Monday, October 10, 2011

What Sells Middle Grade Books?


A long time ago in a blogosphere far away, I promised I’d talk about what sells middle grade books.

Then promptly got swept up in writing and revising my YA trilogy. Oh the irony! But today I am finally pulling this topic out of my hat. Since so many of the components of MG sales are teachers, librarians, and school visits, it seems an especially appropriate time to discuss this, now that school is back in session and fall is in the air.

One of the kind of funny things about MG is that when you talk to publishing houses and editors, they all bemoan the lack of MG and talk about how they are on the hunt for great MG books.

But.

It is YA that gets all the sparkly attention—higher advances, bigger publicity push, and often higher sales numbers. In fact, it is rare for a publisher to put a big publicity push behind an MG title unless it is part of a series and already a proven big seller. With YA there is a better chance of hitting the publicity lottery because there are simply more opportunities. If you look at PW’s list of Bestsellers for 2010 which lists 546 titles, only 108 of those were middle grade books. 2009 was had similar numbers, with only 96 middle grade bestsellers out of a list of 500 titles.

Part of that is because YA has a huge crossover potential to adult readers. There are huge numbers of adults who very happily read YA, but not MG. Also, marketing to YA readers is more of a cause and an effect. It’s easier to reach them because they’re older, online, and the role of the gatekeeper is not as much of a driving force in getting the word out about the book.

Also, in general, there are generally lower sales expectations for MG titles and (slightly) more willingness to wait for the slow build that happens as MG filters through the system. Many of the things listed below don’t even happen until a year or so after a book has been out. That means having enough publisher support to keep it in print long enough to find its audience, as well as accruing small sales milestones and accomplishments along the way. It means keeping the book out there long enough for the right people to stumble upon it and begin taking notice. It often means smaller advances, so the publisher has less capital invested upfront and can allow for that slower build.

Tools In The Middle Grade Sales Arsenal:

Write an amazing book. No, seriously. This cannot be said enough. Write a book impossible to ignore, or one that people cannot wait to press into eager readers’ hands.

Good Industry Reviews. Once upon a time, they only had to be good reviews, but a star or two never hurts. Especially with more and more library budgets being cut, they must radically prioritize their purchases and often will rely on starred reviews to do that. (However, do not panic if your book does not garner a star—many don’t and as long as the reviews are good, some sales will follow.) And how does one get starred reviews, boys and girls? That’s right—by writing an amazing book.

Attention from Book Bloggers. More and more, these book loving bloggers are having an impact on spreading the word about great books. There are fewer opportunities for MG out there than there are for YA, but there ARE opportunities.

Gatekeepers. Adults falling in love with your book and hand selling it to young readers. These gatekeepers can be indie booksellers, teachers, librarians, or parents. Even that Aunt who always gives books for birthday presents. I would also include the Junior Library Guild under this category, because they are in essence a gatekeeper for librarians and if they select your book, that recognition is an honor.

Foreign and Subsidiary Rights sales. (audio, movie, foreign rights) Nothing builds demand like perceived success (hence the huge smoke and mirror component to marketing.)

Bookclubs and book fairs. Again, this is a bit like hitting the lottery since there is only one game in town as far as these are concerned, but if your book is picked, it can really go. The downside is, especially with book fairs, it can also sit in relative obscurity as kids flock to the movie and media tie-ins and chotske toys and merchandise bookfairs also offer.

School visits, school visits, school visits. This is key and probably one of the biggest things a middle grade author can do to move books. However, these have to be set up properly. The author can’t just appear at the school, do their gig, and expect books to move. The book sales need to be an integral part of the visit. Usually the easiest way to do this is through presales arranged by the librarian, either through a local indie or a distributor or the publisher itself. I know a number of authors who have kept their MG books in print simply through their school visit sales.

Skype visits: These are happening more and more and possibly taking the place of school visits in some cases. They have a disadvantage in that you can’t (usually) set up presales of books. They can be especially effective for making sure readers know about subsequent books, however. (If any of you out there doing Skype visits do have a way you bring book sales into the picture, please let us know in the comments!)


Mass Market Bingo. No doubt about it, having your book selected to be featured at Target or Costco or any of the big wholesale outlets can have a huge jump in your sales.

