Friday, May 20, 2011

Fun Friday: Guest Post on Selling Out from YA Author ADAM SELZER

The book that made me want to write YA was SPACE STATION SEVENTH GRADE, a Jerry Spinelli novel from the early 1980s. It remains the most realistic depiction of a seventh grader I have ever read, or ever expect to read. The narrator, Jason Herkeimer, talks about sex, life, death, religion, race, and gender in ways that are charmingly naive. For instance, he and his friend speculate that Joe McGuinness must be Italian, or from close to the equator, because he already has pubic hair, and people from South Italy and hot climates grow hair faster than other people (wheras Koreans never grow any). The character who says this heard it from his Mom.

For a 13 year old, especially at the end of the 1970s, to believe such stereotypes is totally realistic. One gets the sense that Jason will grow up and find out that the stereotypes he believes about others aren't true, but this isn't a lesson he learns in the course of the book. He's rude, crude, a bit of a racist (even though he hangs out with a wildly diverse bunch), a bit sexist, and occasionally a total douchebag.

The book wouldn't have a chance today. For one thing, it's a boy book, so it'd be a tough sell regardless of content. For another, the character is a seventh grader, so if anyone DID publish it, it would have to be marketed as an ages 10+ thing. "Older YA" readers don't typically read about characters younger than they are.

What's acceptable in a kids/YA book has changed over the years. Poop and fart jokes are a lot more acceptable than they used to be, but realism is out. Using the word "shit" was okay once (I've got Betty Miles books that use it, and the kids in The Goonies, which was rated PG, used it a lot. Being realistic is not only no longer a good enough excuse, it's also not very marketable right now. Realistic YA and middle grade fiction sort of needs to win an award before stores want it these days.

Would Spielberg have been selling out to tone down the language? Would Spinelli have been compromising himself as a writer if he made Jason more PC?

Let's talk about selling out.

If you want to make a living as a writer, you'll probably have to do it sooner or later. The sad fact of the world is that the ideas that inspire you most are probably not your most marketable ideas, and the even the "best" version of your books is going to be less marketable than it could be with a few revisions designed to make it more attractive to retailers. If I were Bob Dylan, the fact that I was being uncompromising might be part of the selling point, but for those who of us still working our way up the mid-list, the easiest way to impress retailers tends to be sticking to a tried and true formula (or looking like you are, anyway).

This isn't new - in the early 1990s, the big formula around here was horror novels - the books that defined the market were basically mini Dean Koontz books, with a lot less sex and swearing (though Christopher Pike had more than RL Stine - Pike was considered far more sophisticated than RL at my school). I wouldn't have wanted to be a YA writer trying to do anything else at the time.

But there was a period a few years back when YA was waking up from its long reputation as a genre for kids who aren't quite ready for adult books. There was a lot of experimenting going on, a lot of boundary pushing, a lot of creativity. Now, however, we're back into a period where YA is expected to follow a formula of "girl who is just like me loves her first boyfriend forever, despite a terrible secret." You can deviate from this formula, but you're going to get some nasty reader reviews for it, and the chain stores will be reluctant to carry your book unless there's a lot of marketing or some awards behind it. And even the awards might not do it.

But the fact that you have to play within the rules of the market doesn't mean you have to suck.

At any given time, I have half a dozen projects in the works - probably more. And when deciding which one to write for publication, rather than simply for my own entertainment, I do have to take the state of the market into account. The real challenge for me is to write something that I know is marketable, but which I still like and feel is my own. This can be a fun challenge. Believe me, no one knew better than I that finding out that your significant other is a zombie is a pretty dumb concept in and of itself. Trying to take it and make a smart book out of it was a lot of fun.

Now, I'm not here to criticize other writers for selling out - I'm here to tell about how I "sold out" myself in several projects. Most of my books have been compromised at least a little at some point in the process. I'm not ashamed of this - George Carlin once said that if you put on a shirt before you go outside, you're already selling out. And writing is a business. Here are a few of my books and how I changed them:

This was my first book, back in 2007. It was about an 8th grade boy who gets suspended for directing an avant garde sex ed movie called La Dolce Pubert. The original draft was a bit more explicit - the F word appeared once or twice. Random House offered to go to bat for me if I felt strongly about those words, but also said it would hurt sales a lot, because books about eighth graders are usually going to be read by younger kids, and are more likely to be bought by the parents. I left a few good swears in (they even but one in the tagline on the back of the dust jacket: " you don't have to be smart to be a smartass, but it helps."), but took out the F word. Since store availability was still low, I sort of regret it now. The times it got challenged in libraries were the best publicity I ever got.

