How J.K. Rowling changed the world! It’s all about timing.

Since writing about best sellers and what they might and might not have in common I’ve been thinking about the timing of books and how it might influence their success.

But before that, let me just mention that this week 9-16th Febuary (2018) there is a ARC giveaway over on Goodreads for my book BOUND TO YOU.  Check it out and maybe you’ll get a chance to read it before everyone else!

Back to the blog post

Let’s go back to the good old 90s. Back before YA was so huge,  e-books hadn’t been invented and this was how we watched TV.

Okay, maybe the TV had been around for a while but still, it was a very dark time. Because Harry Potter had not yet arrived to make our lives awesome. In fact, I still remember back before I started waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter (which I’m still waiting for. Clearly someone in admissions screwed up big time.)

Anyway.

Harry Potter came along, beautifully and funnily written with a strong and clear plot. It was the start of the young adult genre, of children and teen lit that was more than it had been.

But, remember how Rowling got rejected a whole bunch of times before someone finally took a chance on her?

(Well maybe you don’t, because who likes to tell that story, but that’s what happened.)

My theory is that Potter came along at the right time, just exactly the right time for that big middle grade / young adult book revolution the world was ready for. One of the people she sent it to realized as much and the rest is history!

Point is, she started it – because Harry Potter an amazing story, it’s well written, plotted and it was just what kids and their parents were hoping for. Waiting for. Dreaming of.

If it hadn’t been as amazing as it is, it wouldn’t have hit so big and remain on the best selling charts over twenty-years later. Maybe it would have slowed down

How JK Rowling changed the world

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the YA revolution and all the books that have come after it would have been different. Maybe some of them wouldn’t even have come out.

So did Rowling start the young adult book revolution or was it the timing? Would some other book that we now don’t even remember have come along and taken her place if she hadn’t finished the first Harry Potter book? Or did she start everything? Did the world change because of her?

A combination of these?

Or am I just a crazed Harry Potter fan, trying to give credit for something totally unrelated to one of my favorite book series?

I don’t know. But I do believe that timing at least had partly to do with Harry Potter is one of the most famous characters in the world. The book is brilliant, but would the world have gone for it a decade earlier? We can’t know, but it’s interesting to speculate.

Moving on to the next YA book that hit big.

Twilight

I’d like to say Twilight is both a response to Harry Potter and a reaction to the scary modern world. Arriving as we all became more aware of general creepy dudes able to pray on young girls via the internet / social media + increases in terror and school shooting Bella’s protectors aren’t just big and strong human guys. One is an unkillable vampire and the other a werewolf. They both want to protect her and would die to do so.

In a world full of a lot of scary shit, I think part of the appeal of Twilight might have been the idea that the magic (which was feared just a generation or two ago) would be used to protect us from the normal ordinary dangers that suddenly felt so much more…well, dangerous. Bella was the perfect reader insert and despite the scary situations Bella ends up in / gets herself into, she is always saved by one of her boyfriends or one of the vamps.

Following on this came books like The Hunger Games and Divergent – where the girl can kick ass on her own and Percy Jackson where the main character is part god. (Also books like Vampire Academy and Mortal Instruments fits in with this genre, where the hero discovers he/she is something more).

Are the reader for these books the same as the ones who loved Twilight? The girls who got tired of reading about Bella being in distress? Or is it the next generation, boys and girls born a few years later?

Adults?

(Fun fact: 70% of YA and teen books are purchased by adults (18-64), so even if some of these are parents, quite a few buyers of YA are reading the books themselves.)

I think sometime during the early 00s YA books became something different. They became normal books with teenage protagonists.

Yeah, for those of us who have mostly read books published post 2005-ish, it’s kind of hard to think back to before that. Maybe we didn’t even read YA books before that (I didn’t since I’d just about become a teenager then) and so it’s hard to understand but for a really long time books for kids and teenagers were more about teaching, scaring, warning, dictating to kids.

Now, this started back during like the early days (we’re talking a few hundred years) when books first and reading start becoming a thing. Books, for both adults and teens alike, were used more as learning tools than for enjoyment. Even books that seemed to be fun and fiction often had some sort of message – such as listen to your parents, girls play with dolls, boys pull pranks and such.

Just like fairytales back in the day, this was just how it was. You had a message and you made sure the book or story made it clear to everyone what it was so it could help them do what you thought was right.

For adult books, this was phased out more and more (even if some people still write with a very clear message in mind, be it about the evils of communism, the greatness of faith or to make us aware of increasing social classes) but for kids and teen books, that teaching tone stayed for a long time.

Just ask your parents, or check out your grandma’s attic and read some of those books. Maybe you’ve read Narnia or seen the movie? There is some very clear Chosen One, Judas, Son of God symbolism going on there. Or Tom Sawyer? Or Robinson Cruzo (which was a children’s book to start with). There is often some moral or lesson to be learned. Even when there isn’t, the tone for children and young adult books, used to be very different.

But it’s not anymore.

Young adult books are just books with heroes that happen to be teenagers. There are genres (for a long time children’s books were either red/ blue or sorted into a few simple stacks by a few different, often gender-based criteria. Like SF/Fantasy + Cowboys for boys and Horses + High School for girls.)

These days there are YA books in every genre: crime, romance, mystery, horror, fantasy, drama, science fiction, dystopias and HBTQ and more. Any kind you like. The only difference is often a happier ending, less death and violence (maybe excluding the Hunger Games!) and younger characters, compared to adult novels.

