If you’re under 25 you probably think that the genre called Young Adult has been with us since forever. But it’s actually pretty new (given that publishing must be the world’s second oldest profession). For a newbie, it’s already well established with its own acronym of YA and sub-groupings: 13-18 (Young Young Adult) and then 16-19 (Older Young Adult) and now even 19-25 (New Adult) with considerable overlap between the groupings. So lots of 16 year olds read New Adult and lots of 21 year olds will read Older Young Adult.
It’s the fastest growing market segment in publishing. In fact, it’s the only growing market segment in publishing if you exclude colouring books for adults – which I do on point of principle. The goal of every publisher is to find a young adult crossover, which means that it is a book that teens will read and also the teens’ parents. Sherlock Holmes is everyone’s favourite example of crossover perfection.
YA is only really about 50 years old. That’s it. Not that the YA topics are new. People have been writing about the coming-of-age experience since time immemorial. And children have been the protagonists of books for about as long. So there’s been Children’s Literature, that is, books written by adults for children about what adults thought that children wanted to read — or should read. Treasure Island is an example of the former, and the vomit-inducing Pollyanna of the latter. First published 1913, Pollyanna is about a child who was so sweetly nice and kind you just want to punch her in the face. It was a bestseller, made into movies and spawned sequels. So someone read it.
Books featuring children were not necessarily for children, which people these days find confusing. Lord of the Flies by William Golding is such a terrifying indictment of humanity that children should be banned from reading it. Astonishingly, it’s on school curricula across the globe, which must have baffled William Golding but delighted his estate.
What changed was SE Hinton’s 1967 book, The Outsider, which she wrote and published as a teenager. It tells the story of two rival high school gangs in an average school in Small Town America, and brims with cool words and kids so cool that even their ludicrous names are cool (Ponyboy is a notable example). They smoked and drank and swore and got into fights and killed people, and yet were just like you and me, as murderers so frequently are. It sold word-of-mouth from kid to kid. The first group of adults who paid attention was school librarians, who then told each other about it at their conferences and through their newsletters. Librarians were then and are now a powerful body for getting little known books a wider audience. The book went on to sell millions, and is still selling today.
In 1975, Judy Blume published a book about teens having sex and not dying from the experience. In fact, nothing bad happens to them at all. There is no unwanted pregnancy, no near-death experience from a botched back alley abortion or complication at the birth. Instead the girl uses birth control. There’s not even a traumatic breakup that should serve as a salutary lesson to those involved in the dirty deed. That book has been and continues to be banned in some places in the USA. It nonetheless became a bestseller.
This was the wake-up call for publishers. Kids writing about kids turned out to be lucrative. And the genre YA was born. Largely driven by America, it took awhile before crossing the Atlantic. Gollantz spearheaded YA in Britain, although it specialized in science fiction and fantasy, which before Game of Thrones was a niche market. Most publishers resisted mightily out of fears of censorship. Again they were pushed by school librarians, school bookshops and school book clubs. Society had changed, and the issues and problems facing the young had too. YA books discussed these issues and in the process legitimized and normalized them. There was a symbiotic growth between YA and societal change that largely went unrecognized. The slow growth and acceptance of YA culminated in the publication of the Harry Potter series, which decided its viability rather decisively.
But it wasn’t just Harry Potter that helped to solidify YA as a bona fide genre. In my opinion, it would have happened anyway for one reason and one reason only: technology. With the advent of social media, peer-to-peer networking was magnified and influences such as youtube, vloggers, bloggers, fan sites and fan fiction all amplified the grassroots word-of-mouth.
While it is possible for people of all ages to use snapchat, twitter and instagram, it’s the younger demographic that disproportionately uses this technology, boosting YA books in the process. This is why YA is the only genre selling well. If the grey-haired set vlogged then perhaps books that appealed to their demographic would also be courted by publishing companies.
Technology has decentralized the control of information from author/publisher to reader. The power structure of YA has shifted from traditional sources to technologically-driven younger and new ones. And this has in turn produced an emboldened younger generation to demand more. They don’t want to just immerse themselves in their digital communities, but expect to interact with the author, asking questions, commenting and creating their own fan fiction or youtube vids using the author’s characters and plot lines. Not all authors are appreciative, and some participate through gritted teeth.
But technology has gone one-step further and created platforms for sharing writing, which appeals to the under 30 demographic with a heavy tilt toward the teen demographic. Sarah J Maas, the international bestseller of YA fantasy series, Throne of Glass, got started on one. She was 16. She’s not much older than that now. In other words, YA literature is sidestepping publishers. Given the uninspiring history of publishing houses relationship with YA lit, perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing.