I'm a huge believer in education. I don't mean the kind that requires sitting for long hours in a classroom or spending thousands of dollars on degrees. Rather, I'm a huge proponent of learning how to do things and learning how things operate via whatever means possible. Put in the work of reading, of asking questions when you don't know something, of listening and allowing others to teach, of trying and failing and of trying and succeeding and you can reap what I think is the most rewarding and the biggest accomplishment in life: knowledge. No one will hand you the things you want to learn. You have to go out there and figure them out yourself. It's work. It's not always easy, and sometimes it's downright painful and unpleasant.
Part of being a librarian or being a book advocate more broadly is being aware of what's available and what's going to be available in the near future. It's work to keep on top of trends and to look beyond what the best sellers list is, particularly if your goal is to earnestly match a reader to the right book (and the right book to that right reader). It's no one's responsibility but your own to learn what it is you need to learn in order to do so. No one will hold your hand through the process and no one should have to. What you choose to know is precisely that: what you choose to know.
I started thinking about this after reading this post over at YALSA's The Hub blog. It's not the most clear nor direct post I've read, since it doesn't do a good job of defining who "we" may be, but the point I walked away from was that publishers put a lot of money behind their potential best seller titles (true) and that it can be hard to discover books that don't have the marketing cash behind them. These are valid points; however, I take issue with this portion of the post: "We can only know about books that get promoted to the point where we can read reviews of them, or have them recommended to us by a librarian, bookseller, or friend. It seems, though, that we’re still relying primarily on major corporations to put books on our radar."
It's true that the big titles have the marketing power behind them and that often those titles are ones that will have some impact on reader taste and purchasing habits. These are the books you see at the grocery store, that get big print endorsements, that are in the airports, that sometimes have a spot on television, where authors do a big tour circuit and a big television circuit, and so forth. As far as I've figured out -- and this isn't an exact science -- much of these big titles are either books that appeal to a broad audience (James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, and other household names) or they're books that are along the same trend lines as books that have made a big splash (think of your Twilight and Hunger Games type books that hit much of the best seller list). Some of the books getting the big push are the type that are risky moves, in that they may or may not hit the mark in terms of earning out the big budgets they get. Sometimes, they're total duds.
So while it's true to an extent that those big budget books impact our collections and our habits and our reading experiences, I find it sort of sad to think there may be professionals/book lovers who believe that the only books we can know about are the ones getting the big money behind them. This is an absolute falsity. And while I do not think the writer of this particular post is calling out anyone in believing this, it is true that this sort of belief permeates a lot of professional culture (not just librarians, either). The thing is, it's your own responsibility to learn what the outlets for this information is. No one can do it for you -- you are responsible for what you choose to learn and how you choose to learn it, particularly in a society where information is so easily available. It doesn't matter if you're a casual reader, a teacher, a librarian, whoever. Your learning is your own responsibility.
But now that I've gotten that out of the way, I thought it might be a worthwhile thing to talk a bit about what you can do as a reader or professional to give yourself an edge about the books that are coming out that aren't your blockbuster titles. The ones that publishers might not have a six-figure marketing plan for. The ones that might require you to know just a little more. Disclaimer to this: I'm sharing only a portion of what I've figured out and can offer this as a starting point for anyone thirsting for a deeper knowledge. My knowledge is primarily based on what interests me most, and that's YA fiction. There are better people to reach on other topics like YA non-fiction, comics, adult books, and so forth. Some of this might be common sense but I'm hoping anyone who reads this might walk away with a new tool or two to expand their own knowledge.
Let's start with the most basic definition: a publishing house is responsible for the work of putting the book together. They purchase the manuscripts (or develop them in-house), edit them (though some may hire out to freelancers to do this), and then either distribute them from their location or do so through a warehouse. They may or may not have in-house publicity and marketing teams, they may or may not have in-house artists, and they may or may not hire out for any part of life cycle of the production of the book (editing, type setting, copy editing, and so forth). This is a rough and dirty definition.
