Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are The Children Our Publishing Future?

British editions of the seven Harry Potter booksImage via Wikipedia
Harlan Coben to write Young Adult Novels

It seems like a lot of authors are making the switch to teen audiences these days. Harlan Coben signs a three-book deal to write about a teenager attempting to expose a conspiracy behind his family, F. Paul Wilson has a new series of young Repairman Jack novels on the way, and the list continues to grow. And it isn't just books, either. The next batch of James Bond movies are going to focus on a young, teenage Bond (presumably minus the martinis and gratuitous sex), and have you see the new Doctor Who? More like Doogie Who-ser, M.D. Of course, it isn't unusual for Hollywood to tone everything down to a broader PG-13 audience when things get tight, but at this point I'm waiting for Dan Brown to announce a new young adult series featuring a teenage Langdon skipping his study hall to chase down adolescent Templars.

So what gives? Have teenagers suddenly grown as a literary market? It seems kind of contradictory that Young Adult sections at bookstores and libraries are doubling in size at the same time that parents and other irrational busybodies are crying out that texting and twitter are raising a generation of functional illiterates. Then again, I've always been wary of the naysayers who claim that the advancement of communications technology actually has teenagers communicating less. But even if I disagree with that, can I deny that teens are spending more and more time online, texting, tweeting, messaging, and playing video games that becoming eerily realistic? How can teenagers squeeze all of this in and still have time to read the last Young Adult series? They must be, as I would hope the publishing industry has sales numbers to back their big push to enlarge the YA market.

Harry Potter and Twilight might be a major reason for the move. All of those young kids who started reading the first Harry Potter have grown u along with the scar-faced wizard, and have joined forces with the equally obsessive (if not more so) Twilight crowd. With such a large fan base of teenagers devouring Atlas Shrugged-sized tomes about glittery vampires and dysfunctional warlock apprentices, and spending great wads of cash on anything tying in with the books and movies in the process, there is definitely money to be made. But how does that translate into bigger book sales overall, especially in a recession that has even the major publishers scrambling to justify their roles in the marketplace?

My theory (and I'm sure it isn't mine alone) is that the blending of technologies into the world of print, far from being the death knell of the publishing industry as many have predicted, has actually begun to breath new life into it. While eBooks and eReaders have yet to take over the marketplace, they are definitely gaining in popularity, and have helped make written works more easily accessible to those with powerful handheld communication devices, and we all know how much teenagers love their powerful handheld communication devices. Add this to the growing number of teenagers actively reading or writing in the ever growing blogosphere, and you have a new generation of children actually being led to the literary world by the very machines we feared would destroy it.

So yes, we will most likely see an increasing number of established authors jumping gleefully into the Young Adult pool. And as eReaders and ePublishers begin integrating animation and interactive features into their eBook releases, more and more kids are going to be tricked into thinking that books are just as cool, if not cooler, than 3D movies and PSP.
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Tom Kepler said...

As a career school teacher and a writer, I find your thoughts provocative. There is a trend to sell to our youth--advertising wants to expand its market base. Unfortunately, this means more sexy clothes for young kids--and all that.

Another interesting example (in the opposite) is writer Judy Blume. She wrote for her girls as they grew up, so her books went from middle school subjects to "Wifey."

Your comment about technology is significant. Are the authors writing to technology users or young kids? Which leads and what follows?

S. Michael Wilson said...

While I agree that advertisers seem obsessed with making our children grow up faster than any of us would like, I tend to see the proliferation of Young Adult novels more of a response to the curious nature of developing adolescents.

I personally recall reading novels meant for adults in my early and mid teens, and that need to explore adult themes that slowly become relevant to early teenagers is going to be fed one way or another.

Horror and romance might seem like inappropriate genres for younger readers, but by catering to their hunger for adult themes with books specifically written for their age group, I think we manage to bridge that gap between childhood and adulthood much more effectively.

As for the technology, I believe the vast majority of authors still write towards the audience, and that publishers are far more likely to push for gadget-enhanced materials than either the readers and writers.