Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Differentiating the US and UK children's book markets

Like the language, the government, the education system, the food, and pretty much everything else, the children's book market is quite different from the UK to the US. I've found myself straddling both shores for a while, making connections with British agents and editors, following British authors, yet writing stories set in America, with American accents, and desperate to get my hands on more American books.  I even have two critique groups, one in each country.

It's been a unique position from which to observe the two countries' children's book markets, and I want to share some generalizations (generalisations). Of course, I can think of numerous books which don't fit neatly into these categories, but this post isn't meant to be authoritative. Rather, I'd love to hear your observations, too, and thoughts about why these differences might exist. Also, my knowledge is focused around books for nine-year-olds and up, as that's what I tend to follow. Any knowledge of books for younger readers in the different markets is also welcome!

The American children's book market is more commercial, and drives trends, especially in teen fiction*: vampires, paranormal romance, dystopians. Lately I hear everyone is searching for thrillers. 

The British market certainly follows these trends (Moira Young's Blood Red Road is the latest dystopian), but there's also space for a wider variety of books. British children's books can be more imaginative and unique (Patrick Ness & Siobhan Dowd's A Monster Calls). Perhaps because the British market imports so many books from the US, they're not as concerned about staying on trend. 

They also are less rigid in age-grouping. Numerous books (Candy Gourlay's Tall Story, Chris Bradford's Young Samurai series) seem to overlap genres and age-groupings. In fact, the British market frequently places books on multiple shelves, children's and adult, sometimes even with different covers, to encourage cross-over appeal (trying not to be judgmental here, but goodness, I wish the American market did this!). 

The American young adult market tends to be much grittier and edgier, more sex, more drugs, more dangerous and "adult" situations,  more teen books in general. The British market, with the exception of a handful of authors (Melvin Burgess, Keren David), is gentler, and  publishes more books for 9-12 year-olds (middle grade books). The British market is also more willing to publish books on hot topics such as the environment, immigration and refugees (Miriam Halahmy's Hidden), whereas the US market tends to avoid "issue-driven" books (not to imply Hidden is issue-driven, as opposed to character-driven, just that that stereotype tends to sink such books!).  

The British market is also smaller, or at least more condensed, so there are more reviews in national papers (though still not a lot). There also seems to be more local awards from schools and counties, whereas the US tends to mostly favor national awards.

The British market has more recognizable (recognisable) big names, stalwarts in the field who have long careers under their belts (Michael Morpurgo, David Almond, Jaqueline Wilson). 

However, the American market has few stalwarts, fewer of whom seem to be publishing regularly. Instead, its main draw is debut novelists, the new, bright potential hot things. 

It's much more common to see American children's books being used in schools, but from my observation, British authors do a lot more school visits.

Goodness, I could keep going and going on this. The submission process, and the relationships authors have with their agents and publishers is different between the countries, too, but maybe I'll save that for a future post.

Questions, comments, and words of wisdom, as always, welcome!
Dude! I've barely had time to skim it, but I just discovered one of my favorite (favourite) British authors, Keren David, has just written a post about celebrating British (as opposed to American) teen fiction. Talk about fortuitous timing! Definitely give it a read. 

*Note: The US and UK children's book markets don't even share the same terminology, though these distinctions are beginning to blur. British fiction refers to 9-12 books and teen books. American fiction has middle grade books and young adult books. Though Brits also have a newly emerging category called "young adult" which is older and edgier than teen fiction--I won't refer to that category specifically because it confuses even me! 

22 comments:

  1. Fascinating post, especially for me, sitting on a different continent entirely and watching and reading from both markets. I can mainly only speak for YA here, but my sense is that British books for YAs (and I don't mean teens) is definitely edgier and more gritty. You can include Kevin Brooks and Gillian Philip in that mix with Melvin Burgess. My sense of the US YA books is that they are unquestionably more commercial, whereas there is a striving, I sense, for literary fiction, as well as commercial fiction in the UK market. I suspect it may well come down to cultural differences and one could extend a comparative analysis into the movie and TV industry, which may in fact shed more light on the possible reasons for these differences.

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    1. Yes, Nicky, I totally agree. As I was writing this post, I was thinking about many of the differences I see between UK and US children's books could also be described as overall cultural differences. Very interesting. Despite the somewhat common language, they are two very different countries!

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  2. Anne, that's so interesting, especially what you say about fewer stalwarts in the US. Writing for older teens in the UK can be a problem, because there's still a perception that the market is very small indeed, as most teens will be moving on to adult books at 14 or so. This leave the field wide open for American imports! But then, look at all the Americans and Candaians who come and live here and do so well - Meg Rosoff, Patrick Ness, Moira Young and coming soon Jane McLoughlin and one day I'm sure Anne M Leone...

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Keren! I was so pleased to see your post from yesterday. I can imagine being a gritty YA writer in this country can be a bit infuriating! But hopefully you're helping to open the door for a whole new trend in British writing! Or is that too much to imagine without passing out? ;)

      And thank you for the mention! Goodness, I hope so! I think it's really interesting watching authors with mixed backgrounds. The way Meg Rosoff AND Jane have captured authentic British AND American teens is so exciting.

