>Counting YA

>Harold Underdown has done some interesting digging into the statistics about YA publishing that were used by journalist D.B. Grady for an article in the Atlantic. But whether there were 30,000 YA novels published in 2009 (unlikely, as Harold demonstrates) or 8,000 (as Harold estimates), can we all agree that there are too many? My own recent research into this question revealed that while the number of hardcover books published for children and teens in 2010 (about 4500) was just 25% higher than the number published in 1998, the percentage of those books that were novels almost doubled, from 18% to 33%. (I did not differentiate middle-grade and YA, but I’ll try to recrunch and get back to you.)

On a related note, have you ever noticed how much the menfolk of the children’s book biz love to count things? Ask Peter Sieruta or Jonathan Hunt or Ray Barber about  what-won-what-when-and-how-many-times and prepare to be amazed. Maybe Travis Jonker should design some Newbery-Caldecott trading cards, complete with stats on the backs.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Harold Underdown says:

    >Ha! Thanks for the added numbers, Roger. I do like numbers, though not so much in the form of PMEs or P&Ls.

  2. Elizabeth Fama says:

    >You'll have to expand on what you mean when you say "too many" YA novels have been published. The number must in some way reflect demand, as perceived by publishers. And if YA novels are successful, perhaps they subsidize genres and ages that are less in demand, but also important. (On a related note, am I the only free-market author out here?)

  3. KT Horning says:

    >Those stats are really skewed. If you trace the source, you find this explanation in an endnote:

    "In 2007, R.R. Bowker changed their categorization of books, choosing to include any book that had been issued an ISBN whereas they had previously limited the scope to books with ISBNs that were also for sale. This indiscriminate approach is partly responsible for the massive increase in the number of young adult books but R.R. Bowker only traced book production back to 2002 using this method."

    So it looks like the 30,000 figure is the number of YA books with an ISBN over the past ten years, whether they are in print or not. I'm not quite sure what, if any, significance that number has when you're talking about current trends. And if someone is counting, I'd like to know how many of those 30,000 books are still in print.

  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >The only thing YA novels subsidize are other YA novels–publishers will bring out six (or ten, or twenty) on a given list and hope at least one will be a hit. I don't think the numbers do reflect demand; if they did, book publishing would be financially a lot healthier than it currently is.

  5. Harold Underdown says:

    >KT, I traced that 30,000 number back to its source at Bowker in the article that Roger links to at the top of his post. It seems to be based on 32,000 ISBNs issued by Bowker in 2009 for "Juveniles"–which of course isn't YA only, but includes children's books.

    I don't see where you got the idea that the 30,000 covers a ten-year span though–as far as I could tell, it's one year's worth. Where did you find that?

  6. Andrew Karre says:

    >I can only speak from my experience, but "publishers will bring out six (or ten, or twenty) on a given list and hope at least one will be a hit" doesn't sound to my like publishing as I see it practiced–certainly not as I or my colleagues have practiced it. What do you base this statement on?

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >Mostly sheer bravado, Andrew, but also in the rise of hardcover YA genre fiction publishing, in which (say) twelve apocalypso novels will come out from eight different publishers in the same season, and all but (maybe) one will be forgotten in a year. Likewise for the mean-girl books, the vampire books, the mermaid books . . . Many publishers will have some of each of these on every list, and I don't think it's because they all do so well. It's because fate may dictate that it's yourturn to win the mermaid sweepstakes, which will nicely support the vampire book that didn't have the same impact.

  8. Andrew Karre says:

    >I don't see it quite that way. Sure, the YA subgenres de jour take up a lot of attention and advance money, but I wouldn't characterize publishing in YA–even in the hotspots–as gambling any more than I would say you randomly sprinkle stars throughout your magazine and hope they land on good books. Publishing is much more deliberate and nuanced than the craps table.

    Whether a book is "forgotten in a year" is a bit beside the point. Staying power is not the sole measure of a book's success (especially, I'd argue, in YA). We do not pay our bills with remembrances of book past. In the history of publishing, are not most books are, by some standard, "forgotten" in a year or less? What matters is not so much whether front-list-focused people like you and I remember a book in a year, but whether that book is still generating revenue after a year (if it even needs to be; we know how to publish books that can be successful in short periods of time if that's how the market develops).

    I guess I'm mostly taking issue with your (admittedly) off the cuff characterization of publishing as a sweepstakes. I just don't know anyone who actually approaches it that way. I do know a lot of people who put a great deal of care into their jobs. It seems to me like you're painting a picture of a YA as a very cynical kind of publishing, whereas I see a relatively healthy and very interesting kind of publishing.

    (Or maybe I'm just on an oversensitive day.)

  9. Elizabeth Fama says:

    >You're having a sensitive day, Andrew? My next book happens to be a mermaid book! (But I'm aiming to "win the mermaid sweepstakes" through a fascinating, twisting plot, compelling characters, good writing, and a passion for my story, rather than through "fate.")

  10. Andrew Karre says:

    >Elizabeth, I'd take that bet.

  11. Roger Sutton says:

    >I should not have let it go without saying that i think some marvelous YA books are published every year. But I still think trend-chasing, copycat publishing is a bigger part of YA than it used to be or should be.

    Andrew, I'm interested in what you are saying about book-longevity not being (necessarily) an issue. Do you think publishers are less concerned about their backlists than they used to be? Or, in developing their frontlists, how much does backlist potential play a part?

    Whether a book is "in print" or not has always been a complicated question but now I suspect it is practically impossible (as agents have complained), with publishers able to hold on to digital editions or print-on-demand options in perpetuity. Leaving the business side of the question to others, I would be interested in knowing whether books are expected to "live" as long as they used to.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >Good for you Roger Someone has to point this out. And I *think* what you're saying is that there are too many bad, mediocre or merely imitative YA novels being published. Which is bad for the writers of good books that get drowned in the flood; bad for young readers, and bad for business.

    But I would like to know how many of those are middle grade novels which, by and large, are somewhat less guilty of the yet-another-zombie syndrome or the avalanche of vampire books I get from HarperCollins alone. It's sort of the YA equivalent of the old Strawberry Shortcake and Smurf books. Junk is junk, however you peddle it. And clearly, you're right it's not ALL junk. You get beautiful books like Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now or Phoeve Stone's Romeo and Juliet Code. Great art will out.

  13. Scope Notes says:

    >Sounds like a challenge!

  14. Andrew Karre says:

    >I don't think it's a question of how long a book is expected to live in a list. With ebooks and POD, that's become a contractual issue. A publisher would say it will live forever and they're prepared to do what's necessary to make that happen. It's the quality of life that the market determines. I think the question to ask is how long does a book have to thrive, to earn back the investment? I'd say that window has gotten shorter, and what happens in that window determines quality of life–whether a book has fat and happy middle years or goes straight to assisted living, if you will.

  15. Venetian Cat - Venice Blog says:

    >I remember when I first discovered the genre, about 1995-1996; the discussion back then was whether or not YA was dying. I was very outspoken and said that the genre could explode if marketed differently, which it has.

    In 2004, after I had gotten the rights back to HARLEY, LIKE A PERSON, Sue Raboy, the former Brooklyn librarian who had been such a major force in YA, took me to lunch and asked me not to leave the genre because she was afraid the quality of the books published would deteriorate if good writers left. I reluctantly agreed to stay — not because I didn't love YA, but because I was afraid a kind of "cartel" was operating within the YA publishing world.

    Since to this day there isn't a single copy of HARLEY'S NINTH in the New York Public Library, which had always been one of my greatest supports — in addition to many other bizarre happenings in my life (e.g. besides the extreme character defamation I have been subjected to, right now my US Passport and all my other worldly possessions are locked inside my home and the door has been changed — and, yes, the US State Department is completely aware of this), I have concluded that my fears were justified.

    The war to influence young minds is very real. The war against libraries and librarians is very real. The war against knowledge is very real; it has been going on for millennia. It breaks my heart here in Italy to watch what is happening over there in America. I have nothing but the deepest respect for those of you still fighting in the trenches.

    Here's some hope: I am writing this comment from the library in the Redentore monastery, which was built in the 16th century. In 1797, when Napoleon invaded Venice, the Capuchin friars took all their valuable books and hid them out back in the pig sty, leaving some superficial ones on the shelves. More than 200 years later, in 2003, the ancient library, together with the books, was completely restored. If you would like to read the blog I wrote about it, here is the link:

    http://venetiancat.blogspot.com/2010/05/you-can-invade-venice-but-you-cant.html

    The great thing about the gatekeepers of knowledge is that they are smarter than their enemies.

    Cat Bauer
    Venice, Italy

  16. Elizabeth Fama says:

    >I don't see much difference between trying to legislate a utopia in which all teens read "quality" or "art" rather than "junk" and Meghan Cox Gurdon's utopia in which kids don't read anything that's too "dark."

  17. Roger Sutton says:

    >Me neither, Elizabeth, but I don't see that being suggested anywhere here. My complaint isn't about formula fiction–kids love it; I love it–but about the sheer numbers of YA novels, many of them barely distinguishable from the others.

  18. Andrew Karre says:

    >But is the audience having any problem with the sheer volume of YA novels? Are librarians really hearing from significant numbers of teens that all YA is the same or that there's too much of it? (I'm sure there are some teens saying this–there are some teens saying anything you can imagine.) Or is this a curation problem only? In other words this only a problem only for those of us who see and must deal with the bigger YA picture (something the actual audience will never care about)?

    Since the growth in indistinguishable subgenre YA coexists quite nicely with proportional growth in innovative, original YA, I don't really see a problem. Would anyone argue that the quantity of "distinguishable" YA has not risen as fast as the indistinguishable? I think it'd be a hard case to make.

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >I agree that no reader complains about having too much put in front of him, but I would add that the curation problem extends to publishers as well: are they publishing (say) twenty YA novels in an "okay" way when they might do a better job with the right six?

  20. Elizabeth Law says:

    >Oh Roger, Roger, if only it were that easy—run a financially successful publishing company just by publishing distinct gems and never following any trends. Without realizing it, you sound an awful lot like publishing executives who themselves are not in editorial, and always comment “We would be more profitable if we did fewer titles and they sold well.” I agree with Andrew—we make our publishing decisions carefully, and I agree with you, Roger—there is some copycat publishing going on. BUT kids also read that way. They finish a book they like and don’t, for the most part, say “Now I want something really different.” They say “What else can I read that’s like this?” So booms happen. I don’t mind saying that we have two very successful werewolf trilogies on the Egmont list—should we not publish these because the Horn Book thinks there are too many? They are good novels, too, ones we are proud of. Like other publishers, I assume, we think the ones we select are really juicy and strong and will strike a chord with teens.

    Of course, just like the stock market, it’s very hard to time trends and everyone will have some books still waiting to come out when sales really taper off. But go to Barnes and Noble this summer and you’ll see a “Dark Fantasy” section. Believe me, it wouldn’t be a section if the books weren’t moving.

    Here is a list of the major trends that I remember since working in publishing: RL Stine-like horror, fantasy, chick lit, paranormal and now dystopian and Wimpy Kid-like illustrated humorous books. And all of these started because one book was really popular, and kids wanted more. At least that’s my theory.

  21. Andrew Karre says:

    >What Liz said…

    All publishers try (with vastly varying degrees of success) to find the sweet spot between title count and per-title profitability. I'd say that's in the top five of critical decisions a publisher has to make. If a house can do six and generate the same revenue as twenty, they do. That's a regularly recurring conversation everywhere I've ever worked.

  22. Roger Sutton says:

    >Elizabeth and Andrew both know a lot more about this than I do, so I'll fold. And I remember having the same complaint about the over-publishing of picture books twenty-five years ago. What drove both trends is something we haven't talked about–where the youth population is greatest at any given time. Those babies swamped with picture books in the late 80s became the Goosebumps readers of the early 90s, with Harry Potter and mucho YA coming to get them in their turns. And, as they became older YAs, YA grew up with them. What will we do when the kids age out?

    I know we have a healthy population of babies and preschoolers right now and am a little spooked that it doesn't feel like they are getting their book bulge due.

  23. Andrew Karre says:

    >I fascinating numbers study would be to compare age brackets as a percentage of overall population and corresponding book categories as a percentage of overall kidlit publishing.

    To your specific concern, Roger, I would say that there have been signals in the marketplace for at least a year regarding that population (as well as signals in my home–I have a three year old). We'll see what happens.

  24. >Well, if writers would simply stop writing and submitting bad and mediocre books, the problem would be solved.

    Oh. Cripes. That might mean me, too. Better rethink this…..

  25. Anonymous says:

    >Roger said, "What will we do when the kids age out?"

    Do you think they will? Whereas in my generation, people are proud to say disdainfully that they "skipped" YA and went directly to the adult books, it seems that now YA are so appealing, that kids hit the genre and then never leave. Lots of adults seem to be moving back to YA, too.

    I love the genre, but I don't really want all of publishing to be all YA all the time.

    colkood

  26. >Roger, do you think your complaint over YA books might stem partly from having to read a zillion of them every year? It must be similar to studying an area of knowledge intently for a while — you start seeing the same things over and over, and it's hard to find information you haven't already heard about.

    Maybe if authors read as extensively, they'd be more compelled to find ways to avoid the trite and humdrum. Or not, because that also means more work on the author's part. :p

  27. Carol Edwards says:

    >I'm on Yalsa's Best Fiction for Young Adults Committee, and I have read 213 YA novels since January. There are some terrific titles being published, and my worry is that they'll all but two or three be thought of as yesterday by 2013.

    Kids need time for their affection for something to grow. This is much more true than for adult, where critics have more instant power. In YA, it's word of mouth, excitement from teen to teen that counts. Even with Harry Potter that didn't happen overnight. It's quicker than it used to be, but still there is a time lag.

  28. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yes, Carol, and with true kid-pleasers like Twilight being crowded by shelves of wannabees, I worry (not that this is anyone's fault or anything that can be done about it) that a more generic concept of "vampire + hot virgin" becomes the cultural trope rather than a book lots of readers have in common.

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