Daily Archives: May 2, 2008

Why YA

Cory Doctorow takes a moment to remind folks going into the bookstore to get his book Little Brother that they need to go into the Young Adult section, not the science fiction section, and then talks about the YA section of the bookstore being something of an undiscovered country, where cool things happen because no one is looking. I think this is an interesting description of the situation because, from a retail point of view, it’s really got things backwards — if we’re comparing which section of the bookstore is the undiscovered country, Young Adult or Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy, it’s SF/F by far, because the simple fact of the matter is that YA kills Adult SF/F, not only in general sales, but specifically in sales the bestselling science fiction and fantasy books in their respective sections.

I have a friend with access to BookScan, which tracks book sales through stores and retail outlets, who at my request checked the aggregate bestseller list sales of adult fantasy and science fiction against the sale of YA fantasy and SF. Without mentioning specific numbers or titles, my friend says that last week, the top 50 YA SF/F bestsellers outsold the top 100 adult SF/F bestsellers (adult SF and F are separate lists) by two to one. So 50 YA titles are selling twice as much as 100 adult SF/F titles. The bestselling YA fantasy book last week (not a Harry Potter book) outsold the bestselling adult fantasy book by nearly four to one; the bestselling YA science fiction title sold three copies for every two copies of the chart-topping adult SF title. And as a final kick in the teeth, YA SF/F is amply represented at top of the general bestselling charts of YA book sales, whereas adult SF/F struggles to get onto the general bestselling adult fiction charts at all.

That serious adult science fiction/fantasy readers don’t seem to know any of this is a) a feature of the opaque nature of book sales, in which no one publicly talks about actual units sold and b) a feature of the apparent short-sightedness of adult sf/f readers, who are missing a genuine literary revolution in their genre because the YA section is a blank spot on the map to them, if not to everyone else. “Here there be dragons” has been replaced by “Here there be pre-teens” or something of the sort. This attitude is especially puzzling when you consider how many SF/F readers got their start with books like the Heinlein juvies, the fantasies of Susan Cooper and John Christopher and Madeleine L’Engle and so on.

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: The most significant SF writer right now is Scott Westerfeld, whom it seems most adult science fiction fans still have not read and indeed barely know exists. In a sane world, Westerfeld would be a hero to adult science fiction readers, because he’s pretty much single-handedly flown the flag for science fiction to teenagers, thus saving the genre’s bacon for another 20 years. But: He’s YA. So he doesn’t count.

Now, don’t feel sorry for Scott because of this. He’s crying all the way to the bank, he is, because by any sane measure he’s almost certainly the single best-selling science fiction author out there right now. The people to feel bad for are all the adult science fiction readers who haven’t read his Uglies series and by extension are missing the formative SFnal experience of an entire generation of readers — which also happen to be excellent books. Why Scott hasn’t even been nominated for a Hugo yet is unfathomable today, and I expect will be seen as unforgivable in 20 years, when many of his readers have become published writers.

To get back to Cory, I think it might be possible that he’ll miss a few early sales by some of his adult fans not going into the YA section. But I also and strongly believe that he’s going to make those sales up, and pretty quickly, as he’s introduced to a new and very avid set of readers, who are primed for more thought-provoking science fiction (it’s absolutely no coincidence one of the front cover blurbs for the book comes from Westerfeld). Cory’s potential audience has just gotten a lot bigger. It helps his book rocks.

Ah, now we know why you wrote Zoe’s Tale, you say. Well, I won’t lie to you. A couple of years ago Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I were talking about the possibility of me writing something that would be teen-friendly, because it’s good business sense, and also because I’m a huge fan of the idea of writing smart science fiction that younger readers will enjoy. When OMW readers started asking for a story with Zoe, it seemed like a natural fit. I didn’t write it specifically as a young adult book, but I did write it so that we could go to young adult booksellers (and librarians, and readers) and say “this could work for you too.”

Now, inasmuch as don’t believe we’re marketing ZT as YA, at least at first — when you go to the bookstore to find it, it’ll be in the SF section, not the YA section. But who knows? Maybe they’ll be a chance for cross-pollination there. If Cory can help get the adult science fiction/fantasy readers to venture into young adult, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to help convince some YA readers to take a trip to the science fiction and fantasy section. I would be happy to be part of such a tag team. And lucky, frankly.

Spinning Away

Ooh, look. I found “Spinning Away” by Eno/Cale on YouTube:

Video: odd. Song: good. There’s a cover version of this, by the mid-90s party band Sugar Ray, but this version is to that, as Shakespeare might say, as Hyperion to a satyr. I give Sugar Ray credit for good taste, but otherwise, yeeech.

My strongest personal memory of this song was listening to it in September of 1991, driving up from Los Angeles to Fresno, where I was going to meet my new colleagues at the Fresno Bee, where I had just gotten a job as film critic. I was driving up the 99 as the sun rose, and everything about the experience was new. So now it’s a song that reminds me of beginnings and of good things to come. Not a bad thing for a song to do.