Why don’t agents like my YA book? Why do I keep getting rejections–this is the kind of young adult novel editors want right now, I thought? What mistakes am I making querying this book? Is my YA book publishable at all?! HELP!
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 to “can I get a publisher for my YA novel?”
Unfortunately, there’s no easy rule of thumb for whether your YA novel will sell or not. Like–should YA novels be written in first person? Sometimes, but not always. Third person won’t sink your chances. Does a YA novel have to have romance? Well, YA romance books are popular, but not every popular YA novel is a romance, if you actually look at what’s selling. Anyone who thinks those kinds of hard and fast rules are why a YA book is getting rejected doesn’t know how complex the industry is.
Sure, there are definitely some bad YA novel cliches you want to avoid. But even more than cliches, there are 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: First of all, the grain of salt here is that no one can say definitively what’s the biggest trend in the YA market. Individual young adult agents and editors have their own tastes, and there are some genres of YA books that publishing houses want more than others, but it’s not something you can pin down or find in black and white.
That said, all YA being published today is, well, modern. Not in setting, necessarily, but in sensibility. Young adult books need to speak to the state of the world and the teenagers of the world today. But the important thing to realize about the YA novel market right now is that YA books are generally written, acquired, and edited 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.
If you’re an older writer and you’re drawing inspiration from 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. I’ll say that again: read new YA novels. Read YA books that win awards. Read YA books that have hit the best seller lists. 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, off trend, or passé. 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 for it to be relevant. This leaves you leaning on your writer friends, wondering why don’t agents want my young adult book? and is my YA book even publishable? or gnashing your teeth over what a literary agent rejection actually means. But while it’s utterly heartbreaking to see the concept you’ve been writing for years become one of the overdone trends in YA, trends are also cyclical, and in a few years, your vampire or dystopian novel might be a hot ticket.
But even if the book of your heart isn’t one of those YA novels that’s trendy, taking too long with a book that’s unique can still get in your way if you get “scooped.” Someone might publish a YA novel with similar concepts to yours and take away your novel’s market potential. For example, if you’re writing a YA novel retelling with a fresh twist—say you retold “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in Imperial China—and that kind of book just sold, it will be difficult to convince agents “hey, this is a YA novel publishers will want!” They’ll be reluctant to try and market a super-similar 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 readers, 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. If your “inspiration” for a book is “what’s an easy to sell YA novel idea?” then you’re not going to get far. (Do YA novelists make a lot of money? Sometimes, sure. But you’d be better off learning day trading or card counting–the odds are better.)
So while your query letter might not say I wrote this because I thought YA novels are easy to sell and I want to make money writing, so whatever!, 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. Trends in YA are important–the readers are young. And, as we’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. How old should a YA protagonist be, you ask? Well, an eleven-year-old protagonist is too young. That’s more middle grade. A twenty-five-year-old is too old a protagonist for YA. An adult recounting memories of their teenage years–almost always a no, because they’re an adult in the end. These just go against genre conventions.
The time span of the novel is another example. How much time can pass in a YA novel? Well, typically, YA books don’t typically follow a character for an extended amount of time–maybe a year or two, but not much more. 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 (because yes, YA novels can have sex in them). 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: How long should a young adult novel be? You could probably ask ten different editors and get ten different average word counts for a YA novel. But in general, YA novels just aren’t that long. From a purely economic standpoint, their price point, at about $18, just can’t sustain the paper needed to get out a Game-of-Thrones-length book. 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 selling your novel in traditional YA publishing, you’re going to have to get comfortable with cutting and revising. You’ll have to learn how to cut out info dumps and how to copy edit your own manuscript and how to do a big revision in general.
As with any quote-unquote rule, it’s totally possible to find some YA novels with high word counts that are successful right now. 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 novel word counts will be higher than contemporary YA novel word counts. YA sci-fi and dystopian will also get a high word count, as will some historical—anything with a lot of world-building, in other words. Romance or contemporary YA novel word counts will tend to be shorter, anywhere from a brisk 45,000 words to 85,000. YA thriller and YA mystery word counts can go either way, but generally don’t get super long to keep pacing brisk.
Takeaway: Read! Read things in your YA genre and get a feel for how long a typical YA novel is, how old a YA protagonist should be, and what YA editors are publishing now. Find some beta readers and get involved on YA writing social media and YA writing contests.