Blossom Books is a Dutch independent publishing house that specializes in the publication of young adult books. This interview with Myrthe Spiteri, the founder of Blossom Books, allows us to look behind the scenes of what influences and inspires the workings of a publishing house targeted to young readers.
Young adult, as a concept, is often laced with ambiguity because it is usually context-dependent and is considered as a period of transition between childhood and adulthood. Since it is thought to be a transition stage, features of both childhood and adulthood may be present and blurred in this period. Moreover, several assumptions are associated with adolescents, which colour our understanding of the concept. Because evaluations of what it means to be an adolescent is determined by ambiguity and steeped in assumptions, formulating a precise definition of "young adult" is somewhat difficult. One of the ways by which our understanding of this group can be improved is by taking a look at what kind of content is targeted towards them, and why they like it. There is no denying that the teenage years are formative, both in terms of physical development as well as in the participation of society, which makes it important to better understand this stage of life.
The popularity of young adult (YA) fiction today is uncontested. This interview gives an insight into the consumption of readers specifically in the context of Blossom Books. The insights have been brought forward by questions relating to trends which may better cater to a young audience, whether the needs of the audience are taken into consideration while publishing titles, and to what extent critical thinking is promoted for a young readership. Additionally, points of interest lie in the rise of digital technologies which have helped bridge the gap between publishers and consumers, especially through social media. These questions were developed with the hopes of furthering the discussion on what it means to be a young adult.
What inspired the formation of Blossom Books?
Well, I was doing an internship with Kluitman, which specializes in publishing children’s books until age 10 or 12. They wanted to reach older readers as well, since they were so popular for younger readers, a different imprint was needed that was not associated with Kluitman. They told me, since I was the youngest, that ‘you probably know what teenagers like, so you go ahead and make this imprint.’ I could do whatever I wanted with this imprint, even manage the social media. But my internship came to an end, and after I left, they wondered what to do with the imprint. Nobody else was there to help out with whatever I had started. They called me back, and I started working there. They really let me do my own thing. After six years, my boss wanted to retire. He sold Blossom Books to me, and I bought it with the help of investors. I didn’t have a clue what to do at first, but I managed. And now I have my own independent publishing house. So, I started because someone asked me to, and I loved it so much that I continued doing it.
What kinds of books, in your collection, do readers tend to gravitate towards?
An assumption that people have about young adult readers is that they only read fantasy. Fantasy is a very big genre, especially because they can become a series, which sells. But our most popular books are the contemporary love stories or a more literary story like Ik geef je de zon (I’ll give you the Sun) that talks about art, family and love. There is a German title Rübinrot, which translates to Ruby Red in English, which is the first book that Blossom Books ever published. It is still in print ten years later, and it is a romantic comedy, a contemporary story. It is one of the titles that still sells, and has a lot of reprints.
Do readers prefer getting physical copies of books or electronic copies?
There definitely is a preference. In the whole market, electronic books make up only 5% of the sales, which is really not much. Now, it may be a little bit more because of audio books. But people prefer physical books. What we try to do is to make a publication really beautiful, so that the book itself, aside from the story, will count as a collector’s item.
When you say you try to make them into eye-catching collector’s items, does it mean that there may be certain trends that need to followed to appeal to younger readers?
I wouldn’t really say there’s a trend in what teenage readers think is beautiful. Of course there’s a trend in design, but the overall features remain the same, like illustrated end papers, dust jackets, naked covers and metallic foils.
You publish beautiful new editions of classics, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Normally, classics aren’t considered young adult titles. What is the reason behind their publication?
The idea behind publishing these classics was that a lot of young adult novels have classic themes or mentions of classic stories. – as well as in art, music and movies. I realised that if we wanted to keep these stories alive, and to make YA readers read them, we needed to publish them in a very attractive way. So, I started this series of publishing classics like Romeo and Juliet, A Christmas Carol, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein. The translation is kept as original as possible, but there are things that are slightly adjusted to make them more accessible to contemporary readers.
What are your thoughts on the ‘readability’ of a book? Do you think some books are more suited to a young readership than others?
I try to publish a book for everyone, even for those who do not enjoy reading. So, in that sense, we have more difficult books or less difficult books, but it doesn’t really mean that it’s not suitable for young adult readers. I think it just depends on the level of reading. I think the classics may be more difficult to read, which is why we try to make them more accessible, but not necessarily easy. Reading should be something which is positive, and it shouldn’t be too difficult that it puts people off reading. We try to do that as much as possible, but I think it all depends on the reader. Some may like reading about sex more, some may be able to handle violence better. There are assumptions about what young readers like, but I think suitability is individual. When you’re in that age group, you are making an identity for yourself, figuring out your likes and dislikes. This age group cannot be protected from things that are considered “unsuitable”, because then they won’t learn about the world out there.
The website mentions that Blossom Books specialises in publishing for a young audience, ages 15 to 25. Most definitions of young adult put the age range between 12 and 18. Is there a reason for your choice of specific age range?
Yes, there is a reason because as a teenager, you usually don’t like to read books that are meant for younger people. All the main characters from the books are usually 15 or older. So, we say that the age range starts from 15, even though we know a lot of our readers are younger than that. The age range is also kept mainly for the parents or libraries. Like, this book is for 15 years or older, but if you think your kid can handle the contents, then it’s all okay. But, when you say it’s from 13 and up, teens who are 15 will not pick up the book. And then we noticed that a lot of young adult readers are older than 18. So, when you keep it between 12 to 18, you really limit the group. I personally think that young adult is from age 15 to 100. But booksellers, and other people, usually want to have a confirmed age group, so we kept it between 15 and 25.
