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Last month in my article on Andre Norton I observed that "in the best of Norton's work ... the writing resonates with the adult reader even after many decades have passed." A child's view of the world is divided quite simply into Good and Evil - black and white, with none of those pesky shades of gray that cause us grownups so much trouble. I once had a discussion with my youngest niece about why I let my son collect Pokemon cards but didn't like him watching the show. With innocent but very direct childlike honesty, she asked if this wasn't an example of hypocrisy. I replied that I preferred to think of it as compromise, a concept that she would learn to understand and appreciate as she grew older.
But aren't there times when us grownups want to shed the burden of gray perception, to return to the days when it all really was so simple? When the bad guys wore black hats, and the good guys always knew what to do? And isn't that the heart of nostalgia - a longing for a return to a simpler, better time? Nostalgia is an incredibly powerful motivator in the world of book buying, prompting both collectors and non-collectors to cheerfully pay the price for some childhood favorite - to recover a lost bit of their youth. So important is this force that Alibris used it as a central theme in one of their advertising campaigns.
Young Adult SF and fantasy, particularly modern examples of the genre, represents a more sophisticated style of writing and exploration of theme. Issues of Good and Evil are generally still central to the story, the protagonists' perceptions are still basically rendered in black and white, but there is some shading of gray between. Evil characters may be portrayed with some sympathetic characteristics, while the hero may have feet of clay. A few common themes include children with special knowledge or abilities being taken advantage of or ignored by adults, children coming in contact with aliens or magical creatures, orphans in search of a place or family where they can belong, quest stories, the "King Arthur" theme in which an ordinary child's extraordinary heritage is revealed, animal stories (magical or otherwise) in which there are no humans, and many more.
Young Adult SF and Fantasy, especially that produced by British authors, has been a remarkably strong and fast-growing field in the last several years. Only those just awakened from a year's long coma would be unaware of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter franchise juggernaut. Other Brits of note in the YA field include:
Philip Pullman - His Dark Materials trilogy, the Sally Lockhart series, and more
Garth Nix - Sabriel, Lirael
Steve Augarde - The Various
Children's and Young Adult fiction is an extremely hot market right now, and certainly some of the driving force behind the rising market is speculative investment. Publishers and booksellers, as well as collectors, are constantly looking for "the next Harry Potter," and any new fantasy or SF author who gets published to decent reviews and fair sales gets a lot of attention from the market. As I've noted in this column several times before, the UK publishing industry is well-suited to producing instant collectibles because they tend to publish in very small hardback print runs (often just a few thousand) simultaneously with a larger paperback release. Thus, when a particular author becomes popular, there is an instant shortage of available hardback first printings, and prices climb very high, very fast.
If you take a look at fixed price listings for the titles and authors above, note the significantly higher price for the UK editions of the books. This stands to reason, since the true first is the UK edition, which is generally printed in small first printing runs. And in most cases the books have already become very popular by the time they are published in the US, which is reflected in the large print runs. Hint: even if the US edition is common as dirt, the US proofs and ARCs could still hold considerable value. A strategy I've used successfully in the past is to buy as many proofs or ARCs as I can find at reasonable prices, then bring them to author signings. For the right title, this could mean an easy $50 to $100 or more in profit.
So, one tip for succeeding in the children's/young adult field is to keep an eye on UK publishers:
Also, spend some time on the UK book sites. Amazon UK (especially the Hot 100 list and Hot 50 Pre-release books, or do a QuickSearch in the Children's Books category and leave the search box empty, then sort results by Bestselling or by Average Customer Rating or by Publication Date Newest).
A good site with lots of links to UK authors and publishers of children's books is UK Children's Books
This link will take you to a list of UK and Ireland publishers by genre (scroll down to Science Fiction & Fantasy) - babash.com
Post Mortem Books is an excellent source for finding out about new authors, and will frequently have signed copies of new books available for sale at list price. As the name suggests, Post Mortem specializes primarily in mystery fiction, but they have a great eclectic stock including children's fiction. Go to the Post Mortem Books site from the main page, click on Browse by Category, then Children's Fiction.
I haven't seen any hard numbers for this, but I've heard more than a couple knowledgeable people say that the average price of very hot firsts inevitably declines as the investor/collector frenzy cools. A good example is Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. At one time unsigned first printings were selling on eBay for $500+, and there are now signed first printings listed on www.abebooks.com as low as $400. This downward price trend could very well be a sign of investor nervousness: a perception that the collectibility and value of a book is eroding could prompt nervous investors to unload their copies before the price drops further, which means more copies come on to the market and, in turn, the price drops more, and so on. Certainly those who bought the book at list price off the shelf will continue to show a healthy profit on paper, but the future is not nearly so certain for those who paid top dollar at the height of the frenzy. As with stocks, the small core of books of lasting value may show up and down trends in value, but the overall long-term trend will be upwards.
So, how do you identify these "books of lasting value"? There is, of course, no simple answer to this, though there are some general rules of thumb. First, read the book. Over the long haul, a book will remain popular because it is well written and tells a good story with memorable and interesting characters. If a book fails the read test you should probably take your profit off it sooner rather than later, and not hold on to it as a long term investment.
Second, is the book the first in a projected series? If yes, then the first book will grow in value in proportion to the overall popularity of the series. For example, the first book in Terry Pratchett's phenomenally popular Discworld series, The Colour of Magic (Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 1983) currently has an asking price in excess of $10,000.
Third, has the book been nominated for or won any awards?
For a comprehensive list of children's book awards, see BookTrusted.com. Click on "Prizes and Awards for Children's Books", then "Browse our list of children's book prizes". This currently brings up a list of 51 awards with links to additional information, including contact information, entry information, date of winner announcement, recent winner list, and website.
Fourth, is there a movie in the works? Not just optioned, but at least under serious discussion, preferably with a name director. Of course, this can be a two-edged sword, since a bad production could damage the popularity of the book.
For an interesting look into the future of the genre, check out "Children's Literature: The Next 20 Years" by Nicholas Tucker.
One final observation: a recent trend in YA Fantasy is the "discovery" of self-published authors. Two notable recent examples include Christopher Paolini's Eragon, and Patrick Carman's The Dark Hills Divide.
Changes in technology have made self-publishing a very easy and relatively low cost alternative for would-be authors, so this may represent a growing trend in publishing.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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