Erin Latimer: My audience is mainly teens…okay, it’s pretty much all teens. And the thing is, most of them don’t have credit cards. They’re not allowed buying stuff on the internet. So…how do I sell them books? I’m a little nervous I’m going to get to my launch date in September and my book is going to crash and burn because none of my teen readers will be able to purchase it.
Erin’s email was much longer than this, and she listed a bunch of things she’s doing right, but my response was ballooning, so I figured I’d do a YA-specific blog post. Before I get to the YA part, I want to address Erin’s fear of her book crashing and burning. This only happens in traditional publishing, where first-week sales are crucial for a work’s success. This isn’t true with self-publishing. My YA works written six years ago sell great today, with zero marketing and with a quiet launch. Your works are forever. Your hopes for them shouldn’t be so brief.
As for the YA market, it can be a different beast in some ways, but probably not as great as some claim. We hear that print books are still coveted by younger readers, but one survey (in the link below) showed roughly half of teens prefer print books, and the other half had no preference or prefer ebooks. And we’re seeing shopping habits adjust to reflect this shift in attitudes.
This PW article has a lot of information and some great graphs. Keep in mind that these numbers are from Nielsen, so they greatly exaggerate the print component. These are numbers from works with ISBNs, which miss at least a third of the ebook market. Nielsen’s data gives us an idea of what’s going on in the Big 5, but not the market as a whole. And even here, we can see that the number of YA books purchased in physical retailers is on the decline, and online book shopping and ebook purchases are on the rise. That means indies are gaining a wider potential audience for their work, and this audience is only growing.
The preference for print books with many young readers might never go away, and there’s a good reason for this. Young adults enjoy being seen with their hobbies, as it helps define them, and helps them find like-minded peers. We adorn ourselves throughout life in order to define ourselves to others, but this is strongest, I think, as we are becoming our own people. I know that it was important for me to define myself as a reader. It was something I was proud of as a kid. I wanted to be around other readers. I “wore” my books the way another kid might wear a Nirvana t-shirt, to advertise our tastes, strike up conversations, and form bonds with others.
I used the word “might” there, because there is one way I see this changing. These days, I see a dedicated e-reader as the greatest sign that one is an avid reader. One idea an indie author or publisher might play with is creating a “deluxe ebook edition.” This would come with a “skin” for the back of their e-reader, which would show off their favorite work even as they move on and read other books. It could also come with a wall vinyl of the spine of the book, which could go on the readers’ “bookshelf,” growing into a collection of spines across their bedroom walls. Understanding the need to advertise our interests can direct promotional efforts, rather than giving up on ebooks.
There are several reasons YA is seeing growth in digital, despite this love of print. One is that parents are getting more comfortable providing digital allowances. Retailers should make this a focus to encourage the process, but I know in the past that I’ve been able to simply “gift” books or email gift cards to young readers, and they can buy whatever they like. Credit cards are not required. And kids often use their parents’ accounts anyway, with their permission. Young adults read on their phones a lot, and many already have tablets. The market is there.
A second reason is the rise of indie works, which are generally cheaper. Price-sensitive young readers can get one ebook or print book for $10, or they can get three or four for the same total price. Combine price sensitivity with avid reading habits, and it’s no wonder ebooks are on the rise. Then take into account that many of these readers don’t have cars to get to a physical bookstore, and that at this age we often want things “now” (even while in the middle of a boring class) and you’ve got more cause for growth.
One of the strongest factors may be that the YA market isn’t even a YA market. In addition to writing YA novels, I read them! So do many of the elderly, decrepit, has-beens my age. Just because you write YA doesn’t mean your audience is just young adults. It’s a genre, not a market.
So what would I suggest a YA author do? Self-publish and watch the market move toward you. Don’t sell your lifetime rights while things are in transition. I’ve seen claims that the “indie revolution” is over, or past its heyday. The opposite is true. The physical bookstore heyday of the 90s is past us. Major publishers are reaping incredible profits with the advent of ebooks, but their control of the market and their market share is declining. In the future, it’s quite likely that these will be rights-holding corporations, surviving on their backlist. Don’t be part of that backlist. Be your own frontlist.
You can start by innovating with your marketing, with stickers, character trading cards, USB thumb drives, and POD edition giveaways. You can write in lots of places and see where you might get discovered. Erin mentioned she has a following on WattPad. Keep that up. There are all kinds of outlets, from fan fiction sites to WriteOn. Post short works written in your world or using your characters. This might send readers to your paid works.
Another great idea is to reach out to local schools and see about talking to classrooms. Teachers are thrilled to have guest speakers, as it wakes up the class, brings in excitement, and links the teaching of literature to the real world, by showing young readers that authors are accessible human beings, and not all that different from them. I did this in North Carolina and was invited back over and over to the same classrooms, becoming a favorite YA author for many of these kids back when no one else was reading my material.
Above all, write stories that knock their mismatched socks off. Young readers make the best audience because they are simultaneously discerning and fanatical. That makes them difficult to please, but sure to spread the word if you do make them happy. This means not slouching with the quality of your plots and the crispness of your prose. You can be lazy when you write for adults, but not for kids. And don’t forget that they are smarter than we remember being when we were that age. Talk up to them, not down. They are incredibly patient with us dullards if they can see that we’re trying to reach their level.
In everything you do as an author, work harder than anyone else around you. Want it more than you want anything else in life. Even if fortune doesn’t favor you, you’ll have zero regrets, and you’ll create something you’re proud of. Hope that helps.