The Teen Trade:
Books for Young Adults
Among the Independents

By Jessica Powers

 

I used to work for a small press called Cinco Puntos Press, which specializes in books for a Mexican-American audience. The year before I started working for them, Cinco Puntos was surprised by the success of Vatos, a collection of photographs of Hispanic men accompanied by a poem (All the vatos / sleeping in the hillsides / All the vatos / say goodnight forever…). The book won a Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Reluctant Readers’ Award and sold like crazy wherever the photographer or poet went. Suddenly, Cinco Puntos, who hadn’t been thinking about the teen market before, became aware of an audience they had thoroughly neglected until then: the young adult reader.

Because I am a YA (young adult) aficionado, I tipped the balance at the press and we started a search for a young adult novel for Latino teens written by a Latino. We had some success but the pickings were slim. Partly this was a result of our parameters: the conglomerates aren’t publishing much YA fiction for Latinos either, probably because not a lot is being written.

Nevertheless, the experience made me wonder what was going on for teenagers in the alternative press world. So, with enthusiasm, I started the hunt. I thought I’d find daring, innovative books that corporate publishers wouldn’t touch. I imagined a long list of books I’d hunt down at the library, and weeks of reading material. I didn’t think there would be such a dearth of material from independents—although what I did find from the few alternative presses publishing works for teens (such as Front Street Books, Groundwood Books, Millbrook Press, Milkweed Press) was outstanding.

Niche Stigma Stifles Progress

Michael Cart, a young adult reviewer for Booklist and committee member of such awards as the Caldecott, says that many alternative presses have not yet clued in to the fact that there’s an enormous niche market out there. “I didn’t really become aware of the problem myself until I was on a panel a few years ago with the publisher of Alyson, which, as you know, specializes in gay literature. The publisher, who had the opportunity to publish target stuff for gay-lesbian-trans-bi teens, frankly wasn’t interested.”

Why? The word that keeps popping into his head is “niche.” “For many years,” Cart says, “I’ve been alarmed by the elephantitis that is publishing, where the prevailing wisdom is that bigger is better and biggest is best. The magazine world certainly realized very quickly that you can publish very profitably by targeting a niche audience, which is what all alternative presses can do and do do to a certain extent. But the niche publishers don’t seem to be able to carry it one step beyond and say that we’re going to reach a Latino audience, but let’s not forget that an important constituent audience is the teenage audience. Major publishers have cottoned onto this idea, and they’ve created imprints. They’re sort of stealing thunder from the smaller presses.”

It’s not just a question of niche markets, though. “A number of [independent] publishers…don’t have a clue that there’s this genre [for teenagers] out there,” says Stephen Roxburgh, publisher of Front Street Books, which publishes exclusively young adult fiction. “There was a time when authors were actively discouraged from writing YA. It’s a limited market, kids who are only in that market for a short amount of time.”

But now, Roxburgh is quick to add, the major publishers are beginning to realize that the children of the baby-boomers are teenagers, and that means there’s enormous potential for the market. “I think what has happened is that people are now, in the last half dozen years, conscious that there is this genre, people that previously didn’t have a clue, or if they had a clue, thought it was a tiny little niche and a dead-end. The market is bigger and the world is targeting that market, whether it’s Nike or soft drinks.”

The revival of the young reader category for the National Book Awards, along with the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books, has also brought the young adult category into the market. “Louis Sachar’s Holes was phenomenally successful,” says Roxburgh. “In fact, if it were not for Harry Potter, that would be the book people would be talking about. So when people in the publishing industry start to see sales on that level, they start to pay attention and that seeps down to smaller publishers.”

Lack of Marketing Savvy

In the mind of Patty Campbell, a reviewer for Horn Book and Amazon, this poses a real problem. “When I get a YA book from an independent publisher, I immediately discount it. It’s such a distinct genre, and it must be published within the parameters. Independent publishers very seldom understand that. I can read the first paragraph and know immediately they don’t get it. You can’t do it casually; it has to be a total commitment.”

The problem is often that alternative presses don’t know how to market books to teenagers—or they don’t understand the critical differences between a book written for adults and one written for teens. “Often, they get the typeface wrong, cover wrong, margins wrong,” says Campbell. “But mostly, the voice is wrong. Voice is all important in YA fiction, that sort of angry, self-involved vulnerable voice that began with Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. That voice. Often, they’ll publish a young voice, which is an adult remembering rather than restricting the voice to that of the limitations of a teenager.”

