Who Lost Scott Westerfeld?
Posted on May 6, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 73 Comments
The estimable Paul Di Filippo shows up in the comment thread for “Why YA,” explaining why he holds the contrary view that a robust YA sf/f market is not necessarily a good thing for adult sf/f. I’ll leave to others to argue most of his several points of contention, if they so choose, but there’s one I’d like to tackle myself. Di Filippo’s main complaint is thus:
In a nutshell: every book of YA SF written means one less book of “adult” SF written by that author.
In all likelihood, we will never see another EVOLUTION’S DARLING by Scott Westerfeld, given the success of his YA stuff.
So the genre is deprived on that level.
The genre is certainly deprived, I agree. But not for the reason Di Filippo suggests. The reason we might not see another Evolution’s Darling from Scott has almost nothing to do with the fact he’s successfully writing YA, and quite a lot to with the fact that adult SF/F didn’t make it worth his time to continue in the field.
(Note: I’ve not talked to Scott about what I’m about to write, so don’t blame any of my speculation here on him.)
The first issue, predictably enough, is money. I don’t know what Scott got for his five adult SF novels, but I guarantee you it wasn’t very much. I don’t know what he would have gotten for adult novel #6, but whatever that amount would have been, I also pretty much guarantee you it wouldn’t have been what he got paid to write Young Adult. If the adult sf/f genre is deprived of additional Scott Westerfeld work (or the work of any SF/F author), one reason is because the genre is endemically cheap, not because the author is merely frittering away his talent writing for teens.
And this is not the case merely because Scott is now successful and naturally commands better advances, although he is and he does. Off the top of my head, and without naming any names, I can think of two sf/f authors who have sold rather fewer books to readers than I have, who recently got advances that were about twice the top amount I’ve been offered so far, because those advances were for books in YA. And those books only have to be half to two-thirds as long as mine have to be, which is a real knife twister, if you ask me.
This is not necessarily a complaint about what I’m paid; I’m being paid just fine, now that the back end’s kicked in. Thanks to my writing income in other fields, I didn’t have to Ramen up while waiting for my royalties. I wouldn’t mind larger advances, but the semi-annual bundles of cash I get from Tor are nice too. But note well that I am one of the relative few writers who receives a significant amount of income from my book royalties; the pay most writers get is what they get from their advances. This being the case, it’s really no wonder why so many writers of adult science fiction and fantasy have been crossing over into Young Adult, or at least have been trying very hard to do so. If you’re trying to make a living writing, why wouldn’t you write for the people who pay you more money for fewer words — and who are, if the numbers tell us anything, generally doing a better job of selling the work they do have?
Which is the second point: part of the reason YA sf/f pays more than adult sf/f is that it sells more — for whatever reasons, it gets more books into buyers’ hands. To get back to Scott for a moment, let’s face it: There has to be some reason that Scott was a bit of a flop (sorry, Scott) in adult science fiction, while being a huge success in YA. It’s not that his skill somehow advanced moving from one genre to the next, since Scott’s adult SF was critically praised; for example, Evolution’s Darling was a New York Times Notable Book and a special citation winner at the Philip K Dick Awards. And speaking from personal taste, his Succession books — The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds — are so good that I gleefully stole whole chunks of his action plotting when I wrote my own action scenes in The Ghost Brigades. Scott’s YA is excellent, but it is not so excellent, relative to his adult work, that it should sell exponentially better.
Nor can this be chalked up entirely to “well, kids just stop reading when they’re adults,” since adult fiction in general sells substantially more than juvenile fiction, and the top adult fiction titles sell more than the top YA titles, when the author of the YA is not JK Rowling. Adults read fiction just fine, thanks. And they even read science fiction and fantasy just fine, too, and in impressive numbers, as long as it’s handled outside of genre. Stephenie Meyer — primarily a YA author, note — is about to top the adult bestseller charts with The Host, which is flat-out science fiction, albeit handled by Little, Brown rather than Orbit, Hachette’s SF arm. Likewise, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon have sold hundred of thousands of copies of their science fiction works, cleverly disguised as mainstream fiction. And then there’s J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts, who sells unspeakably huge numbers of science fiction police procedurals, just not shelved in the SF/F section. This may suggest that YA readers do graduate to reading adult science fiction and fantasy, they just don’t want to be seen in the SF/F section of the bookstore when they do it.
The fact of the matter is that adult science fiction (and to a lesser extent adult fantasy) has a harder time marketing itself to readers. There are lots of reasons for this, some relating to structural issues in the book business and some just cultural issues, but it’s a real problem. I think it’s being addressed — I know I’ve had a lot of discussions with the Tor folks about it (and for the record I think Tor’s done a pretty good job getting more than the usual suspects to read my own work). But it’s a long way from where we are to where the genre needs to be, and I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone.
Structurally there is no bar to writing in both YA and adult fields: Stephenie Meyer’s doing it, James Patterson is doing it, Robert Heinlein did it, and it’s probably true that Scott Westerfeld could easily do it as well, if he so chose. Some significant portion of Scott’s YA audience would likely follow him into adult territory, as some significant portion of Meyer’s crowd is following her; this would pretty much automatically make a new adult Westerfeld book one of the biggest-selling SF titles of its year. He could write another Evolution’s Darling if he wanted. But the real question is whether anyone in adult science fiction would actually make it worth his time to do so, with money and marketing.
