Thought Leadership Blog Post

Byline: Andrew J. Sass

Blog post word count: 1383

Explanation of topic: My blog post evaluates the recent development at HarperCollins, wherein young adult (YA) book imprint Inkyard Press was recently shuttered. While blog posts exist that report on this and other dismantled imprints, I struggled to find commentary that examines these recent closures in light of the children’s and YA book sector’s market trends over the past two decades. I provide a recent historical overview of this sector to my target audience of newer authors—those who have worked within the industry for five or fewer years—and link it to an ultimately positive outlook. My aim is education and encouragement, particularly for marginalized authors who are writing stories featuring diverse characters traditionally underrepresented within this sector of the publishing industry.

Necessary context: An imprint is a division under which a publisher releases a work. A single publishing company may have many imprints that target specific demographics of readership (e.g., Salaam Reads is an imprint of Simon & Schuster devoted to publishing books that “center on positive and joyous portrayals of the Muslim experience.”). A visual representation of the imprints owned by their respective Big 5 US trade book publishers can be viewed here.

The Shuttering of Inkyard Press is a Plot Twist—Not the Climax—in the Story of Children’s and YA Publishing

On August 1, HarperCollins shuttered Inkyard Press, which was operated under its Harlequin Trade Publishing division. This development comes on the heels of increasing upheaval within the publishing industry’s children’s and YA book sectors.

While it would be easy to claim that Inkyard is simply the latest casualty in a particularly volatile publishing sector, its dissolution is indicative of a multi-pronged issue that has roots in the children’s lit heyday of the early aughts. And although Inkyard’s closure is unquestionably a blow to a subset of the industry that is seeing decreasing sales and increasing attempts at censorship, there is reason to believe that these setbacks are temporary when viewed in light of this sector’s recent history and growing trajectory toward diversity and accessibility.

How We Got Here

Some have called Inkyard’s closure one of many inevitable course corrections after the success of series like Harry Potter and Twilight. These book series ushered in an era of soaring readership, and editors were eager to use them as springboards to acquire the next big money-making hits. As a consequence, publishers flooded their children’s and YA backlists for the next decade and a half; new imprints opened under the auspices of publishing heavyweights Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

Business was booming—until it wasn’t.

While a handful of titles became bestsellers in the years that followed, fewer books grew into the hoped-for franchises of their predecessors. Revenue leveled out, then dipped. Those most familiar with the industry pointed to market saturation as the primary culprit.

It wasn’t exclusively bad news during this period, however. Calls for more diverse representation within the children’s and YA space led to positive changes that saw Angie Thomas’s debut YA novel, The Hate U Give, hit the New York Times bestseller list for several months due to its nuanced depiction of a fictional Black community’s reaction to a fatal police shooting. The first transgender author to make the New York Times list was Aiden Thomas with his YA debut, Cemetery Boys. In the middle grade category, B.B. Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers debuted as a bestseller, and both Donna Barba Higuera’s The Last Cuentista and Amina Luqman-Dawson’s Freewater hit the list the week after they respectively won the Newbery Medal for their distinguished contributions to young people’s literature. All of these books featured characters with identities and heritages that have been traditionally underrepresented in story narratives—and they sold well.

Many books thrived as a result of the #ownvoices movement that encouraged publishers to acquire and champion diverse books written by marginalized authors. There was a sense of hopefulness among authors and industry professionals alike that promoting these stories would be the way to bolster age categories whose revenues were lagging.

Then the pandemic hit and book banning efforts came with it.

Multiple Prongs Got Us To Where We Are Now

For decades, children’s and YA publishers used in-person book festivals and trade conferences to promote their lists. When the pandemic shut these events down, publishing initially struggled to pivot. Supply chain delays also impacted the industry severely, often delaying releases and reprint orders for books that were surprise successes. Sales lagged, setting off a chain reaction of imprint closures and in-house reorganizations.

In 2020, Imprint (owned by Macmillan) closed, just two days after Little, Brown (operating under Hachette) announced that it planned to restructure its Jimmy Patterson Books imprint, moving all non-Patterson authored titles out of the imprint, to be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers going forward. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House (which itself formed as a result of a merger between Penguin and Random House in 2013), recently faced a reorganization that merged its existing editorial team with another PRH imprint, Putnam, just weeks before the press release about Inkyard.

At the time of its dissolution, Inkyard was releasing 2-4 books per month, many of which centered BIPOC, queer, neurodivergent, and other diverse characters. While the books will be absorbed by other HarperCollins imprints—including titles that have yet to release—the loss of an imprint that prioritized diverse stories has been felt throughout all corners of the industry.

Source: @AdenPolydoros, author of Sydney Taylor Book Award winner THE CITY BEAUTIFUL, via Twitter

YA sales, in particular, have been consistently down in 2023, compared with sales at the same time in 2022. This is contrasted with books in other age categories using the same assessment criteria, which have shown an upward trend. While some cite the high cost of YA hardcovers coupled with the decline in YA paperback releases, as well as the proliferation of book series over stand-alone novels—and these all very well may be contributing causes—one of the often overlooked factors that may be the source of both declining sales and the decision to close imprints that champion diverse books is the recent uptick in book banning efforts.

PEN America, a nonprofit that aims to protect free expression within the United States, released an updated report in April 2023 that tracks book bans and censorship within classrooms and school libraries throughout the US. The organization observed an escalation when compared with data it collected in 2021. While the report indicates that censorship has impacted a wide range of children’s and YA literature, PEN America noted that book banners overwhelmingly appear to target diverse stories, mainly books written by and about people of color (30%) and members of the LGBTQIA+ community (26%). When books are taken off classroom and library shelves, readers lose the opportunity to be introduced to new authors. Publishers, in turn, lose money and become less willing to take a chance on acquiring future books from these authors.

It is no wonder, then, that the over-saturation of children’s and YA books, along with the pandemic and the inception of book bans against diverse titles, has led to the closure of multiple imprints.

Looking Ahead: Positive Developments and Organized Pushback

While the children’s and YA book sector has certainly gone through its fair share of growing pains over the past two decades, it has also made a great deal of positive progress. Twenty years ago, there was minimal industry-wide interest in promoting diversity within this space. This has since changed. The Stonewall Book Awards, established in 1971, added a category for Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2010. The Sydney Taylor Book Awards, which recognize children’s and YA books that authentically depict the Jewish experience, became an affiliate of the American Library Association in 2019, exponentially extending the reach and recognition of the titles which have recently received the award. New independent imprints such Levine Querido, at which the primary aim is to “give voice to a[n] … exceptionally diverse group of authors,” have recently launched and boasted their fair share of award-winning titles.

While publishing initially struggled to pivot from in-person to virtual events at the onset of the pandemic, these events are now regularly offered in a hybrid format, making them more accessible to a wider audience. And efforts to counter book bans and censorship have seen new, encouraging developments over the past year. PEN America and Penguin Random House, joined by multiple authors and parents whose children have been impacted by book bans, recently filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the removal and restriction of books within a Florida school district. Authors like Jodi Picoult, Judy Blume, and others are using their platforms to speak out against book bans, and campaigns to raise money to send diverse books to families in states impacted by censorship have made positive impacts on local communities.

Inkyard’s closure may seem like another dark moment within the children’s and YA book sector—and it is absolutely a loss, without question. But when we take a step back and view this sector’s trajectory over the last twenty years, we can clearly see a push for more accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity, which should ultimately increase future revenue by broadening readership. In this industry especially, setbacks are never the end; thanks to the hard work of authors, educators, and supportive publishing professionals, they are merely plot twists to be navigated before moving onto the story’s next segment.