Meet Bob, and his little friend The Market. And try not to flinch.

Welcome to just about the only kid-lit oriented blog on the internet that has not responded to the Wall Street Journal article on dark YA literature. Let me just warn you that immediately following the period at the end of this sentence, that is about to change.

You may be wondering why. After all, the article appeared two weeks ago, and in today’s news market, that’s old history. Even on Facebook the furor has died down. And really, I’m not all that qualified to respond, being A. not quite published, and B. debuting with middle grade novel, MAGIC CARP, which is neither YA nor dark (although as I’ve mentioned previously, there are some chickens that meet an evil fate, so I guess to chickens, it is very dark.) Adequate and eloquent responses have already been written regarding the need for dark themes and topics and refuting many of the article’s points about YA Fiction in general. I cannot add anything more on those fronts.

The whole discussion got me thinking in a different vein, about the Market and the conundrum it presents to the not-quite-published. The market and its trends loom large in the eyes of the average-Jane-trying-to-get-published. At conferences and in books she hears how you have to know your audience and know the market. For every book on the shelf with a title like Write What You Love, or Learn Your Craft, she finds just as many with titles like How To Get Published in the Market. And the trends, whether you agree with them or not, are apparent, especially when scanning the shelves in the big box stores that may not cater to varied tastes.

Bob, spending quality time with his homies.

So here’s Average Jane–the kind of writer whose life is full of ideas and aspirations and rejection letters. Whose hope is bleeding steadily toward desperation, and the only tourniquet in sight seems to be to write toward the market trend–maybe a nice manuscript about a bulimic zombie rapist with a drug problem and serious halitosis (We’ll call  him Bob.) Average Jane feels the temptation to do this because to her there is something far more monstrous and life-threatening than Bob, and it is called “The Market.” Jane’s no fool; she reads the Wall Street Journal and knows Bob is her best shot at staying alive.

Let me just change gears for a moment and tell you about one of my favorite things on the internet. It is a quote from the wise and witty children’s book editor Elizabeth Law on the Shrinking Violets blog, where I would encourage you to read the whole interview. In talking about market savvy writers, Law offers the following:

“Just write your heart out. I promise you that’s what matters. I would much, much rather find a great, unusual, distinctive book by a phobic writer covered in oozing sores who lives in a closet than a decent but not amazingly original book by the world’s best promoter.”

I love that quote, even though I am not covered with oozing sores or living in a closet. Average Jane loves it too, and like many other writers out there, has spent years trying very, very hard to believe it. (Trust me, Average Jane and I are very close.)

But no matter how hard Average Jane tries to believe, she has her doubts. She worries, “Kids today have tons of sparkly fun gadgets around them–why would they read a book about coal miners, set in Nowhere, Colorado in 1901?” But she wants to believe, and she wants to write her heart out, and so she puts her trust in her passion and her pen to the page.

Bob's nasty little buddy, The Market.

Now enter Bob’s nasty little buddy, THE MARKET. Because after she bravely wrote her heart out and sent her manuscripts out on submission, Jane started acquiring rejections that said,  “I loved it, but I’m afraid it’s just too quiet for today’s Market,” or “Funny, but not quite where the boy book Market is heading,” or, “I just can’t see this story making it out of the midlist in today’s Market.” (Which also means it won’t make it into the midlist, because it won’t make it into print.)

All of which causes the aspiring and increasingly desperate Jane to give in to her earlier temptation and embark upon revisions that make those ill-fated chickens return as zombies that do unspeakable things to the Magic Carp, not to mention the coal miner’s daughter, and as she works, she will compose increasingly long, run-on,  crazy-desperate sorts of sentences while gnashing her teeth and muttering, “LOUD? DARK??? I’LL SHOW YOU LOUD AND DARK!!!!”

The Zombie Chicken does unspeakable things to the Magic Carp.

I’m not trying to be bitter here and I hope none of you will take me that way. There is a message of hope that I am getting to, so put down that razor blade and keep reading. I have heard those kinds of rejections, but eventually, I also heard:  “I love it, I want to publish it, we’ll find it’s place in this Market.” And all without zombie chickens. (although there is still time to work in the zombie chickens, should my editor be reading this. Call me.)

