Monday, February 20, 2012

Good for the Whole Family

by R.S. Mellette

While the publishing world argues over what's Middle Grade, what's Young Adult, and what's New Adult—as witnessed by J. Lea Lopez here recently—I'm asking; whatever happened to "good for the whole family?"

Target marketing has been around long enough that most people think it's the only way it's ever been, but if you take a longer view of commercial art, you'll see that excluding the majority of your potential audience is a brand new concept. Yes, I said "excluding." If you write for, or edit for, or make acquisitions for, or shelf for, one specific age group, then you are limiting your audience. And by "brand new" I mean since the turn of the previous century.

Before radio, movies, television and the internet split audiences into tiny chunks, there were basically two markets: kids and adults. Even at the beginning of these technologies, artists had to create work that would satisfy whoever might receive the signal from the air. Going back even further, when books were expensive to print and buy, one book had to entertain the entire family.

How did they achieve what modern day marketing and acquisitions executives see as the rare and illusive "crossover"? Let's take a look.

Look at Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers series. Look at Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Look at anything by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Twain. Each of these cases, and many more, contain certain elements editors and acquisition execs, and store owners should look for:

  • Characters of various ages, or the entire life of a character, not just kids
  • Sex is left to what anyone might witness in public
  • Age groups are targeted by beats within the story, not the entire work

Take a closer look at Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Today we'd call that a YA Romance, or a chick flick, but Shakespeare couldn't afford that luxury. Most of London would at some point or another come to see his plays—old, young, rich, poor, men, women, educated, uneducated, sophisticated, and unruly. He had to keep them all happy or the crowd might riot. If he didn't keep royalty happy, he might lose his head. So he starts with a prologue that says, yes, this is a romance, so ladies settle in for exactly what you're expecting. Then the men come on and proceed to tell crude jokes about how small their enemies' privates are, and Romeo talks about the woman he slept with the night before—though, you'd have to have  knowledge of the carnal type yourself to know what he's talking about. Throughout the story Shakespeare switches from action to romance, from poetry to punnery. He gives each member of his audience something to look forward to.

Now let's look at the book that shall not be named. The crossover so big that it changed the way best-seller lists are calculated. The Harry Potter series.

  • Characters of various ages: CHECK
  • Sex is left to what might be witnessed in public: CHECK
  • Age groups are targeted by beats: CHECK

This isn't rocket science, folks.

Something else that should be considered in marketing for the whole family. Aristotle said that Art should Entertain and Educate. By creating a single work for all ages, not only is your marketing inclusive rather than exclusive, but young minds get a peek into what might lay ahead of them in life. Those of us that are older, are reminded of what was important in our youth, and should probably be important to us again today.

So, if you own a bookstore, set up a BOOKS THE FAMILY CAN READ TOGETHER shelf and see what happens.

If you're an editor, push those YA books that you like as an adult on your acquisitions executives.

If you're in acquisitions, think about including readers, not excluding them.

If you're an agent, keep pushing, we'll get there.

If you're a writer, keep writing, we'll get there.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Blogs film festival blog, and on Twitter.


Jo said...

I love this... :) One of the best things I've done as a parent to three pre-teen girls is to read what they're reading right along with them. Literature for the whole family would be fantastic!

JeffO said...

Great post, RS. One thing I would say, though, is that technology - or, more correctly, access to the technology - has really changed how we behave. As you say, books were expensive, so you weren't necessarily going to buy a book for each member of the family. Moving forward, you might have the whole family crowded around the single radio in the house to listen to Mystery Theater, and then everyone at the one television, etc. These days, access to computers, TV's, radios and books is so relatively cheap that it allows everyone to pursue individual entertainment.

However, there are still families that value 'together time' and make the effort to do things, like read, together. Next time I'm in the bookstore I'll look to see if there is a 'Family Reads' section. Thanks!

Sophie Perinot said...

Love it RS (and not just because you mention Dumas and I am a Dumas junkie). Sharing books as a family is a great way to spark interesting family discussions and not a bad way to "read by example" either.

RSMellette said...

Thanks, guys. Let's see if we can't spread the word and get some bookstore owners earning "Family Values."

Jemi Fraser said...

I read a lot of books with my kids as they were growing up - it's a really great way to bond with each other and to share some great stories! :)

RSMellette said...

And of course, the point I'm making is that the books you read with your MG and YA kids can be just as entertaining for you. In fact, you don't even have to have kids.

Books for all ages.

RSMellette said...

If you like this topic, you might want to follow a discussion about it that has cropped up on Agent Query Connect.

Christopher Hudson said...

I don't know, RS ... seems that the 'net has us parsing demographics into smaller and smaller segments ... is it good or bad? I don't know ... I just write stuff I like and hope somebody else likes it too.

Jean said...

I fear people don't read as families any longer, but the families that do... we're looking for stuff like this. Books to share, discuss, and love together. My 8-year-old is tackling some CS Lewis at the moment and I can't wait to talk about it with her. (And read it myself.)

RSMellette said...

So, if you owned a bookstore, and set up this shelf - what current day books would you display there?

I'd put up:


What else?

Jean said...

Awesome question.

CS Lewis. (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Alice in Wonderland.)

The Wizard of Oz.

The Lightning Thief. (SO good.)

That would be a start.

J. Lea Lopez said...

Sorry I'm late to this game! I have to agree in part with Christopher's sentiment above. On the one hand, you're talking about a very inclusive type of book - one that can appeal to the whole family. On the other hand, you're still talking about one of the aspects that people against a New Adult category bring up: segmenting shelf space.

Would Family titles be double-exposed in what we might consider their "regular" genres (some have brought up this question with whether NA would be shelved both in its own area and also with adult or YA titles depending on the content of the specific book)? And if they aren't, how much of your potential audience are you STILL going to be cutting out?

To be honest, I don't know that I'd browse the "Family" bookshelves when looking for something new to read. Perhaps it's because I don't have kids. I'm not sure. Either way, it's still a marketing question, and a dilemma about how to divide retail (or library) space, even when you're trying to be as inclusive as possible.

E.B. Black said...

This is why I love the book Gulliver's Travels. When I read it as a child, it was a fantasy book and then when I read it again in college, somehow it morphed into a satire about politics and the human condition. That book is amazing.