Unsung YA

There’s a wonderful project out in the blogosphere to sing the praises of YA that has flown below the radar and not gotten the attention of, say, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Books, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, or my own Scott’s Uglies books. I think it’s a wonderful idea. All hail Kelly for coming up with it.

I was unfamiliar with about half of the books recommended on these unsung lists, which to me means the lists are doing their job.1 Many of the book descriptions sound irresistable. So my list of books to read just expanded. Again. To which I can only say, excellent!

Some of the comments about these lists, however, got me thinking on the differences between how authors and readers think about success. Some folks wondered if such & such a book counted as unsung because it had won an award or because the author’s other books are so popular. We authors tend to measure our books’ popularity in terms of sales. We know what our sales are because once every six months (typically) we get royalty statements. Thus we know all too well how little impact most awards have on sales. This makes us painfully aware of which of our books has sold the least. So, yes, we think books can be unsung even if they’ve won awards, been critically acclaimed, and all our other books are the bestsellingest books in the universe.2

Those outside the industry don’t have access to sales figures, so they’re mostly judging popularity by how often they hear about a book, by how big the piles of it are in a bookshop, and in this case by how many people have it on LibraryThing. Before I became part of this crazy industry, I paid zero attention to bestseller lists. The only way I knew if a book was bestselling was if that fact was trumpeted on the front of the book. I guess I would have assumed that Stephen King and Colleen McCullough were bestsellers, but I didn’t really know for sure.

It’s amazing how different my relationship to books is now that I’m an author. These days I keep an eye on the big bestseller lists, which is why I was suprised to see Lisa McMann’s Wake listed as unsung. It’s a NYT bestseller. But I suspect the only people who consciously track whether a book is a bestseller or not are the authors and the people in publishing.

The other thing I noticed were comments about how hyped a book was. One book I’ve seen talked about as overhyped I happen to know has been selling poorly. The correlation between being talked about online and sales is not one to one. Not even close. Some bestsellers seem to barely get a mention online, some poor sellers are talked about all over the internets. I’ve seen Liar described as a bestseller because of all the online talk. It’s not. Trust me, if Liar were a bestseller or even close to being one, I would know.

We authors have a very different relationship to our books than readers do. Which is why some of us have had odd reactions to being called unsung or sung. For example, when I saw that How To Ditch Your Fairy was on an unsung YA list my first reaction went pretty much like this: “Unsung! HTDYF‘s my bestselling book so far!3 It sold more in six months than Magic or Madness sold in hardcover in almost five years!” I know that compared to actual bestselling books HTDYF‘s sales are as a grain of sand, but for me they’re large and happy making.

My second reaction was to be dead pleased that the blogger in question had such lovely things to say about HTDYF, which, while it has sold better than my other books has had the least positive critical attention.4 Poor lamb. *pets How to Ditch Your Fairy* Though, truly she’d rather have the sales than good reviews.5 You can’t eat good reviews.6

What are sales after all but a reflection of how many readers a book has? The more sales, the more readers. Every author wants to be read as widely as possible. And every reader wants the same for their favourite books so they have more people to talk about them with. (I speak as both author and reader.) Isn’t the whole point of the unsung books meme to get more people reading and talking about these books?

But even my least-read books have their fans. I treasure the letters written to me about those books every bit as much as I do the letters about HTDYF. I treasure the letters from readers for whom my books have had a real impact even more. The ones who tell me that my book showed them they weren’t alone, that there’s hope, that my book got them through a family crisis, the loss of someone they loved. Because that is what so many books have done for me over the years. That is the real point of being a published author, even if my books have that impact on just a handful of people. It’s so worth it.

  1. Quite a few of the ones I’d heard of I hadn’t read so the lists will probably kick me into actually reading them. []
  2. Not that I know for sure on that last one seeing as how I’ve never had a bestseller. One day . . . []
  3. This does not include Liar. The earliest I’ll know how it’s doing will be my second royalty statement of this year. Due in October. []
  4. Which has kind of led me to wonder if there’s an inverse correlation between the two. []
  5. Yes, I think of my books as female. []
  6. Not that books eat anything other than souls. []


  1. Zeborah on #

    Not that books eat anything other than souls.

    Don’t forget will to live. They eat that too. <goes back to glaring at chapter 21>

  2. Justine on #

    Zeborah: It’s because the book ate your soul that you have no will to live.

  3. Zeborah on #

    Alas, what you say has the ring of plausibility. 🙁

  4. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    *nods* Very true. I keep hearing of Demon’s Lexicon as much-sung! Which is very pleasing, and I also very much appreciate all the reviews and emails about it. But one does sometimes sniffle at the, you know, actual sales figures.

    Critically Acclaimed Writers What Deserve to Be Much More Sung Of: I believe we have both been discussing Margaret Mahy lately.

    Elizabeth Wein needs more singing! So does Sherwood Smith.

  5. Tamara on #

    way awesome! I love finding out about new YA books, especially the underdog.

  6. Kelly on #

    I would have commented sooner, but I had to pick myself up off the floor first. Because, holy crap! Justine Larbalestier blogged about my little Unsung YA Heroes project!

    Truly, that’s like the neophyte book blogger’s equivalent of making a bestseller list.

    I would hope that, ultimately, a project like this would impact sales–or at least library circulation–of these great titles. I’ve always wondered if authors have any way to quantify the library readers of their books, but using LibraryThing was an attempt to get at that aspect from my end of things.

    But my completely idealistic end goal is really to reach the kids (and adults) who read 1 or 2 bestsellers a year, and that’s it. They’re missing out on all the great things a reading habit that encompasses more than Twilight or John Grisham can bring you in life–all the things you called out above.

    We’re planning to do the Unsung project once a year and take a whole week to do it–The Week of the Unsung? We’ll do a different genre each day of the week. But maybe we need to reach out to more than just other genres. Maybe we need a way to reach out to those bestseller readers and match them up with another great book they’ve never heard of but that will rock their world.

    And to determine which books are truly unsung–which books have been in the fewest hands–I’m thinking we could come up with some sort of calculation taking into account metrics from book-categorizing sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads, Amazon sales rank, etc.

    Just babbling now, but thanks for putting these ideas in my head to germinate!

  7. rockinlibrarian on #

    My impression of “unsung,” when I was looking at this, was “books you rarely hear about,” regardless of sales. You COULD hear a lot about a book because of critical acclaim OR because it’s a best-seller, but either way, you’re still hearing about it. It’s the ones where YOU love it but you can’t figure out why nobody else is talking about it that I feel are truly unsung. That’s what I would have written my list about, if I don’t have about five other topics I want to blog about this week and no time to blog in.

  8. Sam Downing on #

    Interesting: you think of your books as female! Is that because they have female protags? If you wrote a book from a male perspective, would it become a male book?

    PS Happy Australia Day!

  9. Mitali Perkins on #

    What you said, except I think of my books by main character, which makes me see them as my imaginary children. Harder to bear cuts and low sales my way, so maybe I’ll shift to your view and treat my books as good female friends.

  10. Heather Z. on #

    This is so wonderful. “Unsung books” are what my reviews are entirely about. I love that this meme has circulated so widely. And I agree with your last statement. If a book I write only impacts a few, but it makes a difference, that makes it all worthwhile.

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