Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Teen Retro: Fearless

One thing that has really changed over the years is how the young adult book is merchandised.  Content has changed somewhat, but not drastically, if the reprints of books like The Vampire Diaries and Thirst are any indication.  The categories in bookstores used to separate out "Teen Thrillers" from regular teen titles, and now Barnes & Noble has updated their layout of the teen sections to reflect the modern teen buyer, with a "Teen Fiction," section, a "Teen Paranormal Romance" and a "Teen Fantasy & Adventure" section.  And this is how people shop, so it's smart.  You can peruse a section containing just the sorts of books you like to read, without having to sort things out as you browse.

The format of books in teen is also drastically different than it was ten years ago.  When I was buying teen novels, the only format available was a mass market paperback.  Teen books were much shorter then.  If an author wanted to write a longer narrative, it was usually written as a trilogy, much like L.J. Smith's The Secret Circle and Dark Visions, or as a series like Sweep.  Obviously, teen books are much thicker now, and the packaging has changed with the times, and are released according to the regular adult fiction model.  Big releases are released in hardcover first (although some are released as softcover initially, as is the case with some adult fiction titles), then after a certain period of time, are released in a trade paperback format.  Rarely are teen books just released in mass market format, and even more rare is a teen title that eventually goes through the first two formats to end up in mass market.  The only example I can think of currently is The Twilight Saga, the books of which are released with movie covers in mass market around the time the films come out.  No - mass markets are mostly a thing of the past when it comes to teen books, while it used to be a matter of course.

The design of teen books is also much sleeker than what it used to be.  Teen books of the past boasted painted covers that looked retro, even well into the 90's, making them look much older than they were.  One of the first instances that I can recall of teen books starting to shift is with Francine Pascal's Fearless series.  Francine Pascal is the popular author of Sweet Valley High (an earlier version of a series like Gossip Girl), and when she made the leap to the action/suspense series Fearless, her books stood out on the shelves with its photographed covers and cleaner look.  It's what all teen books have come to mimic nowadays, but in the 90's, it was taken for granted what a teen book looked like, and it took someone with a vision to stray from that model.  I'm not sure if it was Fearless that paved the way for the look of the modern teen book, but it was certainly one of the pioneers experimenting with what could work.

The design on Fearless got even more sleek around #15 of the series, when the design was changed, and more space was given to the photograph on the cover (see below).  It was as if the publishers were experimenting to see just what could be done and how things would be received by their audience.  Fearless is also one of the first series that I recall seeing collected editions of.  I know that there were some thrillers that were also re-released with a few novels together under one cover around the time that I saw that happen with this series, but it's a testament to the forward-thinking behind this title in particular that "omnibus editions" were already being released of this series quite early on.

The teen novel has come a long way since its beginnings, but it seems that the category has hit its stride, perfecting its look and finding a comfortable place in the current book market.  It's the experimentation of merchandising on books like Fearless that has helped to shape what teen books look like today, and if the ravenous audience of teen books currently is any indication, then we owe a lot to the people who decided to break out of the mold and try something different with the category.  Talk about fearless.

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