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The YA Bestseller List and John Green

Let’s talk about John Green and the NYT bestseller list, shall we?

I have no statistics, but based on time in bookstores, my own bookshelves, and the cohort of debut 2015 YA authors, I’d say that the majority of people writing YA are women. Unsurprisingly, it’s therefore often portrayed as a shallow, pointless genre, perpetuated by the “damned mob of scribbling women” that has been reviled by “serious” authors and readers since the 1800s at least.

But when it comes to bestseller status and critical acclaim, those women are all but invisible. Last week’s NYT bestseller list featured eight titles by men and two titles by women. This week’s only has one title by a woman, and that one in tenth place. And these two bold women on the bestseller list? Both of them have been seriously promoted by John Green, the male YA author who holds four out of ten places on the list right now. Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor & Park was held the 10th spot last week, received a serious sales boost after John Green reviewed the book in the New York Times. Although the success was well deserved, it didn’t occur because of the book alone. And the other book by a female author, This Star Won’t Go Out, is a memoir that is so closely connected to John Green that I’m surprised the publishers didn’t write “The real story of the Fault in Our Stars” on the cover.

Of course, John Green’s domination of the list right now doesn’t end with his own books and those female authors he supports. Two spots on both lists are filled by Ransom Riggs, another author who has been heavily supported by John Green. The other books on the list are fairly old titles (at least in the world of YA), also written by male authors: The Book ThiefPerks of Being a Wallflower, and Thirteen Reasons Why. I’m assuming The Book Thief has had a spike of popularity because of the movie. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Thirteen Reasons Why are in the John Green school of YA (or John Green is in the Perks of Being a Wallflower school of YA) — dark and angsty contemporary YA novels about death, depression and other such things, usually with a male protagonist and written by a man.

How can this be the case in a genre that’s supposedly “dominated” by women? How can the bestsellers of a genre that is mostly read by female readers, written by female writers, and about female characters by 90% written by male authors, with 7/9 of the novels starring a male protagonist?

The obvious and easy answer, of course, is The Fault in Our Stars. Combine John Green’s internet presence (nearly 2 million Youtube subscribers) with the fact that The Fault in Our Stars mixes romance, angst and cancer to create the perfect emotional smash hit, and it’s understandable that the book went nuclear in popularity, that people then bought John Green’s backlist of books, and that they pick up books with his endorsement on the cover. But The Fault in Our Stars simply isn’t that good. Not that it isn’t good, of course. But it isn’t head and shoulders above other YA novels, even those within the same subcategory. There are many novels by female authors that fit a similar bill and are just as emotional and accomplished, if not more so. Books by Gayle Forman. Courtney Summers. Sara Zarr.

Other women have held prominent places in the bestseller list — Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth, to name two. But I don’t ever recall seeing this sort of domination. Or consider Cassandra Clare, whose initial success could be attributed to her fame in the old world of Harry Potter fandom. She’s had NYT bestselling titles, certainly. But sticking a recommendation from her on the front of a book isn’t going to catapult it to success. 

Another easy answer is that successful female authors write series, while men are more likely to write standalone books. All of those bestselling female authors I just named are genre series writers. And if you look at the NYT bestselling children’s series list this week, 6 out of 10 authors are women. But there are a couple of very uncomfortable implications here. The NYT added a children’s bestseller list in 2000 because Harry Potter had dominated the list for a couple of years and seemed to be getting a greater hold with each new release.  I also have the sense that the series list is an even more recent invention of the NYT (although my google search hasn’t brought up any dates), shifting books that would otherwise hold places on the main list (currently including Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, The Hunger Games series and The Mortal Instrument series, which has more than three books — the criteria for a “series” — but is incomplete) onto a secondary list, and gathering several successful books by female authors into one single item. John Green writes standalones, so he can hold four places on the list. These successful female authors do not, so they can only hold one.

So firstly, genre novels are more likely to be series, and more likely to be moved off the main list. But the greater problem is the idea that female authors only write genre. That the women are writing dystopia or vampires, and the men are writing the serious literary stuff about cancer and war and death. But this is also patently untrue. For every John Green book, there are many similarly wonderful, literary, contemporary YA novels written by women. I named just a few of the authors who are writing them above. And yet, unless they’re promoted by John Green, they don’t feature. And The Book Thief is fabulous, but where is Code Name Verity or Between Shades of Grey or other similar amazing WWII novels with female authors?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. Perhaps it’s because books by male authors are marketed differently. Perhaps it’s because of crossover appeal to adult readers (after all, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t look like YA). There are a million potential “perhaps,” and I’m not really in a position to pick out a definitive answer. But the questions definitely need to be asked. And, considering John Green’s presence on Tumblr and Youtube, it’s something that I wish he’d weigh in on. Not because it’s his fault, and not because he has the answers, but because his words seem to carry more weight than anybody’s in YA right now. And this is something that needs to be talked about.


Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

8 thoughts on “The YA Bestseller List and John Green

  1. The UK children’s bestseller list as given by The Bookseller is almost always all male writers, and I have usually supposed this to be because most boys will only read books by and for boys, whereas girls will read both. So boys’ books or books by men may outsell books aimed clearly at girls. YA fiction should be less clear-cut though, shouldn’t it? I suspect the young men go on to read non-YA category fiction once beyond 12-15: sci-fi, fantasy, crime, adventure, non-fiction etc. and young women stay with YA until much later when they graduate in late teens/early 20s to romance, fantasy, women’s fiction, crime etc. It should NOT be like that, but having five children of my own I can point to my own experience of teen reading habits following that trend, regardless of the PC aspect. I’m not saying THAT is why the list is skewed towards men, but it may be a factor. However, this kind of bias leaves me infuriated. I saw it in poetry when I was a poet, and now I see it in bestseller lists and prize nominations as a novelist. If young women truly believe – as I suspect many do – that we no longer need feminism because we are now all ‘equal’, I very much fear for the future of our gender.

  2. Why can’t a book be on the betsellers’ list because it’s good? How can you simply say that TFiOS isn’t *that* good, so it shouldn’t be at the top of the list? Who made you the judge of how people should respond to a book? And have you even factored in the fact that the movie adaptation of TFiOS is coming out soon? Sales of the source material usually go up when this happens. It would also explain why The Book Thief is among the top books. Why does everything have to be about sexism? Why can’t a book be simply good to be on the NYT’s list? Why should these male authors be at fault for writing stand-alone novels? The female authors can write stand-alone books if they wish to do so. I seriously don’t see the point in trying to understand this bias. It’s not a conspiracy.

    Here’s John Green explaining why TFiOS is successful.

    1. I didn’t mean it isn’t “that good” as in “it isn’t good enough to be on the top of the bestsellers list.” But it isn’t so much better than everything else written that it makes sense for John Green to completely dominate the bestseller list in this way. Female authors are writing standalone contemporary YA. The fact that it’s not getting attention is the problem.

  3. “I have no statistics.”

    Well, that’s a problem. You need statistics, over time, to figure out what’s going on and whether or not it represents a genuine problem.

    I’m also not convinced that women are necessarily writing more series or more genre then men, and are therefore disadvantaged by the existence of the series list. (Again, statistics are your friend.) John Green isn’t, but Ransom Riggs, who’s taking up two spots on the current list, is. If he writes a third Miss Peregrine book presumably he’ll be sent to the series list as well.

    And I’m not sure there’s a problem with being on the series list vs. being on the main list.
    Given that they created the Children’s/Young Adult list because Harry Potter so dominated the adult list and, I’m presuming, that the series list was created because of what it was doing to Children’s, I’d be curious as to how John Green’s books would stack up against the adult list. Probably not very well. My experience is that he is nowhere near the crossover success that say The Hunger Games or Mortal Instruments were.

    Basically, I’m not sure you’ve found anything out except that John Green is popular and really good at self-promotion.

    1. Actually, John Green is a MASSIVE crossover success — far more than the Mortal Instruments, certainly. The Fault in Our Stars is the number 3 topselling book on Amazon as I type this, and the top fiction book, and it’s been hovering around the top position for months.

      But this article wasn’t meant to be a piece of investigative journalism, uncovering the secrets behind the YA publishing industry. It’s a statement of troubling facts and trends. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone has done a study where they’ve counted what percentage of YA novels published, in total each year, are written by men or women, and so I have nothing to cite except the rather demonstrable sight of the ratio of male to female names when you check out the YA section in Barnes and Noble. And it’s possible that women are not more likely to write series than men, when you break down what percentage of each gender writes for each genre… but the perception to me is that women can write the more “frivolous” teen genre fiction and get recognition for it, but the authors who get recognition for “serious” YA literature are often men (as shown by the non-series bestseller list). Everything else I said is very much based on statistics and backed up by research over time. This study of the YA bestseller list by Stacked is a good place to start.

  4. Yes! Thank you for addressing a problem that no one thinks to talk about, and/or does not see it as a large enough problem to garner attention. I’m so tired of nerdfighters hating anyone who stands in their way. Isn’t enough already that the approval rates for Green are so ridiculously high? As someone who reads a LOT, I’ve come across a huge number of books that are more well written than any of Green’s work, and more realistic and genuine. Not to say that the man doesn’t have skill, but as I consider writing as a possible future career, I am disturbed at what a disadvantage women have.

    1. Please don’t be disturbed to the point of not pursuing writing as a career! The publishing industry has its problems with sexism, as do many industries, but there are many amazing writers, editors, publicists, etc that work hard to support female authors, and we can only change things by tackling it directly.

  5. Okay, so I’ve read a lot of YA by both male and female authors, and I think The Fault In Our Stars IS better than most of the realistic fiction out there, and I know other people who are in the same boat. He’s gained popularity because he speaks to a certain niche of teenagers (myself included) better than many other current fiction authors do. Also, though I really like Code Name Verity, Book Thief is a much better book. And Between Shades of Gray was mediocre at best.

    That being said, I don’t disagree that there is a lot of sexism found in the industry, especially in the ways that YA fiction is targeted as being too “shallow” or “girly.” And apart from John Green, my favorite YA authors are women, but they, unfortunately, aren’t nearly as well-known (Laini Taylor, Melina Marchetta, Kristin Cashore, etc.) I’d say the bigger issue in the NYT list these past months is the domination of realistic fic, which seems to be written by an equal amount of male and female writers and is currently being dominated by Green, as opposed to fantasy, which is dominated by strong female authors.

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