The State of the YA Market

As I was thinking on what to post about, I was thinking on the topics that never quite get old. And of course… that brought me to the state of the YA market.

I became an agent in February of 2010 (I’m coming up on my three year agentversary!), paranormal was going strong, and the big wave that everyone saw coming (and everyone wanted a part of) was dystopian. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire had, well, caught fire, and the third in the trilogy, Mockingly, was still six months away. Naturally, publishing wanted to capitalize on that, and they were snapping up dystopians left and right.

In the first six months of me being an agent, some of the “major deals” on Publisher’s marketplace were:

  1. Maggie Stievfater’s final book in her paranormal series that began with Shiver
  2. Beth Revis’ debut Sci-Fi Trilogy, Across the Universe (as an aside—I was an intern when I saw her first query and knew INSTANTLY it was a hit, and forwarded it to the agent I interned for)
  3. Gabrielle Zevin’s Dystopian Trilogy
  4. Veronica Roth’s Divergent (a highly successful dystopian series…)
  5. Anna Carey’s Eve trilogy, pitched as Romeo & Juliet meets The Hunger Games

…the list goes on and on. Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Paranormal romance. As a new agent, I only had to look at the last few days deals on Publisher’s Marketplace to know that everyone was buying anything under the “speculative fiction” umbrella. Which was a bummer for me, as I was more drawn to realistic fiction.

There’s a saying in publishing—one that sounds a lot like “I didn’t love it enough to take it on.” Which basically means… if I didn’t love it enough to lie down in the road for it, I’m going to pass. And that’s because of the work that goes into each client, the finite amount of time every agent has, and the very real possibility that we may not be able to sell a client’s book despite everything we do. So we only take on books we can’t NOT take on. Which brings me back to where the market was 2.5 years ago. And the fact that, despite my desire to succeed… I signed a whole lot of realistic fiction, at a time it was really hard to sell. And guess what? My first sale as an agent was Jessica Martinez’ Virtuosity. At auction. I was so concerned that the market might go against us that I only sent it to 6 publishers, hoping to get some editorial feedback and such rather than launch it widely. And then four of the six offered.

All of this is a long way of getting to the point—where the market is, and why you should know where it is…and why you should ignore it as much as possible. I always say you should know the market so you know what you’re up against, and then you should write what you love. If you have six ideas and four of them are tough but two of them are timely, that can play into your decision. But as always, don’t chase trends.

SO, that disclaimer out of place….

There are things that are VERY hard right now. Things you MUST do VERY VERY well, or it won’t work. You can’t be “Good” you have to be “OMFGWTFBBQ” good if you are writing the following:

  • Paranormal romance, most especially books featuring vampires, werewolves, ghosts, mermaids, sirens, shapeshifters, demons, angels, zombies, etc.
  • Dystopians. Anything that looks like America with civil wars, no electricity/gas, post-apoc, bubbled or walled cities, etc.
  • Characters who come into special abilities/discover they are super heroes/etc—if your character realizes she can read minds, see ghosts, predict the future, fly, control electricity/water/etc… that market is TOUGH and has been done a lot.
  • Romances in which the hero/heroine fell in love in the past… died…and have found each other again.

Things that ARE working:

  • Contemporary, MOST ESPECIALLY with a hook. Think: Thirteen Reasons Why, anything by Ally Carter, etc. The usual “coming of age” or romance is tough, but if you can find a way to zero in on a big hook, you’re in GREAT shape.
  • Self-published crossover YA with BIG sales numbers (IE: Abby Glines)
  • Epic Fantasy—I’m seeing more success stories like Pub Crawl’s own Throne of Glass
  • Horror/Thriller. Editors are looking for this like crazy.
  • Sci-Fi—particularly if it blends Sci-fi with something else—a murder mystery, a thriller, etc.
  • Crossover YA. This is hard, becuase you can’t write it thinking “I want to appeal to adults and YA equally!” Write a damn good YA novel and adults will love it, but it has to happen organically.

Perennial things that are never BOOM hot, but always seem to work

  • Intense romance for YAs… MANY of these do really well, but the genre in general doesn’t go as gangbusters as some of the flashier types
  • Verse novels—these are sort of “sleeper hits” when they do well. They still can be tough, but there are certainly success stories in this subset of YA.

Remember, with ANY book, it’s all going to come down to the writing. A less timely book with knock-down writing will win people over, but a hook won’t sell if the writing can’t back it up. So… thoughts on any particular YA market? Happy to expand upon the above for those with questions.


22 Responses to The State of the YA Market

  1. Natalie Aguirre Nov 13 2012 at 6:55 am #

    Glad to hear your thoughts on this and that high fantasy is selling right now. A few years ago it wasn’t. I wish the market wouldn’t get so glutted with genres so that they stop selling after awhile. We have a group of kids and adults who have been reading and enjoying a lot of dystopian and paranormal and now there won’t be many books in those genres until the cycle shifts. It’s kind of sad for those readers who only really like those genres. Seems like a balanced approach to publishing might be a better approach for readers and writers.

    • MandyHubbard Nov 13 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Oh, don’t get me wrong– there’s still PLENTY of Paranormal and Dystopian coming over the next few years– but it’s going to shift from new series and debut authors to more of the stuff they already have in the pipeline– a little debut and a lot of ongoing series, established authors, etc. I mean, you’re still going to have the Melissa Marr/Alyson Noel/Veronica Roth/Lj Smith/etc books coming for quite a while. Those readers will still have PLENTY to read. 🙂

  2. Carla Luna Cullen Nov 13 2012 at 8:25 am #

    Thanks for this very informative post. Given the state of the market, do you think writers whose YA novels contain one or more of the ‘very hard’ elements (in my case, a female MC with special powers) should hold off querying? Would it be better to set the novel aside for and try breaking in with a different project – one that’s an easier sell?

