Thursday, December 2, 2010

The rise of the subs

I’m on record all over the place that young adult is a genre and that paranormal, dystopian, realistic, etc. are best thought of subgenres of YA. I’ve said many times that adolescent experience is the concern of all YA, and the subgenres are the prisms through which we view that experience.

I continue to believe this, but for better or worse it’s a literary-critical stance more than a market-driven one. In other words, I think writers have an enormous amount to gain from being aware of this hierarchy, because I think it frees them from the awful ghettos of the adult genres (romance, “literary,” mystery, sci-fi, etc.) and lets them explore the richer terrain of teen characters in any imaginable situation. As a result, I don’t think you can overstate how important for writers it is that YA sections in many retailers and libraries have not been broken up by genre.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this viewpoint is carrying the day in the marketplace. The subs are rising, and the emphasis in the marketplace is shifting toward them. I think that’s at the core of Elaine Marie Alphin’s superb post on genre:

[…] genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.

If you haven’t already, take a look at this piece in PW about “today’s YA scene” (quotes from yours truly). One example among several:

The makeup of Zondervan's YA list, which debuted in May 2008, is changing somewhat, reports senior v-p and publisher Annette Bourland. "In the past, I would say our list has been 50% chick lit, 25% paranormal, and 25% adventure fantasy," she says. "Going forward, since chick lit has toned down, the list will be 50% to 60% paranormal, 30% fantasy, and the rest contemporary fiction."

And another:

"From what I've seen, a lot of what's happening in the YA category has filtered down from the adult romance genre," says Leah Hultenschmidt, senior editor of Sourcebooks Fire, which launched last spring. Formerly editorial director at Dorchester Publishing, Hultenschmidt also acquires adult romances for Sourcebooks' Casablanca imprint. "Vampires were big in adult romance 10 years ago," she says. "Twilight reinvigorated them and suddenly vampires were everywhere. After adult romance shifted to demons and then to fallen angels, both then cropped up in YA."

Please don’t think I imply any criticism of these publishers. It’s their job (and mine) to look at the market and acquire accordingly. I don’t necessarily agree with what they conclude, but I can see why they do.

But I’m burying the lede here. The real headline here should be B & N reorganizing their YA section, a move they announced in October.

“It’s really about improving the customer experience,” Amicucci [Mary Amicucci, v-p of children’s books] told PW. “We haven’t expanded or shrunk anything. That was the beauty of this—by breaking the genres out, we can really showcase the books. The key is a directed customer shopping experience that really supports browsing patterns.”

I take B & N at its word that this move is supported by what they’ve seen from their customers. They’re in the business of selling book, not supporting literary-critical ideals, and I’d probably make the same call. But I cannot help but fear this will curtail some of the innovation and experimentation that’s been so central to the broader health of the genre in the last decade. Is this the end of the very thing that made it possible for writers like Libba Bray and Scott Westerfeld (to name but two prominent examples) to cross traditional genre boundaries without a second thought? I don’t know, but the sight of a periscope on the horizon is always troubling.

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