Thought Catalog
September 29, 2015

Nobody Said YA Books Aren’t For Teens: Panel and Pushback At Nielsen’s Fine #KidsBookSummit

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iStockphoto / Diego Cervo
iStockphoto / Diego Cervo

When The Medium’s Message Gets Rough

It was an odd turnabout in the annual Nielsen Children’s Conference. Led by Kristen McLean—among the most respected people in the business of quantifying and evaluating the young person’s reading scene—the conference was a crackling success.

Kristen McLean
Kristen McLean

Smartly produced at New York’s pristine Convene Center in Lower Manhattan on a bright early-autumn day, a strong contingent of analysts, researchers, and professional publishing people were barreling through quick, succinct insights into one of the few dependably healthy sectors of the bookish industry.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this could go wrong, and did:

I had written a walkup to the conference here at Thought Catalog, and was glad to be in place, doing live coverage throughout the sessions, as my good colleague Gayle Feldman, worked to put her report together for The Bookseller (paywall) in London.

Gayle Feldman
Gayle Feldman

Feldman was right to focus her efforts on the conference’s revelations and examination of multi-cultural factors in the children’s book marketplace.

In Nielsen Children’s Book Summit explores demographic change, in fact, she helped give real visibility to the mounting call for diversity and range in our literary landscape, especially in a US field that sees such uptake in reading among Hispanic Americans. Feldman wrote:

Courtney Jones, Nielsen vice-president for multicultural strategy, revealed that 84 percent of the “most significant” markets in the US are “multicultural-majority.”  Forty-four percent of millennials aged 20-39 are from ethnic minorities.  But what concentrated the mind was that 51 percent of “generation next” – kids under nine – also are, constituting the majority of the children’s market now. Publishers ignore that at their peril.

I want to take her first point in particular because it holds real meaning for publishing, for readers, for authors, and for our culture today.

News That Publishing Can Use

What Nielsen is seeing in the US market is an important trend, expressed by charts that Jones showed us. They’ve been shared with me by McLean for our use here at Thought Catalog. Take a good look, I’m going to give you two key slides:

From Nielsen's Children's Book Summit 2015, used by permission of Kristen McLean
From Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit 2015, used by permission of Kristen McLean
From Nielsen's Children's Book Summit 2015, used by permission of Kristen McLean
From Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit 2015, used by permission of Kristen McLean

What you’re seeing here dovetails with McLean’s earlier commentary suggesting that the acculturated English-speaking demographic formed by Hispanic Americans is coming to represent a very strong level of buying power, enhanced by a serious interest in buying books—usually on parental impulse—for children in the family.

In its Core Children’s Deep Dive for Summer 2015, for example, Nielsen was able to see that Hispanic families were frequently seeing books as important elements of “quality family time,” coming in neck-and-neck with a nearly-80-percent ranking, with Americans who identify themselves as white, and putting fiction/story books ahead of toys and board games, TV and DVDs, the distractions of the Internet, smartphone apps, etc. This is good news. They’re reading stories together, these families.

From Nielsen's Core Children's Deep Dive, Summer 2015, used by permission
From Nielsen’s Core Children’s Deep Dive, Summer 2015, used by permission

Obviously, the message of commercial and cultural importance of an increasingly diversity-defined readership and audience is rising sharply in the minds of the publishing world, and rightly so.

And if anything, some of us see the fascinating trend of adults reading YA, or Young Adult, literature as something related to such issues of diversity.

The "Who Are The Adult Crossover Readers Of Young Adult Books" panel at Nielsen's Children's Book Summit. Do these people look that scary to you? Image: Porter Anderson
The “Who Are The Adult Crossover Readers Of Young Adult Books?” panel at Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit. Researcher Stephanie Retblatt is seen standing at the podium. Image: Porter Anderson

When Disconnects Happen Online

We have been fascinated by what Nielsen has reported many times now, the estimate that some 80 percent of YA sales in the States are being made not to young adults but to older adults who buy it to read, themselves (as opposed to buying it for their teen daughters and sons).

But the afternoon Twitter stream at Nielsen’s conference, if not quite interrupted, was sharply impacted by a loud round of objections from far outside the room and the event. And I’ll tell you something of how it looked to some of us at the conference first—this is my take on it, mind you—and then I’ll be able to round out some of what was going on, thanks to the good work of a librarian who’s close to some of the objections we were seeing.

Our hashtag was #KidsBookSummit and we had reached a “live focus panel”—that’s a combination of “focus group” and conference panel—in which adults who purposefully seek out YA work to read had come together to answer the questions of Smarty Pants Research chief Stephanie Retblatt about their fondness for YA.

