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YA Books Are Booming--but not That Much

The Purple Crayon Blog August 2011
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This morning, Mitali Perkins tweeted about a new article on YA books in the Atlantic Monthly, and mentioned in the tweet that the article noted 30,000 YA titles were released in 2010. That number seemed high to me, and I got into a small discussion about it with Mitali, Roger Sutton of The Horn Book, and the author of the article, D.B. Grady. Mr. Grady referred me to his sources, linked to from his article, and I did some reading. I discovered that there were some problems with that number, and with another number referenced at the end of his lead paragraph:

"3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997. Twelve years later, that figure hit 30,000 titles--an increase of a full order of magnitude. It 2009, total sales exceeded $3 billion, which is roughly all the money."

Sounds impressive, doesn't it? It is, and there is a real YA boom, but those numbers just aren't right.

Before I tell you what the correct figures are, how I think Mr. Grady got those numbers wrong, and why that matters, I do want to say that the article as a whole is a solid piece of work. Unlike the infamous Wall Street Journal article that complained about YA literature being too dark (I won't link to it, but you can find it if you search), Mr. Grady clearly likes YA books, and develops some good points: that adults are reading YA, for various reasons; that "New Adult" is what some in publishing hope to establish as a next step after YA; and that the commercial/literary divide may be shrinking. He does keep referring to Harry Potter as a YA series, though as Roger pointed out it is actually middle-grade, at least until the final volumes; its core audience is 4th and 5th graders, and they aren't young adults, not yet. Some might also find his assumption that YA literature has come of age now that it is read by increasing numbers of adults condescending, but I'll let others debate that.

It's the numbers that bother me.

First, $3 billion in 2009 as "total sales," I assume of YA titles. The article links to a Mediabistro piece based on Association of American Publisher numbers. To get the $3 billion, you have to add both hardcover ($1.5 billion) and paperback ($1.7 billion) sales of "children and young adult" books. So that $3 billion includes picture books, middle grade novels, and YA books. What slice of it is YA? You can't tell, but it's not "all the money." In fact, the $3 billion totaI for children's and YA itself is wrong, as I discovered when I attempted to go back to the ultimate source, the AAP report itself. The link was broken, and the 2009 sales report is no longer available on the AAP site. The report for 2010 total sales is, however, and it cites $546 million in children's/YA paperback sales, and $694 million in children's/YA hardcovers, for a total of $1.24 billion. Looking over the 2010 and 2009 numbers, which are included in the 2010 report for comparison, I strongly suspect that Mediabistro mixed up the adult and children's/YA numbers, because the 2009 adult hardcover and paperback figures total approximately $3 billion, while the children's/YA numbers don't even come close. So mistakes with the numbers as they were reworked by first Mediabistro and then Mr. Grady inflated YA sales from some part of under $1.5 billion (2009 sales were higher than 2010's) to $3 billion.

What about the titles released? Growth from 3,000 titles to 30,000 titles is impressive, until one follows a footnote to the Sweeney's article that Mr. Grady links to as the source of that number. The title numbers come from R.R. Bowker, the company that controls the ISBNs used to identify book titles. The footnote points to a significant change in the way Bowker counted titles: "In 2007, R.R. Bowker changed their categorization of books, choosing to include any book that had been issued an ISBN whereas they had previously limited the scope to books with ISBNs that were also for sale. This indiscriminate approach is partly responsible for the massive increase in the number of young adult books." So those 30,000 titles amounted only to R.R. Bowker paperwork--ISBNs given out to publishers, and self-publishers, but not necessarily used. Can we learn more when we again go back to the ultimate source? We can. If you read Bowker's press release on 2009 book production, you find no young adult category, just "Juveniles," with 32,348 titles. Did Sweeney's, like Mr. Grady, treat a category that combined children's and YA as equivalent to YA? It sure looks like that to me.

It's a depressing picture, worse than I expected. Mr. Grady combined numbers he shouldn't have, and missed an important note. But both of his sources made mistakes or misused the numbers they got from the original sources. Conclusion? When mainstream media reporters decide to write about book publishing, they need to go back to the original sources of statistics, and handle their numbers with care--and maybe ask someone with industry experience to fact-check them. And why does this matter? This matters because while we in publishing may know the true picture, the general public gets their information from newspapers and magazines.

Just how big IS the YA market? It's quite difficult to get information about sales that breaks out YA from other categories, but one source, the end-of-year Publishers Weekly bestseller numbers, provides some clues as to the relative numbers sold of YA, middle-grade, and picture books. I'm not going to add up all the numbers, but it's interesting that of the 7 frontlist titles with hardcover sales of over 1 million, 4 were middle-grade (Jeff Kinney and Rick Riordan) and three YA. Browsing lower, you continue to find a mix of YA and middle-grade, with a distinct lack of picture books. The picture books do better in the HC backlist titles. In paperbacks, YA is more dominant in hardcover, but middle-grade did well in the paperbacks. From these numbers, it's hard to conclude that YA amounts to even as much as half of the market. So from $3 billion and 30,000 titles, we get to no more than $600 million (half of $1.24 billion) and maybe 8,000 titles (half of a less inflated 16,000). I'll try to get better numbers from folks I know and will post them here if I do.

Update, August 3: Roger Sutton contributes some additional numbers. So if 33% of the 4500 books they reviewed were novels in 2010, and of course not all of those were YA, then I'm halving my estimate of the number of new YA titles. We're down to $600 million and 4,000 new titles. Will we go lower?

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