Okay, this is not one of those “Halp, book publishing is dying” tirades. We’ve all read enough of those, and if one more person starts out a conversation with “So, are books dead?” I will smack them in the face with their Kindle. No, this is one of those uplifting articles that show us that everything is going to be all right.
The publishing industry, authors established and debut, and the reading public alike have mourned long and loud for the decrease in print reviews, the difficulty of breaking out new authors, and the decrease in funds and manpower for book promotion. And the biggest brick-and-mortar retailer planning to close 20 locations per year shows that we aren’t going to back-paddle toward the traditional modes of publishing, reviewing, and selling anytime soon.
But as we move away from what the publishing industry has always done, exciting things are happening in the tubes.
One of the (many) pleasures of representing a wide variety of books is noticing how genres are published and received so differently, and how these genres have (or haven’t) been handling the transition to an increasingly digital world.
And let me tell you, the online community of readers and writers of young adult books is one of the happiest places on the Internet.
While all genres have an online presence, from the essential collections of literary information on The Millions and The Rumpus, to cultural digestions like The Awl, to gorgeous websites for print institutions such as The Paris Review or VQR, no genre seems to have the depth, breadth, or glee of networking as among authors, readers, and booksellers of young adult books.
Young adult authors and readers were inspired by the digital revolution to put their thoughts online, like so many other readers and writers of other genres, but then this primordial digital goo climbed onto land, sprouted wings, and evolved into a thriving, networked community.
And I’ve found that this social media community has become an indispensable part of breaking into the young adult genre as a new writer, publicizing a debut, and connecting an author with his or her audience in ways that traditional efforts never have before.
Social Media as Networking Tool and Calling Card
Kate Hart, an emerging YA author and member of YA Highway, a blog featuring interviews, book reviews, and writing tips, has found that blogging has started conversations with professionals she wouldn’t otherwise have access to:
“Through YA Highway, I’ve gotten to interview editors, agents, bestsellers, publicists—all sorts of industry folks I wouldn’t have had a connection to otherwise. We partner with Stacked Books for writer/blogger meet-ups during events like ALA, which is a great chance to meet reviewers and librarians and other awesome book people … Sometimes that’s stressful, knowing exactly what you’re up against, but for the most part it makes me feel more confident.”
For authors without a Rolodex of agent buddies to ring once their manuscript is done, the social media community can be an excellent networking tool and calling card, and the sense of partnership among YA authors is having real results:
“So far as my process goes, my co-bloggers are also my invaluable critique partners; watching them go through their own publication processes has been hugely educational. While it didn’t guarantee a foot in the door, it didn’t hurt that their agents (and others) recognized the site when I queried, but even my little personal blog helped in that process: two agents contacted me based on my writing there, asking me to query them when my MS was ready, and one of those eventually turned into an offer of representation.”
From an agent’s perspective, a writer’s presence on blogs and Twitter measurably increases their value, and immediately sets them apart as writers ready to promote themselves and their debut. While I wouldn’t withhold an offer of representation from a writer with no online presence, I’m heartened by an author with an enthusiastic online following of other writers and readers amped to hear about a book sale. I don’t even know how many metaphorical confetti cannons have been shot from the Twitter-verse when I’ve signed a new YA/MG author. A lot.
“Blogging is the truest blend of pleasure and marketing tool”
The machinations of the blogosphere definitely aren’t limited to critique groups and agent matchmaking. Published authors have benefited from these online communities too, often having blog tours fill the vacuum of the decrease in in-person bookstore signings and readings.
“[My] blog presence has helped a lot!” says Blake. “Just getting the word out there about a book is such a feat. So having it featured on the blogs was incredible. They have so many fun events and features to spotlight books and writers, and when bloggers get excited about something, they know how to communicate that excitement.”
Perhaps the YA online community has flourished as it has because authors and readers take such a clear pleasure in participating and promoting their friends. Indeed, entire blogs were created with the sole purpose of promoting others’ books, rather than for self-promotion.
“One of YA Highway‘s main goals is to use our platform to help others, whether that means educating writers, helping authors with publicity, or just giving a good cause or topic a signal boost,” says Hart.