I’m skeptical. I suspect if the adult sf/f genre had made it worth his time in the first place, he’d still be writing in it. Which is to say the loss of Scott Westerfeld to the adult sf/f genre is a self-inflicted wound.
As an addendum, I’ll note that I also disagree with the concept that writing a YA book automatically displaces an adult SF/F work; this assumes that the writer would have spent time writing a SF/F book instead of something else — or that all writing time, by default, is spent on SF/F. I don’t think that’s true. For example, when I’m writing a non-fiction book, it’s not taking away from time I’d otherwise be writing SF/F with, because one of the reasons I write non-fiction is that I like to, and it gives the part of my brain that plots and creates science fiction time to lay fallow and think up more stuff. Likewise, someone who is writing sf/f YA might choose to write in another genre for adult fiction, for personal and economic reasons — I could very easily see Scott, for example, writing a political thriller rather than more adult SF.
A final side note is that I suspect Di Filippo rather dramatically overprivileges adult sf/f in complexity and quality in comparison to YA sf/f. There’s a whole lot of “adult” sf/f that is neither more complex nor more challenging than standard YA sf/f, with the only major difference being some prurient level of sex and/or violence, or just simply adult main characters. Likewise, I suspect there is top shelf YA of sufficient moral/philosophical complexity to keep even discerning adult readers happy. I’ll leave it to other folks to suggest such titles.
How much of the problems in the adult SF field can be blamed on the stupid idea that science fiction and fantasy are escapist literature for losers? My guess would be most of them.
I’m just puzzled about why the idea that one less adult SF novel is something to go into a spin over. I mean, it’s not like the library cards your YA and says, “Dude, you’re over 19, no YA for you.” When I was a kid I read adult novels (Dune being my favourite) and as an adult I discovered I didn’t have to give up my YA. (And there’s a lot of fab stuff being done there. So why not read it?)
I think it’s some of it, but I don’t think it’s responsible for most of it.
Isn’t the question really not “Why didn’t the adult sf/f market make it worth Westerfeld’s time to continue?”, but rather “How does the YA market make it worthwhile?”. Because I think the reality is that the vast majority of novelists of any stripe cannot make a living from their writing. This is completely independent of genre (and, sadly, of merit); any branch of literature you would care to pick has its handful of Big Names, and then there’s everybody else. I think you could cross the words “science fiction and fantasy” out of your post and just leave “adult fiction”, and the argument would be unchanged.
Also, one overlooks the possibilities that these may be stories the author has been reworking over a long time. I have a LOT of stories in my mental queue, and while I have two adult fantasy novels, and one adult/possibly YA SF novel in my head, I have about five or six strictly YA stories in my brain. I imagine that’s also a factor–how much do you want to work on a particular story? (Not that I’m dismissing the remunerative factor, mind you. I imagine that ups how much you want to work on something.)
But money or no money aside, I don’t think writing for YA SF means depriving adult SF.
A totally wailing and cogent unpacking of my initial comment, John. Thanks for devoting this much intellectual firepower to the topic.
I don’t have any answers to this chicken/egg problem of what drives authors in and out of one category or another, but I believe we’re doing some useful work here trying to get at the roots of production/consumption of different types of SF/F/H.
Blah. IE (stupid workplace!) just ate a huge post of mine, but the gist of it is that one of the things that will quickly lure my 13 year old (who demolished each of the Uglies series in a single day) towards an author is me telling her that the author also has some adult books she may be ready for when she finishes all their YA stuff. She checked out some YA Pratchett and LeGuin last night from the library. I plan on setting her lose on Doctorow’s Little Brother, which I’m currently reading, as soon as she works her way through her current stack.
So I do think that an author could have success growing with his audience, but I also think that if Scott’s having success wth YA books, and they pay better, there’s not a lot of financial motivation. Maybe creative motivation, if a substantially adult-themed idea makes its way out of his head.
When my daughter grew out of “kids” books she quickly became bored with mainstream YA, and retreated into months and months of reading Manga. Which is good, but I missed seeing her reading novels, and her recent discovery of YA sci-fi (and I owe that COMPLETELY to meeting Scott Westerfeld at ConFusion this year and then going home and dumping Uglies in her lap and telling her to read it) has definitely pulled her back into reading longer and more involved books. We both read Uglies, and were able to discuss it, and I look forward to discussing Little Brother with her. The YA sci-fi boost has really pulled her back into the reading world, and I am really thankful for it.
Paul Di Filippo:
Agreed. It’s fun — and useful! — to talk about and discuss this stuff.
I agree with Scalzi’s addendum most of all. Boo hoo, “one less adult SF.”
Read the YA. It’s fabulous. It’s *not* “fabulous for a kid’s book.” It’s fabulous, full stop.
This idea that YA novels are somehow “less” because the main characters are teenagers and we exist in an era where that means the books are packaged for teens and shelved in a section with other books about teenagers, is b.s.
