Before JK Rowling, critics and experts predicted that young adult (YA) literature would finally die, as sales continued to decline. In 1997, a mere 3,000 YA books were published. A decade later that number was 30,000.
The success of Harry Potter changed everything. YA is now embraced by teenagers and adults alike – a 2012 Bowker Market Research study in the US found that 55 per cent of people buying YA books are over 18. We’re currently living in the second golden age of YA literature. But why is there a sudden demand for these coming-of-age books?
Apart from the undeniable quality of the books themselves, a generation of online readers are creating new ways to discuss, dissect and celebrate their favourite stories. And it’s driving sales in a big way.
Take John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012). It reached #1 on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller lists six months before the book was published. It received thousands of five-star reviews, ranked by readers who hadn’t even held their copies. The reason? Green told his fans – the Nerdfighters – on Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube, that he would personally sign the first print of the pre-ordered books. He ended up signing 150,000 of them, but a pain in the wrist was a small price to pay.
John Green isn’t the only author embracing social media to engage readers. Amulet Books, in conjunction with Puffin UK, created the campaign Uncover the Color to promote the eighth book of the famous Diary of Wimpy Kid series in 2013. The campaign included interactive mini-games and trivia challenges, and was advertised in other children’s websites such as FunBrain.com and CartoonNetwork.com. It resulted in 1.3 million copies sold worldwide in the first week of the book’s launch.
In 2015, Harlequin Teen created a “digital oracle” on Twitter to promote the first book in Eleanor Herman’s new Greek-inspired series, Legacy of Kings. They invited readers to ask @HarlequinTeen on Twitter using hashtag #asklegacyofkings. The program responds with one of 100 statements from various gods, including Poseidon and Athena.
If content is king, to repeat that somewhat hackneyed and sexist Silicon Valley mantra, social media has undoubtedly become queen. Should publishing be “more about culture than book sales”, as a recent article published in The Conversation has it? The point is moot. Publishing has always been about both culture and commerce.
Art and commerce has come together in a related trend: the resurgence of the middlebrow reader. Academic Beth Driscoll describes these readers as middle-class and aspirational, seeking emotional connections with book characters, other readers and authors.
In other words, reading has become more than ever an emotional, cultural and social act. YA readers are at the forefront of this: discussing books, connecting with other fans and tweeting to their favourite authors to ask about plot holes.
They create drawings, songs, poems and fan fictions to declare their love towards a certain book character (in late 2000s, the debate of the Twilight decade seemed to be: Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? They dress in Gryffindor robes and bring their wands to bookshops to queue for J.K. Rowling’s final Potter book.
This level of engagement has not been seen in readers of other genres, and increasingly it has an impact on the success of a book. A 2014 study of over 10,000 Facebook and Twitter posts proved that social media activity helps drive book sales. Yet it’s not just the quantity of social media mentions that creates success, but their quality.
Recently, Marcella Purnama studied readers’ emotional engagement and its impact on the success of YA author John Green’s books, drawing on the Goodreads reviews of Green’s four books. The results showed that high levels of emotional engagement from readers correlated with better Goodreads ratings.
The more emotion readers show online, the more they interact with others about the books. And the more interaction, the greater the success of the books. This creates a snowball effect, driven by high levels of social media engagement among YA readers, that has helped drive the growth of the category as a whole.
Sadly, some publishers and authors are still reluctant to use social media to market their books. Often publishers depend on booksellers and authors to connect directly with the readers, while authors hope that the publishers’ expertise and connections will increase book sales.
Readers are eager to share their reading experience. They share their latest reads on Facebook, write reviews on their blogs and actively find fan communities to talk about their favourite characters. The books that rise to the top will be the books with the most engaged readers. And it’s up to publishers and authors to keep the fire going.
Authors, get thee to social media: explaining the rise and rise of YA books
Marcella Purnama, Masters Candidate in Publishing and Communications, University of Melbourne and Mark Davis, Lecturer in Publishing and Communications, University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne
Image: Harry Potter books