Today (if you don’t mind) I’m going to rant a little bit more on the differences between writing for teen and adult audiences–specifically the differences that most people never even think to consider.
QUESTION: How important is word-of-mouth when building a teen following?
In my opinion, word-of-mouth is the best way to build a “breakout” book in both adult and YA fields. However, with teen books it has even more firepower.
When I get reader emails they very rarely say”I like your book”. Usually they say, “All my friends and I really like your book”.
Teens read in packs. I remember that from when I was younger and I see it all the time now. So if you write a book that one teen loves chances are good they’ll recommend it to a friend or two. Or twenty.
If you write a book that they hate…
Well…why don’t you just focus on writing a good book?
QUESTION: Do your teen readers expect to have a closer relationship with you?
If you write for teens and adults expect to get more emails from teens. A lot more.
Maybe it’s because they have more time or are more comfortable with email… Or maybe they just aren’t intimidated by reaching out to a total stranger (which isn’t always a good thing–practice Internet safety, girls!), but teens do not hesitate to write.
If they had my phone number, they’d call.
They would probably stop by for brownies if they had my address.
So yes. Emphatically yes.
I say this in part because it’s one of the great things about writing for teens that you have an audience who isn’t shy about giving feedback.
I say this also to let authors know that there are some teens who are looking for friendship, guidance, and a host of other things that we, as strangers, are not in a position to give.
There have been many instances when I’ve had to recommend that a teen take their questions (sometimes quite personal questions) to a parent, guardian, or school official because I am simply not qualified to be a counselor or mentor on personal matters.
It happens. Sadly, it happens all the time.
QUESTION: Do authors ever do school visits?
Some authors go to a school a week. Some go to one or two schools a year. Some have never done a school visit and never want to.
But the short answer to your question is yes. If you would like to do school visits that is an option that is possibly available to you.
From what I can gather, school visits themselves can run the gamut.
There are the free/local visit where a school asks you to come in for a few hours. Maybe the kids have read your books and everyone is incredibly thrilled and honored that you’re there. Maybe the administration is just looking for a free substitute teacher.
Then there are the school visits where a school official will contact you and ask you to come for a certain amount of time and do a certain number of presentations/workshops/assemblies/etc.
Usually if you are being asked to travel the school will offer to pay your travel expenses. If they do not offer you are well within your rights to ask and, if they say no, decline the offer.
Quite frequently, the school has some source of funding that will also allow them to pay you a small stipend or honorarium. I’ve heard anything from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
Again, anything goes.
I mention this simply because it is a revenue/networking option that’s available to YA and children’s authors that most adult fiction writers would never consider.
QUESTION: Will my book ever be used in a classroom? I’m not exactly a Bronte.
Oh, you’d be surprised.
There seem to be a lot of classes where students pick any book they want and sooner or later someone is going to pick your book.
This is, of course, the most flattering thing EVER!
Nevertheless, during school report season (and I swear these reports are all due during the same two weeks in every school in America), the questions will get a little overwhelming.
Because they all have questions.
And they all have reports due…tomorrow.
This is why one of the first things I recommend YA authors do is develop a portion of their websites devoted to frequently asked questions regarding school reports and papers on their books.
QUESTION: What are these “lists” I keep hearing about? Do they matter?
Well, if you’re talking about state and national reading lists then o-boy, you betcha, do they ever?
Perhaps the biggest difference between marketing YA and adult books is the all-powerful reading list.
Essentially, every state (at least I think every state) will have a list of books that they recommend to students in certain grades during a given year.
Libraries, of course, have limited budgets, but the books on the reading lists will almost always get moved to the top of the “to buy” list.
Teachers will have contests to see who can read all of the reading list books before spring break.
So many good things come from being on a list.
For example, Love You Kill You was on the Georgia Peach reading list last year for middle schoolers in the state of Georgia. The kids read the books and then voted on their favorites.
So…essentially school officials all over the entire state of Georgia were recommending that their students read my book!
It is a very big honor and (from a purely business standpoint) it’s the next best thing to Oprah.
In addition to the many state reading lists there are national reading lists like the ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers that can pull a book out of obscurity and help it find a passionate audience.
Also, success breeds success, so it’s not uncommon to see a book get “discovered” on the Quick Picks list, for example, and then over the next few years see it start start appearing on state lists and other great places.
