The New Young Adult Fiction. More Human, More Me.
What difference does an editor make?
This was the question posed by a recent profile of the highly successful editor of young adult fiction, Julie Strauss-Gabel, who manages the imprint Dutton Children’s Books. Her titles have consistently performed well over recent years and it was a timely reminder of the impact that a good editor can have on writers’ careers. In an age of dwindling resources in publishing – yet another sign of the disappearing middle – a good editor appears to make a big difference.
Here at .txtLAB, we were curious to see whether Strauss-Gabel’s books were recognizably different from other successful young adult fiction. Was the success of her books due more to extrinsic factors, like reputation or marketing, or did her list have something unique about it in terms of content? Understanding what makes these books stand out is not only a way for other editors to keep up with the competition. It could also be useful for aspiring writers who don’t have access to high-powered agents or editors (or pre-established reputations like John Grisham).
So what difference does a Dutton imprint make? To find out, we compared the 22 most recent Dutton books to a collection of 200 titles drawn from the Goodreads Best of 2014 young adult fiction list and Amazon’s list of best-selling YA fiction. We used the popular data mining tool, LIWC, developed by James W. Pennebaker, which compares linguistic features across 85 different dimensions, including grammatical features like pronouns and punctuation and more complex phenomena like social, cognitive, and perceptual processes.
The first and most salient point that we found is that there is a statistically significant difference between Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s books and other popular young adult fiction. This is not something that should be taken for granted. But her editorial sensibility has indeed produced a unique signature among her books.
When we looked more closely at which features made her books stand out, we found Dutton books were defined by stylistic aspects like the use of first person pronouns (I, We), a vocabulary of inclusivity (and, with, plus), and a greater use of conjunctions and commas, suggesting more complex sentence structure (sentences were also longer on average). An emphasis on time-words also emerged, suggesting a greater degree of narrative sophistication (or at least diversity). Finally, the Dutton books tended to focus more explicitly on “humans” (adults, boys, girls, etc.), suggesting an investment in the description of people rather than emotions. Perhaps surprisingly, the only significant theme to emerge was “money.”
Recent discussions of Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s list have indeed emphasized the sophistication of her taste (the Times spoke of her “high-quality”), and we can see this reflected in the way her books rely on longer and more complex sentences, an important point if you’re trying to guide your own young adult towards more high-brow material. More interesting, and so far unnoticed, is the way her books are more focused on individuals as well as social belonging. The features that were most indicative of non-Dutton books, for example, were body-related words (heart, head, hands), words related to feelings (caress, feel, grab), and a range of negative emotions (anger and anxiety being the highest). These struck me as the more stereotypically teenage: an attention to physique, physical sensation, and emotional negativity capture the adolescent imaginary rather well. It is decidedly interesting that the Dutton books don’t fit this mold, indicating a potential new trend towards more humanistic YA fiction, away from the dystopian worlds of hunger games and fantasy conflict.
These trends became even more pronounced when we subsetted our Amazon list by the top- and bottom-selling books. Top sellers emphasized death far more then their bottom counterparts, as well as the pronouns “we” and “they,” suggesting a highly binary, and collective, moral universe. They focused more on space and the present tense, while the lesser-selling books focused on the past tense, positive emotions, friends, religion, sex and family. If you wanted to make it to the top of the heap in the last few years in young adult fiction, then your best bet was to go negative, stay in the present, and avoid families and positive emotions. Once again, the Dutton books seem to stand out in how different they are.
One question we had was whether Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s list was more diverse than other samples of young adult fiction. As the New York Times noted, “Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s books are strikingly diverse.” According to three different measures of similarity, we found that the Dutton books tended to be significantly less similar to each other than comparable sample sizes of young adult fiction from our other collections. There appears to be more linguistic range to the Dutton books than in the typical subset of the genre as a whole, one more indication of these books’ sophistication.
This last point made us curious whether the sophistication of Dutton Books indicated that they were in fact more “adult” than “young adult.” As the Times pointed out, more and more adults are reading YA fiction these days. Is this a dumming down of readers or a scaling-up of the genre? When we compared our young adult fiction collection with a collection of bestselling fiction, it turned out that the non-Dutton books tended to be slightly more similar with their adult counterparts, though the significance of this was minimal. What this suggests is that the Dutton books in particular are not mimicking bestselling adult books in any overtly recognizable way. Indeed, young adult fiction in general tends to look more like itself than adult bestsellers. While many people are critical of the rising popularity of young adult books, I was pleased to see that genre differences continued to exist for readers of different ages. Young adult doesn’t seem to be blending into adult (or vice versa), at least for now.
These were just some of things that we were able to learn in our lab in a few days studying these books. The insights are of course more coarse than a highly-trained human reader might be able to offer. But they are also more generalizable and less dependent on individual judgment. Every writer knows someone whom she can ask for an opinion of her manuscript. But not every writer has access to an understanding of a genre as a whole or trends in readers’ taste. This is where computers can be useful and, I feel, democratizing. They can make something as complex as the publishing industry – which can look like a secret society from the outside – seem more transparent.