As soon as they’d let me, I leapt from the library’s children’s section to the adult section, and didn’t go back much at all — first off, there was a whole aisle of SF, I didn’t have to weed through the stacks to find the ones with the little rocketship icons taped to the dust jackets.
But one of the things that’s always attracted me to SF, and there just isn’t as much of it in the YA stuff, is the hard science. “Little Brother” is exceptional in that it spends some time on crypto and there’s a fair amount of psychology tossed in there (what’s psych or soc doing in SF? that’s a soft science! not when it’s treated hard, as in Kristine Smith, CJ Cherry, James Tiptree, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Nourse, etc.)
But there’s a glee to finding about science in a book, whether it’s Greg Egan’s explorations of quantum phenomena (Permutation City), to Bruce Sterling’s contraband goats (Heavy Weather — it’s just a throwaway gag but I don’t want to spoil it). From superscience to tomorrow’s productizations, SF has the opportunity to let you think beyond today’s boundaries. I just don’t see that very much in the YA stuff.
OK, another hard SF thing I can think of in the YA front: The parasitology of Peeps. Yes it’s there, but I never got enough of it.
Regarding complex and challenging YA: the stuff Garth Nix writes which is marketed to the youngest age groups (as in, children’s rather than teens or YA) has been more consistently complex and challenging than his YA books. I don’t know that anything would be different if he wrote (deliberately) for adults – the quality is there already, and if writing for YA markets gets him to produce more books, then this adult reader will be very happy.
Same applies to Scott – and I really hope he DOES do what Stephenie is doing, and crossover. I’m ashamed to admit I had NO CLUE he’d written non-YA books until we met, and my editor filled me in. But he’s sure got a following now – and I bet they’d make the jump.
I wonder how much of the difference is related to genre segregation in bookstores (and libraries) within the “age” sections. I mean, I like SF but am not a fantasy fan, so I don’t spend time browsing the SF/F aisles meant for adults in bookstores. I haven’t been in a bookstore in the past week or so, since this topic came up, but last time I was in the YA section, it wasn’t as big (obviously) so the SF/F stuff was right next to the “regular” fiction. This, it seems to me, would make it easier for the kids to have their eyes caught by an interesting-looking YA SF/F book, than for an adult to notice an interesting-looking adult SF/F book, which is in its little geek ghetto, for the most part.
My b.s. hypothesis of the day is that YA SF harkens back to the tighter novels that used to be genre standard. Complexity, yes, but missing a lot of murkiness and kludge that in many readers’ minds detracts from the primary story. Character-focused. Simpler but not “simpler” and I need another cup of coffee before I can settle on the right word.
So many of the writers I know read YA. It seems to have supplanted adult works.
One of the things that occurred to me as I was reading this thread is something that I’ve always seen as a similarity between attitudes towards both YA and children’s books and sf/f–and then Diane Peterfreund @10 sort of put half of it in a nutshell. She was talking about YA only, but there is a tendency in the general population to regarded both categories as somehow “lesser,” that is, kid’s stuff. I exempt anyone involved in either field from this attitude, at least about their own fields–but I know an awful lot of YA authors who have been forced to deal with the question “So, when are you going to write a real book?” at one time or another. As for sf/f–there is also a fairly wide-spread tendency to regard the genre as “kid’s stuff,” too. Unless my experience as a reader is totally unlike anyone else’s?
Note: I’m not talking about the tendency to separate “popular fiction” from “serious literature”–that may play into the attitude I’m talking about, too, of course, but never mind it for now. What I’m talking about is the idea that somehow sf/f is in and of itself less “adult” entertainment than other types of fiction–that it was written for teenage boys and eventually the “boys” would grow out of it. All of which makes the question of why YA sf/f seems to be currently a stronger area that adult sf/f even more puzzling, it seems to me. Though I’m not quite sure why it seems more puzzling, either, now that I think about it . . .
One thing that worries me about the explosion of YA is that adult authors will start writing YA as a way to make more money, without realizing that YA is not simply adult fiction with lower pagecounts and a teen protagonist. I’d rather not have a whole bunch of bad YA showing up on the shelves just because people feel the need to cash in.
If you’re looking for complex YA SF, try MT Anderson’s FEED — it’s what happens to a population on Earth with a BrainPal as standard packaging. Creepy. Very well written. Came out a year before OMW.
Well, that’s where editors come in. Presumably they filter out the authors who are just stopping by for a cash injection.
I’m with you there, Marc! It’s something I already see in the romance field (my background is all RWA). Because of the proliferation of YA romance (Again, Stephenie Meyer, but there are whole lines put out by S&S devoted to teen romance), you see a lot of people bandwagoning to YA. I judge a lot of contests for RWA and in the YA categories, you can definitely see a difference between aspiring writers who *get* YA, and are reading what is on the shelves and know what they are writing, and writers who just think they can make a cheap buck off of one of those “easy little YA” novels while writing their “real” books.
The fortunate thing, I think, is because a teen readers BS meter is so sensitive, the YA publishers have been pretty selective. A lot of the pubbed YA romance I read has really knocked my socks off.
I don’t know how much this plays into it, but most YA hardcovers are priced in the range of adult trade paperbacks, a good $8-$10 less than adult hardcovers.