You may have heard of the "Big 6" publishers. These are the six with the biggest share of the market and the widest distribution. The "Big 6" include Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. Within each of those six publishing houses are numerous imprints -- so you might know of Little Brown (an imprint of Hachette), Balzer + Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins), Tor (an imprint of Macmillan), Dutton (an imprint of Penguin), Delacorte (an imprint of Random House), and Pulse (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). There are many, many imprints within the "Big 6" and they all specialize in different arenas of the market. Likewise, each imprint may have their own editorial team, their own publicity and marketing teams, their own design teams, and so forth.
What's nice about all of the different imprints operating under the big publishing house is that it allows for a wide swath of books. Since they specialize in different types of books, you can familiarize yourself with the sorts of books coming out of a particular imprint and figure out whether or not they're more of the "blockbuster" books or the quieter titles. For example, Tor publishes books that are most likely to be science fiction or fantasy titles (though not always -- there are exceptions), while Bloomsbury publishes books with an entirely different feel than Tor, even though both operate under the Macmillan house. The Zondervan imprint under Harper Collins, for example, specializes in Christian fiction exclusively.
I'd suggest spending a few hours at each of the Big 6 websites and learning a little about the kinds of books coming out of the imprints to get a feel for what they put out. Some of these publishers, like Hachette linked above, will even give you approximate numbers of books they put out per year (at 125 YA/Children's titles a year, I highly doubt they're all the big best seller titles).
While those "Big 6" hold the big share of the market, there are a ton of good size, mid-size, and small presses that produce books, too. Some are familiar and some are not so familiar. Some of them have imprints within them while others are wholly one line of titles. I'm not an expert of all of the presses out there, but I thought rather than allude to the ones I'm familiar with, I thought it'd be worthwhile to write out a list, with links, to their websites (this will make sense when I get to the second part of the post). Each specializes in a different type of book -- some are more commercial fiction, some are more literary, and some are more for the educational/library market. Some are only YA books and some are primarily adult or children's books with a special line of teen books. Again, this is an incomplete list, and if you know of other publishers worth including in this list of larger/mid and small presses producing YA fiction worth knowing, please comment. Additionally, it should be noted that these are primarily US-based, though a handful are Canadian and have US distribution.
Frances Lincoln Books
Harlequin (Kimani is one of their big teen imprints)
Lee & Low
Lerner (Carolrhoda is one of their big teen imprints)
A few other presses I'm aware of but am not entirely sure of the scope of (in terms of how well distributed they are, whether or not they're available in multiple formats, etc) include Entangled Publishing, Month 9 Books, and Strange Chemistry. They're newer and I haven't read/seen them pop up yet within my reading the review journals.
The third realm of publishing is something I'm going to just mention but not delve into, and that is self-publishing (which many self-published authors refer to also as "indie" publishing, so the terms may be interchangeable). There are many self-publishing tools, including Amazon, Smashwords, and so forth, but because it's such a wide world within an already wide world, I'm not familiar with it much. Self-published authors choose to go this route for any reason. Finding out about self-published books can be trickier, primarily because they're not as frequently reviewed in mainstream press (though it's happening more often). It's an arena that may or may not become bigger in the mainstream library/reading world. It's uncertain at this point but at least worth being aware of.
Tools and Resources
So now that you've got a sense of the types and numbers of publishers that exist -- with links to their websites -- how do you go about discovering the books? The easiest and most straightforward answer (and the one that is probably most time consuming) is spending time on the publisher's websites and perusing their catalogs. Nearly every publisher has their catalog on their site, and many will have both the catalogs from the previous season and some for the next season, too.