Single-mindedly pushing one’s books without giving anything back is often the death knell of any self-publicizing venture, and cushioning news about a book’s release in contests, interviews, and guest spots is a technique being perfected in YA social media. But in these circles this balance of giving and taking doesn’t seem to be calculated:
“Blogging is the truest blend of pleasure and marketing tool,” says Blake. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it. And it obviously helps to promote any current or upcoming releases. I contribute to the blogging community because I really love the blogging community. That many people out there writing about books, and talking about books, and just being all around bookish folk, warms my cockles. If I have cockles.
“And often it’s so damn fun. Bloggers do great, thoughtful interviews and have such creative ideas for blog events. I did a series of guest posts once that were essentially roasts of my favorite fictional characters. They were called the Throwdowns, and I did one for vampires (Edward Cullen v Lestat), one for werewolves (Jacob Black v Michael Jackson in “Thriller”), and one for bromances (Harry/Ron v Aragorn/Legolas). It was so enjoyable, making fun of all of them. In a loving, roasty way of course.”
Social Media and Selling Books
The benefits for a new author seeking contacts or an established author seeking higher sales numbers are clear motivations for involvement in social media, but the ripples of this sea-change in how readers are finding and buying books has consequences in all corners of the industry.
Erin Clarkson, bookseller at Powell’s Books and blogger at Shelf Talkers Anonymous, says the YA social media community has not only affected how patrons seek new titles, but how she provides them with information:
“Considering the fact that I use Goodreads as a search tool on a daily basis at my job, I would say that YA social media has definitely changed the way readers are finding books. It’s not like when you used to go to the bookstore or library and the bookseller/librarian had all the juicy details on what books were coming out and when. Now I have customers every day surprising me with how much they know, and how much more they know than I do (and I’m the one getting paid to know). With readers finding out about their books at the touch of a button, that means booksellers have to use those same tools to stay on top of the market. It’s so easy to lose a customer’s interest and respect when you are obviously less informed than they are.”
As publishers become less willing to send untested authors on multicity tours—is there anything more depressing than reading to a tiny crowd in a strange town?—the role of social media is picking up the slack. Cultivating an online presence connects the author directly with his/her fans, without being restricted by place or time, and without the risk of low turnout at high cost.
“Authors who aren’t putting themselves out there on a blog, or even on Facebook and Twitter, are cutting off their own foot as far as sales,” says Clarkson. “The whole point of an author signing/reading was to give a chance for the fans to get a real sense of the person behind their favorite book. It’s like meeting a celebrity. Social media definitely facilitates that connection with far less cost.”
Not to say that the importance of an in-store signing or reading has disappeared, especially once an author has earned blockbuster status:
“But I don’t think it changes the fact that readers still want to actually meet their favorite author. Look at how fast the tickets for Neil Gaiman’s latest (and last) book tour sold out. He has a really awesome blog, but people will still flock to see him live. I think it’s very smart that publishers and authors are taking advantage of social media as a way to connect readers and authors, but we still haven’t moved past the need for in-store signings and readings. The combination of the two (like the contest coming up for fans to choose which two cities Veronica Roth visits for the tour of Allegiant) is very important.”
Blogging toward Blockbusters
While I’m sure we’ll all continue to flap our arms as the vestiges of print publication seek balance with digital media, readers are clearly still reading, which we can all find heartening. We may not be finding and discussing books, or celebrating their authors, in the ways we traditionally have, but great stories are still being told and finding their enthusiastic audiences.
And, as an industry professional keeping an eye on a booming genre, and as a fan, the young adult fiction market shows no signs of slowing quite yet. As Clarkson said:
“I think that’s just because there is so much coming out of YA right now that is so worthy of being excited about. Just think of some of the blockbusters we’ve seen: Twilight, The Hunger Games, now Divergent. Those books became blockbusters because one person read it, loved it, then spread the word. The same thing happens with books in all genres, but I think YA is particularly blooming right now because it’s a genre that is putting out so many fantastic stories. And while yes these stories are written for, marketed to, and meant for young adult readers, they aren’t the Babysitter’s Club. These books are so much more, with such a broader appeal.”