She is quick to add that there are exceptions to that, some publishers who know what they’re doing. “There have been a number of small publishers in the last two years who know what they’re doing in self help and they can adjust it for teens and it works.” She mentions a few of those presses—Free Spirit Press, Alpha Books, Conari Press, Health Publications—then adds, “They often have very nice graphics, almost magazine format, which is appealing to teens. They don’t have the amateur look.”

Campbell also distinguishes between independent presses who publish a YA book here and there and those who do it professionally, like Front Street Books. “I think of them as mainstream because their personnel are experienced in mainstream YA, and they publish that genre exclusively.”

The Cross Marketing Solution

Nevertheless, there are many presses who could publish YA and don’t do it. “I’m amazed at the number of books published for adults that could be YA and those publishers are not cross marketing,” says Michael Cart. “It’s a really complex issue.” He offers Greywolf Press as an example of a small press publishing books that could be marketed to teens but are, instead, published as adult trade books. “It would be interesting to ask them, ‘Why not?’ This is a huge exploding market right now. That’s why all the major publishing companies have created markets. That’s why so many established adult writers are starting to write for YA—because there’s money to be made.”

So I did what Cart suggested. I called Greywolf Press and spoke with their marketing director, Janna Rademacher. “I think the answer has to do absolutely with cost,” she said. “Our budgets are so small that we have to make a choice. When you’re presenting it to the sales force, they see a different buyer for children and YA than for the adult books, and it’s difficult to visit both buyers separately. We do have quite a few books on our list that could work for high school age, and we’ll send promotional materials to high schools. But at the bookstore level, it takes a bookstore that wants to shelve it in both sides. So it’s really about our limited means. We’re not trying to exclude teens but we have to put all of our resources into one market. Schools in general don’t have money to buy books anyway, so it’s hard to invest when you don’t know what return you’ll get.”

Rademacher’s answer explained why small publishers wouldn’t cross-market a book. But it still doesn’t explain why alternative presses aren’t publishing more young adult books and focusing their efforts there. Within the YA market, small and alternative presses have the opportunity to do what they’ve already done for the adult trade market.

“Major publishing houses still have problems with edgy stuff,” says Michael Cart. “The terror, the fear of losing the school market, is a big problem. Alternative presses still can fill a void by specializing not only in edgy stuff but creatively risk taking stuff, experimental fiction. They could also do something for the GLBTQ (Gay Lesbian Bi Transgendered Queer) kids. I get upset at the paucity of material coming from the Latino community. I don’t know what the answer to that is. It’s epidemic. It’s the largest minority community in America. Editors, to their credit, are frustrated because they cannot seem to get enough material written from the experience.”

Milkweed Editions is one press that has garnered attention for both their middle grade and their young adult novels. The press has found that the intermediate books they’ve published are edging into the young adult world, and the “young adult” books are so sophisticated, they’re equally appropriate for adults, which is why they’ve published them into the adult trade and cross-marketed. The attention for their young adult novels almost seems like a happy accident. “We’ve started to do a crossover from intermediate to YA—we’re trying to eliminate the barriers as much as we can so the books can move,” says Hilary Reeves, the Managing Director of Milkweed Editions. “Our intermediate books do deal with things that are more toothy than would have been published for this age group previously.”

As far as marketing goes? “I’m not even sure I know what the ‘YA market’ really means,” Reeves suggests. “We’ve had a lot of books get on the New York Times Best Books for Young Adults and I think that’s because our books start off with people that start off as young people, then their lives move forward. Where we’ve been successful is when we have a book that breaks through, so because it’s achieved some notoriety, other channels come to us. We don’t go to them, they come to us.”

Take the Plunge?

With all of this information, should alternative presses jump in feet first to the young adult market? Stephen Roxburgh cautions that, although there’s some room for small publishers in the YA world, it’s limited. “It’s tough competition. Most people have no clue how good the stuff is that’s out there, how strong and how powerful it is. These books have emerged because they were so damn strong, they couldn’t not emerge in spite of market forces working against them. Before dabbling in it because you think there’s a market out there, actually familiarize yourself with what the market has for you. Don’t go in casually because it is a commitment, and go cautiously because it’s very easy to lose money. The nice thing is, if you can go in fairly modestly and publish carefully, the prize tends to be on the plus side. If you go in ignorantly, you crash and burn.”

Wherever the trend goes, Front Street Books should be publishing young adult fiction for a long time. “People like me and Patsy Aldona [from Groundwood Books] have been publishing YA books forever,” says Roxburgh. “We published YA before it was popular, we’re publishing while it’s popular, and we’ll still publish YA books when it’s no longer popular.”

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Jessica Powers is a freelance writer who lives in the tiny corner of the U.S. where New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico meet. You can read her African History column at www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/african_history. She may be reached for comments at jlpowers at evaporites.com.