State library and school readings lists. This is partly tied to the gatekeepers, but still deserves an entry of its own because it usually comes later in a books’ life, and it can be huge. A state list generates word of mouth in a way that few single librarians or teachers can. The other thing about state lists is that they are compiled by librarians and often have more breadth than starred reviews or literary favorites. Many are chosen for kid appeal or to reach certain reluctant reader niches. These aren't really something you can personally control, but they make a big difference in your sales numbers.


Social Media. Social media doesn’t have the same direct sales impact on MG that it does on YA. HOWEVER, it is still an important tool. Many of the above elements are initiated by one person loving your book; whether it is a librarian, the bookfair selection committee, the book buyer at Target, or a book blogger with a wide reach. And THAT is why it’s important to have some sort of social media/web presence—because it gives you a larger opportunity to connect with those people. In one of my favorite books, DRUID, by Morgan Llewellyn, the main character talks about needing to put yourself in the path of the gods in order for things to happen to you, and that’s how I view social media for MG books—you are putting yourself in the paths of the gods, widening your circle of acquaintances, being a part of the conversation.

25 comments:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for all the great tips. I agree some of the problem is that MG does not get all the hype that YA books do on book blogs. Thankfully more authors are trying to promote middle grade books. For example, Shannon Messenger started a Marvelous Middle Grade series to spotlight middle grade books on Mondays that I often participate in at Literary Rambles.

And some book reviewers are talking about middle grade books some. I try to comment on these days to support them.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I'm part of a local author group that does live events, including B&N educator days and local book festivals. There are tons of local town book festivals, run by a town's Chamber of Commerce, or by a school or a library or a bookstore or what have you. They're everywhere, and many of them are annual events.

At both educator days (which you can find out about by contacting your local B&N) and live events, MG and picture-book authors have a big advantage over YA authors. These are the events that teachers and librarians for younger children attend. The book fests are the events that draw parents with young children. After seeing this happen over and over, I've decided that if I were an MG author, I would do less online promo and I would do as many live local events as possible. For YA, it's the reverse: there are good live events that focus on YA books, but there are more opportunities online.

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for the list and for highlighting the main differences between marketing YA and MG books. I, too, have been wondering about the seeming irony of publishers wanting more MG but being more aware of YA (doesn't necessarily mean more YA is published; just that my unconscious kidlit radar is usually more aware of YAs.)

Wild About Words said...

Robin,

You are so right on with each of these. Thanks for spelling it out and for the reminder to write the best book you can . . . because it all begins with that!

Donna

R.L. LaFevers said...

Natalie, I've been very happy to see more and more MG-centric sites popping up around the 'net!

Jenn, it's so funny, right after I posted that I thought, I should have mentioned book festivals. However, my personal experience with them has been tepid at best, so I am really glad to have your perspective in the mix. I especially agree with your assessment that MG works better for live events and YA for online.

Yat-Yee, it IS an odd conundrum!

Hey Donna! Thanks for commenting. And if anyone would know about writing awesome books, it would be YOU!

bfav said...

Love this advice...now to just get my MG published.

Rosanne Parry said...

There are some great middle grade blogs popping up in the last year or two. From the Mixed up Files of Middle Grade authors is one. Middle Grade Mafioso is another. Fuse #8 is one of the oldest and best known book blogs out there and she's never done young adult books. And some blogs feature both MG and YA: Cynsations, Teens Read Too, Guys Lit Wire, and Book Slut are a few.

So just because a blog is usually YA focused doesn't mean they won't feature a MG book. If the subject of the book fits the tone of the blog, the blogger would probably be glad to hear from you.

Much depends on the quality of the book, so I'm glad to see you mention Write Something Fabulous as the first step.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Thanks for this very comprehensive and informative list. I write Picture Books, but a lot of these same things apply, although there's probably even more gatekeeping. I'm interested in expanding to Skype (a little unsure of how successful it will be with what is a very interactive presentation) but haven't tried it yet. But like you said, in the end, it all boils down to write something amazing!

Mrs. ReaderPants said...

MGs love series books, too!

As a MS librarian, I hate that book fairs have all that junk to distract from the books. I only put out the erasers, silly pencils, and bookmarks. I ask Scholastic not to send the cases/boxes of toys and other "school supplies", and mostly, they don't.

Amanda Ashby said...

Thanks for this great and very timely post! I've got some MG books coming out next year so I'll be re-reading this several times over the next few months (and as a promotional introvert, I'm hoping it will help!)

Jess said...

Love the marketing tips for MG! Thanks, ladies!

