Marketing to Teens is Tricky

By Carmen Comment

The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Trachtenberg picks up on the growing popularity of young adult fiction, but also of the accompanying problem when a book straddles the young and adult line – and who then is the primary market. Take Larry Doyle, author of I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER (concerning which Ron already displayed much enthusiasm). With a 15 year old protagonist and a very teen-friendly plot, his agent (Sarah Burnes of the Gernert Company) split her submissions between adult and young adult publishers. To Doyle’s dismay, Trachtenberg explains, potential young-adult editors told him in explicit detail how they intended to “shape” his book for their readership. Their advice included: Tell it in the first person, increase the female quotient and write chapters in which male and female narrators alternate. This carefully manicured approach, he was told by one publishing house, was “what we usually do.” So it was with some relief on Doyle’s part that the book migrated from the desk of HarperCollins Children’s associate publisher Elise Howard to that of Lee Boudreaux at Ecco, where it’ll be published in May.

Which is all well and good, and there certainly is an unfortunate stigma to being published as a young adult writer (even as the market share increases, as does the overall quality) but Doyle’s nose-in-the-air attitude about YA fiction grates after a while. “If TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or THE CATCHER IN THE RYE were published today, they’d almost certainly be young-adult titles,” he says. “But then they wouldn’t become classics, except in the sense that Judy Blume books are classics.” Something tells me this is a case of Doyle speaking without thinking (YA and middle grade classics off the top of my head: THE YEARLING, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES) but then I suspect if a double-blind copy of M.T. Anderson‘s OCTAVIAN NOTHING was pressed into his hands, he wouldn’t recognize it as one of those oh-so-pesky YA books….

UPDATE: Larry Doyle writes in to clarify some of the things in this post, as well as the original article. “I have no disdain for children’s literature, or literature read by young adults. I was wary of the prepackaged marketing of same, as a genre with specific conventions, then sold into a narrow channel of readership. That’s why I brought up MOCKING BIRD and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. They are
both clearly children’s and young adult books, but both were published as general fiction. As was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. It was
an adult best-seller and shipped routinely to servicemen.”

As for why KING DORK was included in the piece, Doyle said he brought the book up “as an example of a book that I thought deserved wider recognition but didn’t get it because of the marketing label. The movie will probably change that. I also, for what it’s worth, went out of my way to say that I didn’t think my book was a classic by any measure. I went with Ecco because of Lee, and because Harper-Collins convinced me I could reach a wider audience (including teenagers) by publishing there.”