Where Have All the YA Paperbacks Gone?

From Publishers Weekly:

Young adult fiction sales are in decline, and it’s a hot topic in publishing, where the internet is awash with questions of why. Are YA books really “New Adult” books in disguise? Are we still writing for teens, or for adults who read and review teen books—those who grew up in the second Golden Age of YA and now seek a similar experience as adult readers? And have we forgotten the 13–16-year-olds?

Keep in mind the natural ebbs and flows of publishing, the economy, and the recent years of upheaval that have driven us all a bit chaotic in our entertainment habits. Also, perhaps the “baby bust” of the mid-aughts means there are actually fewer teens around to buy and read books. All these things are certainly at play.

As a YA author, I’m keenly interested in this decline, the reasons, and possible solutions. I recently tweeted (sorry, posted? X’d? Anyway…) a theory that struck a chord: in our mission to make books beautiful and important, pay authors well, and appeal to adult buyers, we have forgotten the teen aesthetic and budget.

What I mean is: what ever happened to the paperback book? That luscious, bendy, cheap, satisfying companion you could stuff in a backpack, fold over on the train, take to the beach or the park without fear of “ruining” it. The $7 price tag that meant just about anybody could buy one. When seeking a serotonin boost where my options might be an $8 vanilla oat milk latte, a $6 phone game, or a $20 hardcover book, even as an adult my choice is clear.

Maybe it’s time for teen books to be an impulse purchase again.

Book bloggers, adult reviewers, and social media influencers have warped how we market, review, and perhaps even make books. This is a natural evolution—we want to sell books. Maybe publishers were so afraid that the e-book would replace our beloved physical tomes that they’re overcorrecting and trying to make every book precious, beautifully made, heavy, important; an artifact of bygone days.

Except the days aren’t bygone. “Kids these days” are very into aesthetic and retro life. Aside from generational cycles and fascinations, what is life in the roaring ’20s missing that they’re seeking in the styles and trappings of millennial and Gen X childhoods? And how can book publishers capitalize on these cravings?

Understand that when you’re competing for the attention of a teen reader, you aren’t competing against games, movies, and social media. A teen reader is reading, just reading differently. Often, they are reading fan fiction—on their phone. They are part of a secret club, finding comfort in characters they already know and scenarios that are reassuring (and yes, maybe titillating, but these are teens we’re talking about). However, there’s something else extremely important to remember about fan fiction: it’s free.

Maybe part of the decline in YA sales is because books for the average teen are not affordable to the average teen.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The island on which traditional publishers and their camp followers live provides a very warped view of the real book world.

Plus, approximately one out of ten thousand “kids” would choose a paperback instead of an ebook.

17 thoughts on “Where Have All the YA Paperbacks Gone?”

  1. Maybe. Or maybe they’re bored of the content aimed at them? I posted this list before:

    Sarah J. Maas clones (an anti-shopping list)

    I occasionally check and see what’s in YA in case I’m missing anything good. But the category is stuffed with the books on that list and other clones. I was looking at a review of another YA book where several of the readers said they were boycotting YA because they were tired of that kind of book. Bored of having unlikeable characters they can’t root for, Mary Sue heroines, the use of second person, etc.

    One reviewer put it:

    My other gripe is the main character. She’s not likeable. I’m sick and tired of reading books with characters I do not like. Is this now a thing?? Is it a cool and edgy thing to do to write about characters that are annoying and unlikable? I suppose what authors are trying to attempt is to make realistic characters, but I don’t think it’s an impossible thing to ask for: characters I can root for who are ‘real’ nonetheless

    Money can be a factor, too. But perhaps there’s nothing they want to buy, no matter what it costs.

    ETA (the quote is from a review of one of the books on that list, but not specifically Maas).

  2. Are there any YA titles out there that might actually appeal to heterosexual teenage boys? Or has that market been written off entirely as a lost cause? The last book I can think of that might have resonated with that group is Ready Player One, but that is well over a decade ago now.

    From the article:

    Now—especially now—with more diverse voices and fresh, relevant stories emerging for teens, we must make sure they can afford them, pack them up, and take them along wherever they go.

    Perhaps these are the reason sales are in decline? One nonbinary genderxir’s “fresh, relevant, stor[y]” is quite likely another nonbinary genderxir’s tedious sermon, or such has been my personal experience.

    • Maybe catering to the 6% and ignoring the other 94% isn’t good business?
      Reminds me of Broadway in the pre-Disney days when all the new pays were wannabe ANGELS IN AMERICA.

      Sounds like “diversity” doesn’t mean what they think it means.

  3. This is not a difficult question to answer, unless one is sufficiently dim so as to be allowed to write for major magazines.

    The much-vaunted Flynn Effect peaked in 1975, like a spent missile reaching apogee. IQ scores have been headed earthward ever since, and smart people have been getting thinner on the ground with each successive generation, and that means readers are too.

    (The above was written in the spirit of a plumber who cheerfully announces, “Here’s your problem!” as he shows a dead rat he has just pulled out of a pipe to a horror-struck housewife.)

    • Or buying Indie or small press ebooks, playing narrative video games, reading manga, even american comics. Public library. There’s plenty of places to go for reading than buying pigeonholed YA books.

      Besides, YA isn’t a real genre, rather a marketing pigeonhole for material from all genres.

