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The not-so-brave new world of YA bestsellers

What makes a YA book a bestseller? In the distant past, authors had to lean on the muscle of big publishers to rack up sales. Now, though, we live in a Web 2.0 world characterized by 24/7 communication, in which geographic and demographic boundaries are immaterial. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have sparked revolutions and launched careers. With such free, open communication, YA bestsellers rise up from anywhere, driven by word of mouth and reader passion, right?

Wrong. The age of top-down marketing, with large corporations shaping our tastes and buying habits, is still alive and well. Daisy Maryles’s 2009 Publishers Weekly article, “Bestsellers by the Numbers”, found that ten publishers — Random House, HarperCollins, Time Warner Publishing, Penguin USA, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hyperion, Rodale Press, Houghton Mifflin, and Harlequin Enterprises — were responsible for 96.7% of all hardcover bestsellers in the U.S. (I don’t know why Hachette Book Group, one of the “Big Six” publishers, wasn’t on this list. Their Little, Brown & Co. imprint publishes books by a guy named James Patterson.)

Though that was three years ago, the situation hasn’t changed. The following chart shows Amazon and Barnes &Noble’s bestsellers in the Teen Fiction categories on July 4, 2012. I included books published in 2012 so that I could exclude blockbusters such as The Hunger Games series, which may be said to have taken on lives of their own. You’ll note that the top eleven books are from just four major publishers:

There’s nothing wrong with big publishers heavily marketing books that they think have the potential to be bestsellers. They have the budget, staff, and expertise to ensure that we have access to a lot of great books, many of which end up on YALSA’s “best” lists. Their various divisions/imprints give voices to authors who write for specific markets, such as young adults. And as Daisy Maryles noted in her article, bestsellers make up “less than 1% of overall book title output. Bestsellers may be the sexy slice, but it’s the rest of the pie that makes for a vital and healthy publishing business.”

We can only know about books that get promoted to the point where we can read reviews of them, or have them recommended to us by a librarian, bookseller, or friend. It seems, though, that we’re still relying primarily on major corporations to put books on our radar.

What sources do you use when you’re looking for a good read? Do you have any way to learn about books that may not have the full force of a major publisher behind them? Is there a Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon out there for teens?

— Suzanne Neumann, currently reading The Chronicles of Egg: Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey (published by G. P. Putnam Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.)

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Suzanne Neumann

2 Comments

  1. Michelle Blank Michelle Blank

    Great post! I would have expected the numbers to start shifting slightly toward smaller publishers or even self-pulished materials. I do not have a ready source for finding out about new materials from varying sources but would love suggestions. I do get a few newsletters from smaller pulishers and small book sellers visit the library with more indie titles. My favorite, though, is when an author contacts me directly and let’s me read his/her work. Yes, sometimes it is wanting; but every now and then there’s a gem.

  2. So discouraging! I guess you just have to try really hard to be in that sexy slice.

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