For whatever reason, I’ve been seeing people in writing groups talking about their YA (young adult) novels, but there’s a problem. When they actually get to the heart of their question, it turns out that their novel isn’t actually YA. It bothers me just a smidge, partly because I’m pedantic, and partly because I live for YA books. I’m going to talk a lot about YA and its sibling NA (new adult) today, but I also want to give you a few notes about target audience in general.
First, let’s talk about what a target audience is
Your target audience is basically your ideal consumer. Identifying your target audience helps ensure you’re marketing to the correct demographics. I get that it can sometimes be hard to figure this out off the bat, but it’s worth researching and even tweaking your book if you need to. If you’re looking at traditional publishing, agents will want this information, and they’ll probably reject you if your book doesn’t actually meet the correct criteria. If you want to self-publish, getting this wrong might hurt your reviews. And reviews equal sales, so you definitely don’t want that. You also need to be careful about including “adult” material in books aimed at kids or even teens.
How to determine your target audience
Start by looking at your protagonist. Usually (not always), your target audience is going to fall somewhere in line with your protagonist’s age, and possibly with their race, ethnicity, and maybe gender as well. You can refine this even further if you want, but I don’t know that it’s a good idea to narrow yourself down too much. Like, you need to know who your audience is, but you don’t want to get to the point that your niche is such a tiny slice of the population that you’re not going to get any sales. You’ve got to find that sweet spot.
Next, look at your subject matter. It needs to be age appropriate. Adults aren’t likely to be as interested in coming-of-age stories, or stories with some kind of moral or lesson. Kids probably shouldn’t be exposed to graphic violence, language, or sex.
You sort of have to weigh these things against one another when you’re trying to figure out where your book falls. Most of the time, it’ll be pretty clear whether you’re writing for kids or adults. However, there’s one category where the lines sort of blur, and I want to take a deeper look at that.
Books for Young Adults, aka YA
Writers seem to have a real problem distinguishing what belongs in YA and what doesn’t. I’ve seen it from a writer’s point of view in groups and forums, and I’ve also seen agents talk about it on Twitter. There are three main things to keep in mind if you’re having trouble classifying your book:
Your protagonist’s age
If they’re over 19, or out of school, your book is probably not YA. If it meets the other criteria, I’d strongly recommend bumping their age down and/or putting them back in school.
YA books can absolutely be dark or gritty. They can be violent. They can even be a little sexy in a fade to black kind of way. But the way your protagonist interprets what’s going on around them is going to figure into determining whether you should target your book toward teens or adults.
YA narration tends toward deep POV, low filter, in the moment writing. You’re also looking at things like family, first time experiences, and self-discovery. Characters can get away with being unreliable, vulnerable, immature, or naive. They don’t have a lot of life experiences and that’s going to come into play when they run into trouble.
Adult narration is more reflective, and maybe a little less in-your-face than YA. It’s more mature and experienced. There are fewer firsts, and less self-discovery because your narrator should have a better idea of who they are and how to solve problems.
The themes of your story
This plays in somewhat with the emotional payout you want to give to your reader, and it’s probably the hardest determining factor. Lines can blur a bit because YA and adult experiences overlap more than a young child’s experiences might intersect with an adult’s. When you’re thinking about how your novel’s themes might suit your target audience, you need to keep age and maturity level in mind.
If you’re writing for YA, you have to remember that the targeted YA audience is not adults. They don’t have the same life experience as a grown person, and they have a different way of looking at the world. They’re still growing, and YA books need to acknowledge that. If it’s easier to think about it in movie terms, YA books are rated PG-13.
I think the reason a lot of authors are trying to shoehorn their books into YA is because it’s a big, vibrant market and they’re hoping for an easy sale. YA has pretty much boomed ever since its inception in the early ’00s. There have been some big, big releases, like Hunger Games and Twilight, that ended up with movie deals and tons of attention, and I think people just want a piece of that pie. I mean, who wouldn’t?
For a long time, YA got bigger and bigger every year. YA also happens to have a lot of adult readers, which added to the high sales volume. I think, because of that boom, some people decided to just write to market and pitch YA titles so they could get their feet in the door, so to speak.
Unfortunately, the YA bubble is on the verge of bursting, if it hasn’t burst already. Publishers aren’t buying as much, advances are shrinking, and two of the big five have shut down YA imprints recently. (This is happening across the board right now, but YA seems like it’s getting hit especially hard). If you’re writing for the sake of a paycheck and not because you just love YA, it might be time to move on to a different market. If you’re writing YA because you love YA, keep it up, but also keep in mind that it might be harder to maintain a foothold if things keep trending the way they have been. I feel like MG could use some good, imaginative new titles. Especially a good, new MG fantasy series. But that might just be me.
What about New Adult?
Much like its 18 to 25-year-old protagonists, NA is still trying to find its place in the world. I think part of the issue is that when NA was first conceived, a lot of the titles were erotica, which is already kind of a niche market. It gave NA a reputation of “YA, but sexy!” that it hasn’t quite managed to shake.
It seems like a lot of the NA books I’ve seen have been self-published. There are traditionally published NA titles out there, but they seem to get lumped in with other adult books. Maybe NA just needs its own Hunger Games, something to make it really stand out and shine, before the industry starts taking it more seriously. I don’t know.
I’d advise you to just write an adult book, or maybe call it adult with crossover potential. Then, assuming an agent likes it, let them guide you on whether you want to market it as NA. Or, if you’re self-publishing, do whatever you think is best and make adjustments accordingly.
I’ll talk more about this later, so be sure to check back
I’m sure some of this was about as clear as mud, but I hope I gave you enough to get started. I’m not super focused on marketing right now because I’m still trying to actually finish my book, but marketing posts will probably get more frequent as I reach those stages with my own work. If you need a little more help with age ranges, I made chart for you. It’s down below, so keep scrolling if you don’t see it.
If you have any questions, or if there’s anything I can clarify further, please leave me a comment and let me know. Thanks!
Are you counting down the days until the end of the month? I know I am! We only have a few more days left in November, so let’s make them count. I have another bad writing rules post for you tomorrow. I know you all love those, and this one’s a little silly. Please be sure to come back and see it!