A Treatise on the State of Middle Grade and Young Adult Publishing Today
I consistently view sales reports in Publisher’s Weekly and book sales are generally trending down for all of 2023 in almost all categories. Middle grade (ages 8-12) and Young Adult (historically classified as 12 and up, but often now classified as 14 and up) have been consistently down and are causing a lot of industry concern among publishers, book sellers and youth librarians. When I talk with my peers, it seems like a lot of us are also seeing sluggish circulation numbers as well. The current state of publishing for tweens and teens can look bleak.
I spent a lot of time – too much time? – thinking about these sales figures, talking with librarian friends both off and online, and just ruminating in general about why book sales and often book circulation is down in these age categories. Combine this with recent troubling reports that kids are reading less for pleasure and that reading scores in general are down, and there’s a lot for publishers, book sellers, teachers and librarians to ruminate upon. And I know that we are because I see the discussions happening every where.
So here are some of my ruminations about the state of publishing, book sales, reading and libraries.
Some general thoughts about current issues in publishing and book sales in general:
“The 2.7% decline in the first half of 2023 followed a 6.6% drop in the first six months of 2022 compared to 2021; unit sales were 387.5 million in the first half of 2021, 8.5% higher than in the same period this year. In taking the longer view back to prepandemic times, units were up 12% in the first half of this year compared to 2019.” – https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/92735-book-sales-continue-to-slow-down-in-first-half-of-2023.html
- The cost and supply of paper continues to be of concern and have been impacting a lot of decision making at the publishing level.
- Though they have slowed, like all industries, supply chain issues continue to impact every part of getting books into the hands of patrons; from shipping to having enough workers in warehouses to pull and fulfill orders there are elements at play that are making things sluggish on the distribution end.
- The internet (fan fiction, self-publishing, Amazon) presents incredible challenges and leads to over-saturation and competition in the market. In addition, discovery is harder and many book titles just aren’t available to school and public libraries because of purchasing policies. For good or bad, many items aren’t even available for purchase at school and public libraries because they must use certain vendors, have professional reviews, etc.
- Book prices continue to go up while income continues to decline. Especially when you consider the fact that kids don’t have any income and the ending of Covid era policies plunged our youth back into poverty at alarming rates, the reality that is that as book prices soar, kids and their families ability to purchase books is declining. Housing and groceries come before books, and many families can’t get either at this point.
- There is an ongoing movement from print to digital, accelerated in some ways by the pandemic. This presents many new challenges for libraries of any type as well as consumers. The digital divide is real and presents its own issues. In addition, you have authors making exclusive deals with Audible which means that school and public libraries literally can not provide access to many titles.
- There hasn’t been a mega-bestseller since the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter books sold in the tens of millions, while last year’s bestselling author Colleen Hoover only sold 2.75 million copies. (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/93252-the-state-of-the-printing-industry.html). I personally am no longer a fan of JK Rowling, but I was a librarian during the height of the Harry Potter/Twilight/YA Dystopian era and there is no denying the impact those titles had on reading, book sales, and library support and circulation. We could really use with another mega bestselling series that drives new readers into the libraries the way this era did.
Some general thoughts about current issues in Middle Grade literature:
“According to recent BookScan sales data for middle grade books quoted in Publishers Weekly, middle grade book sales are down 16% overall.” – https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/92702-it-s-not-me-it-s-you-an-argument-for-shorter-middle-grade-books.html
- As YA ages up (the average age of a MC in a YA novel is now age 17 – see note below), many long-term YA authors are now jumping to writing Middle Grade, which has led to some of the following:
- MG novels are now ageing up, the typical age of a MC in a MG novel is now 12 and 13
- MG novels are growing increasingly longer, which can be a real hindrance to many readers. We don’t need all the books to be shorter, but we need more shorter books to be an option.
- Meanwhile, just as YA hasn’t had a break out hit (again, see note below), MG has not had a new break out hit for a while now. While Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dogman continue to do well, there have been no new MG break out hits in several years. I’m thankful for those consistent series that get youth in the door, but I would give a lot for some new, energizing break out hits. This is a theme you will see repeated in this treatise.
- MG novels are widely being challenged and that negative press is causing a lot of stigma and backlash. As chat rooms and library board meetings fill up with a small handful of people calling librarians Marxist communist groomers, there is a growing unease among some parts of the public about school and public libraries, publishing, and books in general. Books that have been in our libraries for years, sometimes decades, now have targets on their backs. The idea that all press is good press turns out to be a lie; the truth is books and libraries are being dragged through the mud and it’s not good for business, or for the mental health of those of use who have spent decades advocating for kids and reading. I can not over emphasize the negative end result this is having on our industry.
- The way reading is taught in schools has resulted in what is termed the “decline at 9”, with a noticeable trend of tweens no longer reading for fun. In addition, they often don’t have the free time to read. Add in competition like Tik-Tok (and there is no MG Booktok with the same success as YA Booktok), and you have a megastorm of lack of interest and availability to read. (More on the Decline by 9: https://pjlibrary.org/proof/the-decline-by-nine)
There is some hope in the graphic novel market, which is still popular with MG readers. But as it grows more popular, it grows more flooded and it is hard to find those breakout hits that get kids reading.
