Loot Crates, geek boxes, and other themed subscription boxes are popular among the nerd and geek crowd as ways for fans to share in fandom-themed paraphernalia ranging from t-shirts and candles to bowties and pillowcases. Loot Crate, one of the oldest companies (in Internet years) centered around this merchandize, began in 2012. But since their inception, these subscription boxes have only gained in popularity and diversity. You can find loot boxes for specific video games such as Team Fortress 2 and Fortnite. I still don’t understand quite how virtual video games have ended up spawning endless physical merchandise. Would, a Fortnite themed loot crate contain codes for online legendary fortnite skins? That doesn’t make any sense to me! But, now there are even subscription boxes for everyday things, like clothing, food, shaving kits, and makeup.
So it would be no surprise that the publishing world would also get in on this, since it’s a great way for book nerds to feel connected to fellow fans, get some book merch, and spread the fandom love. They’re now so popular in the book community that Mashable came out with a comprehensive list of the 24 best book subscription boxes back in March.
But then, of course, as with every fandom, there are some who think outside the book box.
One such company is Bookish Stuff, and if you haven’t heard of them until very recently, there’s probably good reason for that. They found their claim to infamy through a specific niche item: The Boyfriend Book Box. Like most book boxes, these are also packed with book-specific goodies that pertain to the book each box focuses on. However, one particular box, the Illyrian Book Boyfriend box, which is based on Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, garnered some (perhaps unwanted) attention for its overt sexual nature.
Now, I do want to make clear that the company did put a warning on this particular box to account for the sexual themes in its contents, which you can see on their website.
They also put out a statement responding to backlash to this particular Book Boyfriend Box, where they repeat their sexual content warning.
For those who haven’t seen exactly what was in the Illyrian Book Boyfriend box, along with a few standard pins, some lip balm, character fanart, and a fanfic, the focal point of the hubbub, if not the book box as well, was a bar of soap shaped like a dick, called “Illyrian wingspan,” referencing a lewd joke made by one of the series’ protagonists.
As soon as I found out about this little event that turned all of Book Twitter on its head, I had so many feelings about it that I actually had a dream where I explained my thoughts on it to a Barnes and Noble representative. Not because I was overwhelmed by the idea of washing my hands with a phallic object, but because of the nature of A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR for short), how it’s handled as a series in the market, and the nature of publishing and book marketing as a whole.
And you thought this was going to be an article about soap dicks.
This book box fiasco and the attention it garnered is important to talk about for a lot of reasons, and there are a lot of components that I’m not going to delve into—and I mean a LOT; if you have any doubt about that, just go to Book Twitter to get an eyeful—but I think this entire ordeal really points to why we need a New Adult (NA) genre and why publishers need to learn to create a market for it. So welcome to this unofficial TED Talk on a subject that I’m really passionate about: why NA should be a category in the publishing industry.
YA (or Young Adult, for those who might not be read up on the lingo) literature as a category is great, especially for its fantasy. I’m a huge fan of YA, especially because of all it can do and how much room there is to play. The world building is complex, the universes are rich and lavish, and the characters are memorable and fun. YA should be perfect for doing a lot of complex things, exploring budding romance, building relationships, and tackling a lot of issues that teenagers face as they mature and learn about who they are. It’s a diverse category, and thankfully, with the help of movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the call for #ownvoices stories, it will hopefully continue to become more diverse in the near future. But I also mean it’s diverse in that it covers a wide group of ages, where a lot of development and changes happens from one end to the other. And as a result, there are a LOT of disparate books that fit into that umbrella category. Just walk into the Young Adult section in your local bookstore or library and see how many books there are, and how many age groups it contains. YA as a category is asked to do a lot for its readers, as well it should. It’s also asked—or perhaps forced, intentionally or not—to cater to adults.
I’m currently reading book three of Sarah J. Maas’ ACOTAR series, and though I don’t know all the drama, I do know this: this book should never have been marketed as YA to begin with. There are a great number of sex scenes that read like an adult romance novel—and sidebar, this is NOT to turn my nose up at romance lit; I have read romance (specifically Tessa Dare’s fun, breezy bodice rippers) and I really like them—and aside from the age of the protagonist (19-20), everyone else in the book is an adult, and because they’re immortal, they’re all the old as dirt kind of adults that don’t look a day over 28 and totally ripped because immortality. So it’s okay if their sex is a debaucherous raunch fest.
This is also NOT to say that sex shouldn’t exist or be written about in YA: it absolutely 100% should. Because sex can be and is part of the teenage experience for a lot of people and books should exist that reflect that as much as books exist that reflect other parts of the teen experience. Basically, everyone should write their teen experiences as they experienced them and all of those experiences are valid. That is also a different conversation that I will set aside for now, because representation of sexual relationships in YA could be an entirely different article and reminds me of some content from an enitrely different website like sexmature.xxx.
My point is that ACOTAR should have been NA from the very start because of the way it depicts and talks about its sex. Think of it this way: if a movie adaptation were made and the very explicit sex scenes stayed in, would it be rated PG-13? I think not; it would have been given an R rating so fast that everyone’s little fae ears would have fallen off. It’s technically adult content because of the way it’s written. It’s lewd. It’s steamy. It’s basically Harlequin. I was actually surprised by how explicit it was in some places, and by how often the characters swear; again, the number of F-bombs dropped alone would get the series an R rating were this a movie. As I’m reading the books now, I’m 26 and I don’t care one way or another because I’ve read worse and am mature enough to know how to separate fictitious sexual romps from reality, but then I think back to 14-year-old-Liv and I think about how scandalized I might have been if I had picked this up at a more impressionable age. I also would have been given a very skewed idea of what romantic relationships look like; again, I’m not going to touch the topic of representation of sexual relationships in YA because it’s a complicated topic. But bottom line, ACOTAR writes about fun, steamy sex, but the relationships that are depicted aren’t always healthy. It’s fine to read about these if you have a sense of what a healthy relationship looks like, but it’s not the best representation of what a relationship is, especially for a younger reader who might be trying to navigate that part of growing up for the first time. It would be like trying to get information on law enforcement from Deadpool. It’s just… not a good idea.
