Guest Blogger: The Loverly Kerry Spencer

Kerry is working on a PhD at the University of Wales.  Her dissertation looks at YA books that sell better and worse than their marketing predicts–as gleaned from a random sample of 200 YA books.  She does not suggest you read 200 random YA books.  It will make you hate yourself.  Kerry’s YA novel, Secrets of the Mami Wata, placed in the Utah Arts Council writing contest for best Young Adult novel.  She’s published various creative writing and some really boring academic stuff.  She blogs at http://windmillwatching.blogspot.com where she particularly enjoys posting embarrassing things she has made her students do.  She’s mean that way.

P.S. Kerry says she’s not a plotter but yet she comes up with complex,  scary and, okay, creepy novels on a daily basis. Don’t let her fool you. She’s good. Really good.

A couple of years into my PhD program (or programme as they say in the UK) I was at home in Salt Lake working on my dissertation when I got a message from my adviser, Graeme.  “I’m going to be in America!” he said.  “Meet me there!”

The British don’t always have a solid understanding of U.S. geography.

So I found myself in Chicago.  In February.  There was some sort of writing conference going on and the convention halls of the hotel were filled with people who had long spiky purple hair, shapeless black clothing, thick-framed glasses, and brightly colored tights with holes in them.  I believe this was the uniform.

Graeme and I met in the hotel restaurant for “a coffee,” which included an apple pastry the size of my head for Graeme and a cob salad for me (I didn’t want to eat the $40 octopus eyes that my hotel thought were chic.  Again).

“So now that you’ve got your big 200 book random sample assembled,” Graeme asked, “what kinds of things are you going to ask?  After you finish reading the books, of course.”

I still had about 100 to go at that point.

“Oh, you know,” I said.  “Stuff about the plot structure.  Protagonist gender.  Tone.  Maybe something about the cover.”

He grunted.  Chewed.  “Because the thing about YA…”  He paused and looked down at his head-sized apple fritter.  “My God this is huge.  So American.  The thing about YA is identity.

I looked at his fritter and wished for the thousandth time that I ate carbs.  “That makes sense,” I said, stabbing at an egg in my salad.

“It’s always something with YA, isn’t it?  Vampires, spies, socialites, witches.  Sometimes all at once.  I seriously doubt the readers are any of those, though. They’re reading because they’re playing—their playing with identity.  Trying a new one on like a cloak.  Trying to be someone different than who they are, just to see what it’s like.”

I nodded.  It made sense.  Teens are all angst—they want to be like someone else, right?  Isn’t that why they read?

“You should ask about that when you look at your sample.  See if it pans out.”

So I did.  After I got back on the plane and made it home (and finished getting those 200 books read—with a little help from some reading friends), I added it into my now-150-question-long list of questions.

When the results came back, though, they were surprising.  No matter how we parsed it, we couldn’t make any sort of connection between “identity play” and audience resonance.  It seemed that teens weren’t reading to see what it was like to be someone else.

Why were they reading then?

I scoured through the data, trying to put the pieces together.  Reading data is a little like a slightly-more-reliable version of reading tea leaves.  The individual data points don’t tell you much, but there are patterns.  My statistician friend says that you can’t look at one number, you have to look at the story.  (Ironic, right?)

A few numbers started to pop up.

Books with female story lines were more resonant by about 30%.

Books with super-rich protagonists were less resonant by more than 50%.

Books with race as a driving plot factor were more resonant by more than 50%.

So… were the teens just really P.C.?  Maybe, I thought. But if they were all about understanding others, wouldn’t identity play have shown up as a factor?

Then I noticed a few more numbers.

Females make up more than 80% of the book market; but only 50% of YA books have a single female protagonist.

Non-white readers make up 20% of the book market; only 5% of YA books have a non-white protagonist.

Teens don’t read to find out about others, I realized.

They read to find out about themselves.

There are plenty of books about, oh, let’s say vampires.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones that succeed are the ones whose protagonists are the most like the readers.  A teen doesn’t want to know what it’s like to be a spy, they want to know what would it be like if I were a spy.

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery.  A time when kids are desperately trying to figure out, who am I?  And what am I going to become?

The urgency of these questions surpasses almost every other factor that can affect a book.

A fancy plot is nice, but only if the reader can see themselves in the protagonist.  Pretty language is nice, but only if the reader can see themselves saying that.  What makes Harry Potter and Bella compelling is that they are utterly ordinary.  They face the extraordinary, yes, but they do so from a vantage point that easily allows teens to relate.  A vantage point that allows teens to ask, what if I were facing something extraordinary?

