Friday, January 4, 2013

Historical YA

Last fall I attended the 2012 YALSA Literature Symposium, a group of young adult librarians from all over the country talking about what the "next big thing" in YA literature might be.  Before the conference, someone on the teen lit loop asked me to gather information on trends with historical YA. There was no specific track or workshop on that subject, but I did discuss it with some librarians, and heard a few thing I had not thought of.

Yes, YA Historicals are being published. BUT, the marketing to teens usually downplays the historical aspect. Most librarians, both school and public, noted that when they mentioned "historical novel" to a teen, they usually equated that with history class and immediately lost interest. While adult readers may hear Historical romance and envision the wide expanse of love and romance set against the pageant that is history (or something like that), the teen stops listening after the "h-word".  So they need to be marketed as something else.
Let me give one example I found at the conference, Gilt, by Katherine Longshore.  I am not advocating for this book, in fact, I found the characters in the story somewhat difficult to care about. But I did analyze the way it was presented.  First, look at the cover. I see nothing that indicates this is either YA or Historical. In fact, my first thought was that this was some Hollywood exposee story for adults and wondered why it would be at a YA conference.

The back cover begins with three heavily emphasized words: Passion. Lies. Betrayal. The information that the novel is set in the court of King Henry VIII, is done briefly and in a much smaller font.

The inside copy also emphasizes the "glittering new life of fabulous gowns, opulent parties, and dashing men..." as well as the "secrets and lies, trysts, and back-door deals."  The marketing relates to the themes, not the backdrop.

The long and short of it was that YA historical novels are still viable, and librarians will recommend them to teens, but the way they are promoted to teens matters. It has to take into account the possible reaction that the teens may experience with something that may at first appear school-related when they want something to read for fun.


Tori said...

Wow, that's really interesting. Then it would mainly be the marketing team that comes up with the idea not to market it as a historical? Say, if you were writing a query to an agent, would you market it this way?

B. A. Binns said...

If I were to write a YA historical, I don't think I would even use that word in the pitch. I would talk about the excitement, the conflict, and maybe just barely mention it takes place in the Xth century, unless this was a publishing house that specialized in historical novels.

You as the author provide information in your pitch or query that an editor will use to try to convince the publishing house that they can make money with your book. Marketing usually does not read your book, they want the high points to see if they can sell it. I suggest your pitch to the editor have the same vein/voice you would use in trying to talk a teen who has just walked out of history class into reading your book. Maybe even talk to some librarians about how they pitch some books to students.

Marketing usually has a big say in whether or not a house buys a book, and they do not read the books, just hear the editor's pitch and decide from that if it will sell. The editor does read the book, but relies heavily on your pitch, your enthusiasm, the words in your query, to convince marketing.

Jeanne said...

Thank you for addressing this topic. I've written a YA historical fiction novel and my request for beta readers among teens has met with the same 'glazed' looks you describe. But the ones who have read it were quite positive and encouraging. I've chosen to emphasize the words "Nazi Germany" and "risk" and "exposure," similar to the high-tension words you offer. Interesting post.

Blythe Gifford said...

Sad for those of us who get excited about history. Guess it's going to be tough for me to attract young readers, huh? Hate that history is throught of as dull when it is so fascinating. (History geek here.)

Vicky English said...

I'm currently marketing a YA set in the McCarthy Era and finding the same problem. Although editors and agents are intrigued, the ultimate response is it will be a hard sell. Thanks for this. It tells me that how the book is packaged makes all the difference.

B. A. Binns said...

Blythe, I agree that history isn't really dull, but it wasn't until a college history course that I realized that the past was just one giant soap-opera packed with fun and real people. I blame my high school history classes, dull as dry toast, all names and dates and rote memorization. They were absolutely the dullest courses of my high school years.

If they still teach history that way I can understand why teens get scared of the word, and why publishers have so much trouble finding a way to effectively market those books to them.