Another way that lists are cool is that usually they’re done by people who only care about putting kids and books together. They don’t care if it’s a new title. They aren’t concerned about co-op. Books can have a second and third life because they found their niche on the right lists, and that’s a very powerful (and wonderful) thing that seems to be very unique to YA/children’s fiction.
Long live librarians!
QUESTION: Is there a difference between the shelf life of a teen vs. an adult title?
Yes. It has been my experience that books stay shelved in the teen sections longer than in adult sections. My unscientific opinion is because of the phenomenon mentioned above: word of mouth takes time. So while fewer teen books might get published or might have less space in the store overall, you’ll have a little longer to claim your spot on the shelves than you would have in the adult portion of the store.
QUESTION: What do you do when your fans grow up? How can you have a career if your audience won’t be reading teen stuff in ten years?
The bad news is that, yes, your audience is aging. The good news is that with YA fiction your core audience turns over about every five years.
There’s a whole new crop of reade
rs turning thirteen every year, and they’re looking for books to read. I think that’s why YA fiction is home to some of the most powerful backlists in publishing.
Take authors like S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume for example. They’re still shelved prominently today. They still sell like gangbusters. Because every year there’s a whole new crop of teen who are dying to read THE OUTSIDERS or FOREVER.
Also, I think that as teen fiction improves teen readers are going to be reading their favorite authors and series longer.
Kids who read HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE when they were 14 eagerly took DEATHLY HALLOWS with them to college.
Plus, as authors like Meg Cabot have proven, it’s quite possible to write books for teens and “adult” titles that will appeal to those same teens once they age out of the YA demographic.
QUESTION: How much teen fiction is read by/written for actual teens and how much is really adult fiction that’s just horribly shelved?
Now, this is a tough, tough question.
My personal opinion is that the vast majority of YA books are written first and foremost for actual teens.
A lot of YA books are understood and appreciate by both teens and adults who appreciate compelling, well-told stories and are secure enough with their own maturity that they don’t have a complex about shopping in the “kids” section.
And then there are a few YA books that I honestly think appeal more to adult readers than to teens themselves. Not that they don’t appeal to any teens–they just strike me as an 10/90 book (where 10% of the audience is teens and 90% is adults as opposed to most teen fiction where it’s more like 90/10).
There’s nothing wrong with this at all. But I do think it happens. And a lot of the time you’ll find those books shelved in other places in foreign markets because they do straddle the adult/YA line.
And then, of course, you have the TWILIGHTS and the HARRY POTTERS where teens rave about the books so much that their mothers have to read them. And then the mothers recommend the books to their book clubs. And then the people in the book club rave about them to their coworkers.
And so on and so on until you’ve got a phenomenon.
Which makes me very, very proud to be writing teen fiction.
QUESTION: Is YA really a genre? I write romance/horror/thriller/sci fi. Can I do that…but for teens?
I honestly don’t know how to answer the first question. Yes. I think.
Some people say that YA is an age or maturity classification and not a genre. Some say of course it’s a genre. I say “most of my readers are teenage girls” and shrug and go back to work.
The best way to answer this I think is to say that you have written a “YA” novel if it is about a teen character dealing with issues through a teen perspective. Note I didn’t say “teen issues.”
A book about a 16-yr-old who has to stop a madman from sinking an oceanliner full of tourists is a teen book. A story about a 50-yr-old looking back on the time she saved an oceanliner full of tourists when she was 16 is an adult book. A story about a 30-yr-old who saves an oceanliner full of tourists is adult too.
A teen character can be on a spaceship (sci fi) or tracking down serial killers (thriller) or falling for someone she’s not supposed to love (romance), but chances are it will be seen as YA first and foremost and whatever genre it represents second.
This is both good and bad, I’m told.
Bad if you’re expecting your adult audience to follow you over to the YA shelves (or your YA audience to follow you to your adult stuff). They aren’t shelved together, so unless you’ve got the best newsletter mailing list in the world a lot of readers aren’t going to know about your new stuff unless they typically browse both places.
The good news is that it’s easier to experiment across genres if you write YA because everything’s in one place. Your scifi is by your western is by your literary masterpiece. There’s far less re-branding when that happens. Plus, teens are flexible.
Okay, gang, that’s all I can think of for now.
Enjoy and happy writing!