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YA is red hot: Tips from 3 top agents

Psst!  Wanna write a scorcher for the booming YA market?

OK, here’s the secret: The first thing you need to do is create an authentic, quirky, true-to-life voice.

The story and characterizations in Young Adult fiction are crucial too, of course, but the most important element is that distinctive narrative personality.

The strongest and most powerful voice is a first person “I” narrator that draws the reader right inside a young character’s head. Third-person can also work.

Always go for an honest voice that captures how teens really think and talk to each other. Never talk down. Never be phony or try to sound cool.

That’s the bottom-line advice from three very active literary agents in the genre. Scroll down for more from our interview.

What’s behind the boom?

Three words: online social networking.

Kids are out there loving their books and telling each other all about them. They’re reviewing new titles on Facebook and Twitter. They’re texting and blogging and emailing back and forth in a gargantuan network of interactivity.

Authors are a big part of this scene — plugging in with their young readers all over the world, right in their own space, interacting in a way we’ve never seen before in the publishing business.

Soaring book sales

All this word of mouth has had a tremendous impact, resulting in soaring book sales for publishers — and a corresponding spike in new book deals for authors.

Hardcover sales are up a whopping 24 percent over this time last year in the juvenile fiction category “Social Situations, Family and Health,” according to Nielsen BookScan. And sales are up 16 percent in another hot category, “History, Sports, People and Places.”

At the same time, we’re seeing lots of action in book deals, with agents and publishers signing up new projects at a brisk pace.  New publishing deals in Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction were up more than 16 percent in 2009 over the prior year, according Publisher’s Marketplace.  Compare that to deals for adult mysteries, up 9 percent, and adult romances, up 2 percent.

Three agents to watch

These timely perceptions come from three agents at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, based in NYC. With many big YA book deals among them, they exude an enthusiasm and energy that’s highly contagious.

The agents and their recent sales:

Stacey Glick:  “My main sale recently was a huge three-book deal [more than $500K] for Amy Huntington’s Sleepwalking. [Read Amy’s pitch letter here] I’ve sold two others to Harper Children’s, and I have high hopes for a couple of others that I’m about to go out with.”

Michael Bourret:  “I’ve had a very good year. I sold a bunch, more than during the year before. A lot of my sales have been for series – six books, four books at once. My author Heather Brewer has done extremely well with her Chronicles of Vladimir Todd series.”

Jim McCarthy:  “I’ve had five or six major sales, some for multiple titles. My author Richelle Mead, for example, finished up the sixth and last book in her Vampire Academy series, which has been on the NY Times Series bestseller list for 22 weeks, so we spun off two characters from the academy to sell a new six book series.”

I spoke to Stacey, Michael and Jim by conference call the other day.  Here’s some of our conversation and more of their insights for writers:

The term YA is used so loosely. What exactly is a Young Adult book?

Mike:  YA books are for teens. Strictly speaking, it’s 12 and up, though from 14 up the books are racier.

Jim:  YA also includes MG or Middle Grade books, which are for “Tweens”, 10-12 years old. These MG books usually have a younger protagonist, a heroine or hero who’s not yet a teenager.

Are there taboo subjects a YA author needs to avoid?

Stacey:  Not really. Judy Bloom has been writing for years about controversial topics like divorce, race, masturbation and teen sex. No X-rated sex scenes of course, or anything in bad taste. And Roald Dahl certainly never avoided the dark side of young peoples’ imaginations. Currently, the Stephenie Meyer Twilight books have made erotic romance more acceptable in contemporary YA literature. So there are no rigid rules about what you can write.

Jim:  That’s right. Unlike adult books, there’s a built-in support structure, since librarians and teachers are looking for challenging books with big issues that will attract teen readers.

Who are the biggest and best publishers buying YA?

Mike:  All the major houses publish YA, some within several imprints.

Stacey:  Simon and Schuster has  Simon Pulse and others, at Penguin there’s Razorbill.  Holt, Scholastic of course, Houghton – all have YA imprints. Farrar Strauss, Knopf, and Little Brown tend to publish more literary books in YA.

What kind of advances are you getting?

Stacey:  We’re seeing four to seven figures. In some cases YA books are sold for less than $10K because we just want to get the author on the YA community’s radar screen.  That’s particularly true when it’s a paperback original and there’s hope for a series to follow.

Mike:  The lower advances are usually for a publisher-generated series that doesn’t give an individual writer a credit, but has one fictional author, like Carolyn Keene for the old Nancy Drew series. For example, Simon Pulse has a romantic comedy series that’s written by a number of different authors.

Jim:  But YA’s can sell for up to $1.5 M and more, particularly for a series by a brand name author.

Are YA books illustrated and does the author have to provide the art, too?

Mike: Many books for teens and pre-teens have illustrations at the opening of each chapter, particularly the MG titles. But the author doesn’t have to supply the art.  The publisher usually provides the illustrations unless the author is a professional artist.

