Publishers, and everybody else, are perplexed by those tempestuous teen years, when a young person's thoughts turn to sex, sass and self-expression. And away from, like, reading.
"Traditionally," explains Adam Rothberg of Simon & Schuster, "these are the years where you start losing kids as readers because of peer pressure and other things. They live in a fragmented world. They don't know what they like, their likes change so quickly. It's always been tough for publishers. Plus, much of what's been written for that age has been stodgy."
But that doesn't stop publishers from scraping, bowing and kowtowing to the 31 million Americans between the ages of 13 and 19. In the coming months, the book industry will be throwing all kinds of ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
For example, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, is launching Pocket Pulse in October. The much-hyped lead-off series is "Fearless," by Francine Pascal, godmother of the "Sweet Valley High" novels. "Fearless" books feature Gaia Moore, a kick-butt heroine born "without the fear gene." Other Pocket Pulse titles are tied into popular TV shows -- "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Charmed" and "Dawson's Creek."
The Pulse series, "Body of Evidence," is not based on a TV show. The heroine, Jenna Blake, is a college freshman who also works as a pathology assistant at a nearby hospital. But who knows? If the books do well, S&S's parent company, Viacom, just might build a new dramedy around Jenna. It's the age of synergy, remember? And cross-promotion overkill.
HarperCollins, in cahoots with Seventeen magazine, is introducing a batch of nonfiction books about youth and beauty, and, with Atlantic Records, a raft of Sweet 16 novels that will use music to sell more books and books to sell more music.
Besides publishing the third book in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Scholastic is working with Teen magazine to sell Real Teen books. The Real Teen series will draw on the diaries of, and interviews with, young adults.
Ooooh, bad word choice: young adults. It's so 20 minutes ago. "I don't like the phrase when you're talking about teenagers," says Nancy Pines, editor of Pocket Pulse books. "I don't think the kids like it either. It's so lame. It's like a librarian picked it out." The term, in fact, comes from library jargon, Pines says. Anybody who utters it in the Simon & Schuster hallways has to fork over a 25-cent Pines fine. The money goes into a pizza fund.
"Teenagers," Pines continues, "are a unique bunch. They have more money in their pockets than their predecessors. They have more freedom. They're more grown up." Those are positive conditions, she says, for, like hello, making lots of moolah.
Pines justifies the cross-promotional blizzard by describing her quandary. "It is so hard to let people know your books exist." The culture is overwhelmed by visual imagery -- TV and movies. "We cannot afford to compete on an informational level. . . . It's an interesting thing we're trying. [Teenagers] have a tendency to drop out of the leisure activity during these years. And a teenager is a creature that gets an awful lot of reading pushed upon it." Hooking up with a well-known TV show, Pines says, lets kids know that a certain book is way cool. "As an age group, they're a lot more brand conscious than older people. . . . Brands that have recognition will help us sell books."
The book industry wasn't the first to see gold in them thar teens. Hollywood and television have been mining the mother lode for years. Simon & Schuster has been publishing books for teenagers -- under several imprints, including Archway and Minstrel -- but not marketing them aggressively. But with Pocket Pulse and other tilted-toward-teens groups, the ground is quickly shifting.
Amazon.com sees teen readers as a potentially explosive market. Accordingly, the online bookseller has changed the name of its Young Adults section to Teens. Brangien Davis, editor of the section, says, "Young adults sounds academic and old fashioned."
She acknowledges that many books written for teenagers do spring from popular movies and TV shows but insists that Amazon.com tries to feature more literature. For example? Perks of Being a Wallflower, an epistolary novel by Stephen Chbosky. Though there is a connection with MTV, Davis says, "The story is very sophisticated." Through a series of letters, the protagonist confronts drugs, sex and other temptations for the first time.
As a bookseller, Davis takes the high road. Most of the stories she recommends on her site have "a strong central character who overcomes something in the end in a way that's really inspiring to teenagers." Gloom and doom tales have fallen out of favor, she says. "But every good book doesn't have to have a happy ending with rainbows and unicorns."
