What is the big deal about Age Group??

Lately it seems like I’ve been talking about age group more and more, both with other writers and readers alike. Trying to place a book by age group is harder than you think. We have all read books that slide between Young Adult and Adult (isn’t that now called New Adult). Every adult I know with small children has a favorite children’s book, that they have bought to share with their kids. And why isn’t Adult broken down further too? Shouldn’t there be more Age categories for people over 18? What about these new categories:

  • ABI – Adult But Immature
  • MBD – Mature But Distracted
  • MP – Menopausal
  • RTB – Retired and Bored

Seriously though, the age categories seem arbitrary and confusing. So what is the big deal? Why even worry about it?

Simply put, discoverability.

For authors at all stages we are writing books that we hope will be read and loved. For that to happen we need to build an audience. Some authors, I’m looking at you Stephen King, understand that to build their audience they have to go out and find them, but many of us don’t have the time and resources to effectively build that audience without some help (more on that in future posts). We are going to rely on bookstore placement, promotion and word of mouth. Of course first we have to get our books into a bookstore.

So what does this mean for my pitch?

Agents and Editors care deeply about age categories. Many publishing professionals only work in one or two age categories and once a book is categorized it will almost never move categories without an author rewrite. Now that doesn’t mean that an adult novel can’t be bought or read by a twelve year old, nor that a children’s book isn’t purchased or enjoyed by a forty one year old. What it does mean is that the adult book with be shelved with other adult books and middle grade books will be shelved with other middle grade books. Placement in a bookstore or an age category online will really determine who sees it first.

So lets cover the categories briefly so we are all clear:

C – Children’s : Age’s 0-8 Within this category there are a number of subcategories: Board Books, Picture Books, Early Readers etc. I am not going to dive into the target ages for each of those developmental stages, but if you are writing Children’s books you should learn them.

MG – Middle Grade:  Age’s 8-12 This is the stage of reading where children have typically transitioned from picture books to chapter books. It is also the age where reading is a primary focus in school. In this category kids are typically given books by a teacher, librarian or parent rather than self-selecting. Book length typically ranges from 20,000-60,000 words.

YA – Young Adult: Age 13-18+ In this category readers are now typically self selecting books. They are looking for books about discovering who they are in the world. Often they are struggling against authority of some sort (parent, government, etc) and finding themselves in the process. More often than not you will find a teenaged protagonist within this category. Book length typically ranges from 50,000-80,000 words.

NA – New Adult: Age 18-21+ This is a relatively new category in publishing. These books take on more adult, often introspective, themes. Book length in this category ranges from 50,000-100,000 words.

The distinctions between MG, YA and NA can get confusing, so rather than expanding further, and potentially getting it wrong let me point you to a really good post on these definitions here.

A – Adult: Age 21+ The great everything else. Adult books range far and wide and are broken down more by genre than age distinction. Similarly themes, protagonists and even word counts can range as well. Once you start writing adult fiction it is very important to study your genre and subgenre to better understand how the categories work.

Now, back to the pitch. Why does it matter if I am pitching YA, NA or Adult? When you are pitching to an Agent or Editor they want to make sure everything fits. If your protagonist is 12 is it really a YA book? Teenagers like to read about characters they can relate to, and typically they are looking for older, not younger heroes and heroines. (Did you ever try to guess the ages of superheroes?). Similarly if you are pitching a MG chapter book you might think twice about a title like ‘The Scoundrel’s Bloody Dagger’ knowing that kids in that age category are typically given books by adults.

Make sure when you are assembling your pitch (and frankly when writing your novel) that word counts, main character age, level of violence and sex and other adult issues are handled in a manner that is consistent with your target age group.  If you pitch something that isn’t consistent with publishing standards it is an easy path to a pass.

Getting it right in a pitch can be as simple as checking your numbers. Make sure you know the age of your main character, total word count and target age category when you start assembling your pitch. If one of these things is inconsistent with the others consider making a change. After my first set of pitches I changed my main character from 16 years old to 19 years old and focused on writing an Adult book rather than trying to water down some racier scenes. It was a hell of a rewrite, but when I pitched the next time as Adult rather than YA, I had much more success.

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One thought on “What is the big deal about Age Group??

  1. As someone who writes in that “grey zone” bordering YA/adult I find the categories frustrating. More publishing boxes = more rules = harder for there to be fluidity across age and genre. The same thing happens with cross-genre books. If it doesn’t fit neatly on one shelf, it’s harder to pitch.

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