Years ago, I read someone online write that he believed genre was often a function of the mindset with which an author chose to tell his or her story, as well as a direct decision to use certain conventions available (I think, but am not sure, I’m paraphrasing Patrick Nielsen Hayden, because I think I read it on Making Light [or perhaps the Well]; I’ve always attributed the thought to him). What I took this to mean helped explain certain inconsistencies I’d always wondered about. Why books by Michael Crichton, Michael Chabon, Dean Koontz, Alice Sebold, and Audrey Niffenegger are all shelved in general fiction, for example, when most clearly and explicitly have strong elements of fantasy or science fiction in them (though I don’t think that they’re science fiction cleverly disguised as mainstream fiction). To bring this on-topic to YA readers, I wonder if they’re more open to conventions and storytelling devices of genre fiction, and its execution, than many adult readers are.
Then again, I’m sure this gets squarely into the debate of what is genre and what isn’t, and that one would know science fiction when one saw it.
RE #10. Agreed. In fact, Heinlein’s “juveniles,” which would be sold as YA today, are much better than most of his adult novels.
I have been a vocal, even at times an angry supporter of adult SF/F, regularly accusing its detractors of bias and prejudice and all sorts of ugly things. Then I tried to shop an adult SF/F novel and encountered a shocking level of amateurism among some pretty heavy-hitting editors in the field. I am now able to contrast that depressing experience with the professionalism I’ve encountered in YA where I sold two novels in an “I’m getting the next round” deal. Guess where I’m sticking? And the best part? I don’t have to change a thing about what I write. John, I think you’ve been lucky and your books are obviously so good they transcend the ghetto. But the ghetto is still the ghetto. And it’s not the fault of people outside the ghetto. It’s the fault of people inside.
I think one of the reasons that YA gets shafted is because of it’s placement in the bookstores, usually right next to the children’s section. It’s hard not to feel creepy as an adult browsing through the kids section and not feel a bit like a crazy stalker (and I’m only 20 and female, a demographic that doesn’t really align with the creepy stalker one). It’s a shame too. I love YA fiction. Reading adult fiction is nice but time and time again, the books I read and re-read are YA and the books that I don’t finish are adult fiction. In fact, Scott Westerfield is part of the reason that I’ve started buying YA fiction again.
You know, I’ve never ever had a problem being in the YA or children’s section of a store, even before I had a kid. I guess I just don’t worry about it. The whole bookstore is my territory, is my feeling.
I agree heartily with the ideas that there is an awful lot of quality lit in YA and that editors (and collections development librarians) tend to pay particular attention when choosing YA books.
I’m 32 and still pull from the YA section of my library on a regular basis. In fact, I am more likely to pick up a book by an unfamiliar author in the YA section than I am in the adult section, because that section seems to be much more thoroughly vetted for quality.
A good story is a good story period and it should be able to hold it’s own no matter who it’s intended audience is.
Angie beat me to the punch with the idea that people who start reading an author’s YA material will eventually graduate to the author’s adult SF. That was clearly my early Heinlein experience; from juvies to Valentine Michael Smith in short order.
I think that adult SF has another divide that many readers cannot or will not ford. It is the issue of complexity, not everyone is comfortable graduating from space opera to more substantial faire (I’m not diss’ing space opera; I love a good bang bang shoo’em up especially with snappy dialog). Ian Banks and Neil Stephenson are not for everyone. While one could call both the Star Wars and OMW entities space opera, I would argue that Star Wars is fantasy and not really science fiction, whereas OMW series has concepts that are extrapolations on humanity that render it more than cowboys in space (OMW has other merits but that is not the point here). If a substantial portion of current SF just YA, with less morality play and mo betta slap and tickle (as previously mentioned), could it be that a significant proportion of adult readers choose a simpler easier read rather than jumping the divide to more complex material. Has a portion of the SF community become fantasy in space suit aficionados?
People want *stories*. They want heroes, villains, dreadful odds, madcap adventures. Adult publishers want “a new twist on an old theme. Take it to the next level, make it different.” Most publishers even list that as the chief factor in their submissions guidelines. But there are only so many ways to make time travel new, and anyone who has been around the genre awhile will cry out, “Heinlein did it first, and better!”
IMO it’s so difficult to “write new” that adult authors shift focus. The stories evolve into socio-commentary wrapped in the trappings of sf or fantasy. That plays well with Locus reviewers and garners awards; yet as an adult who first got into sf and fantasy due to the “Gee whiz” effect, I find navel-gazing novels to be pretty damn boring. I’m not really interested in reading a nuanced speculation about a society that has only left-handed people. I want adventure, high jinks, secret messages and swords!
YA delivers that. Any “message” is soft-pedaled, any deep character study is left for the theses of grad students. There are exceptions, of course, but YA first and foremost *must* tell a good story. In YA books, if you don’t tell a story, you’ve lost the reader. I think that, because of this, YA publishing houses worry less about an author who uses tropes but tells a cracking tale.
I have to admit that I feel a little weird shopping in the YA section but no weirder then I feel shopping the SF section. As an adult I embrace my inner geek but I still have all of those years of socialization to contend with.