    • MandyHubbard Nov 13 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      I guess you should ask yourself– what do you GAIN by waiting? Publishing has a high turnover, and there are a lot of large agencies with multiple agents. You could query 50 agents this year and learn from that process/possibly get an agent, and in 3-5 years query another 50 agents who are either 1) new to publishing so didn’t exist when you initially queried 2) A different agent at an agency you tried before or 3) a few agents who rejected it 5 years ago and won’t even remember it.

      So I say query now and write something new, and maybe when the market comes back around try again.

  3. Christa Nov 13 2012 at 10:23 am #

    This kind of stuff always gets in my head and starts to freak me out. For instance I’m currently working on a high fantasy novel and a horror novel. So the next time I’m feeling particularly discouraged I’m going to wonder if by the time I’m finished them, the trend will be over. The only real solutions seems to push stuff like that out of my head and try and focus on writing the best book I can. But it is definitely hard sometimes.

    • MandyHubbard Nov 13 2012 at 1:40 pm #

      WELL, I don’t think any of the “what’s working right now” are booming so hard they’re going to crash like paranormal and dystopian. FOr that to happen you need a runaway success book ( a la Twilight, Hunger Games, 50 shades of grey) which spawn a million imitators. For the things I have hear that are working, that’s not an issue. Epic Fantasy and Horror, IMO, are still going to work in 2-3 years like they do now.

  4. Carrie-Anne Nov 13 2012 at 11:09 am #

    As someone who has lived and breathed historical for about 25 years now (out of 28 years I’ve been a writer), and who was writing about young people way before the YA explosion, this is so freaking depressing for me. It’s been really hard to find much of any YA historicals published in recent years, and a number of the ones I have managed to find have turned out to be very disappointing. When I hear an agent saying s/he wants a “sexy historical” like The Luxe, Gilt, or the Flappers series, I feel like these Gossip Girl in period clothes “historicals” make it harder for serious, straight historical writers to get noticed. I’m also always in a tiny minority in contests and bloghops. Plus I write in third-person omniscient, which is almost impossible to find in current YA.

    It’s reached a point where I feel it would be more realistic, given the current market, to query most of my historical with young people as regular adult historicals that just happen to have younger characters. The types of historicals I tend to write are also in the Bildungsroman genre, spanning a number of years as characters come of age over a longer time period, like, say, the whole of WWII, or the early postwar years. I don’t see many current YA books that start with, say, a 14-year-old, and end with the MC as 20, or age someone from 13 to 18 or even start with a child and end with someone in the early years of adulthood. I am reading one YA historical now, My Family for the War, where the protagonist ages from 10 to 17, but it was originally published in Germany, not the United States.

    • MandyHubbard Nov 13 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      Well, I don’t think this should be a depressing post for you– I think it’s a matter of YOU figuring out what market your novels fit. In other words, don’t hope the book will fit the market, find the part of the market that fits your book.

      There are plenty of YA novels that are not sexy, Gossip Girl in history books– PRISONERS OF THE PALACE, BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY, THE BOOK THIEF, etc. It all comes down to the writing and the characters and whether teens are going to identify and connect with your story and characters. I do think a character aging dramatically can be problematic, but it really just comes down to the writing.

      Think of it this way: you don’t just want a publisher to buy the book, you want READERS to buy the book. And it might be that adult readers are going to connect more with your style, and that’s FINE.

  5. Sarah J. Nov 13 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    I always love posts like this. Makes me feel like I’m on the right track!

  6. Giora Nov 13 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Thanks for the information, and because I only write contemporary realistic YA fiction I’m pleased to be at least for now in what’s selling.

  7. Alexa (Loves Books) Nov 13 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Thank you for sharing in this post! It’s always interesting to get another perspective on what kind of novels are doing well in the industry. As a writer (and one that aspires to be published by one of the big 6!), I do think that I tend to feel like I should write in trend… But ultimately, whatever story/characters are playing in my head win out and I write what’s fitting to them.

  8. Jamie K Nov 13 2012 at 3:29 pm #

    This is a great post! Any plans for doing something similar for the MG market? I’m really curious to see how that compares to the YA market.

  9. Katie Nov 13 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Oh, good. YA Epic Fantasy is my favorite–and the genre of the book I’m about to start querying. I can’t wait to see if I get anywhere with it.

    Thanks for such an informative post. I agree with loads of what you said. I can’t wait for the love triangle to go out of popularity–unless it’s something so uniquely different that I can look past it.

  10. JQ Trotter Nov 13 2012 at 10:47 pm #

    This is such a helpful post! I’m glad to hear that thrillers/horrors are sought after. I do love a good horror but and there doesn’t ever seem to be enough.

  11. Amy Jane Nov 14 2012 at 12:17 am #

    This is the 2nd or third place I’ve read epic fantasy is on the upswing.
    So. encouraging.

    When I started writing my novel (slid between naps and homeschool lessons) 6 years ago, I was told fantasy was dead.
    Guess this just goes to show that reading trends are like any other– keep it in the closet (or under the bed) long enough and eventually you’ll be back in fashion.

    Though I like the suggestion you brought up about querying anyway. The message I got back then was ‘don’t waste our time’.

    Maybe I’ve just found nicer folks now?

  12. C Nov 16 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    This post gives me hope, as someone who is writing her first novel. Thank you!

  13. Athena Nov 20 2012 at 9:32 am #

    What if it is an Epic Fantasy in which the main character realizes they can see ghosts and fly? 🙂 Self-discovery is a component of almost every YA fantasy/SF. In SHADOW & BONE, the heroine suddenly discovers she possesses great magic. In GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, the heroine knows she has abilities but she once again has to discover their extent.

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