A Bookshelf for All Ages

From Publishers Weekly:

Hey, old people, do you remember the song “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News? Of course you do. Young people: find the video, you might like it.

I bring it up because after nearly a decade of hearing “I like it, but I don’t know what shelf it goes on” about my book Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I want a new shelf. One where parents aren’t nervous wondering what to do. One that makes us read like families used to do. Okay, enough with the song.

Here’s a revelation for some people: the age of the audience is not a genre. When I was pitching Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I spoke with famed science fiction agent Cherry Weiner. Off my pitch, she had requested a full manuscript, which she liked enough call me.

“This is not sci-fi,” she said.

Not sci-fi? It’s Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. How can that not be sci-fi?

She continued: “It’s not sci-fi, and you don’t want it to be. It’s YA.” She also said she didn’t represent YA, so she was passing on the manuscript. I was devastated for about 30 minutes. That’s when Emmanuelle Morgen called. She also liked it, but saw it more as middle grade. After a round of changes to age my narrator down, we went out with it. Some editors saw it as YA, others saw it as middle grade, depending on whether they identified with the narrator or the subject of her narration. They saw this as a problem. I disagreed.

Target marketing by age has been around long enough that most people think it’s the only way to sell books, but if you take a longer view of commercial art, you’ll see that excluding the majority of your potential audience is a new concept. And by “new,” I mean since the turn of the previous century.

Before radio, movies, television, and the internet split audiences into tiny chunks, there were basically two markets: children and adults. Even at the beginning of these technologies, artists had to create work that would satisfy whomever might receive the signal from the air. Going back even further, when books were expensive to print and buy, one book had to entertain the entire family.

Look at Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers. Look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Look at anything by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Twain. They all contain elements that today would get an author the dreaded “I don’t know what shelf it goes on” rejection. These elements include the following:

● Characters of various ages, or the entire lives of characters, not just kids

● Sex being left to what anyone might witness in public

● Age groups being targeted by beats within each story, not the entire work

I said that Kiya and the Morian Treasure is unapologetically Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. I worked on Xena and saw the numbers: they were equal across all ages. In some markets, the show aired on Saturday afternoons for kids. In others, you could catch it Saturday at midnight for the college crowd.

Publishing might think this is an outlier, but anyone like me, who has worked in film and television since Huey Lewis was big, can tell you it’s typical 8 p.m. programming. If you’d like a trip down memory lane, you can find loads of network TV schedules from the past. Scan them and you’ll also find titles that have become franchises, stories enjoyed by people of all ages—and they aired before 9 p.m.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

2 thoughts on “A Bookshelf for All Ages”

  1. So it’s not sci-fi … is it science fantasy? Is there a space wizard somewhere in this? I really wish he asked the agent to explain her reasoning; the book’s description strongly suggests sci-fi.

    As far as genre-by-age, I share his assumption that it’s similar to TV programming. Kids in my day liked Han Solo and He-Man, She-Ra and Princess Leia, which is a clue that the main characters aren’t required to be kids in order to appeal to them. The idea that character age = reader age when it comes to stories for kids is a popular misconception; Seventeen magazine is for 12 year olds. Actual seventeen-year-old girls have moved on to Marie Claire and the like. As a third-grader, I enjoyed the adventures of 18-year-old Nancy Drew in books, and the grandmotherly Jessica Fletcher on TV.

    Determining if something is for kids was supposed to be based instead on the complexity of the story and how “dark” or violent it gets. How subtle vs. how obviously you make
    the theme of the story. Eighties-era cartoons (and even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) would have a little epilogue to each episode where they spell out the moral of the story. Didn’t Dumbledore do something similar? Teens and adults don’t require this. And if the story aiming for young people is well-told, adults will like it, too, so the author’s “family bookshelf” idea seems doable to me. If movies can be marketed as “fun for the whole family!” why can’t books?

    That said, I don’t quite get the rules about how books are slotted where kids are concerned. Girls in middle school were reading VC Andrews, but I see Amazon categorizes her as gothic fiction, not YA. OK, fair enough. Why can’t the sci-fi characters be teenagers? If ageing his characters downward did no violence to the author’s story, then no problem. But I have the nagging feeling the author should have gone indie.

    • Well…
      Where pbooks are slotted has more to do with the parents (who buy the books) than the kids. Particularly parents who don’t read or aren’t familar with the genre. However, the pri.arygzrbetx are B&M bookstores.

      The whole YA category is really a bunch or marketing hype since the vast majority are SF or Fantasy or some mix thereof. The thinking behind it seems to be classic corporate publisher-think. Back in the day, SF was seen as Buck Rogers kid stuff” which is shy books that had nothing to do with space ended up with generic rocketship covers. Then when theywerd sledgehammered with the sales of thoughtful mature titles, they flipped and did pretty much nothing else. Until Potter and Hunger Games and thdir straight jacket pigeon hole marketers couldn:t figufd out hos o e genfd could possibly address two or more markets. So they invented another pigeon hole. Dittofor “urban fsntasy” as if it were some unique 90’s thing and not a fantasy trope since pretty much day one.

      Since then it’s been a constant dance of marketting and conformity. Authors forced to contort and twist their visions and narratives to fit the marketters procrustean pigeon holes.

      This is, of course, a manhattan publishing mess. Smaller, smarter publishers don’t care if an established author of military SF wants to do a (sort-of) High Fantasy, a suburban urban fantasy, a technothriller, or a “YA” zombie gun bunny whatever. Ss long as the fans are good with it and keep the cash flowing.

      And other creative industries use far more rational pigeonholing. Gaming, for example, has E (for everyone), T (for teenx and above) and M (for mature) and clearly call out the elements of the product that led to the classification so the tesponsible adults know what they’re buying. Genre is typically obvious or irrelevant. (Like, what’s the genre of PacMan? Or any of the zillion Lego Games?)

      Only corporate publishing seems to fret that “XENA meets STAR WARS” can’t possibly be SF or Fantasy. Even though both quoted series are pure fantasy with wizards and warriors, magic and monsters, golems and dragons.

      Life is to short to waste lifespace dealing with that kind of obtuseness.
      Is the story good?
      Then put it out, let the readers judge what it is.

      (At least they only shoehorned one of the cover fems into the “tough chick in leather” mold.)

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