How the blockbuster changed children’s and YA publishing

If you are an adult writing fiction for publication now, there’s a good chance you forged your literary dreams in a time when the publishing landscape looked different to the way it looks today. Whether you’ve caught up or not with the new paradigm may be the key to your success, or even just your survival. The market forces that shape children’s and young adult publishing have shifted over the last fifteen or so years. In an era disrupted by developments in technology and globalisation, a defining change has been the emergence of the blockbuster.

Which writer, truthfully, doesn’t want to sell? Those who express an aversion to market forces might really be saying they don’t want to sell out, and the nuance is important. There has always been a literary vs commercial divide in fiction publishing, and to an extent authors have always had to make a choice about which side of this divide they are writing on. The difference today is that choosing Team Literary (or Team Low Concept, Team Stand-alone or Team Local) is more likely than ever to leave you without a publisher at all.

Publishing creates cultural products whose worth is determined in various ways, not just by sales. But, as Jane Curry (head of Ventura Press and a Director of the APA) points out in the most recent issue of Books and Publishing magazine, unlike other parts of the cultural industry, publishing rarely attracts government or philanthropic support.[i] Publishers have to make return on investment—but industry reports show children’s publishing (a sector that includes titles from early readers right through to YA) to be remarkably volatile. To understand why, it’s useful to look at how books are sold in this market. Depending on the territory, around fifty percent of sales are through outlets particular to children’s publishing: book clubs, book fairs and library orders (including schools, of which there might be thousands in a territory). This part of the market is relatively stable. The other fifty percent of titles are sold through the retail sector—both online and bricks-and-mortar—and this is where things get unpredictable.

Here the success of a blockbuster—a heavily marketed title by a big-name author, the latest release in a popular series, or a movie tie-in—can create huge spikes in sales and margins over a given year, an effect which subsequent years may then correct. As a high-risk, low-margins industry, publishers have long looked to the entirety of their list to break even—that is to say, they have allowed the sales of popular titles to carry the risk of publishing less commercial titles, many of which will not earn out their advances. Any business trying to sell something is rewarded if more units sell, but in book publishing the rewards for high sales are keenly felt. Production costs for books are relatively fixed and up-front, for things like editing, typesetting, cover design, marketing and so on. It’s a labour-intensive production process: while technology has made elements of book production and distribution more efficient, it still involves lengthy creative processes that cannot be automated or outsourced to machines. Book printing is a relatively minor cost, hence the more of the title sells, the higher the profit margin. That goes a long way in publishing, where the margins are often slim.

Those working at the front line in publishing have tended to be there because of a love of books and reading, rather than for the money (such jobs are, on the whole, not highly paid). Except that in the age of the blockbuster the commercial stakes are higher, and those book-loving editors and publishers report having less say than they used to over their lists. This means more power to the people holding the spreadsheets and answerable to the board room, and less freedom to take a chance on an emerging author or less obviously commercial title.

So when did this all begin? Global hysteria over Harry Potter was in full swing when Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series launched in 2005. Since then, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson stories have all achieved blockbuster status. Although John Green writes stand-alone titles, his brand is as strong as a series, with The Fault in Our Stars selling over 10 million print and digital copies.[ii] In all of the above cases, sales have been boosted by movie tie-ins, but the reverse can work too, with a book tie-in to Disney’s animated movie Frozen selling 17 million copies in 2014.[iii] Also for younger readers, David Walliams dominates children’s bestseller lists in the UK, while Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series has smashed Australian book sales records for adult and children’s titles.

We wouldn’t know any of these numbers without Nielsen BookScan, which has had an undeniable role to play in the commercialisation of publisher lists. Prior to the introduction of Nielsen BookScan in 2001 (and into Australia in 2002), bestseller lists were a result of selective surveying of individual booksellers, and therefore somewhat open to strategic manipulation. Although it is not comprehensive, BookScan data has given the industry a much more accurate idea of which titles are really selling.

The effects of this new knowledge have been quickly felt. Surveys show that word of mouth plays a big part in book sales, and high sales of books tend to generate publicity.[iv] There isn’t a toothpaste bestsellers list in the newspaper, for example, but there is one for books, and being on that list can in itself generate more sales. Writing about the difficulties faced by mid-list authors in 2005, just three years after the arrival of BookScan in Australia, Malcolm Knox observed: ‘Thanks to BookScan and the way people use it, we live in an age of monsters.’[v] This, too, points to a peculiarity of cultural products and the element of experience attached to them. Not only do mega-sellers become news and so generate even more publicity for themselves, when everyone else is reading something, it’s hard not to wonder what you might be missing out on, or at the very least to want to be able to participate in the conversation about it.