This was my first middle grade book - all about a school spelling bee, but based on Watergate. Towards the end, there's a scene in which the students frighten a couple of threatening old ladies by pretending they're about to moon them. The original draft had the old ladies objecting to the use of the word "ass." I discussed this with RH, and they agreed with my fears that this was too risque for a middle grade book in 2008 (in 1988 I would have probably gotten away with it, but not anymore). I don't regret this one; having them object to "butt" is funnier, anyway, and the book was meant to exist a few steps beyond reality. Gritty realism was not the point here.

This is still listed as "Smartass Guide" on my hard drive, but I knew I'd never get away with that. One publisher (a very big one) that was bidding on it threw some pretty shocking numbers at me as to what their first print run would be, but told me I couldn't call people stupid, swear even a little, discuss sex, or anything that anyone, anywhere, ever, could be offended by. I don't think you can do satire without offending somebody, no matter how good your intentions are. I decided not to go with that publisher.

That's not to say that I didn't make any compromises. The rough draft used the S word a few times and told the story of Washington using the a-word while crossing the Delaware, giving his soldiers a good laugh and proving that a well-timed swear can change the destiny of nations. There was also a bit about how, among their other accomplishments, world war 2 soldiers are credited for greatly expanding the use of the F word by popularizing many variations on it that we still use today (they truly were the greatest generation).

But we knew that this book wasn't going to be a big one for store sales - there's simply not a shelf for YA nonfiction that isn't about "your changing body" or how to prepare for college and/or the rapture. School sales were to be the order of the day, and, as such, we had to keep it fairly clean, because even "Damn" and "hell" were out of the question for a big chunk of that market.

Sometimes I think I should have gone with that other publisher. The book may not have been as good, or the way I wanted it to be, but it's true that if it was a straight up, inoffensive middle grade book, it probably could have sold better. In this case, I stuck (more or less) to my vision, and I'm proud of the results, even if my student loan officer and I do have to live with the consequences.

The rough draft of this one contained the F word once or twice, I think, and the S word several times. Alley was much more casual about sex, and it was a bit more explicit about the fact that the lack of a beating heart and flowing blood meant that Doug the Zombie was never going to be able to get it up. It wasn't THAT explicit about the "list of things they could do instead," but one certainly got the message that it wasn't all holding hands.

Random House suggested that I sort of tone this down and bury it between the lines, because they wanted to market it as a book for ages 10 and up. See, the way it works is that according to one of the chain stores, the market for ya is ages 10-18. There are two kinds of YA books: those that are for ages 10 and up, and those that are for 14+. Playing strictly by the numbers, they assume that a 14+ book has half the audience of a 10+, and puts in orders accordingly.

I didn't have a problem with making those changes, but I think that marketing this one as a 10+ sort of backfired. The satire went over the heads of many of the younger readers, some of whom were pretty upset that it didn't follow the "girl who is just like me loves her first bf forever" formula that they thought it would follow. Meanwhile, though boys and older girls tended to like it best, getting them to read in the first place it was like pulling teeth, and their reviews tended to have a "don't make fun of me because I like this" tone. So the right readers didn't end up reading it in any great numbers, and the kids who were most interested based on the cover, title and marketing were the wrong readers. Meanwhile, the store we were trying to impress didn't like the cover and, as a result, didn't carry it at all. Keeping it 14+ didn't seem wise at the time, but if it was marketed as a book for older readers and boys, there's a chance if could have done better. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts....

There are two other books that I have coming out, both compromised in little ways:

EXTRAORDINARY is a follow-up (or sorts) to ZOMBIE. When I first started drafting it, it was a bit more obscene than it currently is. The humor is really more of a "teen" thing, but by the time I was halfway through, I knew that most of the readers were going to be younger. The title on my hard drive is "Fairy Godmotherf---er," which, obviously, I knew I'd never get away with. My editor loved the idea of calling it Fairy Godmofo, but we decided fairly quickly that we'd never get away with that, either. I'm finding myself totally unable to predict how this one will do, or what people will think of it. The kids who didn't like Zombie will probably like this one a lot better, but I'm worried that the kids who loved Zombie most might not like it quite as much.