  4. I have a house full of the technically YA age group of readers (five between ages 11-22). I’m a voracious reader myself who tried to expose them to as many books as I could starting when they were tiny. But when my kids have extra spending money, they don’t want to spend it on books. Even $7 for a paperback would make all five of them cringe. (I do have one daughter who will put manga on birthday/Christmas wish lists.) The girls are extreme consumers of fan fiction. It’s free, and it focuses on the characters and worlds they love (usually video game related, currently Genshin Impact ones). The boys? Quit reading for recreation altogether once they got past middle school (up until middle school they were voracious readers of non-fiction and Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Any extra $ they have goes straight toward video games and the merchandise that goes with them. All my kids love stories– but they usually want to play them (and they have zero interest in angsty teenage female protagonists, which are all too common in YA fiction).

    • Today’s best video games allow players to be, in effect, co-creators of a narrative, be it fantasy (BALDUR’S GATE III, SKYRIM, DRAGON AGE INQUISITION, THE WITCHER, FABLE, DISHONORED, etc), Science fiction(MASS EFFECT, OUTER WORLDS, STARFIELD, Cyberpunk 2077, FALLOUT, WASTELAND, etc), western (RED DEAD REDEMPTION), or combat focused (the various releases for CALL OF DUTY, HALO, or Gears of War). All story based but with gamer choices determining the game experience and ending. Some are online multiplayer so groups of friends can share the same adventure live in a shared world. Ganes are no longer for loners. Or boys alone.

      The things are endlessly replayable for hundreds of hours, often with totally different endings. The modern equivalent of the choose your own adventure books but way more immersive.

      And on a $ per hour basis, the cheapest form of modern entertainment this side of KU.

      But it’s not just boys. Young ladies get lost in these games, too, as well as Genshin. 😉

      If you can’t find young zoomers reading, odds are they are exploring strange new worlds in space or fighting dragons. And the competition is only going to get harder as quality broadband becomes ubiquitous, via cable or satellite and more TVs come with cloud gaming capabilities.

      Times change.

  5. I no longer read the new books because they are a boring repetition of previous hits.
    I believe that the biggest book publishers are now owned by corporate entities who decided that adults who prefer paper over ebooks will pay higher prices resulting in less volume sold but providing greater profit margins.
    True that teens prefer the ebooks but guess what, same profit margins as higher priced paperbacks (some thing to do with almost zero marginal costs of ebooks).

  6. “Plus, approximately one out of ten thousand “kids” would choose a paperback instead of an ebook.”

    My fifteen year old is an avid reader, and strongly prefers paper. Either he is one in ten thousand, or PG is projecting. Take your pick.

    • Richard, it could be the Bob’s Country Bunker situation: PG might be projecting and your fifteen-year-old might be one in ten thousand. (I shudder at the thought of getting 9,999 fifteen-year-olds to agree on anything; I raised two of them.)

      I’m just curious why those farther up the thread aren’t using libraries more often, and thereby discovering slightly older (and vastly more affordable!) YA books like Tamora Pierce’s various series. Are the libraries literally not available (between budget cuts and COVID, a nontrivial possibility) or otherwise hostile to this grouping? Just because the good stuff — newly published or not — isn’t moving at the velocity desired by brick-and-mortar stores doesn’t mean there’s no good stuff!

      • Steve Jobs, for all his faults, was mostly right when he said people don’t read anymore:


        A more accurate statement is that less people *pay* to read for entertainment.
        (See above.)

        As to libraries the likely answer is “all of the above” and more.

        There is no magic bullet to get kids to read in the volumes they used to. Comics were the gateway to books back in the day but back in the day comics ran well under a buck. Today it’s four to five. Their primary audience, despite recurring attempts, is adults and not even young adults. Free time goes to social media, games, and subscriptions. And not just video, gaming, or music subscriptions. There’s KU (loaded with Ya accessible material), Scribd, and DC and marvel subscriptions, all offering entire buffets for less than *one* tradpub book.

        And then there’s Manga with no less than four subscription services.
        (And Amazon is there, too.)

        (see next)

          • Or how about when they dropped newstands (returnable) for comics shops (non-returnable)? And the discovery that compilation trade paperbacks sold forever. Better paper, better printing, better writing…until about 2010…

            They slowly moved from mass media to a niche business.
            Corporate narrative fiction in general is headed that way, deemphasizing mass market for trade paperback and hardcover.

      • Here:


        “While the digital revolution in traditional print publishing has forever changed the Western comic book world over the past decade, Japan’s manga industry has been far slower to adapt. This gaping hole has helped give rise to webcomics, dominated by the South Korean website, WEBTOON, attracting billions of readers (yes, billions) from around the world to its vertical-scrolling library of manhwa. On the sinister side of things, the lack of instant availability and affordability of manga has also driven consumers toward pirated content, the boom of which is estimated to have siphoned further billions — in yen — from both Japanese and American markets.”

        More at the source.

        Finally, while western comics used to steer older kids to books (SF&F, most typically) manga steers todays kids to anime and video games, JRPGs initially, other genres later.

        For kids to *want* to read YA *somebody* has to introduce them to reading for entertainment and these days that is neither their elders or their peers. And without that, libraries might as well not exist. “Stock it and they will come” works no better for libraries than b&m bookstores.

        Now add the catfights…

      • The library answer is easy in my household. When the kids were little we made at a minimum weekly visits to the library and all of them would check out stacks of books. I don’t bother with the trips anymore. None of them has found anything they want to read at our library since pre-covid.

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