Pop Culture Publishing: Liars, Werewolves, and Mockingjays

Moderator Justin Chanda, Vice President & Publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, and Margaret K. McElderry Books

A sea of familiar faces greeted attendees of the thirteenth NYU Media Talk, sponsored by the NYU-SCPS Center for Publishing Digital & Print Media. Sure, students and faculty filled a jam-packed Rosenthal Pavilion at the Kimmel Center, but what instantly got the crowd buzzing were the displays of book cover blow-ups featuring today’s most beloved characters of young adult fiction, including Bella Swan, Sebastian Verlac, and Emily Fields. The latest NYU Media Talk was titled “Pop Culture Publishing: Young Adult Megahits,” and everyone in attendance wanted the answer to one particular question: “What is the secret sauce to producing hits like Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, or Pretty Little Liars?” Indeed, as young adult books continue to transcend their traditional audience and shape a new generation of readers (including plenty of adults!), the publishing industry is actively trying to understand how and why children’s books succeed in acquiring their blockbuster-level status.

To help decipher the astronomical success of recent young adult book series, the Center for Publishing invited Justin Chanda, who teaches a course in Children’s Book Publishing in the M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program, to moderate a panel discussion. Chanda is Vice-President and Publisher for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, and Margaret K. McElderry Books, the imprint that had won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature the night before the NYU Media Talk and also publishes Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and its five successors. He was joined on stage by three leading figures in the young adult publishing world: Susan Katz, President and Publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, who oversees bestsellers such as Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and Divergent and Insurgent; Rosemary Stimola, President and Founder of Stimola Literary Studio, Inc. and the agent responsible for bringing Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to bookstores and movie theaters near you; and lastly, Megan Tingley, who, in her capacity as Senior Vice President of Hachette Book Group USA and Publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, is the editor and publisher of the Twilight Saga.

Opening the conversation with flair, Chanda asked the panelists point blank: “Who wins in a fight? Katniss or Bella?” After the laughter subsided, Chanda then inquired whether or not the success of young adult megahits could best be attributed to “hard work, publicity, or magic?” Speaking from her experience with The Hunger Games, Stimola remarked that “publishing is not chemistry;” rather, you can put in all the right ingredients but still find it impossible to predict a book’s outcome. That, added Stimola, “is where the magic comes in.” Katz agreed: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the secret sauce is not that secret; it’s just hard work and a lot of people doing things right along the way;” that includes getting to know the author, generating publicity around a work, and leveraging the full potential of social media. Tingley concurred with her fellow panelists, joking that she could never have foreseen “people tattooing themselves or naming their children after Edward and Bella.”

With out-of-this-world storylines and multi-faceted characters, YA bestsellers have plenty of intrinsic magic; all three panelists agreed that when they received the manuscripts for their respective megahits, they knew right away that they had something special on their hands. For instance, Tingley said she had the unique experience of reading Twilight without an inkling of foresight as to what would transpire in the supernatural world of Forks. Tingley read the manuscript on an airplane and was immediately pulled in by the prologue. In fact, she circled the very passage that now appears on the back of Twilight’s jacket cover. As for The Hunger Games, Stimola impressively revealed that the book was sold on the basis of a four-page proposal. With Collins’ “already-demonstrated ability to create complex secondary worlds and characters,” Stimola said that Scholastic “did not have a wrinkle in the eyebrow with respect to [The Hunger Games’ dark and complex] content.” Indeed, The Hunger Games became an in-house favorite almost instantaneously. Chanda acknowledged the critical importance of creating in-house buzz and getting different departments talking to one another: “If in-house people aren’t reading it, you aren’t going to get anywhere with a book.”

Susan Katz, President and Publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books; Rosemary Stimola, Literary Agent, Stimola Literary Studio; and Megan Tingley, Senior Vice President of Hachette Book Group USA and Publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

As the conversation continued, the panelists discussed the issue of a megahit’s impact on a publishing house’s bottom line (great, of course, but what happens when it’s over?), and how authors react to their newfound stratospheric fame and recognition. Tingley cautioned against publishers focusing exclusively on their superstar authors. Because all series come to an end, Tingley said that publishers “need to prepare for the ending at the beginning;” furthermore, publishers have an obligation to “do right by all authors and books and keep their list growing.” When it came to Twilight, Tingley said she kept two lists, namely, “what’s happening with Twilight, and what’s happening outside Twilight.” Katz concurred, stating that publishing houses cannot be “all over the place because of one giant megahit.” Instead, publishers need to see steady, consistent growth. As a result, Katz said that “it remains important for publishers to have “a lot of fires burning and a lot of pots on the fire.”

Stimola joked that a lot of pots can look eerily similar for a time after a megahit’s publication: “It’s amazing how many unsolicited manuscripts I receive about girls retaliating against oppressive government regimes in an apocalyptic era,” Stimola said with a smile, adding that she is not looking for derivative works. Instead, her barometer for compelling writing is defined by whether or not she is still thinking about a story two days later.

At the end of the talk, Chanda called for questions from the audience. Inquiries ranged from the difficulty of designing a jacket cover that is appealing to both boys and girls to building enthusiasm around a new work. One question that particularly animated the panelists was the possibility of a “new adult” department for readers aged 17-35. Tingley acknowledged the appeal of such a concept and how ultimately, the success of pop culture megahits among adult readers makes her wonder about what is lacking in contemporary adult fiction: “Maybe it’s really strong, tight, compelling plots that drive readers through a work,” she mused, clearly implying that this is missing from some adult fiction. Katz felt that a new adult market could easily thrive online where readers can buy things without gatekeepers. “Brick and mortar stores,” she hypothesized, “might feel differently” because it remains unclear where to shelve such transcendental works. Stimola agreed, asking the audience: “How much compartmentalization can [publishing] handle?” Importantly, Chanda noted that it would be a shame for young adult works to lose touch with their originally-intended audience: “Cross-overs are great, but we can’t think about adults and overlook the interests of 12- to 14-year-olds,” he concluded.

As time ran out and hands continued to wave, it became clear that no one in the room was ready for the conversation to end. I, for one, felt particularly privileged to have had the opportunity to listen and acquire inside information on how to produce the next literary pop culture phenomenon. If the success of this panel is any indication, the first NYU Media Talk to focus on young adult publishing will definitely not be the last! Indeed, just as the element of mystery is essential to the marketing strategy of a young adult series, the future of children’s publishing is as exciting and unpredictable as the characters and storylines that comprise those cherished works.

by Courtney Retter

For more coverage of the latest NYU Media Talk, you can check out the recent Publishers Weekly article here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/54841-industry-insiders-talk-young-adult-blockbusters.html.

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