Is the YA Book Bubble Bursting?

Charlie Jane Anders posted a brief but intriguing piece recently at io9 (based on a Wall Street Journal article) that speculates on the possible end of the current young adult book boom. The film and book industry that serves the YA audience seems to be collectively holding its breath in anticipation of Divergent‘s performance this upcoming weekend. In Ms Anders words:

“Studios are hoping it’ll show there are still audiences for young-adult films other than Hunger Games, after the dismal performance of several other films.”

She goes on to cite fatigue over the similarities between different YA books and movies as one of the causes of the seemingly receding YA market.

“…studios are getting wary of novels that feel too much like cookie-cutter copies of other stuff. Especially Twilight clones.”

This argument resonates with me because as a lifelong reader of genre, I’m sensitive to the difference between the artful use of common genre conventions—like a dystopian society under the thumb of an oppressive government—and the recycling of tired clichés because they moved product previously—like the Romeo & Juliet combinations referenced in Ms Anders’ post.

Ms Anders also provides a couple examples of new, more literary sources, as potentially a positive direction for producers, including The Giver, but doesn’t encourage a lot of enthusiasm.

“…the larger problem remains—in books as well as in movies, there’s no ‘mega franchise’ to replace Hunger GamesTwilight and Harry Potter among the tween and teen crowd. At least, not yet. Maybe that book is being written as we speak.”

I really like that last hopeful note. The image of someone toiling away somewhere in—what I imagine to be—a cramped, drafty space, maybe at night after a day job, to produce the next big hit is heartening. Because whatever feelings I might have about the relative literary merit of books like Twilight, any “mega franchise” that drives young people to seek out other reading options is a boon to book culture at large.

During the last book sale we attended, I was surprised at the number of young readers who came to our booth. Several were looking for Twilight and The Hunger Games or something very similar, sure, but also many of them were exploring genre books in different directions, as a result of having read those books already—some of whom even had a more than passing interest in true classics.

I guess my point is that we maybe should all be crossing our fingers that Divergent is successful this weekend, leading more young readers to the book, and hopefully on to other books.

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future”

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
–Isaac Asimov

It’s hard for me not to have a negative reaction to the news that a “bookless library” has opened in San Antonio. Despite being something of a technophile, I have trouble reconciling the almost Platonic imagery in my head of endless rows and towers of leather and paper with a room full of screens.

I own an iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, PlayStation, Wii and two DVRs and should therefore be able to applaud the creativity of an underfunded public institution dealing with massive change. I should, but can’t quite manage to leap the emotional divide that exists for me between a cybercafé and a library.

Library is a word with resonance. Alexandria has a library. Niagara Falls has a cybercafé.

I grudgingly admire the attempt to create an enticing, physical, public space in the digital age, but it seems a little forced to organize that space around what are largely virtual tools. Wouldn’t this have been a better story if it had been about a library finding a creative way to reengage the public with the traditional forms of books? New gadgets hold a fascination for me personally, but the book has been a surprisingly resilient and adaptable technology since the 15th Century.

Paper books are still a thriving industry too. Just three of the top publishers in the world, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, have earned a combined revenue of over $2.8 billion in 2o13—digital sales still represent less than 25% of total sales at all three of these companies.

And you know what’s a cheap way for people to read who can’t afford gadgets? Books. Penguin Books—with their iconic and often beautiful covers—was founded on the idea of making literature accessible and easy for the common man.

Maybe I’m destined to become some kind of crank, rocking on a porch somewhere, moaning about the decline of civilization since the loss of the book, but I think there’s still an inherent value in the book as a physical object and in the printed word in general.

I would prefer to see contemporary libraries find a balanced point between free digital access (a worthy offering) and a collection—even a modest one—of real books. To reject printed books as completely as this library in San Antonio has done, smacks of a marketing ploy.