When YA Book Fandom Creates Active & Influential Communities

Teenagers—and the things that teenagers love—are often underestimated, allowing people to dismiss the truly remarkable impact today’s teens can have on the world. People love to mock the fashion, hobbies, social media habits, music, selfie culture, and language patterns of teenagers. Take for instance Teen Vogue; despite having offered consistent, thorough coverage of social and political issues this past year, it has been derided as simply an irrelevant publication for teen girls.

The same general principle of doubt and disdain carries across to how young adult literature is often treated. Adult fiction is considered literary and refined, while YA is somehow less valuable. I offer a counter argument not based on what YA books are but on the impact they can have.

Fandoms surrounding the favorite books of teenagers have been a prominent part of culture since the Harry Potter books. Now, most well-loved series have some kind of derivative fandom surrounding them, but the Harry Potter fandom is by far the most expansive example of this. Years ago, Harry Potter fans pushed past the creation of art, parody musicals, and actual sports, and they went a step further by channeling their love for the books into the creation of an activist group.

In 2005, fans formed the Harry Potter Alliance, a real-life social justice group inspired by Dumbledore’s Army from the books. The most noteworthy part, to me at least, is that the Harry Potter Alliance is more than just a name because the choice of which issues to fight over ties directly into the spirit of the series. For example, the HPA has fought against the use of child slavery in the production of Harry Potter chocolate products (i.e., Not in Harry’s Name, a campaign that received support from J. K. Rowling and resulted in an agreement with Warner Bros.). The HPA has, among other things, provided training in youth leadership as well as tool kits for the informed discussion of inequality in its various forms—it has donated hundreds of thousands of books to kids in need across the world. The Harry Potter Alliance is a group started by fans who loved the series growing up, took its messages, and put them into action.

Another fan community—eventually known as Nerdfighteria—sprang up around the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel by John and Hank Green in 2007. The group was born from John Green’s YA readership and Harry Potter fans (due to Hank’s early Harry Potter–themed videos). In addition to their successful annual charity called Project for Awesome, the Vlogbrothers also support This Star Won’t Go Out, a charity founded in memory of Esther Earl, the teenage girl who inspired John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Teenagers make up the vast majority of this audience and are the driving force behind the group’s charity work. (Around 75 percent of Nerdfighteria is under twenty-one.)

My point is not just that books can be a call to action. More than that, young adult readers want to be called to action and effect major change.

The Harry Potter and John Green readerships are some of the largest book fandoms out there, and since the foundation for such action has been built, there is an incredible amount of potential for further teen activism. I’m looking toward books like Nicola Yoon’s best-selling novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, a YA romance about a girl who falls in love the day she and her family are about to be deported. Yoon is a team member of the We Need Diverse Books organization, and the book (out since November 2016) is a National Book Award finalist, with the platform, motivation, and fan base perfectly poised for activism.

Dystopian novels are all the rage right now, and in dystopian novels, it’s always the young adults that rise up and make change. I think this may be true in real life as well.

Twitter Interactions with Famous Authors and How to Deal

Even though social media theoretically closes the distance between an author and their readers, it sometimes seems to me that the opposite is true. Just looking at a particularly famous author’s feed, I’m highly aware of the statistical improbability of actually getting their attention on Twitter. As of early October, J. K. Rowling had 8.44 million followers, an absurd amount of people to compete with for her attention. John Green had 5.19 million, which is better, but still virtually impossible.

Though I generally consider such endeavors fruitless, I have fleeting moments of hope (or the inability to resist tweeting something insanely clever) in which I reply to an author’s tweet.

On June 16, John Green tweeted a picture of his recently reorganized bookshelf. I noticed a familiar-looking purple spine on the shelves and couldn’t help but ask whether he’d recommend John Updike’s Rabbit novels, noting that I’d heard mixed things.

Almost immediately, he replied.

johngreentweet

After freaking out for a little while and drinking some tea to calm down, I went out and bought Rabbit, Run at Powell’s.

A few other authors have previously noticed things I tweeted, including Nicola Yoon, my favorite YA author Sarah J. Maas, and Joyce Carol Oates. Yeah, that Joyce Carol Oates. Actually, she’s retweeted me twice and liked several other tweets. (Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that she spends an absurd amount of time on Twitter. It’s kind of concerning.)

That interaction with Joyce Carol Oates made me realize that although I’d read some of her short stories, I didn’t actually own any of her books. I went to Powell’s that evening and bought two: Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang and Bellefleur.

June 29, 2016, marked one of my crowning achievements in life: J. K. Rowling liked my tweet defending my Hogwarts house to some muggle who picked a fight with the wrong Hufflepuff. I’m just one out of 8.44 million Twitter followers, so the odds were not, as they say, in my favor. But she did notice me, and I had to check my phone multiple times throughout the day to make sure it was real.