Has the downtrend in the economy affected the price of YA books?

Jim:  Not really. The pricing is really different than for adult books. Publishers do the hardcover version for only $16.99 or $17.99. They’re shorter books – usually only 25K words. The trade paperback books cost less too, only $8.99. So most of our books are still coming out in cloth, then later in paperback.

Is it true that more girls than boys read YA books?

Jim:  Yes, girls are the biggest readers. Boys less. Girls will read books that have either a girl or boy as the protagonist, but boys prefer books with boy heroes. That’s why a lot of MG books particularly, have two central characters: a girl and a boy.

Mike:  Boys are still reading the classic old Hardy Boys adventures. There haven’t been any new ones published for years.  Nancy Drew, on the other hand, keeps rolling along with new titles every year.

What do you predict for the future of YA writing and publishing?

Stacey:  I’m very optimistic. There’s no reason why this category shouldn’t continue to flourish in the years to come. It’s a rich, creative field with so many options and possibilities for writers and readers.

Jim:  Definitely. There’s a robust trend and it’ll keep going. No other category has such diversity and such an enthusiastic interactive audience of avid readers.


Wow. We’re not in the twentieth century any more, Toto. There’s a whole native generation that’s grown up texting, tweeting, and living in an online community of social networkers. The rest of us need to catch up or we’re in danger of being as extinct as a dinosaur.

In memoriam of the great master

J.D. Salinger

1/1/1919 – 1/27/2010

Speaking of an authentic, quirky voice, how about everyone’s favorite YA leading character: Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Here’s Caulfield in a line from the book:

 “What really knocks me out is a book, when you’re all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”


Kids are doing exactly that online these days, which is one of the wonderful things about contemporary YA.

The irony, of course, is that Salinger, who died this week at age 91, was himself the Garbo of publishing, famously never wanted to talk to anybody at all, and had “No Trespassing” signs posted all around his remote homestead in New Hampshire.

Attention authors

If you’re writing adult books now, consider the flexibility and potential of the YA market. What a great audience of readers.

If you’re already a YA author, what are you working on? Tell us about your experience and advice and post any questions in comments.


  1. says

    Thank you for this great post. It will be my motivating thought this cold writing day. I have gravitated to writing YA probably because I was such a big reader at that age and was affected by so many great writers. Plus, I still love to read it! I just hope my MC’s voice is quirky enough :)
    That Salinger quote is one of my all-time favorites, because I knew exactly what he meant when I first read it oh-so-long-ago. I am rereading Catcher now and am eager to pass it on to my 13yo!

  2. klas fd says

    From the little we know about Salinger, he would have welcomed coming of age as an author now and would have been a Facebook-er if it wasn’t so foreign to him. There are many stories of him having the so-called young adults over to his house or engaging them in town, he enjoyed their company. He was Garbo-esque when it came to the press and the pressure of writing another great book, just as Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison and the rest were but I think of him as wanting to be more social if the right forum could be invented. So we missed out on having him blog and the like. I believe he would have been delighted to be that writer that a 13 year old could message out of the blue. And luckily, they can, they only need to open Rye up and hear him talk all over again.

  3. says

    Michael Bourret has done wonders for my good friend, James Dashner (author of Maze Runner). I would definitely soak up what ever you can from that guy.

    The YA market is such an interesting mesh of genres. One good book can create a lifelong reader. It’s one of the reasons I choose to write for this age group. (That, and the fact that I’ve never really grown up.)

    If anyone here is interested… There’s a YA and Middle Grade writing contest hosted by one of my top five agents, Mary Kole, at

  4. says

    I love YA — started reading it as a teenager and never stopped. I think part of the upswing in YA sales is also due to adults reading more YA books. Harry Potter and Twilight have made YA more visible to grown up readers.

  5. says

    Hi klas fd,

    Interesting idea, to imagine Salinger interacting with readers on Facebook.

    The NYTimes is reporting that Salinger was friendly with younger kids and teenagers where he lived in Cornish, New Hampshire, and “was a regular at the $12 roast beef dinners at First Congregational Church in [nearby] Hartland, Vt. He would arrive about an hour and a half early and pass the time by writing in a small, spiral-bound notebook…usually dressed in corduroys and a sweater…and would not speak. He sat at the head of the table, near where the pies were placed.”

    So I agree that he might very well have have taken up Facebook, since it would have allowed him to stay in touch and communicate without having to leave home too much or deal with pesky intruders. See article:

  6. klas fd says

    Thank you for the link. Yes, it appears he liked the people immediately around him. Perhaps in his later years, Holden found some people who weren’t phonies. It’s a nice thought/image.

  7. says

    I’m so glad the yalitchat community led me to this article. Very informative. I’m working on a YA novel now and this article gives me extra motivation to finish the first draft so I can start revising. I’m excited about the future of the YA genre, too.

  8. says

    I tried to convince myself I could write in an ‘adult’ voice – but I can’t. I love YA, I write YA and I am thrilled that YA is hot right now. Thanks for this post. I’ll see you at SFWC next week!