SPARKS: The Epic, Completely True, Blue, (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie - I started this one in 2007 in a huff and a hiss when SUSPENDED came out and wasn't in any stores near me (a hardcover boy book was a hard sell that year - it would be even harder now). "Well, fine," I grumbled. "I"ll write a girl book. And I'll call it Debbie Does Detention!" I joked about this with my agent for a few weeks, then sat down and wrote it. By the time I was three chapters in, I had a book full of f-bombs from the pov of a lesbian atheist who is in love with her Christian best friend and joins a made-up religion to keep her from sleeping with a creep named Norman. There wasn't much compromise in the draft of this one; when you write a book about a lesbian, your publisher pretty well knows that there's know way they can make it a 10+ book. ANd if you're going to do a 14+, well, you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Still, "Debbie Does Detention" wouldn't fly as a title (I'm not sure if sales and marketing thought that was too risque or if they just didn't like it). But even though there were no content changes, I changed my name to SJ Adams for this one, partly because I thought a gender neutral name would sell better; there were a LOT of blog and goodreads reviews of Zombie that opened with some variation on "I didn't think I'd like this because it was by a guy." In any case, having "SJ" make fun of me on twitter and the SJ Adams blog has been a lot of fun. Making SJ's identity an open secret sort of defeats the purpose, but the sort of people who will be offended that such a book is by a guy probably aren't going to do much research on it.

So, there you have it. I'm a sell out. But the basic message of the books has never changed, and the themes of geek empowerment, critical thinking, progressive ideals, and making fun of things I think could use a bit of ribbing have never been compromised.

Now, in the midst of writing all these things, I've also written plenty of things that are "just for myself." A good example is one of which I just finished a draft: "Are You There, Satan? It's Me, Leon," a young adult novel for kids who worship the devil. It's very much a 14+ book, and definitely aimed at boys. I love it to bits, but I knew full well going into it that there's not really a market for it.

Not right now, anyway.

But who knows what next year will bring?

Find out more about Adam and his books at


kellye said...

Great post, Adam! How are you able to work on several projects at once. Do you mean novels? What the what? (To borrow Liz Lemon's great phrase.) And I'd love to read Are You There, Satan, it's me, Leon. Keep up the good fight!

Adam Selzer said...

Yeah, different novels. I rarely work on more than one or two in the same day, though. It's more of "two weeks on this, two weeks on that" setup. Just hedging my bets! When none of your books in various markets are big hits, you don't really have an obvious direction in which to go next.

Bit of an add-on, at one point I thought I'd be doing "Andrew North Book 3" or "Book 4" right now. The ending (and basic emotional content) of "Andrew North Blows Up the World" was changed because my editor wanted to leave it open for sequels. She wasn't wrong, but it didn't sell nearly enough to warrant being more than a standalone. Had I written it AS a standalone, I think it would have been better. Not that it's bad now - it's a very fun book.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I love this post!

I'm also wondering if the rise of ebooks will change some of these marketing considerations.

Adam Selzer said...

Jennifer - the good thing about those is that I can always just put "Are You There, Satan" up as one of those. The target audience might not go near the YA shelf in a store; maybe it'd have better luck online. But I still want to have an editor, etc.

Adam Selzer said...

But my bigger concern is that the brick and mortar stores are just going to put more and more emphasis on formula, formula, formula on books where the author isn't well known and doesn't have a big marketing plan behind them.

Kristina Springer said...

Great post! Thanks Adam!

Kate Fall said...

Wow, what a fascinating interview, especially the 10+ vs. 14+ consideration. I'm another person who would love to read Are You There Satan? Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Andrea said...

This was a really fun and interesting post Adam. I enjoyed it very much, even though my sister got the writing genes in our family.

Andrea (Deena's big sister)

Emily Marshall said...

I like to think being market savvy isn't selling out. It's just being smart!

But I really do wish realistic fiction would make a come back soon.

Excellent post, Adam.