Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Of Popularity, Money, and Uncertainty

Every time I turn my head, someone famous seems to be writing a novel. Last year, Hillary Duff's name was tied to a novel, Elixir, that became a New York Times Bestseller. Chris Colfer of Glee fame recently signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company. Now 50 Cent is writing a YA novel entitled Playground.

When did novel writing suddenly become en vogue? What happened to create such an interest in this area of the novel market that for so long had been called merely “children's books” as if that label was an insult of some kind?

Young adult literature happened. From a combined success of popular properties over the past decade – Harry Potter and Twilight being the largest among them – the area of children's books widened and expanded beyond the small subset it had once held. Bookstores that had once had only one or two bookcases with unrecognizable titles and bland covers suddenly sported seven to ten bookcases filled with flashy cover art and a plethora of ideas, worlds, characters, and stories. Something changed in those years. What happened? Children's books suddenly seemed profitable.

It's no secret that money-making offers a certain respect to various areas of our society. You see it in business all the time: no matter how innovative a product is, most business people will not take the risks of investments unless there is a proven market for said product. If there is a proven market (usually seen by consumer interest or, if the product was the result of a small business or entrepreneural endeavor, by above-average sales and revenue), then there is at least a bit of evidence that there is demand enough to warrant a potentially large supply.

What did the boom of Twilight do to the YA market? It led to oversaturation in which everyone – writers, agents, editors, publishers – began to chase whatever trends they could in the hope that another boom would occur and mean more money for everyone involved. It's still going on today. Why else did everyone seem to jump on the dystopian bandwagon post-The Hunger Games? Why else do we readers sometimes snark amongst ourselves, Okay, what's next? Leprechauns? Clones? Centaurs? It's almost become a game to see what the “next big thing” will be – and that in and of itself should make anyone give pause and perhaps even question the integrity of this market.

As a writer myself, I can't say it's not disheartening to have to look at books as just another market where numbers matter the most above everything else. Some days I have to wonder what truly matters in the world of young adult books. Story? Or the potential profit of the story? Characters? Or the potential casting of said characters in a profitable movie deal? Craft? Or just any old words to fill the pages because longer books may mean larger deals? I don't know, and not knowing scares the hell out of me. I want to trust this market which I hope to enter one day – but when the market itself is sending me and everyone else mixed signals of what truly matters we then start to question even ourselves as both readers and writers.

I want the young adult market to continue to flourish in the years to come, but at the rate it's going it may just fizzle out before its time. Momentum doesn't last forever; profitability is a fickle friend; and respect is something that's hard-earned, not cheaply bought. Without those things, what will the young adult market have? Will it cave under that kind of pressure? Or will it manage to survive and come out better than it ever was? I hope that it will be the latter – for the sakes of all YA readers and writers out there.

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