There is a triumvirate of success in the annals of Y.A. book history, books that have become household names just as in decades past but also huge business propositions far beyond any previous Y.A. tomes. Even as Judy Blume's seminal works, and series like The Babysitter's Club, Sweet Valley High, and Goosebumps, have done incredibly well—selling hundreds of millions of books, read by hundreds of millions of kids—they can't match the promotional scale, crossover audience obtained, or sheer amount of money from a single series made by The Hunger Games, which was once known as the next Twilight, which was once the next Harry Potter. The surge in attention Y.A. has gotten recently is largely because of those books, each of which has been sold fairly extensively in hardcover. Each has gone on to break records at the box office as film versions of the books, and each has inspired a cottage industry of related paraphernalia: dolls, memorabilia, games, and so on and on.
A key reason Y.A. is so popular, and such a huge financial success, is due to its potential for a wider audience than ever before. As Jim McCarthy, an agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, told us several weeks ago, Harry Potter and Twilight functioned as "the real game changers in the category. They became monstrous forces because they had rabid teen fan bases, but they also bridged over to adult readers in big ways." If a book can transcend ages and genders, its popularity is far more certain, is the lesson.
All three Hunger Games books have been released and are in heavy circulation, and the director for Catching Fire, the second film in the series, has been named. With all going so swimmingly, it's time to turn to what's next. It's hard to know what it will be—who can truly predict such things? If we could, we'd probably be lounging on a beach in Maui. But we can try. One thing we know for sure: With the ever-increasing marketing and financial clout behind these books, something will be next, and it has the potential to be bigger than all that came before. As author, editor, and historian Marc Aronson told The Atlantic Wire, "with the current distribution and sales and marketing capacity, there's always going to be a mega hit in Y.A. It's just like Hollywood; there's a car-chase movie in the summer, a Christmas movie. There's a need for something to be sold at Costco."
This is a change from the way the industry used to work. "If you look in stages, there was Judy Blume in the '70s," explains Aronson. Those books were popular, as were others, some of which this writer grew up on (Ann M. Martin's The Babysitter's Club series, for instance). Hardcover was for libraries, and paperback was where the real movement was, with "the distribution system through independent bookstores and libraries." In comparison, today we have the chains, plus Amazon, plus social media and all it brings (elements deftly incorporated to promote the success of The Hunger Games), plus big-box stores like Costco and Walmart. And people are buying the books as soon as they come out, at those higher hardcover prices. Aronson says, "The ability for a popular title to get out is bigger; the churn is faster." It helps when these books are series and can also become a series of movies—audiences can flip between the books and films, as they did with the Potter series, constantly entertained by a franchise to which they can be completely devoted as long as new installments are being created. "There will always be one big hit," says Aronson, even if we don't know what it will be.
We can, however, narrow things down a little. The publishing insiders we spoke to, while unwilling to make any on-the-record bets about the next big thing in Y.A., did lean toward it being in the genre of fantasy or dystopian fiction, like The Hunger Games. That doesn't mean, however, that a Hunger Games knockoff is going to be our next Hunger Games. Kids can usually see right through that. When we talked about what the term Y.A. means, McCarthy warned us of potential over-saturation, with writers trying to "cash in" in the Y.A. market. The same could be said for writers who copycat the more successful books' themes. No one wants to read the same old vampire story, even if they enjoyed it the first 10 times, when there's something even more enthralling around the corner.
Some possibilities for the next big Y.A. thing-to-come, from two of the big Y.A. houses, Scholastic and Macmillan:
Crewel, by Gennifer Albin (Macmillan), featuring a "Mad Men meets Hunger Games" cover. Per VH1's Sabrina Rojas Weiss, the book had seven agents and five publishing houses fighting over it. “It’s set in a world where women are cultivated into these kind of femme-fatale types that weave the fabric of life,” Albin explained to VH1. “They are made to be these beautiful, deadly women that are then controlled by the all male government.”
All These Things I've Done, by Gabrielle Zevin (Macmillan): "A masterful story about an impossible romance, a very complicated family, and the ties that forever bind us, this is the perfect summer read or a great 'what to read next' for fans of dystopian books; think everything you know about the mob meets Matched and The Hunger Games."
Shadow and Bone, The Grisha Trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo (Macmillan). "Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near-impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feat on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one unlikely refugee."
The False Prince, The Ascendance Trilogy, by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic). Described to us as a Game of Thrones for boys (but without all the sex), the first book in the trilogy is summarized thusly: "In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king's long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner's motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword's point - he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage's rivals have their own agendas as well."
The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater, the first in the four-book Raven Cycle series (Scholastic). "Filled with mystery, romance, and the supernatural, THE RAVEN BOYS introduces readers to Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey, Ill and Blue Sargent. Gansey has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on the hunt to find Glendower, a vanished Welsh king. Legend has it that the first person to find him will be granted a wish—either by seeing him open his eyes, or by cutting out his heart. Blue Sargent, the daughter of the town psychic in Henrietta, Virginia, has been told for as long as she can remember that if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. But she is too practical to believe in things like true love."
Then, in middle-grade, there's a new five-book fantasy series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare to which Scholastic recently acquired North American rights. (There's already a movie in the works.) Scholastic published Harry Potter (which they purchased for $100,000 from Bloomsbury) and The Hunger Games; you might say they know what they're talking about. Due to those successes, they also have more money to play around with than other houses. (In the U.S., Twilight was published by the Hachette Book Group.)
In terms of racially diverse offerings in the fantasy/dystopian genre, there's Tankborn by Karen Sandler (Lee & Low): "a dystopian SF set on another planet. The main character is a genetically engineered "non-human"--in other words, an untouchable or slave--in a strict caste system in which she's at the very bottom. When she's assigned to her first job at 15, she starts to unravel the secrets that her society is founded on. It is the first of a trilogy."
With fantasy, there may be something of a meta element at work with regard to its popularity. Aronson hypothesizes that maybe the way in which we live now, in such a "therapeutic" culture in which things kids previously experienced privately are now spoken, if not out loud, at least online, has bred the desire for fantasy. And maybe this desire also has something to do with the unprecedented tech-savvy of kids and teens. Fantasy "is an intensified version of regular life," he says, with "the appeal of escape, not looking at your regular life in the face, the subconscious truth of life." And this is rather like augmented reality, something kids are growing up with. "As we literalize the dreams, as we make them video game spaces, social link spaces," Aronson asks, "Is there a loss? In a way it’s like our fantasies are all around us. I think you can also say that having a black president, having gay marriage be legal, that the borderlines of what seemed really hard are also wavering. There’s something exciting and freeing about that. The hard borders that seemed insurmountable waver. You’re stepping into fantasy."
Aronson also reminds us, though, that for all our speculation, "in the world of books for kids and Y.A., there are adults making decisions for a market that's not them. Adults have to get out of the way and get on the bandwagon." Historically, fantasy was out of favor—realistic novels were the thing. "With Harry Potter, that cracked. The secondary genre became primary; it blew all the hinges off. It became a thing in itself," he says. Confirming that publishers don't have the benefit of hindsight, Aronson told us of another author who'd written a book about vampires but was told, just prior to Twilight's runaway success, that girls don't like monsters. "There's a danger of generalizing, of thinking boys won't read about girls, but girls will read about boys," says Aronson. "That's generally true, but it depends. Take The Hunger Games, I don't think boys put that down. I expect things hit when they strike a chord with kids when adults don’t assume it."
In the end, kids will be kids, and they're the ones who will be deciding what the next Hunger Games is, not us grownups—even if we will be the ones reading along after them.