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Is Contemporary YA a Difficult Market?

Reader Rachel asked in the comments a few weeks ago:

In our writing group, we have been talking about whether or not it is harder to find an agent and/or sell our YA manuscripts if they are contemporary romance/realistic vs. paranormal or fantasy. What are your thoughts on this? If it is more difficult, is there anything that does happen to work particularly well or would make a manuscript more saleable within the contemporary genre?

I know that I got into YA and into reading and into writing and into agenting because of contemporary YA. I was always more of a Sara Zarr, John Green, Jenny Han, Laurie Halse Anderson reader than I was a fantasy or paranormal fan. And when I started looking at the market, there was a lot of contemporary realistic writing on shelves and doing well.

But today’s kidlit market, which got going in earnest over a decade ago with HARRY POTTER and has now been given another injection of money and attention by the TWILIGHT franchise, has always been anchored in fantasy and paranormal. And that’s where the trends — somewhat unfortunately for me and my contemporary/realistic tastes — all seem to be going. Even if there’s no outright fantasy, magic, or paranormal element, novels would rather be set in dystopian times than in the good old real world.

Not only do I know this from observation of bookstore shelves and publishers’ upcoming catalogues, but I’ve heard countless editors discussing how difficult it is to get a straight contemporary/realistic story through their acquisitions committees. Apparently, contemporary realism isn’t much of a sales hook these days, unless either the voice or the subject matter is simply irresistible. Some publishers are, obviously, more interested in this genre than others, but the going still seems to be much tougher now than it was a few years ago.

So what can writers of contemporary realism do in order to make their books more saleable? Well, romance is a huge hook. I think it’s the number one thing that girls (especially) and boys (in the John Green vein, not in the flowery sense) are interested in as teenagers. So every contemporary manuscript I look at should have, if not a flat-out romantic relationship, at least some romantic interest. The teenage years are a time when everything from friendships to family gets complicated, so you have to really play up on those themes and relationships.

And you do have to have a really strong hook. It’s not enough to just have a story of one girl’s senior year as she experiences different relationships and events at school. “Coming of age” is no longer a great sales hook, because every book for the kidlit market is, in one way or another, a coming of age story. Look at some of the most popular recent books that I would classify as contemporary/realistic:

SWEETHEARTS by Sara Zarr: The only boy a girl ever loved disappeared and she thought he was dead, until she gets a mysterious message.
13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher: After a classmate’s suicide, the boy who had a crush on her must put together what happened with thirteen cassette tapes that show up on his doorstep, tapes she sent before her death.
BACK WHEN YOU WERE EASIER TO LOVE by Emily Wing Smith (coming Spring 2011 from Dutton): A girl’s hipster boyfriend up and leaves their conservative Utah town, and she follows him, part of her still thinking they’ll pick up where they left off.
PAPER TOWNS by John Green: A boy follows a trail of mysterious clues left by the alluring neighborhood girl who disappeared one day.
LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott: A girl kidnapped and trapped by a monster of a man has to find hope and sanity and, finally, escape.
SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick: An upbeat, spiritual girl hides the fact that she’s homeless while helping everyone else with their problems, until her mother dies and she can’t hide anymore.
WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson: After anorexia killed her best friend, a girl has to struggle with whether or not she, too, will succumb to the disease that still has its hooks in her.

Two recent contemporary/realistic books with a fantasy element:

IF I STAY by Gayle Forman: A girl left in a coma after a horrendous accident that kills her family must decide between following them and living without them. (There’s also a huge romantic element here.)
BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver: A girl killed in a car accident gets the chance to relive her last day in order to try and change her fate.

What sets all of these books apart, in my mind, is character, voice, and one high-concept element in the plot that makes the premise a great read. I do think a romantic element, or at least an unrequited crush, is vital to a contemporary/realistic YA story…teens care more about friendships and the possibility of romance than they do about most other things in their lives. Other than that, character, voice, and a high-concept idea are what will really make the difference in this market.

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  1. Laura’s avatar

    Thanks for the insightful post! This might be a silly question, but does contemporary generally refer to serious subject matter (anorexia, suicide, etc)? Or would you call a lighter, romantic story contemporary as well? (For example, the soon-to-be-released Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.)

  2. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    I think this is a great question and one you’ve answered very well, Mary.