I was embarrassed at how excited I was. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t a big deal. It was hardly significant to J. K. Rowling, so it shouldn’t mean so much to me. I never quite convinced myself of that, and I’m still kind of considering printing a screenshot of the tweet on a mug.

The value of these interactions, even for famous authors, is clear. Authors and readers have developed a community on Twitter and other social media platforms. No, J. K. Rowling is not particularly likely to interact with any given person, but the community she has set up around her makes such interactions possible.

The possibility of engagement is what unites the book community on Twitter. It’s the reason I know that Leigh Bardugo and Sarah J. Maas are friends: I see them interact on Twitter all the time. I love Sarah J. Maas, and once I knew she was friends with Leigh Bardugo, I bought Six of Crows as well. Visible connections on Twitter manifest themselves in real, significant ways, though they may not always be as quantifiable as my purchases.

Admittedly, I’m probably easier to convince to buy a book than most other people, but I think the logic holds true. Authors cannot engage with all their readers, especially when they have millions of followers. But that possibility of a connection with any one of those followers is what makes it so remarkable.

I mean, I bought the Updike books simply because John Green gave a mixed review about it, but he did so directly to me. The Rabbit books are now on the radar of others who saw those tweets, and I’m willing to bet that at least one of those people has bought them. The retweet from Joyce Carol Oates was like she was accepting me into her little community of readers, after which I felt like I had an obligation, as part of this group, to buy her books.

Part of me still feels a little silly for caring so much about these simple little Twitter interactions. But to butcher and repurpose a Dumbledore quote: “Of course it is happening on Twitter, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Publishing with a Small Press: A Stepping-Stone to Greatness

Where do great writers come from? Did Ernest Hemingway suddenly appear to us as a best-selling author, like gray-eyed Athena from mighty Zeus’s head? Did John Steinbeck begin his career by landing a multimillion-dollar book deal with a publishing conglomerate?

Nope. These authors—and most of your favorites—got off to a more modest start. Hemingway’s first book was a collection of stories and poems with an initial run of 300 copies, and Steinbeck’s first novel had an initial run of 1,537 copies.

Achieving success as an author is like achieving success in any other field: you must work and fight and claw your way to greatness. Though some authors explode into popularity with their first published novels (E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey; Stephenie Meyer, Twilight; Stephen King, Carrie), this is far from the norm. Most authors have to start somewhere that isn’t a major publishing house. That somewhere is often a small press, which, like the author, is struggling to make a name for itself.

As a budding author, you want to get the best deal possible. When you’re an unknown quantity, the best deal you can get—or maybe the only deal—is most likely with a small press. Big publishing houses like Penguin Random House and Knopf Doubleday don’t often take chances on debut authors, even if their writing is amazing.

In 1989, a criminal attorney named John Grisham had just finished writing his first novel, A Time to Kill. After being rejected by dozens of publishers and literary agents, the novel finally found a home with Wynwood Press, a little-known publisher. Although A Time to Kill didn’t achieve much commercial success after its release, it set the stage for Grisham’s next novel, The Firm. Twenty-six books and nine film adaptations later, Grisham is one of the best-selling authors of all time—thanks in part to a small press that took a chance.

J. K. Rowling famously penned the first Harry Potter novel as a single mother on welfare. After many rejections from publishers, the boy wizard was finally published in 1997 by Bloomsbury Publishing, a small press at the time. In 1995, Bloomsbury reported sales of £11 million. In 2007, Bloomsbury reported more than £150 million in revenue, thanks in large part to the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the rest of the Harry Potter series. In this case, the author and publishing house reached great heights together.

Ooligan Press is based in Portland, Oregon, so we might as well include a local success story. In 2007, Monica Drake published her debut novel Clown Girl with Hawthorne Books, a small Portland-based press. Three years later, SNL alum Kristen Wiig optioned the film rights. And in 2013, Drake published her second novel The Stud Book with Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, Janet Evanovich, Agatha Christie: The list of famous authors who debuted with small presses is long and impressive. Most of those who didn’t publish their first books with small presses built up their literary reputations by writing short stories, news stories, poems, articles, etc. And virtually every author—including all of those mentioned above—has endured the sting of rejection many times over.

The point is, publishing with a small press isn’t “settling”; it’s a great and often necessary first step for a new author. Though there’s always a chance that a Big Five publishing house will take your manuscript and run with it, it’s far more likely that your debut novel will be published by a small press.

Pottermore and Publishing: A Look at the Multimedia Empire of Harry Potter

Harry Potter is a name almost immediately recognizable today in 2016—whether your first thought is of a lightning scar, the Marauder’s Map, or the volume of fans across the world who have for years celebrated the cultural phenomenon that J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world became. On the first day alone, 8.3 million books were sold when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released on July 21, 2007. As consumers, we read, we wept, we watched the movies, we dressed up as characters, and we reluctantly celebrated the completion of such an influential story with the release of the last movie in 2011.
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