Your website also mentions that the books you choose to publish hopefully promotes critical thinking in young readers. Are there any criteria to decide which books make the cut?
I usually choose books on topics that I like myself. With the books I publish, I don’t want to harm people, and I want to open readers’ visions and thoughts. I am more left-wing myself, and I would not publish books which have right-wing sensibilities, although one could argue that publishing such a title could promote critical thinking in what people might or might not agree with. But I publish what I consider important in society and what will help readers become better adults.
Do awards play a role in publishing titles?
Yes and no. It depends on the genre. Fantasy books can be really good but they usually don’t get awarded. But awards do help for some titles. For example, we started publishing Jason Reynolds, who is a black author. His stories are really popular in the US; especially under black readers he is a star and a phenomenon. The (Dutch) book industry is very white and used to be a lot more narrow-minded. Because of the praise he got, I was pushed to want to read his books and get out of my own bubble of what I thought would fit our list.. Sometimes you need an extra nudge to realize you should read something. If it wasn’t for the awards, my younger less educated me would have thought that his stories may be only suited for a black audience in America. Gratefully I’ve learned a lot since then. I still feel shame I used to think that way, but I can also see that with being much more aware now, I’ve already made a difference.
Digital technologies are said to bring publishers and teenagers together. Do you agree with this?
Yes, definitely. When I was younger no one told me that I can write to my favourite author or publisher. But now, those kinds of connections have become easier than ever. Now because of hashtags or tags, and people posting photos of things that they enjoy reading, I have access to that every day. I can just browse through Instagram, search our tags, and I can see what people are reading and what they like. We get messages on what kind of books they want to continue reading. It really has become easy to understand what our audience thinks.
Does knowing what your audience likes, with the help of social media, influence future publications?
Yes. International titles like Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe became very popular but their Dutch versions were not available until much later. I saw that so many people were enjoying reading these books through social media, and then found out that the rights were available. So, I bought the rights, and published them in Dutch, because they were so popular and well-loved. Knowing what our audience likes also helps with short term choices. We sometimes use social media to ask for feedback on new book covers, to find out whether people like them or not.
In ten years of Blossom Books, have there been changes with reaching out to young readers with changes in digital technologies?
When we started out, Twitter was more popular, and it was my favourite tool to use to reach the audience. When I was working, I had a separate screen with Twitter on which made it easy to reach out and reply to messages. In the middle, Facebook became big, and then it wasn’t anymore. Now, it is Instagram. We got an account on it really early, and we had to grow into the platform. Social media will always be very important to communicate. But I must say, for now, I skipped on Snapchat and I am skipping on TikTok. I think it’s much harder to convey your messages with funny videos, which are popular on these platforms. But I know Instagram will become less popular with teenagers and something else will come up. We have to grow with our audience.
Globally, the transition of childhood to adulthood differs depending on many factors, especially culture and region. Because of this, the concept of adolescence also differs. Do you think that you publish with themes that specific a young Dutch audience?
The books are in Dutch, so only those who can read Dutch can access them, but no, I don’t think they are specifically Dutch. What I think is important is that we publish books with subjects that are important to teenagers. But of course, it doesn’t mean that if you’re not a teenager, you cannot read it. For me, a book for adults misses some kind of magic, because in general adults have lost the ability to have an open mind about the world and the future. I guess we’ve seen and know too much. But when you’re a young adult, you still have that genuine excitement about the world being a good place – or being able to make it one. So, I think if you want to read a book with genuine hope, then YA is the perfect read.
Thank you, those were all the questions I wanted to ask! But is there anything you want to add, which you feel like you did not have the opportunity to say so far?
Yes, there is one thing. When I was younger, and I turned 12, the books I were told to read were all adult books. There wasn’t anything to cover the gap between childhood and adulthood. There would be some books with which you couldn’t relate. A lot of readers lose their enthusiasm at this stage in reading. I think teenagers need books which come close to what they live through, and it can help them keep loving reading.
This conversation with Myrthe Spiteri stressed on the importance of young adults having a specific genre of books to call their own, which deals with themes that they can identify with. The call for the need for separate content for young readers marks the importance of the adolescent stage of life. While it is true that anyone can read any book that they please, having a distinct genre for young adults points to the potentiality of shared characteristics among the group. At the same time, Spiteri emphasizes on the limitations of considering a specific age group related to the YA genre. Since the literature is broadly based on hope, for those who like to read such books, "young adult" may not be a developmental stage, but can be a state of mind.
Young adults today are not passive consumers. This is clear from Spiteri's experience with social media managing for Blossom Books. Audience participation not only brings publishers and readers closer together, but also influences future publications. This shows the effect of the rise and changes over time in digital technologies on both. Publishers can understand the needs of their audience to better cater to them, and the readership can also provide feedback. With the constant shift in popularities of social media platforms, as readers leave one platform to go to another, publishers must follow to reach out to them to keep growing and understanding their readership.
The conversation also helped break certain assumptions that people perhaps have linked with adolescence: such as there may be books better suited for a young readership or that they prefer some themes over others. Spiteri's experience shows that such assumptions are just that - assumptions. Readers gravitate towards all kinds of books, and break stereotypes, and what they like to read is entirely based on individual taste and level of reading. The goal of Blossom Books to encourage the love of reading in people with interesting titles that have the anticipation of hope is evident.