    While I do see the market place becoming largely saturated with paranormal/fantasy, I have noticed what seems to be a renewed interest in contemporary. I don’t know if this is from editors, but I certainly see it in a lot of readers. There are plenty of people who are getting kind of tired of so much focus on the paranormal, so a refreshing contemporary — like the ones you listed — are a very welcome change. I only hope editors and acquisitions committees see this, as well. I know I find it nice just to read straight romance that isn’t bogged down by paranormal drama.

  3. Rachel’s avatar

    Thank you mary for remembering this question I posed a few weeks back and tackling it here! It is great timing, too.
    My contemporary YA always had a romance involved, but this weekend the characters took over a bit and the love triangle became a much bigger thing than I expected. While I enjoyed the turn of events, it was a surprise, but reading your post this morning just confirmed that I should stick with my instincts and play this up. Thank you again for taking the time to craft such a detailed answer :-)

  4. Jessie Andersen’s avatar

    Oh Great!!! I write realistic fiction, so in some ways this is discouraging. I have to agree with Elizabeth May, however. The market is so saturated with paranormal right now. Eventually the tides will turn and there’ll be something different in the forefront. While I’d love to jump into the “what’s hot now” category, I have to write what I love. I would never do a paranormal romance justice, and honestly, it doesn’t interest me to write it. So I’ll keep plugging away at my contemporary YA. I’ll write better that which I love!

  5. rifferaff’s avatar

    wow. so much death, disappearing and trauma in the contemp section. weird. i don’t think someone has to die for a book to have a great hook.

    will grayson/will grayson is a great example of a lighter contemp title.

  6. Ellen Hopkins’s avatar

    Write the story that speaks to you… the one you can’t say no to. Don’t worry about the market, because once you do that, you’re always behind. If you don’t love fantasy, why would you write it? Ditto contemporary.

  7. Lisa Gibson’s avatar

    I heard another agent recently say that they felt YA Contemporary was the next big explosion to hit the YA market. Whether that’s true or not, I think contemp YA will always be a big part of the market. :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  8. Pam’s avatar

    Great post! I write contemporary YA, so it’s refreshing to see there’s still hope for me on the shelves. :)

  9. Todd’s avatar

    As a librarian, I can tell you that some of our customers have recently been asking for more contemporary realistic YA… they’re becoming quickly tired of (in their words) “every new title has something unreal in it”. When I asked a few of them for more information, they said they would be fine with problem, romance, or coming-of-age. They’re even ok with historical, again, as long as there’s no paranormal element.

    This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve heard it from more than just a few teens, in more than one of our branches.

  10. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    I write contemp YA because I love it. Nice to know it’s not a dead market, though. :)

  11. brooke’s avatar

    Is this true for MG too?

  12. MaryZ’s avatar

    I agree with rifferaff: death, death, death. I wish the Grim Reaper would leave YA alone.

  13. Katherine Quimby Johnson’s avatar

    Thanks for this post! It’s easy to doubt yourself when you write contemporary these days. Your thoughts are one reason to feel at least a bit more confident.

    I used to feel as rifferaff and MaryZ do, that contemporary YA was saturated with death. But with the current rash of teen suicides around the country, not to mention teens dying in auto accidents, or from cancer, or some other cause, it’s a topic that a lot of teens are trying to wrap their hands around these days. That much-vaunted teen sense of immortality comes crashing down when someone they have known all their lives dies, especially when it’s from something like cancer.

    Most of the YA readers I know like contemporary as well as paranormal and fantasy, which is great news for those of us who write contemporary/realistic YA.

  14. cj omololu’s avatar

    Take a look at any bestseller list and you’ll get a quick answer to this question. I write both because I love both, but I knew going in that my new para/rom books were going to get more initial attention than my contemporary books – bigger advances, more promotion, etc.

  15. Kellye’s avatar

    Interesting post, Mary. Thanks! I especially appreciate your examples.

    I agree with Ellen that writers have to write their own stories and cannot try to play to current trends–it seems that when people do that, the story isn’t authentic and readers can feel that. Glad to hear from some librarians that their students are requesting contemp stories.

    Contemporary YA has been around since the birth of the genre–after all, it’s that realism that first defined the genre. I think it will always be around, and I hope it’s the “next” big thing!

  16. Dawn Brazil’s avatar

    This was a great article. I write YA and am trying to find an agent for my soft sci-fi story. I am working on a YA fantasy that I believe will be better received. I don’t get many form rejections which is good but I get a lot of “this is interesting, but not right for my list….???? Anyways, I am trying my hand at something different and based on this article I may be doing the right thing. But, I will keep working on and pushing my other YA novel.