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  3. What a timely post for me, Anne! I'm in the US, launching At Yellow Lake here. I don't have any more insights than you do (this is a great analysis!) but one thing that made me feel very grateful to be based in the UK is the sheer issue of geography. I met with a wondrful writer who's based in St. Paul, MN (in the North Central US)and is published by Simon and Shuster. I asked him if he'd ever met his agent or his editor. He had, but primarily because he's also an editor and has met these people at conferences. He said it was entirely possible for many US writers to never meet the people who are involved in publishing their books. So glad that's not been my experience! Thanks for this post, Anne...I think you're in a great position to make evaluations of both markets; I've lived in the UK for so long and have only had dealings with the UK side of things. And Keren--thanks to you and Keris for setting up #UKYA! AND for including Anne and I on such an illustrious list of writers!

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    1. Thanks, jane! Actually, I was thinking about geography as I wrote this post, though I didn't get into it. But you're absolutely right. Most editors and agents meet their authors here frequently, and discuss changes in person, whereas that's mostly unheard of in the US. Quite sad, actually.

      BTW, I just finished Yellow Lake last week, and even though you say it's been forever since you lived in the US, I was so impressed by how you managed to create such authentic teen voices for both your American and British characters. Very cool. Wish there was more literature like THAT out there.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this post, Anne. I know little about the British market, but reading this I thought I may fit better there, until I read that there are fewer opportunities to break in... I hope you continue this thread and tell us about the different professional terminologies, difference in how agents work etc.

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    1. Thanks, Mirka! It's funny, I've kind of learned most places are like that. The grass always looks better on the other side of the fence until you're actually over there and discover it rains all the time. ;)

      Thanks also for the encouragement to keep writing about this... I'm definitely considering it.

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  5. Very interesting - I know one thing about the language difference: I can do English crosswords - but never American!
    Thanks for the post

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! Clearly you're better off than me, I'm terrible at crosswords in any language! ;)

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  6. I didn't realize the British market publishes more middle grade. That's really interesting. Thanks for sharing this. I learned a lot.

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    1. Thanks, Kelly. They may not publish substantially more MG, but they certainly make a bigger deal out of it. I think teen novels are just beginning to become a thing here. I'd love to see the actual numbers.

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  7. I really enjoyed reading this, Anne. It's such an interesting post from a perspective that's not dissimilar to my own. As a Canadian writer in the UK, I certainly agree that the North American market is different from the UK market in many ways.
    There's probably enough factors involved to write an entire series on this topic!

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Chantel. I think it's a really fascinating topic, too. I wish it were discussed more. Of course, so much about why certain books sell and others don't is a mystery, but I find it especially interesting that certain books do really well on one side of the Atlantic, and meet with resounding silence on the other. I'll definitely have to work on expanding this into at least one other post!

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  8. So interesting! I really like the idea of shelving books in different sections to broaden their readership. I feel like in the US, that's only just starting to happen, and only with the huge sellers like The Hunger Games.

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    1. Thanks, Anna. I do think it's really exciting that it is beginning to happen in the US, though. People are finally beginning to realize all the incredible things going on right now in the children's market. Yay!

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  9. Thanks for mentioning Tall Story - interesting about cross overs - but there are some who expect children's books clearly categorized by age. I've had a few comments about that. Brilliant post!

    (Psst can you add a subscribe by email link? My own selfish preference - would love to get your blog in my inbox)

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    1. Oh, you're welcome, Candy! Such a great book--I really hope it finds more US fans.

      It's funny writing a post like this; my mind kept thinking of all the exceptions, including the UK's debate about categorizing by age. It seems part and parcel of making books into commodities, to be carefully targeted to specific markets, just like TV and movies. Of course, it's easy to sympathise with concerned parents, too.

      And your wish is my command--the blog now has a subscribe by email link! I only had to poke a few buttons to make it work, too. Amazing! ;)

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  10. Really interesting post. I had to focus specifically on British YAF for my PhD because of the differences would have made it so huge. In the past the US have been better at dealing with some subjects (LGBT for example) but I think that is changing. I have been asked to write about a variation of this subject for a journal in the summer. I am looking at Canadian books vs UK books. This post is going to be very useful for me!! Thank you Looking forward to reading more posts by you.

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Ness, and I'm so glad you think my rambling speculations might be somewhat useful! Who knew?! ;) I would love to see your article (and link to it, if possible!) when it's published.

      I definitely agree; I think in the past the US was known for tackling more hot issues, especially personal or social ones (cutting, anorexia, LGBT, race relations). For example, it took the UK several years to agree to publish Laure Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, despite all its success in the US, and the UK having published other LHA books. But in the past few years I've seen a number of British books stepping forward to tackle similar issues. It's exciting to see the market expanding outwards like that.

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  11. Informative post, Anne. I never thought about the differences between the US and UK kidlit market before. I'm now wondering about the MG and YA book markets in other countries.

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    1. Thanks! I know Germany buys a lot of YA and MG fantasy... And I wish I was more connected with the Australian market. So many great teen writers over there! But I know so little, too. Isn't it sad to think how many great books we're missing out on?!

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