Again, this isn’t to say that teenagers can’t handle hard-hitting material or that they’re not mature enough to read about sex or other complex issues. Of course they are. Teens are smart, and they learn about their world and themselves through media, so they absolutely should have media geared toward and reflecting their experiences, and media makers should pay attention to those experiences in all their complexity. I just don’t think fantasy sex equivalent to what’s shown on Game of Thrones (the show, not the book series) should get a YA stamp of approval and be housed on a shelf next to Divergent.
To my above point, it’s this very thing about this type of YA that makes it not quite appropriate for some teens but also makes it appealing to older readers. I saw a comment on Twitter that mentioned the user’s frustration with older readers crowding into the YA book space. I can see their point, but my counterpoint would be that this is only happening because publishers are cramming books into the YA age group that don’t necessarily belong there.
And lest we forget that adults read and have read YA since its first inception, need I remind you lovely goldfish about the Mommy Twilight movement? Teen girls and their moms were clamoring for that series—heck, my mom read it at the same time I did when I was 14, mostly because she liked reading what I was reading so we could talk about it. Adults read YA. YA is great, why shouldn’t they read it? But it’s not geared to them, because it’s geared toward, you know, Young Adults, the actual demographic it’s supposed to reach.
So to that end, let me jump back to dicksoapgate for a moment. The box had an 18+ warning on it, meaning that it was explicitly geared toward the older readers this book subscription company knew read and loved ACOTAR. And yes, even though kids and teens technically need parental permission to buy things, they of course can easily forgo this—I even told DeviantArt that I was over 18 when a mature content warning came up, even if I wasn’t. Kids will get their hands on stuff. However, if the book box was specifically geared toward a book that was written for older audiences, would it have been the same issue? I’m sure people older than 17 read and love the ACOTAR series. Like I said, I’m 26 and I’m reading it. For older readers, it’s fine to fill a box with dick soap and let fellow fans titter about the outrageousness of it, if they’re all adults. The creators of the book box even pointed out that the item in there that caused such a kerfuffle is something prevalent at bachelorette parties. Please note that I am only talking about the issue of the dick soap here. I will not touch upon the fanfic selling issue because this article is already long enough, and that’s a separate topic worthy of separate discussion.
So here, at last, is the summary: YA is fantastic, but I think publishers are trying too hard to cram too much into its wheelhouse. Thirteen to 17-year-old protagonists are great, and more than great, and you can cover a lot of ground with a traditionally-aged teen protagonist, but when authors want to write something that skews a little darker, a little older, or a little more mature, they age the protagonist up to 18 or 19, and it gets crammed into the YA scene too, which I think is a mistake because then you’re technically targeting a different audience.
And here’s why. People are mentally and physically at different developmental stages when they’re in college or in the workforce than when they’re starting high school. Summer reading for college freshman is much different than it is for high school freshman, and for good reason. Did you want to read the same things at 13 that you did at 18? If yes, great! If no, also great, and there should be books to accommodate that! Besides, people who grew up with YA titles love them for a reason, and want to keep visiting that vibrancy and fun, but with older characters who can reflect their emerging adulthood.
If only we had a book category where older teens and young 20-somethings could have books that tackle issues of burgeoning adulthood while still maintaining the special brand of world building, complex plots, and fantastical ideas that are so phenomenal in YA. Gee, I wonder what something like that could be?
In case you need a hint, it rhymes with “crew occult”.
I saw someone on Twitter say that NA has died in traditional publishing, but I don’t think that’s true. I think bigger publishers never gave it a chance to live because they didn’t know what to do with it. Currently, NA is a blip on the publishing world’s radar. It’s a lot of erotica, mostly contemporary, and you can tell from the way it’s marketed that publishers still aren’t sure what to do with it. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that books that could be bestsellers for NA are getting crammed into the YA section because publishers have a formula for marketing them.
On the face of it, it really isn’t as niche an idea as it sounds, and it could be marketed similarly to the way YA is currently marketed now, but to that range of the demographic that’s slightly older and looking for something that offers slightly different things. And it isn’t like moving NA into its own category suddenly makes it an elite club with a bouncer at the door saying “None under 20 shall pass!” But it would give publishers the opportunity to differentiate between books with kissing and books with X-rated steam factor, and readers could make informed decisions on what they want to read no matter their age. Same goes for other issues that might be graphically depicted and make readers uncomfortable, and should have warnings attached (although warnings should be attached no matter the genre or age group) and that’s another conversation, too.
I could ramble on forever, but I’ll leave it here by saying that this entire incident should be the wakeup call that publishers need to see that there is a portion of the market whose needs aren’t being met, and a portion of their market whose needs are being incorrectly met as a result of this oversight, and all it would take would be one extra genre between YA and adult to make the whole system work. We need to figure out how to make NA a viable option in the publishing world, even though I’m surprised we as an industry needed dick soap to see it.
If this all manages to actually make publishers pay attention to what the book market needs, and encourages them to make smarter decisions about marketing books, then that Illyrian wingspan will be impressive after all.