Monday, June 29, 2015

Has YA Fiction Reached it Peak?

Each month, we will answer writers' business-related question about the YA category from an MBA’s and consumer product manager's perspective. If you have a question you’d like us to tackle in an upcoming post, please leave it in the comments section.

This month’s question: has YA fiction reached it's peak? What does it mean to be in a mature category?

In short, yes, I believe YA fiction is quickly approaching its ceiling. But before I tackle why I think this is true, let’s talk about what it means to be in a mature category.

Every product category has a life cycle, typically mapped out in four key stages: introduction,
growth, maturity and decline.

Product Life Cycle CurveIn the early stages of a category’s life cycle, there is only headroom to grow because very few people are using the product--essentially, there's no where to go but up.

But there is no such thing as infinite growth, even for consumable goods, so every product category will eventually reach the point at which it cannot bring in any more new users*, also known as maturity.

Let’s use laundry detergent to explain category maturity**

Prior to the introduction of liquid detergent, powdered detergent was the dominant form. When liquid Tide launched into the marketplace, there were some people who immediately tried it (early adopters), while others continued to use powder detergent either because they hadn’t yet learned about liquid or the benefits didn’t yet appeal to them. But, as liquid detergent gained popularity and notoriety, more and more people began to adopt this form of detergent over their other alternatives. This lead to a period of rapid expansion where Tide saw double-digit growth numbers, and became the dominant detergent in the marketplace.

What happens when a new product category gains popularity? Other people want in on the action. So, other detergent manufacturers launched their own liquid detergents, often with different benefits or lower prices to attract those consumers who either hadn’t yet entered the liquid detergent category, or to lure liquid Tide buyers over to them.

This trend continued until every household willing to use a liquid detergent was using a liquid detergent. At this point, the category had matured. But maturity does not mean that a category is dead, it simply means that a category has reached its growth ceiling. (Note that there are other ways to drive category growth beyond bringing in new users, which I will discuss in a later post.)

In the laundry example, people still need to do their laundry, so they will continue to buy detergent. But all of those willing to adopt the category have adopted, so category growth on a year over year basis flattens. In most instances categories will see declines before the category stabilizes, because some consumers will go back to what they used prior to trying the liquid detergent.

This is your classic product life cycle, and it plays out this way for almost every single category.

So how did this play out for YA and what does that mean for writers?

Harry Potter was a huge catalyst for the growth in YA fiction. The popularity of that franchise caused many curious consumers to pick up J.K. Rowling’s books who previously spent their entertainment hours elsewhere—reading adult fiction, watching TV, riding their bikes, playing video games etc. While consumers waited for the next installment of Harry Potter to release, many of them began exploring the Juvenile fiction section of their book store, looking for similar books to tide them over, resulting in even more of their entertainment hours going to Children's fiction.

Then came Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, which also drove new readers into the YA category. Many of those readers also sought out similar titles while they waited for the next installment to be released and started pursuing YA books more broadly.

Movies aided to the growth and popularity of YA—they increased awareness of YA further and recent releases of movies like The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Maze Runner, If I Stay, etc. have only added to the massive category expansion.

As YA grew, more publishing houses began dedicating time and resources to producing more YA titles so they could capitalize on this growth. New, smaller publishing houses emerged who also wanted in on the action, as did self-published authors, flooding the market place with a myriad of YA genres, titles and options for readers.

But remember: there is no such thing as infinite growth.

YA Product Life Cycle

There are only 24 hours in a day, and consumers can only spend so many of those hours on entertainment, and only so many of those hours reading. Time is not expandable, and therefore book consumption has a ceiling.

While many readers will stick with the YA, some less loyal readers will return to their previous forms of entertainment or explore new, alternate forms of entertainment. This could mean they read within another category or it could mean they stop reading and binge watch Orange is the New Black instead. The point is that they will not read as much YA as they once were, which will be evidenced by slowing sales vs. previous periods.

In short, YA experienced an expansive period of growth thanks to the popularity of certain titles and
Hollywood’s attention. But  I predict that we will see flattening growth trends in the next 1-2 years, simply based on the fact that sales cannot grow forever unless there's a population boom to fuel it. And when we see consecutive months of slowing year-over-year sales, this will be the sign that the  category has hit its ceiling.

So what does this mean for us writers?

As I said, mature does not mean a category is dead. People are still reading YA titles and will continue to read YA titles, they just may not read as many or there may not be as many people reading them as there were in the hay day.

It also means that publishing houses may scale back on their acquisition and support of YA titles so they can shift resources to other places that have stronger tailwinds and larger growth potential. Which, if I’m being totally honest, will make it harder for YA titles to get published than it has been in previous years.

Some smaller houses or divisions within larger publishing houses that emerged to capitalize on the growth trend may disappear or scale back, and some aspiring and even published authors may decide to stop writing YA altogether because the income opportunity is less than it was in previous years. (I'll talk in a later post about how the increase in available titles exacerbates author income challenges.)

You can change it by writing the next kick ass book.

Unlike consumable products like detergent, entertainment trends are cyclical and often come back around. All it takes is one new book to tip the scales back in favor of YA. And as I said, people are still going to read YA. There will still be debut New York Times success stories like Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen. There will still be talented writers making livings as YA authors. Who’s to say you can’t be one of them?

Even in the classic product life cycle model, products can have second expansion waves that result from  innovation or product line extensions. So really all YA needs is for someone to write the next big thing.

The only surefire way to guarantee you won’t sell any books is to stop writing. So get out there and write something amazing. Because you could be the person who starts the next big YA title wave (pun intended).

Happy writing!

With Expansion Period

*For simplicity, let’s say that maturity means a category does not bring in any more new users. In reality, a category may still bring in new users, but in a mature category the new users coming in do not offset the older users exiting the category. In the detergent example, an 18 year old may leave the house and start buying liquid detergent for the first time, making them “new” but there are likely an equal number of people exiting the category as the population ages, unless there has been a population boom.

**For simplicity, this example assumes Tide was the first liquid detergent to the marketplace and gained category leadership as a result, which is not how the detergent wars actually played out. I hope you'll forgive me taking a little creative license. :)

Stacy Stokes has a BBA from The McCombs School of Business, an MBA from The Wharton School of Business, and over ten years of experience in the consumer packaged goods industry. When not writing, she is a brand marketer and strategist for a well-known consumer product manufacturer. Her debut novel, WHERE THE STAIRCASE ENDS, is available now.


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