Middle grade novels and the vast black marketing sea

What makes a reader pick up a book?

I guess if I’m honest, I’m really wondering…what makes a reader BUY a book?  (An artist friend recently told me she used to date a gallery owner who told her the only compliment he trusted was a sale.)

Once upon a time, there were children’s-only-independently-owned bookstores that were mostly owned and managed by passionate readers who would listen to sales reps and pour over galleys and ARCs, waiting to be dazzled, wanting to find the new gems they could talk about with the folks who darkened their doors.  I, myself, doing signings in said bookstores was the recipient of what was called “hand selling.”  And more often than not, I did buy the book that the bookseller pressed into my hands and talked about in such a compelling way. 

As those bookstores dwindled, we children’s book authors had readerly teachers and passionate librarians in public libraries and schools.  They poured over catalogs and read reviews and went to ALA and AASL and IRA their state library and reading conferences.  They met authors.  They sat in readings and at tables where we authors did our bewitching best, trying to  not wear our hearts too obviously on our sleeves while we shared nibbles of our stories.  Those teachers and librarians were powerful ambassadors for the books that caught their attention.  They put books into the hands of their colleagues and into the hands of young readers.

Booksellers–those that had survived the crunch–continued to hand-sell.  

Artistic careers rose and fell.

What about now?  How does a book find its readers?

My agent, Barry Goldblatt, once told me that readers of YA find something they like (can we say Twilight, anyone?) and want to read something else just like it.  This week I sat in a room at the Boston Book Festival listening to a panel that included Nancy Werlin and Maggie Stiefvater and Shelly Dickson Carr (VCFA grad) and Marissa Meyer–all talking about books inspired by fairy tales, ballads and legends.  The room was packed; people were turned away; signing lines were long; YA fans love what they love.  But many an editor or publisher, Barry said, has tried to do something similar with middle grade novels (“if they loved x, they will surely love something like x“) and failed.  

Middle grade readers are exploratory.  They are not set in their tastes.  They, too, love what they love but–as a group–they are hard to predict and harder to pin down.

I suppose I’m a lot like a middle grade reader, myself.  I get immense pleasure from reading picture books and adult nonfiction and YA fantasy and graphic novels and grown-up novels like Cutting for Stone and The Life of Pi and, oh, magazine articles and blogs and clever ads.  Right now, I’m in the middle of reading What We Found in the Sofa and How it Changed the World.  I’ve recently finished Chantress and Rogue and Saints by Gene Luen Yang am waiting my turn for my copy of The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp.  All of those books will also be read by kids in that 8-to-12-year-old middle grade age range.  All of those authors must wonder sometimes, as I do, how will the readers who are right for my book FIND my book in the vast black sea now that the book ambassadors no longer pop up–there, there, there–like islands in that sea?

I’d love to know.


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4 responses to “Middle grade novels and the vast black marketing sea

  1. I’m blissfully unaware of how to get my book into a reader’s hands. Thanks for your earnest foray into this mysterious venture.

  2. That’s the great thing about knowing people who are passionate about books. A friend told me, “Ya gotta read ANNA WAS HERE, because I loved it.” I love being reminded of good books.
    When I was a kid, the school librarian was that passionate person who directed me to great middle grade books. I do the same for kids I know today.

  3. I’ve just stumbled across your blog and this post. I write middle grade fiction and am wondering how to get books in the hands of readers. Even my own children have eclectic tastes and find books to read from many different sources – gifts, librarian & bookshop recommendations, what’s on our shelves at home… They also love to read unpublished manuscripts & give feedback to the authors! (my kids are 10 & 12)

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