This is an excerpt from Writing for the Young Adult Market: Crafting YA Books that Sell, a new ebook from The Author Studio about how to research, write to, and dominate the young adult market.
So many posts on writers’ forums and questions that crop up at agent and editor discussions at conferences relate to the viability of a specific project. It’s natural for a writer to want to get a yes or no answer on whether or not the concept of their book is sellable. Unfortunately there’s no way for a book to address every possible permutation of a YA concept and whether or not it sellable. However there do seem to be a few patterns in books that do get stuck in limbo, and so it can be helpful to set them out in case any of these apply to your work. Let’s dive in.
Not in touch with today’s market: As was mentioned before, YA books are generally written by adults. That doesn’t mean that adults are out of touch with teen culture, necessarily, and plenty of excellent YA popular with teens and adults alike is written by people over the age of, say, 40.
However, in terms of marketability, if you’re an older writer and you’re drawing on your memory of published YA that you read as a teenager for a starting point in approaching your own writing, you are, necessarily, behind the times. Writers who pitch their books as in the vein of Catcher in the Rye or something like Sweet Valley High or inspired by Judy Blume are going to have a tough time proving their relevance to industry professionals. Of course, those YA titles from your past have a lot of thematic resonance, because the internal landscape of being a teenager stays constant. However, the publishing marketplace doesn’t, and comparisons to these legacy titles can be something of a canary in a coal mine for publishing professionals that indicates that the author is not market savvy. Do more research and find more recently published books that feel similar to what your book is attempting. Again, read the best sellers. Read the award winners. Know what’s going on today, because that’s the only way to get your book published tomorrow.
Too slow—the book of your heart problem: Writers always encourage other writers to keep focused on the “book of their heart.” It’s a lovely notion, and a good one too. No one should give up on their dreams. That’s not how writing works. We do it out of passion and we do it out of care for the particular project that we’ve undertaken.
However, when the writing process drags out over multiple years, the market will shift. Sometimes, writers will invest lots of time, energy, and passion into a project that either becomes outdated in terms of trends, or that get “scooped” buy another book that’s acquired before they have a chance to get their work in the hands of editors and agents. Some writers spend years laboring and perfecting and polishing a single work, and never get it published, not because they weren’t persistent, but simply because they didn’t move fast enough. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see a deal report for the exact same concept you’ve been writing for years. Granted, it’s always hard to say what’s an identical concept and what just another peer book in its trend category—however, sometimes you do just get scooped.
For example, if you are book is a retelling of a relatively obscure myth set in a particular updated or unusual setting—say you retold “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in Imperial China—and that kind of book is just sold, it will be difficult to convince publishers that yours is anything different. They’ll be reluctant to try and market the exact same book at the exact same time. It’s sort of like when two movies come out at the same time and have a very similar concept, like Armageddon and Independence Day, or that summer we had a lot of movies about the president’s daughter with Chasing Liberty and First Daughter, or No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. In the minds of consumers, they’ll get conflated, no matter how different they actually are. And editors will avoid that, because it weakens their title’s market potential.
Fortunately, things come and go in cycles, and something that may not work now may work in another, say, ten years. If you can stand to wait, that’s fine. But know that the longer you take with the book of your heart, the less responsive you’re going to be able to be, and the less able you’ll be to strike when the iron is hot.
Too fast—you’re rushing and it’s sloppy, an obvious cash-in: The opposite problem of lingering on the book of your heart is writing too fast to attempt to cash in on something. YA editors and agents can see through that. They know when something is an authentic, and they know when it’s something you don’t like writing but are just writing because it seems on trend. There’s just no way to fake genuine enthusiasm. This is why it’s so important to make sure that you’re not just writing about something that’s selling, but about something you genuinely care about. It’s all about finding an intersection. And it’s also about improving your craft, so that when you do execute something that’s timely, it’s well done. But that’s more of a craft book discussion!
The “freshness” of your premise knocks it out of YA: Fresh concepts are good. As you’ve established, publishers don’t want to knock themselves off. However, writers who get too experimental with YA can risk knocking themselves out of the age category entirely in traditional publishing.
The most common example of this is toying with the protagonist’s age—for example, an eleven-year-old protagonist, or a twenty-five-year-old protagonist, or a protagonist who is an adult reciting accounts of their teenage life. These just go against genre conventions.
The time span of the novel is another example. YA books don’t typically follow a character for an extended amount of time. A series might, but an individual volume is unlikely to follow a character from ages 13 to 18. That’s because kids do read relatively close to their age: a 13-year-old will want a book about a 14 or 15-year-old, and so on. It’s also just a lot of events to tackle in a YA book. And this isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen, but it could be a red flag. It’s another craft element to consider whether it’s really necessary to your book or not.
Basically, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A fresh and exciting conceit is great, but not to the point where it isn’t giving YA editors what they actually want. And maybe that means you’re just writing adult sci-fi, or romance, or new adult, or literary fiction. That’s fine! You just have to be aware of what you have on your hands and target your submissions appropriately.
All that said, this is advice really stands more for traditional publication. In indie YA, you will see the occasional 19 or 20-year-old protagonist. You might also see more sex. And you might see plot lines that seem to skew more towards the adult version of whatever genre the book is written in, like sci-fi or fantasy. Given the readership of indie YA is, as we’ve established, generally older than teenagers, these adjustments are more widely accepted. You’ll also see more series, which, again, is more accepted by the indie readership than it is by traditional publishing gatekeepers.
Too long wordcount: Another piece of advice that has to be prefaced with “never say never,” but: YA novels just aren’t that long. If your book is 200,000 words long, you’re not going to sell it to a traditional publisher until you cut it down. Period. This can be very discouraging to writers, because, well, editing is hard! And you love your story, and it’s hard to let any of it go. However, if you’re serious about making it in traditional YA publishing, you’re going to have to give it up. It’s a good skill to acquire.
As with any quote-unquote rule, it’s totally possible to find some outliers that break this one. However, that doesn’t mean you should do it yourself. Rule breaking books tend to be published by authors with an established track record, or authors that publishers are super super confident they can break out and make a killing on. As a debut, you’re giving yourself an even steeper mountain to climb if you’re asking a publisher not only to bet on you, but to bet on you as a gangbusters success. Do yourself the favor of making yourself as easy as a yes for a publisher as possible, and make your book conform to genre standards.
Generally speaking, YA fantasy can see word counts that go as high as a hundred twenty thousand words, maybe even slightly higher. Sci-fi, too, will also get a high word count, as will some historical—anything with a lot of world-building, in other words. Romance or contemporary will tend to be shorter, anywhere from a brisk 45,000 words to 85 (ish) thousand. Thrillers and mysteries can go either way, but generally don’t get super long. Do your research, once again. Read things in your YA genre and get a feel for how they’re paced and how long they are.
Again, however, this varies in indie YA. Ebooks don’t have literal pages, and so the “weight” of 50,000 vs. 200,000 is not an issue. That said, indie YA authors do tend to keep individual volumes from getting too long—usually, it’s just in their interest to sell more, shorter titles over one longer one.
For more information on how to crack the YA market and get your YA novel published, check out Writing for the YA Market, out now!