Well, I can tell you why I didn’t read The Risen Empire. I saw an online review that said it was excellent but was a single novel broken up into two parts arbitrarily by the publisher. I didn’t want to shell out for a hardback copy of half a story, so I decided to wait. By the time Killing of Worlds showed up at my local bookshop, The Risen Empire had vanished. Obviously, I really didn’t want to read just the second half of a novel, and I also didn’t want the first half in paperback and the second in hardback –gotta keep the bookshelf balanced, you know. I meant to order them both from Amazon but never got round to it. It was easier just to grab the latest Stross off the shelf.
So, one reader lost, because the publisher and my local Borders made it difficult.
Who was the publisher? google…google. Well, crap, it was Tor.
Holy schlamoley, somehow I had never made the connection between the Scott Westerfield who wrote those wonderful adult-sf Risen Empire books, and the Scott Westerfield who’s been writing those YA Uglies books.
Damn. Duh. Time to hit the YA section at the library.
Words are words – I don’t care about the label or the packaging. Most readers I know feel much the same.
I share my books with my 13 year old son. I warn him if the material might be more than he wants, but it’s his choice to read it or not.
Nick: You can get The Risen Empire as one book if you order it from the UK where Orbit very sensibly published it as the one book it actually is. I believe Tor is re-releasing Risen Empire in trade but they’re unfortunately keeping the two-book format. A mistake, in my opinion.
Also as of couple of years ago the SFBC had the books in a single volume.
It’s hard not to feel creepy as an adult browsing through the kids section and not feel a bit like a crazy stalker
Public libraries helped me get over that; quite a few I’ve frequented, up and down the US West Coast, put all the SF/F in YA. Stories about spaceships and unicorns are for children, y’see. (One middle-sized city library (used to?) put all non-fiction books about motorcycles in the kids section. I always wondered what they were trying to say… )
I am the proud possessor of an omnibus version of The Risen Empire.
I walked into the YA section looking for a book with a SF/F reader friend of mine.
He stopped and said “That’s a YA book? I’ve been hearing about it, but never saw it in the SF/F section. I can’t believe that is YA, given the subject matter.”
Incidentally, said friend checks the YA section more regularly.
re #20- It is cheaper to buy HC books in YA. Trade paperbacks too. And sometimes regular paperbacks. And it isn’t always because the books are shorter. This may be because publishers think the amount of money people are willing to spend on a YA book is lower than a regular SF book- which makes it even more remarkable that YA authors are selling so many copies that they are making more in total than adult SF/F authors. I bought all Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass books in YA format because they were cheaper.
YA is usually shelved altogether in most of the bookstores I’ve been in, so SF/F is not isolated from the other fiction. People exploring the shelves may find SF/F books when they wouldn’t necessarily have gone looking for them.
A number of Adult SF/F books have been sold in YA after first coming out in Adult SF/F- Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Charles DeLint and others.
Nancy Farmer and Cynthia Voight are only YA authors, I think, and both of them have written extremely complex and challenging SF/F books. I recommend especially Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion (SF), and Cynthia Voight’s Elske, On Fortune’s Wheel, and other novels of The Kingdom(F).
I also think that YA books have a longer backlist life than a lot of adult fiction- SF, romance, and mainstream. At least, I’ve been able to find books I loved reading when I was younger still in print in YA book sections.
I downloaded Little Brother yesterday, and even before I finished it, I went raving to my children, who are not particularly into SF, sent them the link http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download and told them they needed to read it, and get their friends to read it as well.
Hah! I would like to scratch my own back and point out that I made the same point as Paul Di Filippo did. In the same comment thread. Except much earlier (comment 26 rather than comment 91).
I guess I’m just not as noteworthy as Di Filippo is. Who would have thunk it?
I’ll give you this librarian’s point of view of the adult v. ya sci-fi debate. YA sci-fi moves. I have a display of adult sci-fi and it just sits, yours as well Mr. Scalzi. Lord knows I try and try to move the adult sci-fi. It just sits – R. Morgan, J. Shepherd, I. McDonald, I.M. Banks – they just sit going out once maybe twice a year. YA overall, not just sci-fi alone, has a buzz right now. Youth culture fixation within our overall culture? Parents wanting to read with their children? Authors getting excited about writing YA and as a result producing shorter and better books? Goodness knows but here in libraryland it seems the YA sci-fi is just more interesting to the sci-fi crowd.
I went thru the original comments on the first YA thread rather hastily, and confess to missing David Bilek’s post. All apologies. David, consider that maybe it just took two of us registering a contrarian POV to get it on the radar!
Good writing is good writing. I don’t give a hoot where it’s shelved.
Paul: I scrawled a hasty two sentence throwaway comment. You posted a thoughtful bit of insight.
I was just kidding.
That said; As someone I agree with, you are clearly a man of taste and distinction.
I don’t read YA books myself, but I’ve got a pair of young cousins that I buy books for on occaision, and so I’ve found myself in the YA section of several bookstores (and, actually, spending lots of time paging through books intended for young girls). I’m a 30-year-old white guy.
It’s not a problem. People who feel weird about it are overthinking it. Other patrons just assume (correctly, in my case), that you’re purchasing on behalf of a child.