  17. Susan James’s avatar

    I just have to mention Losing Faith- an awesome, contemporary fiction by a debut author an, recently released by Simon Pulse. These books are out there. And its focal point isn’t romance (though there is romance- we are talking teens here.

  18. June’s avatar

    I love paranormal and I’m even writing a paranormal romance. It wasn’t my original intent, but the book kind of evolved into it and I figured if I’m going to write such a story, no better time than the present. That being said, there’s something a little sad about the “real” world having to fight for attention. I wonder if that says anything about us as a society? Just something to think about. I LOVE Sara Zarr and Simone Elekeles, both contemporary YA superstars in my book. SWEETHEARTS was awesome. I wish Zarr would write a sequel to it. I”m dying to know what became of Jennifer and Cameron!

  19. Ishta’s avatar

    Great point about “high concept” – a group of writers and I were just talking about this today. It seems like this is all anyone is talking about!

  20. Lindsey Leavitt’s avatar

    Great post, Mary. This is a big reason why we formed the contemps (www.thecontemps.com), and hope there is strength in numbers. Two of the authors you mentioned (Emily Wing Smith and Elizabeth Scott) are within are ranks. We’re following one school year and highlighting real issues faced by real teens. Lots of us write in other genres as well, but feel strongly that this genre needs to a spotlight.

  21. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    This is interesting to me because I always thought Contemporary fiction was doing well. They still get more awards than paranormal, etc. Something that always discouraged me when writing paranormal. But, yes, I think if you are like Sara Zarr you can make it work. She is a really great artist of the written word and I think her editor, Jennifer Hunt, is right. Some day she will win an award, Printz or other, for her writing. It just comes back to the fact that we all need to profect our craft as best we can. Good writing sells. No matter what genre.

  22. Anonymouse with cheese’s avatar

    So what can writers of contemporary realism do in order to make their books more saleable? Well, romance is a huge hook. I think it’s the number one thing that girls (especially) and boys (in the John Green vein, not in the flowery sense) are interested in as teenagers. So every contemporary manuscript I look at should have, if not a flat-out romantic relationship, at least some romantic interest.

    What would you say about a novel starring an asexual, for whom this probably wouldn’t be the case?

  23. Rhay’s avatar

    Ellen Howard, awesome piece of advice….No wonder you’re such a VC guru!!! Nice to see your name again

  24. Anita’s avatar

    I guess my taste in books falls in line with the teens the publishing houses are catering towards. If it’s contemporary its got to have a good love story or just be plain awesome like The Heist by Ally Carter, otherwise I lean towards fantasy and paranormal. Great post.

  25. Claire Dawn’s avatar

    death is a really, really big thing in contemp right now…

  26. eww’s avatar

    @Elisabeth May (Nove. 8) :

    No offense but don’t delude yourself into believing that the contemporary/realistic YA genre
    Is wide open. That genre is just as freakin’ saturated as fantasy. ALL GENRES are saturated! Get it?
    It’s just that “spotlight” is shinning more on fantasy these days. Just try to write a good, catchy
    Story-regardless of it’s genre- and it will be published. A good story is what sells IMO.

  27. Anonymous Commenter’s avatar

    In response to “Anonymous with cheese”: I identify under the asexual umbrella (see: http://www.asexuality.org/wiki/index.php?title=Asexuality), and I think it is worth mentioning that most asexuals are not aromantic (some are, but most aren’t). That is a common misconception. Some asexuals can feel romantic attraction without sexual attraction. Like me (I’m panromantic, meaning that I can fall in love with people regardless of their gender, binary or non-binary. This is something entirely different from my sexual orientation. Just look up affectational/romantic orientation. There’s a Wikipedia article. Some people’s romantic orientation is different from their sexual orientation. That’s perfectly okay, but I’ve never seen a mixed orientation character in YA, let alone any other form of media.) Either way, I’d like to see some portrayals of asexual characters (so far there has been one minor asexual character in the history of YA), romantic and aromantic, that aren’t full of harmful stereotypes (that they’re broken/not normal, are sociopaths/unemotional/cold, that they can’t fall in love, that there’s something medically wrong with them (asexuality, not referring to a decrease in sexual drive as a result of an illness or disease), that they don’t exist, that they’re lying or going through a phase, etc.) Maybe if asexuals were represented in fiction more people would know they exist, and if more people knew they exist, maybe then I wouldn’t have had all the panic attacks over fear of rejection and never finding love.

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