A major slump in sales of young adult (YA) fiction in the UK has been greeted with alarm by authors, who are leaving the category in droves because of poor returns, and by experts who have warned that failing to make books easily available to young people could severely affect literacy levels.
Figures from the Bookseller magazine show YA sales fell by £6.2m to £22.5m last year, the lowest point in 11 years, with volume down by 26.1% to 3.3m books sold. The decline follows a series of boom years earlier this decade, fuelled by film adaptations of bestsellers including Suzanne Collins’s dystopian Hunger Games trilogy, John Green’s love story The Fault in Our Stars and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.
At Waterstones, YA buyer Kate McHale admitted sales were “a little bit down” in 2018 compared with 2017, when books including Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give drove an “incredible” year. “There were some really brilliant titles, but even disregarding the big names, maybe not the breakout hits there were the year before. We don’t necessarily expect every year to be quite the golden year that was,” said McHale.
The Bookseller blamed the drop on issues including an overcrowded market and a focus on “worthy” books. The novelist Sally Nicholls also told the magazine that “most of the UK YA authors I know are leaving YA and going to [write] children’s or adults’”, because of low advances, with some writers offered just £1,000 to write a full-length novel. “That’s not sustainable. It’s insulting,” said Nicholls.
Keren David, author of eight YA books, told the Guardian: “I think there’s a widespread feeling of disappointment with the general state of the market for UK YA at the moment. Many people are getting very low offers, and next to no promotion. Most people can’t afford to carry on writing YA if advances drop to £1,000.”
The charts show that UK YA readers are currently flocking to American writers, with last year’s top seller being US author Karen McManus’s thriller One of Us Is Lying. Following her in the Top Five were American Angie Thomas’s hit debut The Hate U Give, Nigerian-American Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, American Becky Albertalli’s Love Simon, and Jamaican-American Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything. Just one UK author made the 2018 Top 10: Michelle Magorian, for the classic title Goodnight Mister Tom.
“There is still widespread ignorance about what YA is (‘It’s all vampires!’ ‘It’s all worthy sicklit!’) It occupies an uneasy place between children’s and adults, and in the main, the only books that get a lot of promotion are the American ones,” David said. “Whether the British market can ever be big enough to sustain YA writers is doubtful. I think it’s sad if all youth culture is filtered through an American viewpoint. It means British kids are less engaged with their own country and experiences.”
Author Sheena Wilkinson agreed. “I think YA has become a slightly pejorative term – and when you aren’t having a great range of books published it’s possible to see why. When I go into bookshops I see a lot of YA, but not a lot of diversity. I see a lot of imported YA, mostly from the US,” said Wilkinson, author of seven YA novels. “Teens have always embraced US culture, that’s nothing new. But it seems a shame that this is promoted at the expense of homegrown writers. Not out of any wish to be parochial, but because it’s hard enough for writers to make a living in what is essentially a small market.”
McHale added: “It is quite easy for the big US names to dominate in a way that doesn’t happen in other genres, and that can pose a few problems for getting UK authors to that same level of noise.”
But despite the dominance of Americans, the Waterstones bookseller said that YA fiction had “moved quite firmly away” from the dystopian fantasy that began to dominate the charts a decade ago. The Hunger Games, published in 2008, led the charge, telling of a 16-year-old heroine in a post-apocalyptic future. It was followed by huge series including James Dashner’s Maze Runner titles, first published in 2009, and Roth’s Divergent books, launched in 2011. But as readers began to experience a surfeit of such fiction, McHale pointed to a number of genres selling well in YA today; Waterstones’ “older fiction” shortlist for its children’s book prize ranges from Children of Blood and Bone, which draws on African mythology, to Malcolm Duffy’s Me Mam. Me Dad. Me, which follows the life of a 14-year-old Geordie boy. “What is brilliant is the range of genres; YA is an age category not a genre,” said McHale.
What is not so brilliant, said children’s books consultant Jake Hope is the decision by publishers to price YA titles the same as adult mainstream fiction. He pointed to the £7.99 price point for both The Hate U Give and Children of Blood and Bone – the same amount charged for paperbacks of David Baldacci’s The Fallen and Anthony Horowitz’s The Word Is Murder.
“Isn’t there an inherent imbalance in the fact that young adults, often in full-time education or, if employed, in entry positions – are expected to have the same disposable income as adults? That might not be such an issue were it not for the fact that education spend is down,” he said.
And the decline in YA sales comes alongside a drop in lending of children’s books at public libraries. School libraries are also in dire straits: the School Library Association estimates its numbers have declined by at least 1,000 members since 2006, with schools trying to save money by cutting their librarians. Library spend on books decreased last year to £29.1m. Experts fear these factors will have a long-term impact on reading habits.
“Formerly, a lot of YA was bought by school libraries and public libraries. They have had budgets slashed and are increasingly getting rid of the professional librarians who know about what young people read,” said Wilkinson.
“Realistically, £29.1m is a tiny amount for something that holds the potential to benefit so many,” said Hope. “Reading is a great equaliser and is the biggest lever of social change. But to achieve that, there has to be access to books.”