YA sections are seriously dangerous for me in terms of my tendency to overspend in them. There’s a lot of really good work out there, and also gems from my childhood that I enjoy re reading. Plus, it’s a great place to shop for gifts.
Just wanted to note that one thing I have noticed is that YA books pretty consistently have more immediate and vivid characterization than adult novels. There are exceptions, of course, but as a reader who is more interested in what happens to a character than just what happens…well, I’m reading more YA these days and less “adult” fiction.
The YA boom means that there are a lot of good authors working in the field. As a reader, it’s exciting. As a writer, it’s enticing.
There’s an assumption to some of the comments that suggests that a writer is doing one or the other and that there’s a significant difference between how they might process and produce the two. I’m not sure I buy that since I make no significant distinction in audience in my writing process from one form to the other.
In fact, I’ve got three fantasy novels out from Ace that I thought I was writing for adults but which are usually shelved in the YA/teen section of libraries. Because of that co-opt and the potential for a better pay check, I’ve now got two series out being explicitly shopped to YA publishers. I’ve also got three books being shopped to adult markets. The major difference between the two sets is length and age of protagonist.
Which is the advice I’ve gotten from several YA editors in terms of writing for a YA audience. Loosely: don’t write for a YA audience. Write exactly the book you would for an adult audience only with a younger protagonist and write it tight.
“In all likelihood, we will never see another EVOLUTION’S DARLING by Scott Westerfeld, given the success of his YA stuff.”
Would that really be a bad thing? Now, there are very few people in the world who are bigger fans of The Risen Empire than I. I think it’s the best space opera ever written and I recommend it to all I meet (and Nick, it’s in one book now, really worth a read).
But I was physically nauseated by Evolution’s Darling. I’m really not a prude, but it disgusted me. And one big benefit of YA is that it lets Westerfeld have a similar amount of writing quality but bars him from putting in that kind of disgusting stuff (that said a sequel to Risen would be fawesome).
Two questions come to mind in following this debate:
1) So, Mr. Scalzi, given all that you’ve said, why aren’t YOU writing YA?
2) Just what makes something a YA novel in the eyes of writers and (more importantly?) publishers?
Well, Zoe’s Tale has a sixteen-year-old protagonist and is designed to be a good fit for YA readers as well as its primary market. Also, you know. I’m enjoying myself doing what I’m doing.
Forgive me if I missed a similar comment, but this conversation also assumes that Scott Westerfeld or other YA authors aren’t simply writing YA because that’s what they found they prefer to write.
Maybe these are the stories the YA authors most want to tell and it just so happens that YA pays better and Westerfeld gets a double hit of doing exactly what he wants to do while providing for his family.
Or, of course, the books could just be marketed as YA and the author really doesn’t see them that way.
Also, you know. I’m enjoying myself doing what I’m doing.
We are enjoying what you’re doing, too, to be sure.
But you can make more MONEY! What kind of capitalist pig are you, anyway?
The lazy kind.
Just to inject a bit of silliness: the title of this post immediately gave me visions of a universe where Carmen Sandiego retires and Scott takes up her mantle of escaping Interpol’s clutches. That, or possibly a magical object named “Scott Westerfeld” ala the One Ring. Or maybe just: “DUDE, who lost Scott Westerfeld?” in a parking lot one night.
Will stop now.
I believe that the sf/f field could stand to learn a lesson or two from the YA field. The first is a lesson that I’ve already seen addressed in this thread…the no bull-o-meter that teens possess. They want to know what happens – only. They don’t care about the “literature” portion of it. They don’t care about reviews and pr…they buy what they like. If you get them, then you get their dollars. And believe me, my daughter and her friends have soooo much money to spend as opposed to me and my husband who have to actually run a house and pay the bills. They can even afford the hardcovers ::drool::.
While I commend the authors who can write the epics, sagas and many words per book, there are those adults who just don’t have the time or stamina to read them. They would prefer the length of a YA book, but they’re not going to shop in that bookstore department. If we’re discussing the actual market possibilities and money available within the genre, I believe these people are an overlooked market. I don’t have a novel published yet, but could I find a publisher who would market short (possibly on the order of the romance monthlies), enjoyable books for those adults who don’t think of themselves as “readers” but like to read when they can? So many adults won’t or can’t “make” the time to read, but would like to read on the go. And they’d like to finish a book now and again within that timeframe.
Gwenda: Me too. I was going to comment: He’s not lost. He’s right here!
Well, ghod knows for nearly seven years I’ve been trying to do my part to spread the word about good adult SF/F people should be reading (as well as the bad they should avoid), and yet I’m always surprised and dismayed by how few people click through the Amazon links attached to my reviews. Just to list one example out of many, I was crazy in love with Chris Roberson’s Paragaea a couple of years ago, a thoroughly stupendous Burroughs pastiche from Pyr SF. And then a couple of months ago I’m talking to Chris at ConDFW, and he tells me that book was one of Pyr’s weakest sellers. (Granted, it has one of their lamer covers, but still.) Seriously, I feel like I’m talkin’ to a brick wall half the time. Whaddaya people want anyway? (Oh, that’s right…Trek, Star Wars, Forgotten Realms…)
Justine Larbalestier @ 58 wrote:”He’s not lost. He’s right here!”