What could be cooler? Here was a chance to hear from these readers who are out there in force, buying far beyond the Hunger Games dystopian love-‘n’-sacrifice trends and resolutely appreciating what they believe they find in this genre.

I, for one, was grateful to these readers for being willing to discuss their adamant appreciation for YA work and its authors and younger readers. This was a great panel. Its participants and Nielsen deserve our thanks and our praise.

Instead, they got:

And:

No one in the room had suggested that authors or publishers should “think about kids as data.” And no one had shamed readers in any way. Think about it: the industry represented in that room is utterly dependent on readers for its livelihood. Shaming those readers? #cmonson

We had eight avid readers of the work right in front of us and were grateful to be able to hear why they seek out this material for themselves. It’s hard to know how the children’s author Anne Ursu could have understood it in such a different way, although, as we all know, Twitter’s brevity can certainly cause confusion.

These men and women on the panel were wonderfully forthcoming, good-natured, patient with questions and unstinting in their praise and allegiance to YA literature. And yet, on the ether, a strange “YA is for young adults!” backlash had quickly gathered, seemingly led, at least in part, by Ursu.

As an adult who has witnessed Ursu’s tantrum, I’m perfectly happy to honor her wishes and go nowhere near her work, it’s safe from my mature eyes.

But it was clear from such seemingly misguided and occasionally incoherent hostility that some of the tweeters had little idea who or what Nielsen is and could think of a publishing establishment only as dangerous, evil people…never mind that some in the room were responsible for working with some of the most famous YA books in the business, from those endless cow-eyed vampire romances, Bella, to the latest disease-of-the-week for teens.

I quickly found that it was fruitless trying to engage them either on my own Twitter account, @Porter_Anderson, or via The Hot Sheet, @HotSheetPub (a newsletter that Jane Friedman and I have just launched specifically for authors). These weren’t people who wanted to understand what the event was, nor how supportive it was of the very YA work these readers and, apparently some authors, are interested in.

They might have seemed to have turned up primarily just to scream at the conference. They kept doing that, right on into the evening. In truth, the conference was hardly fazed. I joked with Nielsen’s Jonathan Nowell that I was doing damage control. But I was sorry to see so much negativity.

After all, at a time when the books market is so glutted that authors are disappearing without a trace and good material can be flattened by the output of an estimated more-than 1 million American new titles annually (traditionally published and self-published together), if you can get a whole generation or two of people eager to read your work? Rejoice!

Nobody at the Nielsen event was saying that YA books should be written differently or at aimed at anyone other than who they’re for now. And, knowing very well a lot of literary authors whose work is being all but blown up in the dive-bomb commercial smirk of the digital dynamic, I can tell you that some authors would say to YA that it should embrace those eagerly reading adults who have the money, the interest, and the good will to pick up books for  younger readers.

Nevertheless, we’re helped here by the understanding and experience of a librarian who works close to this market. She has been in touch with me as I released this story, and I’ve made a couple of updates (within an hour or two of publication) to reflect some of her concerns, which I feel are valid.

The "Who Are The Adult Crossover Readers Of Young Adult Books" panel at Nielsen's Children's Book Summit. Do these people look that scary to you? Image: Porter Anderson
The “Who Are The Adult Crossover Readers Of Young Adult Books?” panel at Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit. Image: Porter Anderson

Molly Wetta To The Rescue

Molly Wetta
Molly Wetta

I want to thank Molly Wetta, a collection development librarian at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas, for making sense of what happened in the YA backlash to the Nielsen conference.

Extensively educated in her work (she holds a Masters in Library Science with a specialization in children’s and youth library services), Wetta was able to parse what was going on quickly and suss out the confusion and the debate.

First, she has shared with me a post she did on the incident. It’s important to get some of what she’s saying here, in order to understand the tenor of the complaints. In Who Is Young Adult Literature For? Wetta writes:

As a collection development librarian who selects materials for the teen collection, I’ve noticed a trend: there is more mature content in some YA books. Many books are being labeled with a 14 (or even 15 or 16) and up target audience, instead of 12 and up, the entire span of the traditional age designation of young adult literature. I am careful when I put together my orders to balance books that have appeal to older teens and adults with those titles that I can give to parents who are looking for books to ease their new 11-year-old sixth grader into the YA section of the library because he’s already read everything in the children’s room. I sometimes worry that with the growing popularity of YA fiction for adult audiences, there will be a push to market YA to adult readers and the category will cater to them, and there will be less choice and variety for those readers in the range on the upper end of middle grade or lower end of YA.