And then there's the challenge within the challenge -- getting teenage boys to crack a book. It's an old truism: Girls read more than guys in their teen years. In England the disparity has led to despair. And controversy. Recent test results show that girls are far better readers than boys. The national Education Department, reports the magazine Lingua Franca, is even pushing teachers to assign "more adventurous stories" that might appeal to boys. Much to the chagrin of traditionalists, Henry James, Lord Byron and Edmund Spenser have been dropped from the secondary school recommended reading list. George Orwell and J.G. Ballard have been added.
In America, says Davis, books must "compete with things like MTV, video games and movies. But teen books can't be `Leave it to Beaver' stories. They need to be more cutting edge." She admits that "there are a lot more books out with girl protagonists," but she offers a couple of recommendations for boys: Burger Wuss by Matthew T. Anderson and Cecil in Space by Sid Hite.
And, of course, for kids of both genders in both countries, there are J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. The third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was published in hardcover last month. The first, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was also published last month -- as a trade paperback.
Selling to the Trade
Suddenly trade paperbacks are everywhere. Check the paperback bestseller lists. Most of the most popular books are the tall, slim, elegant volumes, not the squatty, thick, chunky paperbacks of the past.
The annual report of the Book Industry Study Group, released in August, shows that trade book sales increased 6.5 percent in 1998 to more than $6.1 billion -- a greater percentage increase than for hardcover and mass market sales. In fact, for the past two years, publishers have sold more adult trade paperbacks than hardcovers: 255.5 million in 1998, compared to 241.1 million hardcovers.
So why are trade paperbacks more popular than ever?
The concept of trade paperbacks was introduced in 1953 by Jason Epstein, founder of Anchor Books. Epstein hired Edward Gorey as art director and in 1954 published his first catalogue, which included Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and Andre Gide's Lafcadio's Adventures. The books sold for 75 cents apiece. Originally, trade paperbacks were the same size as mass-market paperbacks, which had been around since the 1930s. Whereas mass market books were sold by distributors to stores that hawked newspapers and magazines, trade paperbacks were designed to be marketed through bookstores -- known as "the trade." The first Vintage list, which appeared a few years after Anchor's debut, contained titles such as Albert Camus's The Stranger and Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy in America.
The idea caught on. Over the years, the books became larger to appeal to bookstore shoppers. Now just about every publishing company has a trade paperback wing. You've seen snazzy-looking volumes from Penguin, HarperPerennial, Broadway, Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, Little, Brown/Back Bay, Warner, Villard, Workman and others. The slender volumes became especially popular among college students. "People tend to get habits in college that last the rest of their lives," explains Paul Bogaards of Knopf, which owns Vintage.
Today, those college students are older. Their eyes aren't quite as good as they used to be, but they do have more money. The size of a trade paperback -- with larger type -- appeals to this aging baby-boomer population. There is often intriguing artwork on the cover and a perception of classiness. The books are usually well-made -- nice paper, sturdy covers -- so they don't fall apart easily. They are eye-catching on IKEA coffee tables.
As the readers of this generation have prospered, they've sought quality at affordable prices. "If you look at the difference between hardcover price and trade price," says Penguin's Maureen Donnelly, "there's still a savings there. Plus, our books stand up over time."
Thanks to the flowering trade paperback market, contemporary works, such as David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars and Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, have enjoyed Energizer-Bunny stamina. The trade paperback version of Snow has sold more than two million copies and Geisha 1.8 million.
Trade paperbacks are moving at mass-market quantities. Many of Oprah Winfrey's book club selections have been trade paperbacks. Publishers are sending authors on second-act book tours to pump up sales in college towns such as Austin, Ann Arbor and Madison. On the downside, says Marty Asher, publisher of Vintage, reviewers still do not take trade paperback originals as seriously as they do hardcovers. "But editorially," Asher says, "it's one of the very encouraging things among the sky-is-falling aspects of American publishing. It's one sign that the American public still is thinking."
Linton Weeks covers book publishing for the Style Section of The Washington Post.