I know, mine is only one small success. And even now I sometimes hear about a writer whose debut trilogy of dark novels has been fast-tracked, and optioned, and promoted like crazy, and I find myself wondering if the zombie chickens weren’t the way to go (oops–I mean, Jane wonders. This is about Jane.) But mine is not the only story where heart mattered more than market trends. More than one of us here at EMU’s Debuts can attest to that. So all in all, I am content with my gentle story of human strength and perseverance, and more than content that it found a home. Editors have to think about the market, that’s their job, but they also want original, beautiful, well-crafted manuscripts, and they understand things about the market beyond what the novice writer sees. Trust yourself, and trust them to find a place for you.

And one final thought on the dark YA debate, before I leave it. After reading the many responses on blogs, newsletters, journals, Facebook, and Twitter, I am proud to be part of a community that responded with so much passion. The response is one more proof that whether their writing is dark, light, or chiaroscuro, kid-lit writers are truly writing their hearts out.

The Magic Carp prevails! (Courtesy of Greg Tanaka)



Filed under Publishers and Editors, Writing, Writing and Life

17 responses to “Meet Bob, and his little friend The Market. And try not to flinch.

  1. First, wow–that Greg Tanaka brings some kind of vision to his art!

    And second, YEAH! THAT’S RIGHT! What JEANNIE said.

    When I was facing a debilitating round of rejections on my novel, my sister kept whispering in my ear, “You need to turn those two best friends into lesbian vampires.” She already sensed that the inclusion of straight vampires in a realistic upper-middle grade novel wasn’t going to be quite enough to get the story noticed.

    I managed to do a revision without vampires of any kind that moved the story far enough out of the “too quiet” waters. So I hear you. I hear Jane. I understand the urges to zombify our chickens, and you can quote me on that. And I’m glad you Emu’s Debut folks are blogging about finding the other road–

    (And to the reader of this blog who just had a light bulb moment–zombie chickens meet the lesbian vampires–go for it.)


    • During the period where Jane was getting a lot of “too quiet for the market” rejections, she was keeping the faith by remembering a conversation she had had with you in Chicago, Audrey, along these very lines, so in some ways, she has you to thank for this blog post.

      I’m thinking now about the blurb for the back of the book: “I understand the urges to zombify our chickens” definitely belongs there. Thanks for the permission to quote.


  2. thelisas

    Yes! From a pair of writers who are still one crutial step behind you (and our only mildly transmogrified characters) we couldn’t agree more. From your lips to our agent’s hands to an editor’s publish list. Wishing you much, much success, even if we did stumble here thinking EMU was Easten Michigan University.


    • I am glad you stumbled upon us. I do know someone who teaches for Easter Michigan (or used to), so there’s the connection!

      Hope your next step is the crutial one! Good luck and thanks for the comment!


      • thelisas

        Obviously we both spelled Eastern wrong for humorous effect. Anything for a laugh. Unless of course your friend really does work at Easter…her name wouldn’t be Bunny by any chance?.


  3. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    I, too, am totally impressed by Greg’s art! Cracks me up! Love it!

    I, too, heard many-a-time to turn the foster mom in MURPHYS into a blood-craving vampire. And there were days, I tell ya…

    “Write your heart out” is good advice from Elizabeth Law. Writing without thought for the market may seem foolish, but I think you get your best product that way. I sometimes think that my book sold becasue I never thought it would. I just wrote honestly. Then it sold!

    Lynda (author of a “quieter” book that has gone under contract)


    • So see, that’s two of us! Something else I didn’t address in my post but that I think is important, is that I think that those of us who write things that aren’t within the trend have to keep getting our work out there, because trends speak to only one piece of the audience. So there are readers out there to whom paranormal or dark themes don’t appeal, and if there isn’t something for them, we lose them. Diversity in the market is sooo important. I have always tried to encourage my kids to read variety rather than get into a rut of just one type of book, too–I think it helps them develop wider tastes and a more open mind.

      I am sure ONE FOR THE MURPHYS is going to make a difference in a lot of lives for young readers, and I’m so glad it found a home!


      • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

        There was a time when MURPHYS was rejected because it “didn’t fit the market.” My response was that I saw that as a strength rather than a downfall. You’ve made an excellent point here, Jeannie, about diversity! Thanks, also, for your kind words–I do hope that MURPHYS makes a difference to kids. That’s what we all want from our books, right?


  4. This is why I love the community of the internet. Because we Average Janes struggle with this every day. I recently participated in a “Tweet Your Pitch” blog contest for an agent in which we were required to distill our novels into a tweet (140 characters or less) — quite a challenge! I was dismayed that after the wide range of novels presented, the agent chose — you guessed it — five dystopian paranormal vampire-y werewolf-y books to look at. I’ve been reading that the paranormal trend has peaked, that dystopian is peaking, that the next hot trend will be historical (really????)… but the reality is, you can’t control what agents want to see and what editors want to buy. And in a lot of ways, you can’t control what you write, because if you try to write to a trend you don’t love, you’ll just write crap. And your crap shouldn’t sell. (But that’s a whole other discussion).


    • Yep, therein lies the frustration and the conundrum with the market. But the moral of the story (at least for me, and for several others here on EMUs Debuts) is that eventually we have sold the things that weren’t the market trend. Just keep building what you can with your craft and keep the faith–hard as it is to do so!


  5. Funny, Jeannie but I have been thinking a lot on this very topic. All the time at conferences we hear things like NO TALKING ANIMAL PICTURE BOOKS, NO QUIET BOOKS (tell that to Deborah Underwood), NO THIS, NO THAT. Yeah, well, I believe that the quality of writing is what sells a book way more than the subject. But that being said, it is much harder, it seems, to sell a plot that’s been done a lot before or is a “friendship” MG, etc. I think to be a debut novel, it should stand out in some way. So quality of writing is most important, in my humble opinion, but a writer seems at a disadvantage if they aren’t working on something different or unique. When I start a book, and I can’t decide which plot to go for, I always try to pick the more special idea…so to that end, I guess I am writing for the market to some degree. The market being editors at publishing houses, of course!


    • I think one reason “writing to the market” doesn’t work is because it isn’t clear what the market really is, especially not to the not-yet-published who doesn’t have a good window into the ins and outs of the industry (not that all published authors have that either!) On one hand, you go to conferences and the editors and agents there say they hare looking for something unique or “hasn’t been done a lot” but then you see what’s just sold or coming out and it all looks like pretty similar stuff during a big trend (like paranormal, or dystopian). So which route do you go? I think you might as well follow your heart, but certainly if you have more than one idea, you might consider which is more marketable. You may also find, however, that what you thought was marketable gets “been there, done that” responses from the editors.


  6. J. Anderson Coats

    Well said. It’s reeeeally tempting to chase the market, but if the book isn’t right, it isn’t right – and that fact will be pretty clear on the page.

    Of course, I read somewhere that historicals are the next Big Thing. What does that make us?


    • That makes us the next big thing! You are the second person to mention that in a comment here, but it’s a bit hard for me to believe. Then again, long dresses seem to be making a comeback, and it seems to me that’s the last time the historical was a big thing. And True Grit was just remade in the theaters. So, okay, it’s you and me, J. Out of our way, all you paranormal romance writers!


  7. Cynthia Levinson

    My WIP has no curriculum connections, hardly any real-world applications, practically no way for most kids to identify with the main characters. Yet, Erin is intrigued, and I’m addicted to the topic. Perhaps we can create our own markets. Isn’t that what the best businesses do–imagine and produce something no one knew they had a need for and then make it so appealing that everyone craves it.


  8. You are reminding me of a piece I heard on NPR a short while ago about the inventor of the MP3 file format. People kept saying, but who’s going to want to use such a thing, and he was hoping that some day a few hundred thousand people would have a use for it. Now millions are downloaded every day. SO get out there and BUILD that market, Cynthia.

    (That said, I know the topic you are currently working on, and I think kids can identify in lots of ways. What a cool fantasy, and I think kids might not even know such things exist and will be excited to learn it is an option.)


  9. Pingback: A Title, A Brand, and Maybe Even a Chicken | EMU's Debuts

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