At the recent Australian Booksellers Association Conference in Melbourne there was a fascinating panel looking at the Young Adult category in children’s books. Young Adult seems to have had a massive resurgence in recent years. Ever since the Twilight novels publishers have been chasing the next big hit. While there have been a few bigger (and better) hits like The Hunger Games and The Fault In Our Stars is the Young Adult category really performing as well as it appears to be?
The panel started with a presentation from Nielsen BookScan who collect and collate almost 90% of physical book sales in Australia. The figures on Young Adult sales tell a vastly different story to the impression given by the publishing world. As a percentage of all children’s books sold in Australia, Young Adult novels (as defined by their bibliographic data), account for 9% of volume (14% value). The strongest categories were picture books and middle fiction (almost 25% each). So why does all the attention from publishers (sales, marketing, publicity etc) seem focused on Young Adult books?
One of the reasons is return on investment. While Young Adult only represents 9% of the children’s market when a book breaks out it can be a massive hit (see The Hunger Games, Divergent, John Green etc). Publishing is a highly competitive world which means publishers are bidding against each other for the next hit, whatever that may be. This means that they then put a big effort into the sales and marketing of Young Adult because they want to try and get a return on the investment they have made. (Meanwhile picture books and middle fiction continue to sell twice as many units with seemingly less sales, marketing and publicity support.)
I also think there is another factor at play here which is that most teenagers are not reading Young Adult, not on a regular basis anyway. Yes they are certainly reading John Green and co but most “children” (and for the sake of this argument teenagers are children) aspire to read above their age. They generally want to read about characters older than them because as children we all want to think we are already older than we are. I find this especially true in our shop. Most of our teenage customers want to read adult books (no, not “adult” books). For us 8-13 year-olds are a much stronger age demographic than 14-18 year-olds (this maybe more partly due to our suburb’s demographics too). And it is children from the 8-13 age group who are absolutely devouring books, including the YA blockbusters.
The other new trend in Young Adult is that adults are reading Young Adult (but obviously not enough for a bump in market share.) A lot of publishers have gone after “cross over” books (books that sell to children and adults equally well). However in my experience this “cross over” works the best when it is not manufactured and the books cross over between markets because they just plain good books. There has even been a push to create a new genre called New Adult which is “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ “. (Although I’m not sure if there is a BIC subject code for this genre yet….). But there are some pitfalls with this new genre especially when publishers try to market New Adult to a Young Adult audience as New Adult tends to have more, shall we say, explicit/intimate relationships (which recently occurred at a film preview screening).
Part of running a good business is finding and growing new markets. The question though is how long and how much to you invest in a new market. 9% of the Australian Children’s market is not insubstantial however if you took the two or three blockbusters we have recently had out of the equation it would be an even smaller slice of the children’s market. I would love to see the sales percentage of children’s books categories compared to volume published and marketing dollars spent. From my perspective it seems Young Adult gets more attention than other stronger categories that could also benefit if more was done to sell and promote them.