Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Difference Between Teen Books and Teen Shows/Movies

When I showed my friends and beta readers the first YA manuscript I ever wrote (which shall remain in a drawer hibernating), the main criticism they had was that the MC seemed too mature and too sexual. Within the first half dozen chapters, she had already been in bed with two different guys, and she was well aware and comfortable with the friends w/ benefits status. I kept telling my critics that-
  1. This book was aimed at a 16 and up audience.
  2. Just look at the Gossip Girl series!
The Gossip Girl book series, of which I admit I leafed through a few volumes, contains sex and drugs, all told in a salacious, fun, and well, gossipy tone. And the Gossip Girl TV series also had a healthy dose of sex, drugs, drinking, partying. My friends, who admitted they were not well-versed in YA today, maybe just didn't understand.

But after a long talk with one of my friends, I realized that maybe they had a point. When I thought back on the storylines of the GG book series, they were not as X-rated as I remember. In the first few books I read, Blair was anxiously waiting to give her virginity to her long-term boyfriend Nate, Chuck tried to force a move on Little J but was stopped before anything happened, and Nate and Little J were caught quasi-but-not-really fooling around on a faux sex tape. While the books were by no means G-rated, they were not as jaded and overtly sexual as I remembered. The TV series, though, got into serious drugs and threesomes and teenage characters acting like adults.

TV series focused around young adults are much different than books marketed to young adults. Although most shows on the CW revolve around teenagers, they are aimed at an adult audience. The target demographic for the CW is Women 18-34. Same for ABC Family. MTV's most popular demographic is Person 12-34, teens lumped in with people old enough to be their parents. That's right -- networks aren't creating programming for teens, even if they know teens watch their shows. In order to make money, networks have to reach large audiences, even in niche targets. Millions of teens may watch Glee or 90210, but those shows ideally want to reach 20- and 30-something adults, hence the  mature characters and storylines.

Movies also want to reach large audiences because the goal of releasing movies is to make as much money as possible. That's one reason why many animated films like Shrek have jokes meant for parents that go over the kids' heads. They want to entertain the parents and they also want cross-demographic appeal. Hollywood does a better job of making product geared for teens, but they also count on adults buying tickets as well. Studios have divided all moviegoing audiences into four quadrants: men and women 25-and-under, and men and women 26-and-over. A "four-quadrant" film like Pirates of the Caribbean appealed to all audiences, theoretically. Even in these quadrants, teens are grouped in with 20-somethings. And I can tell you from personal experiences, me at 25 was vastly different from me at 15.

Movies nowadays are so expensive to make and market that it's hard to financially justify targeting a film solely to teenagers. Compared to $200M blockbusters, movies like Mean Girls and Easy A were super cheap to make. Mean Girls had a negative cost of $17M and Easy A only cost $8M, according to Box Office Mojo. However, each movie probably spent another $15-25M on prints and advertising. So that's on average $30-35M to release a teen film. Can you imagine if a publisher spent that money to release one YA novel? (A boy can dream...) The inevitably high cost means the movie studio can't rely on just teens to turn a profit.

Now, YA novels, those are aimed squarely at teens. I don't have publishing data, but I'm assuming that it costs far less to publish and release a YA novel than it does to air a TV show or release a movie. The publisher can target a sliver of the population, sell a couple thousand copies, and still make a profit. They don't have to consider pulling in different audience segments (although that's always welcome). The authors have the freedom to write specifically for -- and only for -- teen readers. Mass-market aside, books aren't trying to appeal to a broad audience; that's what makes them so special. Books are the most personal medium; all of the excitement happens in your head.

There are several YA books that deal with very mature, serious topics, but those are written through the viewpoint of a teen. (And contrary to the Wall Street Journal, they are an essential part of the YA market.) They never take on a preachy tone or step back to comment about what a struggle the MC is going through. The authors take into account their readers' limited perspective. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire dealt with grave issues seen through the eyes of a teen, but that was marketed to adults.

Was my MC too sexual? Not necessarily. I think that the issue was in how she handled it and her attitude towards sex. Life isn't like a TV show.  And from now on, I won't be comparing what I write to what I watch.

What do you think? What differences do you notice between YA books and teen shows and movies?

1 comment:

  1. First: so stoked to see you've started blogging, Phil! I love your posts so far—keep it up!

    I think, as you mentioned briefly, marketing is a huge difference in the way that teen books and teen TV shows are written. In a sense (a very cynical, oversimplified sense), television uses stories to get people to watch advertisements. And even if the characters on a TV show are in their teens, it's much more efficient to advertise to a demographic with a lot more disposable income, i.e. adult (ideally, employed) women. (Granted, there are lots of ads that are geared towards teens—I just don't think a network would get a lot out of airing all teen-geared ads.)

    Meanwhile, books are free from having to find advertisers, thereby giving authors more freedom in choosing an audience. But could you imagine if corporations bought ad space in books? Ew... Choosing not to think about it.