  9. says

    I love YA with a passion! There is something about the young adult spirit that is at once free and serious, which gives the writer a lot more freedom in subject matter, tone, and observation. My YA protagonists usually waffle back and forth between dark reflection and moments of unexpected wry humor, and it’s easier to do than if I were writing for adults–who tend to want everything too serious, in my opinion (and not just in the realm of literature, har har).

    I guess the bottom line is that I write YA because I myself have never “grown up” all the way.


  10. bc says

    I am curious how YA category can include young protagonists who grow up too?
    For example, in the Star Wars films, we see a young Darth Vader and a grown one.
    Does a Harry Potter book, as a category, change if he continues on into adult wizardry?

    Any comments?

  11. says

    Hi bc –

    The main theme of many YA books is growing up, coming of age, having adventures that leave the protagonists older, wiser, and more experienced. This goes back to some of the great classic YA adventure stories: Jason and the Argonauts, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And you’re right about Harry Potter: He’s been growing up from book to book and it’s not certain that he’s finished that process yet. Just like the rest of us, still becoming smarter and more mature, we hope.


  12. says

    Thanks–this is a great post, and I agree that voice is key for the YA and mg market. I noticed that all three agents had very commercial titles they were discussing. I’m wondering if the market for realistic, non-series fiction is there, too–if it’s on the rise or the decline? Thanks

  13. says

    I’m struggling with the book I’ve just completed, about a young woman who joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots during WWII. (The WASP, by the way, will be receiving their Congressional Gold Medal on March 10th)

    The problem is – she’s nineteen. Is that too old for a YA protagonist? Should I consider it YA with crossover to adult? Told first person from Maggie’s POV, the tone feels “young” but the subject matter is a little intense: Before Pearl Harbor, Maggie falls in love with a Japanese boy. He’s interned, she flies for the military. A third friend flies B-17’s in England. Is this too heavy a topic for a sixteen year old?

  14. says

    Hi Leah –

    Yes, realistic, non-series fiction is doing very well these days, but whereas you may not be thinking of a series, if you have a big success with this heroine and her one story, there may be pressure from your publisher, or yourself, to do another…and another.

    There’s also a lot or support for serious YA fiction from teachers and librarians who want to draw in a market that may be resistant at first. But once they’re hooked, having another book in the same voice or from the same perspective is a great way to keep them reading.

  15. says

    Hi Mimm –

    Your WASP story sounds great. I don’t think 19 is too old, as long as the voice is appealing to YA readers and the story isn’t too gory or technical. Readers under 16 can enjoy such a role model.

  16. says

    I’m currently working on a Y.A. Urban Fantasy set in Atlanta. The heroine is 17 y/o and all she wants to do is become a legendary Demon Trapper just her dad. It took me a while to recapture the joys/horror/angst of being a teen, but I don’t think we ever lose those memories. The series has been a blast to write because it stretches my author muscles in new directions and I really like that.

  17. says

    I am writing (struggling might be a better word) with a story that involves around a group of young boys in their early teens, who seem to spend an inordinate amount of their weekends hiking and camping on the Appalachian Trail. Their adventurous trips are lead by a small energetic group of adult men from the town. Over time a growing awareness develops that these frequent hikes might be in some way related to a growing conflict in a faraway place called Vietnam.

    The writing is going very slowly, mainly because of a lack of available time.

  18. says

    Young Adult Supernatural Romance here- The Shattered Guardians. The main character, Skylar Shell, is forced into a new existence on Princess Royal Island in British Columbia. The new existence is that of a protector, a Guardian.

    She’s not alone there. Four other teens share her fate, and they form a family while they learn to deal with what they’ve lost and gained via their transformations.

    Skylar left behind a boy she loved beyond belief. Jordan Peters. He finds her on the Island and forces himself into her new life, refusing to be swayed.

    Often teen relationships are fickle and change daily. Not this one. Skylar and Jordan, they’re forever.

    I’ve loved writing The Shattered Guardians, it’s great to have a group of young characters because you can put a piece of your own personality into each one.

  19. says

    I’ve always been writing what I love which is middle grade and YA science fiction and horror with a good dose of zany. I always thought it was pretty unmarketable, not serious enough, set in the wrong hemisphere, and then along comes the likes of Brian Faulkner, and Daniel Pinkwater, and prove me wrong! Apparently my stuff is perfectly marketable!

  20. says

    For anyone who is interested, I found a wonderful place that will create Video Book Trailers. They are very professional. Their customer service is top notch, very affordable! Please visit their website for more information or email them. This is an exciting and new way to promote your book. They will even upload the video to Youtube and other video sharing websites.

    Here is a sample of their work.

  21. Sarah Hitchcock says

    I have been writing YA for many years, not published as yet, so found this very useful information. Will continue to edit as best I can and finally send to a publisher or an agent.

    I also write, adult and erotica.

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