Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Genre as Marketing on the Expanding YA Shelf

I spend a lot of time beating my head against a wall where understanding genre is concerned. Especially as a writer and reader who loves a story that bends the nebulous constraints of particular genres and sub-genres. I love a book that is part Noir, Thriller, Romance, Fantasy, and Dystopian/Science Fiction. Throw in some Steam Punk elements and a High Fantasy creature and I'm sold. Even my own current writing project is difficult for me to label in those terms. When asked, I can only say it's a kind of Urban Fantasy with Military (but not really) Thriller and Sci-Fi elements. Most of the time, when asked which genre my writing projects reside, I get sideways glances from agents and other writers -- it's the you-really-need-to-figure-out-where-in-the-marketplace-your-book-is-situated look. Which is interesting, because as Jeannie pointed out last week: "Genre, at its heart, is a subjective label." And I'll add to that: in a world of consumerism, genre has become an artifact of marketplace not a fundamental standard of classification. So there's an extent in which genre labels equals marketing labels equals genre labels. Ultimately, genre is all about finding readers, A.K.A. buyers.

This is why the growth and expansion of genre and sub-genre in the YA market is so fascinating to me. YA books have grown into an entire market with its own genres and sub-genres. When you walk into a store looking for a title and have to think... okay,  it's in the New Release section of the Paranormal Romance section of the Young Adult section, it's like going to a shop inside a shop inside a shop. What's more, I can barely explain where the lines between some sub-genres and genres lie. It seems an ever-changing boundary. Some broad stroke constants exist, but when you really start talking to writers, publishers, and booksellers, it seems everyone has their own ideas on how to split those hairs. Every bookstore has its way of classifying and every website has an ever-changing classification system. Ask a dozen readers and you'll probably get a dozen different answers. Then, if that's not complicated enough, it's now an age of books labeled: X meets Y or If you liked Z you'll love Blank. Conversations about genre labels are incongruent and so very different from my childhood experience.

In the early 80s I remember getting my meager allowance or birthday card money, visiting the bookstore, and leaving with five or six Apple Paperbacks or the latest Babysitter's Club or Sweet Valley High titles. At a few dollars a pop, it was all about the branding. Occasionally, I'd find a weird ghost story in that section of the store, but mostly the middle grade/teen market was filled with these books and clearly geared toward coming-of-age stories and sweet romances for girls. After I'd outgrown that content and moved into the adult fantasy shelves, things began to change in the young readers section. A man by the name of R. L. Stine came along in the mid-80s and started altering young reader popular fiction, pushing clearer a wedge between Teen/YA books and Middle Grade. The coming-of-age and sweet romance genres that proliferated the young reader market made way for Goosebumps and many other kinds of books.

The market started to shake loose and a diversity emerged that didn't exist before -- not with this much publisher attention. Sure you had your tried and true literary classics that weren't romance or Judy Blume, but things evolved quite a bit from the mid 80's to the 90's. Then J.K. Rowling came along and blew the doors wide open. With that, adults started to read YA genre/market titles. Making YA no longer a market for only young people -- not "young people" like when I was a kid -- the stories got grittier, deeper, more complicated and broadened in genre type. YA now seems more of a classification for how old the protagonist of the book is, not the reader of it or the content.

Another interesting thing has arisen. When I was a Teen/Tween reader, books in the section were almost always mass market paperback. Go into a bookstore today and the shelves are lined with hardback new releases and trade paperbacks. Teens and Tweens like to read fiction for the same reasons adults do. They always have, but its only been in the last few decades that publishers and booksellers decided it was lucrative to do something about it (ie: really market to them). We're in a very different marketplace and the genre labels offered to young people are definitely more fine-tuned then they were ten years ago, much less twenty or thirty years ago.

In the last two decades big box bookstores pulled teen books out of the "kid's section" and gave them their own area near the general fiction section -- a section that allows younger readers to feel like they aren't reading kiddie books and where older readers can easily slide over to the YA section when they want to read young. This market has been growing ever since. Recently, the boom of Paranormal Romance in YA paved the way for Dystopian Adventure and now we find the sections within the section bearing more labels and classifications: Edgy Stories, Fantasy Adventure, Paranormal Romance. The classifications go on and on.

But pick a book under any label considered a genre and watch the same book appear under multiple  shelf labels. This offers a strange conundrum -- at the same time YA diversifies its genre labels within the section (Urban Fantasy, Thriller, Horror, High Fantasy, etc.) it's blurring those same boundaries. I was just in the bookstore the other day and noticed a new label reading Horror within the YA section. The same book was shelved within the YA area under YA Horror, YA Dark Fantasy, and YA Paranormal Romance.

What does this all mean?

Hell if I know. It seems almost counter-productive to place a book on valuable bookstore shelf space labeled differently in multiple places within a section of the bookstore. Or... is just good marketing?

Publishers and booksellers have embraced the idea of grooming readers from a young age. So have authors. Supposedly, people are more literate now then during any time before and it's no secret genre readers exist (however subjective those labels are or how those readers define and hash out the details of classification). Start them young and keep them coming back. Every time I shop for books I notice "new" old authors cropping up in YA that I hadn't ever seen before. Seasoned adult Urban Fantasy writers, Thriller writers, Paranormal Romance writers. They are all breaking into the seemingly ever-expanding YA market. It's brilliant. Hook them young and offer them an entire canon they can grow into. More and more types of books (books we see in every other section of the bookstore) are flooding into the YA Market -- a market that used to be considered a sort of age appropriate "genre" of its own when I was a kid.

In the end, it's all about authors finding an audience and publishers selling books. That said, I think any writer who tries to write to the constraints of a particular genre will find themselves in a hopeless, helpless battle that isn't unlike trying to predict what the next big thing in the market will be. YA books are expanding and diversifying because the market sees an opportunity and it doesn't know what is going to sell next... because no one can predict what everyone will be talking about next month. Genres are being created and bent and reworked and relabeled all the time in fiction, but it's only been in the last few years this process has carried over to the blossoming YA market within the publishing market. What took some time to happen in the regular/adult fiction market is happening quick and now, changing from week to week, with every new release, because there are labels that already exist alongside the new label buzz happening in marketing conference rooms across the globe.

Last week I was in the bookstore and the middle grade section was pulled forward to the center of that section where picture book new releases were once housed. The middle grade section is now twice as big as it had been one week before. Could the market be sniffing out a way to re-categorize and up-sell middle grade too? I don't doubt it. Books need readers, and summing up a book's worth of words into one or two that people will recognize or attach to and purchase is the end game, whether we want to believe and accept it or not.

Next week, Alexis dives into the intricacies of genre from her perspective.

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