Wimpy Kid Eats George Bush’s Lunch

 Last week George W. Bush’s memoir gave Random House their best opening day sales in seven years—170,000 print copies.

BUT—on the same day, Middle Grade fiction writer Jeff Kinney launched his fifth book for Abrams in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and sold—375,000 print copies.

Yeah. Do you wonder why so many agents are looking for KidLit and passing on that brilliant stuff you’re writing for grown-ups?

You kind of have to wonder if it’s time for us all to give up on our chosen genres and start penning middle-school-nerd/angsty-teen sagas. I admit to giving it serious thought myself.

Not only are children’s authors more in demand, but the whole KidLit industry is more fluid and open. Children’s publishing isn’t bound by the rigid agent-as-gatekeeper paradigm. My unrepresented YA writer friends get to go to conferences where they engage in actual editor-to-writer communication. That’s right. Without five or ten years of groveling in agent inboxes to get there. And then—even if the editors pass—they get detailed letters full of helpful suggestions.

If you’re a writer of adult fiction you probably suspect I’m deeply full of batcrap, but I swear it’s true. Ask any writer who’s a member of SCBWI. While a new writer of adult fiction can spend years—even decades—trapped in a Phantom Zone of  rejection and silence, children’s writers seem to live in a warm, welcoming world of rainbows, bluebirds, and effing unicorns.

Oh, do I sound a little bitter?

Well, yeah. I guess I’m kind of tired of reading all those articles on how if you aren’t getting partial requests on 75 % of your queries, you’re a bad writer. Or if you don’t have an agent yet, you must be calling your work a “fiction novel” and mass cc-ing every agent in AAR, addressing them all as “Snookums.”

The truth is, if you’re not getting any reads, it might mean you don’t write for people under eighteen. Full stop.

This phenomenon doesn’t just affect the unpublished masses trying to break in. Established writers are jumping into the kiddie pool as well—big name authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Carl Hiassen, and Stephen Hawking. Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde says she can’t even get her adult fiction published in this country any more—even though it wins awards in the U.K.—but her new YA book, Jumpstart the World is getting huge buzz. 

There’s a reason why this has happened—and its name is Harry Potter.

As J. K. Rowling kept the industry afloat through an entire decade—while becoming richer than the Queen—publishers learned that one phenomenal kids’ book can outsell thousands of adult titles, and if it spawns a series, it can have the return-customer power of crack cocaine.

Why? Kids tend to group-think more than adults. The instinct to fit in with the herd is necessary for young humans to survive. This means children and teens can be manipulated into thinking they can’t survive without the latest fad.

The Potter/Twilight type-blockbuster doesn’t happen with grown-up books because adults individuate and outgrow the fit-in-with-the-herd-or-die instinct. No matter how well Dan Brown is selling, if a reader isn’t into religious conspiracy-lit, he won’t buy it.

The result is less risk-taking and diversity in adult publishing—why take a chance on something creative and new when there’s no likelihood of top-notch returns?

So a lot of us who are exhausted with fangs, gimmicky monster mash-ups, and serial-killer torture-porn are turning to YA when we want fresh contemporary fiction. But reliving the horrors of high school isn’t exactly escapist reading for a lot of us. The truth is, most grown-ups like to read about people like ourselves doing interesting/fun/stupid/brave/inspiring things—with maybe a little non-PG-rated sex thrown in.

But publishers say that kind of commercial fiction “doesn’t sell.” By that they mean a single title doesn’t earn six figures on launch day. And OK, when it takes approximately 2.2 U.S. Presidents to add up to one Wimpy Kid, I realize it would take hundreds of midlisters to compete with KidLit sales numbers. And each adult midlister needs an editor, cover designer, distributor, and at least a perfunctory amount of hand-holding while she sells the book. All costing $$$. Yeah, I get why we’re not the best business choice. Sigh.

But a ray of hope has emerged in the last year, and it’s coming from e-readers. Most Kindle owners are adults. Sales of Kindle books have already topped a billion.

So maybe we should all self-publish our adult books for Kindle while we’re researching that dystopian post-apocalyptic steampunk high-school-zombies-on-Mars epic that’s going to break us into the Big Six publishing fortress. (Can anybody lend me a teenager?)

Meanwhile, we can take heart in knowing we’re not alone—and even the former leader of the free world gets his keister kicked by wizards, sparkly vampires, and wimpy kids.
If you want to read more of my bon mots: starting next week, I’ll be on staff at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog—one of the fastest growing online destinations for publishing industry news, essays and commentary. Whether you’re looking for MFA application advice, Twitter tips or you just want to stay informed on the latest in all things literary, they have something for you. Check it out. It's unstuffy and full of information. Kind of the HuffPo of publishing news sites.

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