And I’d imagine this is true for teens regardless of their knowledge of American geography.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Guest Blogger: The Loverly Kerry Spencer

  1. Amy

    I like this post. It contains valuable information. My protagonist is an impoverished girl of unknown ethnic background (but not caucasian) who is basically very very ordinary. I wrote her this way because I became so tired of every Gothic heroine being lily white, pale and glistening. Is anybody else bored with this? She’s a light shade of brown, cafe au lait if you please, because I want as many girls who are not lily white to be able to imagine themselves as her. All of the pale girls have so many other heroines, they won’t miss out this once.

    As she goes along she develops a very special skill set. We all want to be “discovered” right? As we discover ourselves? This is what happens to Eve. She starts out very scared and by the end, she is fearless. I think because she learns to trust herself.

    PS. Kerry when are we hittin’ the road in the Winnebago? I need a vacation.

  2. I must admit that searching for patterns is an insatiable obsession for me. I am fascinated by human nature, personalities, likes and dislikes, etc…

    So Kerry, when you’re finished and you turn your project in, I will be the odd person who would love to read it.

    I think of all the masters thesis’s I’d love to research and write.
    Hold on, somebody in a white coat is knocking on my door.

  3. I may not technically be a teenager anymore, but I sure feel like one. I don’t think that I ever decided to read simply because I thought one day, “I wonder who I am; maybe I can figure it out by reading a book.” Reading starts out as an adventure, and I think I kept reading because I found those books that I could really relate to. I found the characters that seemed to go through hard things like I had to deal with even though those things were often completely different.

    My brother hates reading. Hates it. And I think it’s because he just never found the right kinds of books with characters he could relate to. His favorite books (even though he doesn’t read) are The Outsiders and The Child Called It. Once I got to know my brother a little better, I realized that the reason those books are his favorite is he relates to the characters. People (but teens especially) like themselves–not in an egotistical way…though maybe sometimes. They like to read about themselves, or at least characters who seem to be like them.

    Though teenagers seem to be struggling all the time with identity, I think more often than not they know who they are and what they want. The struggle is in the pressure from everyone else to be or do or think a certain way that may conflict with their own ideas for themselves.

  4. What an interesting insight, Kerry!!

  5. Louise Plummer

    This is why I read Little Women but not Little Men. Who wants to be a little man?

  6. Interesting research, Kerry.

    Self-discovery, I think, is at the heart of most things we do – it’s part of the human condition. I know that, on some level, I want to find a little of myself in every book I read. And I learn things about myself every time I put fingers to keyboard (I have an obsession with Daleks; I can’t focus because I’m in dire need of chocolate; I’m irritated by the misnomer hunting pink (it isn’t actually pink, but a bright scarlet); I like nested parentheses).

    Do you have a blog of your own with more about your research?

  7. Thanks, Peta! I do have a blog, but I haven’t blogged *that* much about my research. I did mini book reports on some of those 200 YA book reports, though. There’s a link on the sidebar of my personal blog.

  8. I know we’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think I’ve asked this one: where do you get the number that teens of color are only 20% of the reading population? They’re roughly 50% of the student population (20% Latino, 17% are African American, and I’m not sure, but I think Asians have to be a good 10%). I don’t know how that translates to book buying, though. Did you do a survey? Did you consult a survey done by someone else?

    If people of color are truly only 20% of book buyers right now, I think this would change if books reflected the demographic of readers more fully, given that teens *do* read to find themselves.

  9. Hi, Stacy! I took a random sample of 150 high school students in California (at a school whose racial distribution was roughly the same as the US, according to census data) and then noted the self-declared readers. The numbers were tricky to come by, though, so if you have any better (or just other) sources, I’m very interested in seeing them! (kerryspencer@byu.edu)

    In any event, only 5% of the books in our sample (200 YA novels, randomly chosen via boring algorithm) had a non-white protagonist, and even with the smaller estimate of 20% non-white reading population, that means that they’re underrepresented by four times–which explains why books with non-white protagonists did so much better than their marketing predicted they would. And I agree: better representation could translate into more readers.

    You also might be interested–just yesterday I had a consult with a statistician and we discovered that books with non-white protagonists are much less likely to have a lot of marketing behind them in the first place. Combined with the fact that they do so much better than their marketing predicts, it suggests that if these books *did* get marketing, they’d do even better. (Good news for tu publishing.)

  10. Ah, I see. Quite a small sample size, but makes sense for the resources and time you had. I’d be really, really interested in seeing a larger study using similar metrics across the US. It makes me sad that Simba is the only research firm that seems to be doing publishing and reading-related studies, and I’ve never seen them do this (sad, because I don’t have $900 to take a look at their results). And your conclusions make sense as well.

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