Alice Asks: What have I learned from a year of answering your questions?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
For this edition of Ask Alice, we flipped the order and decided to get Alice to reflect on what she’s learned from a year of penning the column.
What are the top two takeaways from a year of Ask Alice?
Given that we’re coming up on a year of Ask Alice and I’m by nature prone to naval-gazing (made worse by the double whammy of being an author-academic; two vocations premised around reflection), this month I’m gazing inward and asking what my biggest takeaways from the past year have been.
Let’s dive straight in with my first big takeaway:
No two author experiences are the same. It’s a cliché to say that every author’s journey is different, but there’s an undeniable grain of truth to that (even if it’s something that as an author myself I repeatedly fail to bear in mind as I compare myself to the milestones and benchmarks of my peers).
In terms of the writing process itself, some of the writing tips I shared regarding how to stay motivated in one of my first ever columns varied wildly. There’s no one way to write and since writing that column and a subsequent one on more general writing advice, in my own practice, my writing habits and the things which help me find the motivation to maintain momentum across a 70,000 word manuscript have changed. A new tip which I’ve recently found to be profoundly useful is literally booking in time with myself and going to a specific writing location – like a café – because my schedule has been packed with so many other things that encroach on writing.
This diversity of experience extends beyond writing and into the publishing experience. When I dived into the question of how a book cover gets produced, I was deeply amused to contrast Vanessa Len when she said, “I was very lucky to have the opportunity to consult on the covers!” against Alice Boyle’s reply which I received on the exact same day, which noted, “To be honest, I know very few authors who’ve had much say when it came to their book covers.”
Of course, there’s no rule without its exceptions, and one commonality across author experiences I discovered when investigating the experience of being published overseas as an Australian YA author seems to be that to break into international markets, an agent in that market is a huge leg up. When I spoke with Tobias Madden, Ellie Marney, and Hayli Thompson, all three of whom have books published in the American market, the first thing all of them said in response to the question of how they secured a publishing contract in an overseas market that they had an American agent.
Interestingly, on her recent working trip to the US, Australian literary agent and author, Danielle Binks, posted some reflections about the barriers keeping Australian authors out of the US market on one of her Instagram stories. Even with the advocacy of a local agent, in America in particular, the reluctance to publish Australian titles in a foreign market is born partly, Binks noted, from a sense that the time and financial commitments associated with the travel for Australian authors to do a book tour in America are perceived as prohibitive.
Moreover, she noted that “US children’s publishers also take into account that foreign creators can’t enter two of their biggest youth awards – the Newbery Medal & Caldecott,” given that long and short listings do have a tangible effect on sales – apparently one title sold 10,000 books within a week of shortlisting.
The second thing which struck me across a year of columns was the fact that there are still gaps to be filled in advocacy and our understanding of readers.
Perhaps my favourite of the columns, last month’s about the reading patterns of teenage male readers, revealed some really interesting disparities between the behaviours and preferences of young male and young female readers. In terms of generalised preferences, our friends at the Deakin Teen Reading Project observed, “Teenage boys are more likely to read articles, blog posts, Wikipedia, magazines, comics or newspapers than teenage girls. They are also more likely to read non-fiction.” In terms of gender-related preference for genre, the top three fiction genres for teenage boys are fantasy, dystopian and humour, but for girls, they are mystery and crime, romance, and fantasy. Moreover, only 19% of teenage boys browse social media such as BookTok, Bookstagram and BookTube to find books to read, compared to 74% of teenage girls. Most fascinating to me as an academic whose life revolves around the strength of qualitative rather than quantitative data, we still don’t know why exactly boys don’t approach reading as a social activity in the way that girls do – something which extends into the patterns of adult readers, too.
Moreover, YA as an umbrella is becoming increasingly complex. When I reached out to her for permission to share her comments, Danielle also revealed some interesting insights about the future of the more upper end of the YA age range: “Plenty of publishers spoke about YA being on the rise and having a real moment as they hold their own and out-perform many adult counterparts in genres.” With the increasing creep of YA books which features hallmarks which some might claim make them New Adult rather than Young Adult – something I wrote about toward the start of the year, there is also discussion to be had about how exactly we conceptualise YA texts, and what diversity exists within the YA category.
And on diversity, a final note: there is an ongoing need to ensure we are making space for people to tell their stories on their terms. When I wrote in the middle of the year about some steps we can take to support diversity and representation, the words of Jared Thomas have remained with me in the intervening months: “How would my life have been different if I’d had stories which talked about the kinds of things I was confronted with,” going on to emphasise the importance of “putting that voice out there for people who might have experienced the same thing.”
Hopefully there’s been some food for thought in this Ask Alice as I muse on some of the things which have stuck with me across the last year of writing this column. It’s been such a delight to write these pieces. Thank you so much to all who’ve read some (or all) of them. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, and that you enjoy the ones to come.