In terms of the industry, large players now rely on blockbusters to drive revenue. Keen for a slice of the action, larger houses have expanded their children’s publishing departments and/or bought up children’s imprints, looking to get in on potential blockbuster profits. This has led to more concentration in the sector, as well as bigger publishing houses willing and able to back titles with extensive (and expensive) marketing campaigns. Curry points out that it is not just big names who dominate bestseller lists, but big publishers too, a good indicator that sales are ‘driven by forces beyond the editorial department.’[vi]

A result of this has been a market dominance of YA blockbusters from the US. In 2015, Australian library borrowing lists revealed the extent of this dominance, with the top ten most borrowed YA titles a roll-call of US blockbusters, in contrast to other borrowing categories where Australian authors accounted for half of the books.[vii] As Ellie Marney (one of just two Australian authors in the YA top ten, alongside Marcus Zusak) observed, the lists reflected more accurately than a bestseller list does what teenagers read when left to choose for themselves with the constraint of cost removed.[viii] And in 2015, what they chose was John Green, Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth.

Marney has campaigned for the #LoveOzYA movement that sprung up to counter this dominance, following in the footsteps of a similar initiative started by book blogger and author Lucy Powrie in the UK, which now takes the form of #UKYAChat on Twitter. These organisations are groups of YA writers and advocates working together to try to generate their own word of mouth, loud enough to be heard above the noise of the US blockbuster machine. A believer in the market as a kind of cultural meritocracy, where the best, most important, or most relevant titles win the sales, is unlikely to perceive any danger from US dominance, and indeed view #LoveOzYA as a kind of parochialism. But this ignores the diversity and quality of Australian YA titles, the relatively small size of the ANZ book territory—which might be the only audience for a local author telling a local story—and the power of a big marketing campaign from a major US house with money to burn. If anyone is parochial in this dynamic, it’s the US market, which is largely indifferent to stories with an Australian flavour.

What does all this mean for creators? For some authors, writing blockbusters—or at least, blockbuster-style fiction—might legitimately be the dream; for others it might be selling out. In any case the blockbuster age changes how many authors perceive their careers. The mid-list feels more like failure than it perhaps once did—and mid-list authors have good reason to feel insecure, too. Publishing is not a long game anymore, with lengthy, built-in grace periods for writers building their craft and audience. Instead, there is the ever-growing temptation for writers to fashion their work after a high-concept mega-seller, as mainstream publishers hunt for blockbuster potential, under pressure to find the next big thing and no longer in the position to wonder what an emerging writer might one day grow into.

The way the business of publishing works is understandably perplexing to many, and it’s entirely fair to ask why a business should subsidise a writer’s creative pursuits if no one wants to read them. Blockbusters usually sell for good reason—Green’s books pack a generous emotional punch, Riordan is joyously witty, The Hunger Games unputdownable—and no marketing campaign can create one if some sought-after quality isn’t there. But cultural products are not like other products, and they have never interacted with the bottom line in quite the same way as your toothpaste does. Nor is market visibility the final word on quality, especially in a creative industry where vision, skill and invention, ultimately, are what bring readers the stories they love.

[i] Curry, Jane. ‘To market, to market.’ Books+Publishing, Vol. 99, No. 2, Oct 2019: 6..

[ii] Moses, Jeremy. ‘Children’s Book Publishing in the US.’ IBISWorld Industry Report OD4394, December 2018.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ‘Reading the Reader: A survey of Australian reading habits’, Australia Council 2016; ‘Current and historical perspectives on Australian teenagers’ reading practices and preferences’, ALEA, 2015

[v] Knox, Malcolm. ‘The Exfactor: BookScan and the death of the Australian novelist.’ The Monthly, May 2005.

[vi] Curry, ‘To market, to market,’ 2019.

[vii] Binks, Danielle. ‘#LoveOzYA’. Kill Your Darlings website, 8 July 2015.

[viii] Marney, Ellie. ‘Young Love: championing Australian Young Adult fiction.’ Wheeler Centre guest blog, 27 August 2015.