Career Achievers: Barry Lyga on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Barry Lyga.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

When you first invited me to be a part of this amazing series, I warned you that my schedule meant I would have to come late in the process. The problem with that, of course, is that the folks who’ve come before me have made so many powerful points with such clarity and perspicacity that I fear I have nothing worth contributing.

Fortunately, that’s never stopped me from running my mouth anyway.

I wish I knew how I’ve made it this far. I mean, I have my suspicions and some ideas, but nothing confirmed. It’s not the sort of conversation you can have with people like editors and publishers without sounding like you’re fishing for a compliment. “Hey, why do you think I’m so long-lived? Feel free to use words like ‘genius,’ ‘compelling,’ and ‘devastatingly handsome’ in your response.”

I think that it comes down a few things, though.

First of all, I have an agent who is an absolute pit bull when it comes to my career. It takes a lot to make her give up on a project of mine.

We just recently made a deal to have one of my books turned into a movie in Korean — that deal took three years of her life and many, many midnight conference calls to Seoul. I would have given up somewhere in the first year. She never did.

She’s also willing to hang on for the ride when I decide to go from, say, literary coming-of-age fiction to superhero novels. It doesn’t faze her and she’s fine with it. She’s never tried to cram me into a box or constrain my writing.

Before I signed with her (13 years ago!), I said to her, “I may not always write this kind of book. Are you okay with that?” and she responded, “If you write it, I’ll sell it.”

She’s been as good as her word all these years. So my takeaway there is: agents matter. A lot.

Then there’s the writing itself. I’m not the greatest writer in the world, but I’m good enough that publishers seem interested in seeing what I can do for them. I’ve been given opportunities to try new things because Publisher X or Y looks at my work and thinks, “Hey, I wonder what he could do if we gave him some slack in the rope?”

And there’s me. I’m not the easiest person to work with, but I have a couple of things going for me: first, I’m a really fast writer. That’s a reputation that has, I believe, helped me immensely, especially for certain projects that require fast turnarounds.

Second, I think the things I tend to raise a stink over are things that publishers find it easy to either surrender on or work around.

Finally, at the risk of sounding immodest, I tend to turn in first drafts that don’t need a huge amount of revision. I don’t think I’ve ever gone beyond two rounds of revision and often only need one.

This makes it easier to work with me and means less stress for the publisher…which can compensate a lot for lackluster sales or my persnickety attention to details that no one else cares about.

And lastly, this: In a 12-year career, I’ve missed exactly one deadline. And even then, it was only by a week.

You add this all up and I think publishers look at me and think, “We know the book will come in on time, in decent shape, and it will sell a certain base level. Sometimes, he gets lucky and knocks one out of the park, but at the very least, his work usually gets good reviews.”

And in publishing, a wildly inconsistent industry where it’s anyone’s guess how a book will sell or how readers will react to it, that means a lot.

I’m not a sure thing, but I’m a relatively safe gamble. I’m a known quantity. And I’m professional AF.

As to bumps… Sometimes it feels like this business is all bumps, but that’s okay— smooth roads are boring. Truly, every single book I’ve published has had some kind of drama attached to it.

My very first book was supposed to get a great review by a well-known media personality in a highly regarded newspaper (how’s that for being cagey?).

It was dropped because it turns out the personality and I had a mildly personal connection that made him feel uncomfortable reviewing the book. That same book was supposed to get end-cap exposure at a major retail chain, but the person who issued the command to do so left the company…and the replacement never saw the memo.

Who knows what might have happened with that book if one or both of those things had happened?

And yet… And yet that book did really well! For a little while there, it was outselling Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005). (The one and only time in my life I can say I outsold John!)

The biggest bumps come from within, though, which sounded pithy when I first typed it, but looks oddly medical now.

Anyway, the second-guessing and stressing and constant internal battles over whether or not to push your publisher on this or that are the worst. They outweigh any external bumps in the road because they’re under your control and yet that doesn’t make them less potent — it makes them more potent.

You make your decision and then you realize that you can’t take it back and you’ll never really, truly know if it was the right decision, and you only have yourself to blame.

