can put it down whereas on screen you're bombarded with images.’

In Thrive, Arianna Huffington talks about “continuous distraction” and its detrimental effect on our mental health, reason enough to encourage young people off their screens and factor time in an overly prescriptive school day for them to read quietly, like we did in primary school.

As a former TV producer and debut YA author with ten years’ experience in children’s writing, I was pretty hacked off by the YA doom and dug into the Nielsen figures to see if the previous growth was an anomaly and if the core YA market had really changed that much.

Eyre says YA has always been a small but significant market. Nielsen told me it’s bigger than Adult Sci-Fi and fantasy. Have we under-calculated the cost of the ending of screen tie-ins like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner etc? After all, even Mortal Engines which lost £300 million at the box office got a hike in book sales from £100,000 to £500,000.

But what constitutes a YA best-seller has shrunk alarmingly. My favourite book, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo,  just won the Carnegie. Today, Nielsen told me, “Poet X has reached about 4.4k copies and £30k for lifetime sales since the 2018 pub date. Weekly sales did go up after the win by about 200 copies.”

Shows the leading 15 series in YA Fiction, and then grey is other series.
Non-series was 33% in 2016, 41% in 2017 and 41% in 2018

Charlotte Eyre would like to see retailers stop treating YA as children's books, as it makes no sense for a 15-year-old to go to a section with picture books or to put YA into a silo, as teenagers don’t read like that, one minute they’re reading a Graphic Book, the next, The Day of the Triffids.

Further down the system, prior to publication, Eyre would like to see changes in publishing and marketing budgets put behind books, and if that means publishers publish less YA then Eyre thinks that's probably a good thing. And for the industry to support a broader UK and overseas YA rather than the focus on American authors who don’t necessarily reflect the experience of British youth.

Charlotte pointed out that it’s the publishers of colour like Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who are leading the way with innovative marketing and finding new readers and exciting new voices. The Grime artist, Stormzy set up an imprint within Penguin Random House after his concern that young black men were not reading. And the talented rapper, Akala sold out the Hackney Empire with his book Natives. We need more dazzling British influencers to engage YA readers. Cilip (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) approached BBC presenter Konnie Huq to promote inclusion and diversity in children’s books. But for young adults watching screens, why not make books more visible in our TV culture? What if Love Island had a regular reading challenge?

Eyre feels the industry doesn’t want to hear certain truths. Many dismissed Lucy Ivison’s comments that publishers and awards pick ‘worthy’ books that young people don’t want to read because she was librarian at a posh girl’s school.

Debbie McCulloch, Senior Librarian at the independent Brighton College, originally came from the state sector, and agrees with Ivison. “My experience is that kids generally love to read about the issues they face in their lives and that actually mean something to them, but I've noticed that Carnegie for example often pick books that have a slightly heavier feel to them and it's a struggle to get pupils to engage with them. It feels as if they shy away from shortlisting the stuff kids actually enjoy (not always of course)……The pupils loved the SSBA (Southern School Book Awards) shortlist but I couldn’t get them to read the Carnegie.”

The country that produced Shakespeare and Milton now has the lowest National Reading Age for generations (age 9) In an arrogant adult world with its overly prescriptive education that kills reading for pleasure and a national media that only spares 3% of their reviews for children’s books, soon, we’ll have a generation unable to read a newspaper. And without reviews, even librarians can’t find books their readers could enjoy.

In the words of The Big Issue  founder, John Bird, launching a new quarterly magazine to fight illiteracy, “If you really want to screw up the world, then you close your libraries tomorrow. You close the future. You say: 'Bollocks to knowledge'."

For the third year in a row, President Trump attempted to 'terminate' all federal funding for library services, the arts and humanities in his budget.
During the war, Churchill refused a request to cut the arts budget, saying if we cut the arts budget then what are we fighting for?

My thanks to Charlotte Eyre, Nielsen Bookscan, and to Malorie Blackman who set up YALC, and to all the other reviewers, writers, librarians, booksellers, editors and competitions, the influencers who work endlessly, often unpaid, to champion great YA books and implore the system to change. 

Lucy van Smit is the award-winning author of The Hurting and is currently contracted to write MG.


  1. My thanks to Claire Watts for correcting my typos & dyslexic word omissions in a last minute submission for W&P - she’s my unsung hero this weekend- Lucy van Smit

  2. I've completely stopped reading contemporary fiction because of the industry's woke racist refusal to publish white male authors, and nowadays confine myself to classical literary fiction written by white men.


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