Was he behind the couch? That’s where I first thought to suggest looking.
More seriously, may I second what Linda @ 50 wrote about wanting less epic-length adult SF.
There are many times when I go to a bookstore and peruse the SF/Fantasy section, but it’s often when I’m going there in search of a specific book. While I’m there I browse, and almost invariably if I see “Book One of the Tedium Cycle” or whatnot I’ll put it back on the shelf with a small shudder.
I don’t mind series like OMW that have just sort of grown organically from the first book, but there seem to be way too many series planned that way from the start.
I miss shorter, well-written, self-contained SF books. More gourmet appetizers and less steam-table buffet, please!
mensley, believe you me, no one has been harsher about the surfeit of bloated tomes and multibook sagas in this genre than I have. I do so miss the days when the average SF novel was a tight 250 pages.
Another note… Adult SF writers of note are writing non-SF, and not just literary works with (cough) hidden SF tropes:
* Neal Stephenson: You could call The Baroque Cycle alternate history, or historical fantasy… but there’s not much there outside historical fiction. But before that was Cryptonomicon, which really isn’t SF at all. I liked ’em all, but they’re not for everybody (a speed reading approach can sometimes help)
* Bruce Sterling’s “Zenith Angle” takes place any minute now, with one SF-ish macguffin turns out to be a spam filter (sorry to spoil it for you, but if you can’t see it coming…) (not recommended)
* Greg Bear wrote a post-911 terrorism thriller, “Quantico”, whose scary concepts are all too real (highly recommended)
* William Gibson’s last two books, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, are definitely not SF, but read like they could be, if they were written a couple of decades ago. I’m not saying he’s stuck in a rut — by no means — but the ‘kewl’ factor in these books would feel a lot kewler to somebody not reading BoingBoing. (Recommended)
One thing I’d like to note is that I hadn’t actually heard of Scott Westerfeld before reading this entry. After seeing the glowing mentions here, I headed over to Amazon to pick up a copy of Evolution’s Darling… and stopped, because it’s apparently not in print. I guess I could pick up The Risen Empire or The Killing of Worlds, but the first book of that series doesn’t appear to be in print right now either. Maybe I’ll wait until it’s reprinted in July, but I’ll probably have forgotten by then.
I run into this a lot — I love me some good SF&F fiction, and I have trouble finding new authors to read. Often, when I do find a new author from recommendations, it’s a pain to buy the books because they aren’t in print anymore, or they’ll be reprinted six months from now but not now, etc, etc.
I find that I’m not really willing to pick things up randomly from the shelves in bookstores anymore, because at $25+ each in hardcover, it’s more of a gamble than I want to take with an unknown author, and paperback selection can be pretty spotty — “oh, look, they have volume 3 but not 2 or 1” and so forth.
With non-genre stuff, I feel like I get more of a warning that something new is coming out. Magazines will mention it. My coworkers will be reading it. The newspaper might say something. I don’t get as much of that with SF&F, and I hate feeling like I’m going to miss out on some really great stuff unless I’m willing to spend a lot of time searching for good reviews and wading through dreck.
Maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough, but over the last few years I’ve seen precious little fantasy in the adult sections that was of interest to me, whereas the YA section was crowded with fantasy novels that looked both engaging and original, some of them by people whose work I already like (e.g. Diane Duane, Meg Cabot, Patricia C. Wrede and Jane Yolan). In the adult fantasy, every other book is about a sexy vampire or werewolf, or a hot young waitress/detective who is dating a vampire or werewolf. A good portion of the rest are about the young wizard/princess who is heir to a dark legacy, which she must overcome to restore the balance / the world / the kingdom / the alternate world she stumbled into last Thursday, something she won’t manage to do until at least the third book in the series. Meanwhile in the YA, there are teenagers carrying on platonic relationships with ghosts, young marrieds uncovering magic skullduggery in Regency-era Europe, stories set in magical versions of China and India, tween wizards who regularly face the Devil in space or under the ocean, princesses of countries that shouldn’t exist, apprentice magicians who aren’t nearly as good at this stuff as HP, updated fairy tales, Peter Pan sequels etc. Is it any wonder that most of my non-Scalzi book purchases come from the YA section?
There is dreck in the YA section – I’ve read a fair amount of it. Kidlet and I worked up a deal; she can use her own judgment when choosing entertainment and I will make a point of checking out what she’s reading/watching/listening to and sometimes we’ll have conversations about it. Her romance manga phase was unfortunately memorable (…and she doesn’t like Neil Gaiman!?), and I dread the opening of the Gossip Girl movie, because the books made me cringe. When it came to books by Westerfeld and Larbalestier, on the other hand, I bought them all for her without any hesitation, and thoroughly enjoyed reading them too. I’ve enjoyed finding books for her to read, and a lot of them are sf/f YA. They are also better than many of the adult sf/f books I find (not all, Mr. Scalzi, just many). And, to be fair, one can find bad sf/f YA too (sez the one who read a pile of AD&D books in high school…). I’m not the only adult who is trying to find and support good reading material for a kid; given a choice between buying a new book that I want to read for her and buying a new book for myself, I’ll choose the former.