Kristen Kittscher said...

I'm so grateful for this detailed round-up! My first MG book is coming out in early 2013, and I've been wondering about the effectiveness of online vs. in-person marketing. Thanks, too, Jenn for your added comment.

Walden Pond said...

As an imprint that exclusively publishes middle grade books, we couldn't agree more with all of your points. We work within many of the realms you mention and encourage our authors to do the same. It has worked very well for us. Thanks for putting together this fantastic resource for authors!

Walden Pond Press

S.C.Skillman said...

Thank you for such a helpful and interesting blog - I shall be adding it to my favourites. I'm concentrating on promoting my novel through online marketing / social networking at the moment. I'm working to overcome that "shrinking violet" horror of asking people directly for what you want, & accepting that you may be totally ignored. So far I've found people responsive and genuinely keen to help. Clearly I should do more of "asking for what I want" - it works!

Simon Haynes said...

Great post thanks! I'm new to MG after years writing adult science fiction, and I'm learning something new every day. Some of my contacts (e.g. booksellers) are the same across both genres, but MG does require a different approach in many areas.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Good luck with that goal, bfav!

Rosanne, there are some great MG blogs popping up! I totally agree. And you mention some of the best.

Susanna, you’re right about there being an even bigger gatekeeper component to picture books! And I’m with you in not quite sure how well Skype can be interactive. I know some presenters manage to run side by side powerpoint presentations with their Skype visits, but that’s beyond my current technical skill set.

Mrs. ReaderPants, that’s very good to know that one can request Scholastic not send so much distracting sparkly stuff! And yes, MG’s seem particularly fond of series.

Amanda, I’m so glad the timing worked out so well for you. And best of luck with your upcoming books!

You’re so welcome, Jess.

Kristen, part of it also boils down to what you’re comfortable with and enjoy. Don’t forget that part. ☺

Thank you, Walden Pond, for the publisher’s view on this!

S.C.- It’s funny that asking for what we want can be SO hard, yet so effective. ☺ Glad it’s working for you!

Simon, what an interesting angle that will be for you—to see just how different approaches the two genres will require! In some ways it feels like it would be almost starting over from scratch (except for those few booksellers.) Good luck!

Karen Harrington said...

Love all the info nuggets in this post. This answered several questions I've had about MG. Thanks!

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Bravo! Excellent post, RL - lots of great suggestions for we MG authors. I'm thinking your topic applies just as well to the MG market in Australia, too! Thank you. :)

Wendy Meddour said...

My d├ębut MG book is coming out with Frances Lincoln in Feb 2012 - so thanks for the great tips. May I add some from my own experience? If you're new to all this, enter awards/competitions for 'unpublished' novels. Being short listed for the Muslim Writer's Award 2012 and receiving the John C Laurence Award (for writing that improves relations between the races) has definitely helped with the publicity side of things. 'A Hen in the Wardrobe' is getting noticed even before it has reached the shelves.

Susan Lower said...

I've been waiting for this post and I'm so glad you took the time to compile all these great tips. Thank you so much. All the other comments of advice are awesome too.

Trish said...

Thanks for the great tips, Mary and R.L.

My three MG books took off slowly but are gradually selling more. I'm finding more and more ways to get them out there and noticed, but it's nice to know that sales improve after a year. I've been advised by other writers to change to Y/A, but my heart is with MG, so I'll just be patient.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the article. I host an MG-centric website called Freaky Dude Books and you might be interested in my main blogger -- Dr. Crankenfuss, a continual curmudgeon who makes a lot of sense. His latest diatribe is against those two tier lockers in middle school and is entitled "School Lockers Are Dangerous, Especially If You Have a Head." You can find him at the "Freak Speak" link on the site. I've also noticed that on Amazon, the categories for middle grade fiction are so limited, some authors put their humorous novels in the non-fiction section because there's nothing that really describes what they've written. In any case, thanks again.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Hooray for middle grade! I'm on a personal crusade to get adults reading these books. So far so good...

Thanks for all this!

Amy said...

This is wonderful. As an aspiring author in progress, I'm well-versed in YA, but know nothing about MG. This was an introduction in perfection as far as where to start, and I'm supremely grateful for the information in both the post itself and the ensuing comments. I was barely even sure if MG sold at all, especially with the recent YA craze. Thank you for laying out the points and information, and for taking the time to write this.

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