“Only one category in juvenile fiction had an increase, with sales of animals books up 14%. The largest decline came in the sci-fi/fantasy/magic area, where sales fell 11.3%. With the exception of holidays/festivals/religion, sales in all juvenile nonfiction subcategories fell in the period, with both history/sports/people/places and education/reference/language posting declines of more than 11%.” (Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/92735-book-sales-continue-to-slow-down-in-first-half-of-2023.html)
Some general thoughts about current issues in YA/Teen literature:
“With young adult fiction the only major category posting a decline, unit sales of print books increased 4.2% in the week ended Mar. 11, 2023, over the comparable week in 2022, at outlets that report to Circana BookScan.” – https://teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2023/03/20/new-reports-show-a-decline-in-ya-book-sales-and-i-have-some-thoughts-as-to-why-that-might-be-happening/
“Young adult fiction sales are in decline, and it’s a hot topic in publishing, where the internet is awash with questions of why.” – https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/93160-where-have-all-the-ya-paperbacks-gone.html
So what are people – and here I include myself – saying?
- There has not been a break out hit since The Hate U Give, released in 2017. There are some breakout hits with Karen McManus and Holly Jackson, and YA Book Tok has definitely helped the market. But it hasn’t resulted in the same demand that the Dystopian eras of the early 2000s generated. In fact, the Hunger Games novels continue to be one of the highest circulating titles at my system for the last 2 years.
- The market is oversaturated and there are fewer “big name” YA authors like the early 2000s/2010s. The bonus to all the new names publishing is that we are getting a lot of great new debuts and with that comes a lot more much needed diversity. The downside is that we have fewer of those authors that teens are coming in and asking for by name. There are, always, exceptions.
- Many long term YA authors are migrating to adult or middle grade (see note above). This effects that name brand recognition I just talked about. It can also be confusing from a marketing and promotion point of view. I’m not saying that authors can’t or shouldn’t dabble in multiple age ranges, I just want to acknowledge that it presents some challenges.
- Today’s MG novel is what 1990s YA used to be; most current YA is written for ages 14 and up and the average age of the main character is 17. Both MG and YA is being aged up. In the mean time, readers ages 13 through 15 are left in a book wasteland wondering where and what they should be reading. We are missing an entire age group in the current trends and that will have long lasting implications for everyone.
- YA is being publicly challenged and a lot of what sells/circulates is now being targeted. While over half of the NYT Teen Bestseller list for almost all of 2023 has been LGBTQ, LGBTQ titles are the most targeted by book banners. I can not emphasize enough how much damage I think book banning is doing to the entire zeitgeist. It’s unconscionable what is happening right now.
- The current book cover trend is highly illustrative and indistinguishable from both middle grade and adult romance. Readers often can not tell by the cover who the target audience is. Whether we like it or not, covers are the first gateway to books and people do in fact judge a book by its cover, but today’s cover don’t make it very clear who the target audience is.
- Adult authors like Colleen Hoover and those mentioned on TikTok (BookTok) are more popular with teen readers right now than many YA authors. This deserves its own lengthy article, but it’s just a bullet point here. Teens have always read adult books and that in and of itself is not the issue. The point is that they have fewer age appropriate books that speak to their current lives and issues to choose from, and reading is part of what helps us process and understand our world.
- There are virtually zero books for readers ages 13-15. I know I have mentioned this of, but it really is a big part of the problem. It’s a huge, huge problem. I obviously feel pretty strongly about it.
- YA books are often published in long, continuing series (typically fantasy at the moment) and the books are long in length and too heavy for backpacks (and too expensive). Again, not all books need to be shorter, but we need more shorter options. And please more stand alone titles. When I drop my kid off at high school she is just one of the many, many teens I see carrying 2 backpacks throughout school all day and yes, book size is an issue.
- The movement away from paperback has made it harder for teens to easily carry and afford books, especially since most schools no longer offer access to lockers so those books have to be carried all day long in backpacks. I feel so strongly about this that I have also mentioned it multiple times.
- Moving to digital allows for more privacy as people can’t see what you are reading, an important point in today’s age of book banning especially. I’m a huge advocate for digital access, but it does not come without it’s own issues, including price, availability and the reality of the digital divide.
This is not an all encompassing look at the problem. It doesn’t touch on discussions happening about how we teach reading, in part because I’m a librarian not a teacher so I’m not qualified to speak on that. It doesn’t mention how today’s youth are so over-programmed that they have very little down time to even think about reading for fun and pleasure. It only scratches the surface on how our constant access to technology changes the landscape of how we spend our free time and engage with our world and our relationships. There are many more issues that we can and should be talking about. So if you don’t see something mentioned here, it’s because I have a certain point of view and this piece is already far too long. Sometimes I am just not the right person to be talking about it.
At the end of the day, I am a huge advocate for tweens and teens reading, for books, and for libraries. I have been in this field for 30 years now. I have seen it reach major peaks and these past couple of years have been like nothing I have ever experienced before. Although that is truth of all of life right now, from the pandemic to politics. What happens next is incredibly important. I think publishers, book sellers, librarians and parents need to push back against book banning (and yes, I recognize that many are). I personally advocate for a return to more mass market paperbacks, including series based on popular media tie-ins and romances for teens. Oh, and some horror like Goosebumps (yes, I know they are still being published) and say Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike. We need shorter, age appropriate books that are affordable and easy to carry.
But more than anything what I advocate for is this: at the end of the day, it has to be about the youth themselves. Not what adults want or think is best. Not what legislators who don’t parent or sit with or talk to youth think kids ness. Not administrators or publishers or book sellers who only think about test scores and bottom lines. It has to be about the youth. We have to center the youth, what they want, what they need, and what we’ve learned from our successes and failures, about getting the youth reading for fun and pleasure. From being inclusive to being both emotionally and culturally responsible and sensitive, we have to center the youth in this discussion. All of the youth. We have to acknowledge the reality of youth lives while also giving them hope and tools to learn, grow, succeed, and have hope for their futures.
If, at the end of the day, it’s not about the youth, they are never going to read or develop a love of reading. Because they always know when we’re lying or not truly understanding or thinking about them. They always know when we aren’t really thinking about them. Always.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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