Thursday, October 24, 2013

Out of This World: Is Dystopian Dead?

According to a recent article in Publishers Weekly, YA dystopian is dead. Agent Molly Jaffa is quoted in the article stating: “There are editors who you sense want to curl up and die when you mention it.”

Now, those of you who are looking at the shelves in your local Barnes & Noble or lining up outside theaters to catch Catching Fire might be surprised to learn of dystopia’s demise. If you’re currently working on or shopping around a YA dystopian, you might be dismayed.

Is dystopian really dead?

That depends. My own experience suggests that, in the world of traditional publishing, it is indeed becoming somewhat harder to market YA dystopian, largely because of oversaturation of the market after the runaway success of series like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner.

Here’s my story. I wrote a manuscript, Survival Colony Nine, that contained certain dystopian elements (futuristic setting, social collapse, etc.). I signed with an agent (two agents in succession, actually, but that’s another story), neither of whom seemed particularly concerned that I was pitching it as dystopian. Once my second (and current) agent started querying editors, though, she got, in her words, “MUCH push back with the dystopian angle.” Five of the first twelve editors she approached wouldn’t read it at all; the rest read it, liked the writing, but were concerned about its marketability. In the second round of submissions, the book received an offer, which my agent and I accepted. But beginning with the announcement of the sale in Publishers Marketplace, the decision was made to downplay the book’s dystopian elements and position it as sci-fi. That wasn’t tough to do, given the kind of story I was telling, and so the revisions have steered the book in a much more explicitly sci-fi direction.

Based on this experience, my best advice for those writing YA dystopian--or, for that matter, YA anything--is this:
  1. Study market trends. This seems obvious, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Due to the slowness of the publishing cycle, there’ll be a lag between a category’s decline in saleability and its dwindling from bookstores. So you can often get a truer picture of what’s hot and what’s not by studying agents’ profiles, interviews, and blogs than by looking at publishers’ catalogs. I swear by the website “Literary Rambles," which profiles YA agents, but there are lots of resources (Agent Query Connect, Query Tracker, etc.) that enable writers to research what agents are looking for and, perhaps more important, what they’re not.
  2. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. If a book is too directly modeled on a particular category or subgenre or bestseller, your chances of being able to sell it as something else are practically zero. Strive not only for originality but for flexibility: consider hybrid or cross-genre work, and resist the impulse to trumpet your book as “the next ___________.” A good recent example of how to avoid being typecast is Meagan Spooner’s Skylark series, which combines elements of fantasy, dystopian, paranormal romance, and steampunk. And she’s repped by Josh Adams, who’s quoted in the Publishers Weekly article saying that it’s hard to sell anything with “even a whiff of dystopia about it”!
  3. Be willing to adapt. My book sold not only because it contained a fair share of elements from a variety of genres but because I was open to change. Your manuscript is going to undergo significant alterations during the editorial process no matter what, so I think it’s in the writer’s interest not to cling stubbornly to any particular category or conception.
Having said this, I hasten to add that reports of dystopia’s death have been somewhat exaggerated.  Established categories of fiction don’t simply die, and there’ll always be room for well-written, original, challenging YA dystopian. Still, it never hurts to have a Plan B.
Speaking of which, I’m just about to start my new novel, a YA space romance I’ll be drafting during NaNoWriMo. Word on the street is that romantic sci-fi is the next big thing!


  1. Bottom Line. Have an awareness of trends but write what you want! Great post Ya Guy.

    1. Couldn't have said it better myself! Thanks, JRB!