I’m thinking that the lumping of many genres into YA, as well as some of the attitude that fantasy is for kids, may be part of the reason why lists of ‘classic’ children’s books include a lot of sf/f. Harry Potter is not the first popular sf/f YA book, not by a long shot.
I meant to say, “…buying a new book for her and buying a new book for myself, I’ll choose the former.” I guess my strategy of buying a book for her that’s really for me is no secret now.
I’m planning to check out the Maureen Johnson book the next time I’m at the bookstore. Kidlet won’t have time to read it before the summer, so I guess I’ll have to pre-screen it for her. Muhahahaaa.
My three kids are part of the YA phenomenon. The spend more on books than I do, and they lean heavily toward fantasy and sf. I’ll admit that maybe I steered them that way by having all of the Pratchett books in our house since they could read.
Their reality is that they buy the books they want to read over and over, and those are the ones with characters that they like and identify with–especially in a series.
They find out about books from their friends. Do not underestimate the influence of peer recommendations. When is the last time all of your friends at work were telling you about the latest sf you had to get immediately!? Both the Westerfield and Stephanie Meyer books entered our house via the kid’s rabid friends.
We went to an author signing tonight for Rick Riordan’s newest Percy Jackson book, and the kids shelled out for the hardcover! I never pay for hardcover for myself! Although, I will be reading their new book (once I get it away from them) since I do like the series too.
As others have said in this thread, tighter, more character-driven stories are appealing to many people. They are a great entry point for kids, and a satisfying read for adults. I’m not surprised that it’s a profitable strategy.
But you can make more MONEY! What kind of capitalist pig are you, anyway?
Duh, the bacon kind, obviously. *grin*
It’s a tangled and thorny problem overall, and whilst I agree there is no shortage of people inside the ‘SF/F Ghetto’ that work hard to keep the walls up, there is also no shortage of people outside it doing exactly the same thing. My $0.05 (no $0.02 pieces here in Aus,) on the matter is that it’s a function of humanity’s all too ingrained habit of reinforcing tribal identities by defining a group by what it stands against, rather than what it stands for.
My experiences are obviously non-typical, given that I work in a SF/F/Horror bookstore, and as such don’t actually go into any other bookstores, but we don’t separate YA from ‘adult’ fiction, but then we also don’t separate SF from Fantasy from Horror, either. And we tend towards a pretty broad definition of SF/F/Horror, to boot.
Personally, I think that overall, fiction cannot easily be defined into clear sections in the way that non-fiction can. It’s more far more a continuum of shades of grey than black or white, but the marketing types are much happier that way, and somehow the market has defined itself more and more for their benefit over the years.
And (Sir) Apropos of Nothing, Mr Scalzi, as a little ego-boo for you, once again we have received back-orders of your books, and once again within the week we are almost or totally out already. (TAD, TGB and OMW, in this case.) Doing our little bit to keep the Scalzi cats supplied with bacon, and the drive-way graveled.
Joe Sherry @53
I think that’s a largely overlooked part of this story… the… you know, artistic angle. Cory Doctorow described Little Brother as clawing its way out of his head. The story is YA-ish, so that’s what gets written. If the stories in Scott Westerfield’s head are YA right now, that’s what he’s going to write.
I have to say, even though I do like dense, or very long, texts sometimes, it’s nice to sit down with a book I can consume in 4 hours, like a particularly long movie. But not everybody has access to for-EFL English to English translations of Jekyll & Hyde, or Dorian Gray. So, YA fills a particular variety of enjoyment for adults too. Especially adults that spend 45 minutes reading a parking-rules sign, or 3 hours spread over 2 days reading a teacher’s bulletin. (those are language issues, not dyslexia in my case)
As a teenager and a student librarian at school who adores sf/f I would say that it is sometimes hard to see where YA stops and adult fiction begins.
For example, one of my favourite sf authors is Jeff Noon. He writes with adult themes and wonderful language, yet some of his protagonists are teenage or children. Some may argue that the content sets it apart from YA, but it is not really stranger than the ideas about Cutters in Westerfield’s books.
Wouldn’t the prominence of YA sf just feed the adult market? Sleepwalking, by Nicola Morgan, references many classic adult novels as well as classic sf. It inspired me, when I was much younger, to read 1984. Perhaps they are needed as a stepping stone.
For me the real problem with YA as a section is the way y a’s are excluded from other sections. At least where I grew up, if you were under 18 you needed your parent to be with you to check out any book NOT labeled YA from the local library, which used to drive me up the wall. As Gaiman says on his blog today, http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/05/get-your-yas-out.html really all fiction should be shelved alphabetically with no genres, since you’re increasing the power of serendipity.
I’m right there with you on the idea of picking up the start of a new series. I miss the books of the 60’s and 70’s before bloat set in. Not everyone is capable of writing a HYPERION and most shouldn’t try.
As a librarian who regularly creates book displays and recommends books for a living, I must mention that a lot of adult sf/f has ridiculously bad cover art. The folks marketing contemporary YA sf/f are more often realizing the power of a simple but arresting image. We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but a lot of adult sf/f has such campy artwork that it’s hard to convince browsers that there’s an engaging and meaty story within.