I was raised Catholic. Can you tell?

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

There’s a temptation to say “Nothing.” After all, even my mistakes led to my present situation, which — while not what I expected or planned for — is pretty damn good. And even though I can identify certain moments in retrospect where I wince at my past self, who’s to say that “fixing” those moments wouldn’t somehow backfire and put me in a worse situation than the one I’m currently in?

Still, let’s respect the question and think on this. Truthfully, I think the biggest thing I would do differently is this: I would have either not written my third book — Hero Type (HMH Books, 2009) — or I would have written it very differently.

It’s not that it’s a bad book and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that after Boy Toy (HMH Books, 2007), I had a certain reputation and there were certain expectations.

Boy Toy sold horribly. I have to be sure to mention that — it just absolutely tanked in the market. But it got a lot of critical attention and I didn’t know that it had tanked until a year later, when I got my first royalty statement.

So, I had this rep as the guy who wrote a very ballsy book about male victims of molestation, a graphic, unsparing account. And I followed it up with a political treatise, which is not what people wanted or expected.

The problem was that I was very much in a mode of thinking that went like this: If I do what people expect, then I’m falling into a trap in which I have to care more about what the reader wants than what I want. And that means that I end up in this very special hell in which I’m trying to second-guess not just readers, but the readers of a year or two hence, when the book I’m writing will come out.

So I decided to “teach” readers to expect the unexpected from me. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have made that third book so radically different from the second.

I might also have not been quite so prolific. Don’t get me wrong — I love my books and I’m glad I wrote them.

But one time I was bemoaning that no one seemed to be excited about my new book and my wife said, “You had a new book out nine months ago, too. You never went away, so people don’t get the chance to miss you.”

There’s a truth to that. If you have books coming out constantly, well, familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it sometimes midwives apathy.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why? 

I think YA is in the process of changing from marketing category-cum-genre into a political movement. I can’t think of another example of this sort of transmogrification in the art-space and I’m very curious to see where it leads.

That’s right now, though. Over the past dozen years, I’ve watched as YA went from “no one’s watching — let’s have fun!” to “Everyone is watching. Let’s do whatever it takes to make lots of money.”

It’s very weird. My first publisher went to great pains to tell me that she didn’t care what my book sold when it came out — she cared about what it would sell over ten or twenty years. She wanted something with that sort of longevity.

I think publishers still want that kind of longevity, but they want a big opening weekend, too. They want a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s very different than how it used to be.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year? 

Find a level of social media engagement that is sustainable for you in the long term.

It’s easy to get caught up in the relative fame of social media in the beginning and to spend way too much time on it…which then sets people up with the expectation that this is how you will always be on social media.

But the fact of the matter is that social media is like anything else, where you get bored or you drift away for a little while, which inevitably disappoints people.

Also: Come up with a plan for a newsletter that is, again, sustainable in the long-term. I’ve launched and relaunched mine something like four times.

I haven’t figured out the formula yet for timeliness and interest combined with what I’m capable of doing on a regular basis.

Lastly: Enjoy this! This is your dream come true (in part, at least), to launch a publishing career.

There are a million disappointments coming your way, but try to bat them aside and enjoy the many, many thrilling and unexpected surprises that will surface as well.

It’s easy to get distracted by the business stuff, and I’m not saying to ignore that — you do so at your peril! — but make time to sit back and bask in the fact that, yes, this is happening!

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Great books. Diverse books. Books that challenge. An industry that finds a way to support smaller titles that may not ever sell in the millions, but deserve a bigger audience than what they have.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Little, Brown, 2017

Is it crass to say “More sales?” Probably. But at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Not merely from a gross money standpoint, but rather from the perspective of proving to publishers that it’s okay to keep taking a risk with me.

Yeah, every book sold is money in my pocket, but more importantly it says, “Hey, keep publishing this guy!”

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to keep publishing books.

I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me — they’re going to be really boring if I can’t tell people stories.

Oh, and a good night’s sleep. That would be awesome.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.