The Rise and Disappearance of Middle Grade Fiction

Middle grade deals are often in the six figures - but do the sales match the hype?

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Honestly, I cannot remember what really set the Middle Grade Phenomenon spinning out of control other than noticing one week that a lot of authors of young adult fiction suddenly had their first middle grade deals. Authors like Tara Altebrando, Cat Hellisen, Kody Keplinger, and others have branched out, while other debut authors seemingly sell their first YA and MG novels at the same time, like Dan Krokos and Lindsay Cummings. And debuts by several MG authors have sold in the six figures, sums generally reserved for books that will either get household name recognition – or so publicists, editors, and publishers think.

I like to think I keep myself well-informed about children’s publishing, even though my focus continually has been on young adult fiction. I read rights reports, oftentimes then wondering why I don’t query my own project that has been in the pipeline for two years and completed, fully edited, and fully beta read for 11 months now. I’m well aware of the seeming rise of MG fiction based on how much publishers are shilling out for the rights to publish them.

But I’ll be honest. I have yet to see one of these books take off in the way that they, on paper, should.

The Care and Keeping of You. The Care and Keeping of You.

On this week’s New York Times Middle Grade list, there are a few familiar names. James Patterson, Rush Limbaugh, Maggie Stiefvater, Katherine Applegate. A few of the books are movie tie-ins to popular movies like Frozen and The Lego Movie. One is THE CARE AND KEEPING OF YOU, a book about tween girl problems like periods and tampons I myself was gifted when I was 11 by my mother – in 1998. Others yet are award winners, their sales buoyed by Caldicott wins and nominations. One is a book by a 12 year old boy featured on the CBS Evening News.

There are books, of course, that seem to sell. THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer Nielsen has made many a fan, but the line between MG and YA is blurred in its pages. Another 2013 debut, HOUSE OF SECRETS, happens to have a famous director as the lead writer.

But what about books that write pure middle grade fiction and don’t have a famous name or established in another category, like young adult fiction which is arguably a much more popular sell these days?

Now, I don’t have access to sales statistics, but I do have access to Amazon rankings, to the number of ratings a book has on Goodreads, and word of mouth, all three of which have proven to be reliable indicators of success. For books beyond those written by well-known authors with connections beyond the realm of MG, or authors who have spent careers being lauded for their ability, or authors teaming up in ever-common series where each book is written by a new author, it seems that you have two options – write a tie-in novel or get lucky.

Real 12 year olds. Real 12 year olds.

Of course I might be wrong, and of course I would like to be proven wrong. I would also like to read a middle grade novel where the child acts their age, unlike many MG novels where a 12 year old is portrayed like a 6 year old, or vice versa, a 12 year old going on 40.

Riddle me this – where is this sudden surge of MG hype coming from, and is it even a fad? Where are the sales? Where are the successes like Harry Potter or His Dark Materials or The Spiderwick Chronicles? Even Holly Black’s DOLLBONES seemed to only do okay, even with her name recognition, but she does have a new MG series with good friend Cassandra Clare coming out soon from Scholastic. And a LOT of money is riding on its success.

It’s the same problem being faced by YA novels, where hype often (very often) outweighs results, but at least in YA we at least see publicity happening. In the past year, I can think of maybe two or three MG novels that have received the same treatment as dozens of YA novels have – blog tours on big name blogs, cover reveals on entertainment industry websites, expensive book trailers, nationwide tours.

I want to see MG be a success, but right now, it just seems to be another fad that never failed to materialize, even though the money is still out there and authors are jumping into the fray like never before. The sales, though, seem to be missing, and the reason isn’t glaringly obvious. Are tweens skipping MG for the ever-present YA novel, or are MG books not resonating with today’s 10 year olds, or what?

It sucks when I am at a loss, but here I am, befuddled by this. Success should be there, but not unless you’re Rush Limbaugh or James Patterson’s co-writer it seems. Oh, well. Maybe one day we’ll have a new Harry Potter to enjoy, but for now, I’ll keep waiting.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Harry Pottee and His Dark Materials are Young Adult, not Middle Grade. That’s why they’ve done so well.

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