That’s easily understood as a serious concern. While I don’t see the age ranges and offerings she does, of course, I’m willing to take her word for a shift, if she says she’s seeing it, in what’s offered for younger ends of the range. If, indeed, there’s a kind of “age creep” going on, pushing YA material north of the younger ages—even in part because of the commercial success of more mature material—then that’s a concern genuinely worth considering. I’d like to see McLean’s Nielsen team, in fact, incorporate some of this and see what it can detect from its research.

I’d want to know more about whether it’s a question of market demand or commercial appeal, of course, sometimes a vexing chicken-and-egg problem. And I’m also wondering if there isn’t a softness in parts of the MG output—Middle Grade—that means it’s not serving the younger end of the teen division as well as it might.

But I’m glad that Wetta has shown me this work because however over-the-top the reactions of Ursu and some of the others seemed to be to the Nielsen event, Wetta’s understanding of a basis for concern is thoughtful and worth consideration. She writes with real clarity, in fact revealing that she leads a YA reading group for adults:

I am not opposed to adults reading YA. Obviously, I read YA. I lead a YA for Grown Ups book club at my library. I don’t think that adults should feel shame about reading and enjoying stories about and for teens. I want adult readers to buy big blockbuster YA titles so that publishers can bankroll quiet YA books that defy categorization and push boundaries and surprise and delight readers with the profits from the commercially successful ones.

I want there to always be stories not just about, but for, teens.

Before she called my attention to that piece, I’d found her terrific Storify on the incident, which I want to commend to you, here. There, she writes:

Yesterday, I noticed a lot of librarians and authors I follow on Twitter following the #kidsbooksummit hashtag, and doing a bit of dismay at some of the comments coming out of this panel on Adult Crossover Readers Panel at a conference sponsored by Nielsen intended to talk about the marketing and money-making aspects of publishing literature for kids and teens. The Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf twitter account and a journalist [Porter Anderson] were live-tweeting the event, with many quotes from the eight adult panelist who are readers of young adult literature.

“I sometimes worry that with the growing popularity of YA fiction for adult audiences, there will be a push to market YA to adult readers and the category will cater to them, and there will be less choice and variety for those readers in the range on the upper end of middle grade or lower end of YA.”
Molly Wetta, collection development librarian, Lawrence, Kansas, Public Library

One guy on the panel had affectionately joked that he and his associates could call it YAH—Young At Heart—because that’s what he feels about himself, in his mid-30s is, as a steadfast fan of the genre and its lucky authors. I’m afraid that this and other comments were taken more seriously, even direly, in renditions online than they were meant in conversation on the panel. There were no formal calls for changes in labels or intentions.

The alarm with which such ideas were floated on Twitter was hard for some of us in the room to understand, making Wetta’s work is a big help, as even in the Storify, she puts it nicely this way:

Teen librarians and library workers who use young adult literature (and other media) to engage teens, aid their development, and inform and entertain them, are understandably skeptical of the marketing arm of the publishing industry, who is also very influential in acquisitions and editorial decisions, and their efforts to shift the YA category to cater to an adult audience.

Wetta has tweeted with me since this story came out, pointing out that she understands and supports some of the concerns of those who were objecting.

As usual, then, we’re left with a mixture of real intention and subjective reception. It’s not accurate to say that Nielsen’s purpose or effect was an “effort to shift the YA category to cater to an adult audience,” at least not by the company’s statements (nor does Wetta say so, she only describes such a fear). If 80 percent of the readership is already adult, no adjustment, clearly is needed, and the industry is probably too good, if anything, at continuing to do what works. Some of publishing’s critics will tell you that this is the last industry to suddenly up and do something different.

But this was a helpful interpretation from Wetta of a knee-jerk round of criticism that may have seemed to us in the room to have little to do with the event under way in New York. Based in what a professional librarian can tell you really can look like what she calls “adults appropriating YA literature,” Any connection of profit (and that is something the publishing business seeks, after all), can appear to make defenders of YA nervous. This may be something that the good folks at Nielsen want to consider.

In fact, I would recommend that Nielsen’s programmers be in touch with Wetta perhaps for next year’s conference. I think she’s worth hearing.

True to what seems to be her ability to take a deeply concerned but balanced approach to these issues, Wetta can pierce with sane commentary the components in play here and even found another voice to cap her Storify:

Next year, I’d like Wetta and our colleague Enterainment Weekly writer and author Anthony Breznican with me at the Children’s Book Summit. I think there’s good room for both ideas. If nothing else, this is how we reconnect with the ability of literature to generate such strong viewpoints among committed people. TC mark