It's a ton of work to do that, though, so I'd suggest setting up an account (for free) over at Edelweiss. If you're not familiar with the site, it's an interactive database where publishers can share their seasonal catalogs. You can hit up the catalogs of multiple publishers -- both the big ones and the smaller ones -- all in one place. Supplement that knowledge then with what you can pick up on the websites of the publishers who aren't on Edelweiss. On Edelweiss, you can often find out what sort of distribution and marketing/publicity budget are behind the various titles, as well as comparable titles on the market and what the publicity and marketing plans may include. Sometimes you can see reviews from print and blog reviews. Not all of the publishers will provide this information, but some will, and that can be a good gauge for finding out what books might be getting a bigger push from the publisher than others. Worth noting though is that these plans can change, so they're not always accurate. Still, a helpful and interesting look at what's to come. Here's an example of first print numbers, a marketing plan, and the comps/reviews that show up for a title:
Another incredible resource worth becoming familiar with is Netgalley, where publishers can share egalleys of their forthcoming titles, as well. Unlike Edelweiss -- where there are also options to request digital galleys -- Netgalley is all for galleys. You won't find the publisher catalogs there. You can, however, get a sense of what titles may or may not be getting a big push from it. If your goal is to know what's coming out though, then both resources will serve you more than well.
Aside from studying the digital catalogs, I cannot emphasize enough how valuable galleys/ARCs are to discovering the lesser-known/less-prone-to-being-blockbuster titles. Via Edelweiss and Netgalley, you can request digital copies, and via trade shows or publisher contacts, you can seek print versions (if you're a professional in some capacity either as a librarian or educator or blogger). I don't need to rehash the value of ARCs, other than to reiterate how they are a valuable tool for collection development, readers advisory, and more.
Of course there are other resources including good blogs (which I will not be listing -- you can find good book blogs through a million different keyword searches on any search engine and numerous professional journals have laid out their favorites, too). Blogs play an important role in raising awareness, particularly of lesser-known titles, so keeping an eye on a few that jive with your interests and passions or your professional needs/weaknesses is essential. Likewise, there are numerous thematic blogs and resources worth knowing, including blogs by debut authors (often those getting much less marketing/publicity push behind them), contemporary YA authors (again, often those getting much less push), urban fiction, for those trying to reach male readers, reluctant readers, and so on.
Maybe my biggest secret is this: as much as professional review journals such as School Library Journal, VOYA, and Kirkus are useful in terms of reviews, I find them more valuable in exposing me to new publishers or imprints. They provide the vital publishing information, and when I find myself drawn to a certain type of book, I note who publishes it. Through this, I've learned about smaller presses like Saddleback and Annick, both of which publish books for particular teen audiences that are sometimes overlooked by the bigger publishers. Make note of these publishers; that might be the most important part of a review because then you can go to their website, explore their back and future lists and figure out what you need to know. The more you pay attention to that information, the more easily you can know what kind of book you're going to get out of those presses (i.e., you'll quickly learn that Candlewick tends to lean toward more literary titles while Chronicle tends toward more "quirky" titles).
As far as self-published titles go, again, I'm not an expert on this by any means. But my suggestions of getting to know that field include paying attention to Netgalley (there are self-pubbed titles on there) and keeping an eye on what is and isn't selling on Amazon.
Thinking about how vast the YA fiction publishing world is overwhelming. It is vast and it continues to grow. And by absolutely no means is it limited to the big blockbuster/best seller titles nor the books that publishers believe will be the hits. The thing is, it requires the time and effort to educate yourself on the landscape and to dedicate yourself to learning. It's constant and regular and requires real time and effort to learn and discover what's out there. But in my mind, it's worth the hours because it means you are knowledgeable about what you're passionate about. You're better able to develop a library or reading list or reading recommendations because you're aware of what exists -- and even if you don't know what exists, you know how to find it pretty damn easily. There's a lot that could be talked about in terms of the long tail, as well, and about how there is an entire spectrum of books between the best sellers and the fan-fic/self-pub sensations.
Maybe, though, what is worth taking away from all of this is simple: being a book advocate means you need to do one thing: read. No one is going to hold your hand, no one is going to do it for you, but if you're in this to do it right, it's worth the effort and time to be the best you can be at it. Education never ends.
You just have to do it yourself and you are only as knowledgeable as you allow yourself to be.