What are the ingredients that make up a YA bestseller? A panel of seasoned publishing professionals addressed this question and many more at the Women’s National Book Association NYC chapter’s event “The Making of a Young Adult Bestseller-From Acquisition to Reader,” November 14. It was moderated by New York Public Library’s youth materials specialist and Fuse #8 blogger Betsy Bird, at Manhattan’s Wix Lounge, a free work and event space for creative professionals.
Over the course of two hours a group of industry hopefuls—aspiring writers, editors, and agents—heard insider tips, advice, anecdotes, and encouragement from representatives involved in each of the major stages of children’s publishing. Speakers included Jenny Bent, founder and literary agent at the Bent Agency; Susan Katz, president and publisher at HarperCollins Children’s; Hannah Moskowitz, author of several books for teen and middle-grade audiences; Joy Peskin, editorial director at Farrar Straus Giroux for Young Readers; and Marisa Russell, publicity manager at Penguin Young Readers.
The panelists agreed that while there is no magic formula for acquiring and finding “the next big thing,” chart-topping hits usually have a few key elements in common.
When taking on clients and new manuscripts, Bent looks for the perfect balance of great writing and a phenomenal idea. She said she asks herself “Does it leap off the page? Will it resonate with young adult readers?”
Peskin added that a clue to a title’s possible future success is whether at an editor’s first read, the manuscript has a magnetic pull, much like meeting an exciting new person. That initial gut reaction is what will create an advocate in an editor, who will then push for acquisition and publisher support in the months that follow.
Using the example of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series from HarperCollins, Katz credited spunky editors for bringing fast attention to books that deserve a closer look. Once they’ve received and read a stellar manuscript, these individuals then push for a preemptive bid—a preliminary deal, including author advance and contract terms—so high that it would allow a publisher to sign up the book before any auction with competing imprints. “Unfortunately, there are a lot more misses than home runs,” she says, as a high advance doesn’t always equal a grand slam.
Moskowitz, who recently experienced a small auction for one of her titles, assured the audience that an editor’s enthusiasm and connection to the work is just as important as contractual stipulations. “I knew which publisher I wanted to work with on Zombie Tag (Roaring Brook, 2011), because the house sent me the offer in a zombie-themed coffin,” she recalled.
In this competitive market, an author’s ability to self-promote and speak about their book is a publicist’s dream. In addition to a major hook and raising awareness on a new title via radio, print, bloggers, and social media, building buzz through author appearances can really impact a novel’s staying power.
“We were amazed at how YA author, Rae Carson, a former beauty pageant contestant, totally compelled her audience at the New York Comic Con,” Russell said. But if writers are not up to speaking in public, there are different ways they can build a relationship with their readers. “Find your own means of connecting,” whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, or blogging,” Bent recommended.
For her part, Moskowtiz explained, “I don’t use social media to expand my audience, but to cement it.”
Social media is especially important for authors who self-publish. For those writers, success requires a lot of time dedicated to promotion and marketing. “Trying to sell your self-published novel is a full-time job in itself,” said Bent, who represents both traditionally and self-published writers.
Citing the “Pete the Cat” picture book series (HarperCollins), which was sold by the creators to thousands of fans before being picked up by the publisher, Russell added that popular self-published authors often bring along a built-in fan base to build on.
When publishers feel like they have a potential blockbuster in their hands, they spend considerable time branding the book, brainstorming covers, title, and taglines, and soliciting advance praise in order to provoke excitement.
Peskin struggled with fine tuning the title for YA novelist Leila Sales’s next book, This Song Will Save Your Life (Farrar, 2014), changing it several times before she and Sales were completely satisfied that it accurately reflected the work’s caliber. Bent praised Abrams for getting the packaging just right for A.G. Howard’s Splintered (Abrams, 2013), a creepy retelling of Alice in Wonderland.
In the end, panelists agreed, there’s really no telling whether a book will meet its high expectations, even it if has all the right elements: riveting writing, perfect trappings, and savvy and connected author. The experts encouraged participants to keep working on their craft, and to persevere.
“Write the story that only you can write,” Peskin advised.