So it’s no wonder adults are reading these books (because who doesn’t like a happy ending?) because these days they are just books. Often with really fun/ interesting concepts and way more straightforward than some adult novels.

It’s not just about the age or teaching a lesson. Everyone can suddenly pick one of these books up to read and enjoy it. So it becomes about the idea, the society we live in and yes, the timing. All those things influence the success of a novel.

So Twilight, the Mortal Instruments and The Hunger Game are books for everyone – not just teens. So it’s not just the social group we define as young adults we need to look at to maybe see why timing has been part of why these books have become successes.

Twilight might have partly become such a hit because it gave a sense of protection from the scary world – using what once was scary monsters to do so.

The Hunger Games maybe gave us a reflection of our world, for while we don’t kill our classmates or co-workers, sometimes both school and work feel like a fight. Right? It’s a struggle. Only the best ones get that scholarship, that promotion. In a world of dwindling resources and more competitive work environments, and government and politicians that don’t keep their word, is it no wonder a book like The Hunger Game became a hit? We’re all a bit disillusioned and we watch more reality TV than any other generation…

Following along this vein are all the half vampire, half-god, half-angle books. When we’re competing for everything, it’s comforting to know you got an ace up your sleeve. This also ties in with Twilight ‘the world is scary’. Only in these books the characters know why the world is scary and dark – and are part of fighting it. Divergent combines this with every teen (and adult too) hatred for being labeled, by having the main character be ‘divergent’ and unable to be labeled as one specific thing.

Not quite a young adult we also got the very successful super bestseller Fifty Shades of Gray, which is similar to Twilight (which make sense since it was a Twilight fanfiction) in many ways. Here you have Anna being “protected” by Christian – who might not be a vampire or werewolf – but he does have a boat load of money. And that’s almost as good. Even if the price for being with him comes with kinky sex the heroine isn’t to keen on, she ends up being willing to pay that. For love, sure. But also part of the safety and wealth he offers I imagine (I can’t say for sure as I only read book one of this series.) I’m sure no one says as much in the book or if they did Anna would probably deny it, but for a lot of people reading Christian Grey’s wealth is part of why he can act the way he does and why a woman might let him.

In a lot of ways I think 50 Shades (and many other similar that flooded the market after its success) can be seen as exploration and a sort of modern-day fairy tale? A dark one, for sure, where the princess chooses to be a willing captive.

Or is it a disillusionment – the new fairy tales often feel darker (thinking of the upswing in live action fairytale movies in the early 10s). Maybe we’ve lost our belief in them, or at least original Disney versions? Or maybe this isn’t really dark, maybe this is the new fairy tale? A reflection how we want the good old days but with new twists?

I don’t know.

Maybe all the darker stories from the Hunger Games to Fifty Shades to Maze Runner and even The Fault In Our Stars or Thirteen Reason Why is reflecting, perhaps, a new generations view of the world. A world now full of things we fear; poverty, sickness and terror. A future where things have gone downhill to the point where we let children kill each other on live television?

That’s a depressing thought.

I for one hope this isn’t the case, and I don’t really think it is. Society goes through phases and so does genre popularity. For a while, there was vampires, werewolves, gods. Then there was dystopias and re-makes of fairytales. Are we still in the dystopia phase? I don’t know. What comes next? I don’t know.

But probably something. Maybe the thing that gets the timing right. The thing we’re all hoping for, hungering for, even though we don’t know it. And here timing is key I think. You can write a great book but unless the world is ready for it (or perhaps if they’ve had enough of books like it) it won’t be successful. Or not as successful. And even if you write a book that is slightly above mediocre – a book with a theme or new idea that the world wants or become fascinated with can become the next big thing.

So…

It means, think a little about what you’re writing. Has it been done a thousand times before? If so, how do give it a new twist? Meyer made her vampires sparkle (and she made the “vegetarians”) that was new. Collins had her death matches be televised (believe it or not she wasn’t the first to ever write about kids killing each other as part of a government conspiracy.)

Sometimes all you need is a twist on something old and that makes it totally new. Totally relevant. Because that’s the big thing here. The timing, well, it’s just an extension of relevance.

What are problems that are relevant to you, today? The people around you? If those people are teens – that’s great, but often problems and moods are bigger than just one age group. So be aware of the world around you. The problems and struggles. And see if there is some way to corporate them into your book.

Happy writing!

Did you enjoy this post? Here are some others that might interest you.

All Best Selling Book Series Have This In Common

Mary Sue – Who Is She and Why She’s Bad News For Your Story

Inside the head of a boy…(How to write from a guy’s POV)

Writing Promt

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Inside the head of a boy…(How to write from a guy’s POV) | The Plot & Other Problems
  2. Trackback: Mary Sue – Who Is She and Why She’s Bad News For Your Story | The Plot & Other Problems
  3. Trackback: All Best Selling Book Series Have This In Common | The Plot & Other Problems
  4. Kristin Miller
    Mar 07, 2018 @ 02:25:56

    This was a great post! Thank you for sharing it with us! I think timing has a lot to do with success–falling into the number two slot only after incredible talent, of course.

    Reply

    • Alyssa Brandon
      Mar 07, 2018 @ 09:29:06

      I’m glad you found it helpful! It’s really fascinating to think about just what makes a best seller a best seller isn’t it! 😀

      Reply

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