Conference Lessons: Age Categories

readingIt’s pretty easy to tell what your age category is, right?  So imagine my embarrassment when, at this year’s AWG Writers Conference, I was mid-pitch and the lady stopped me to ask, “Wait- what did you say your age category is?”

“Young Adult.”

“But… how old is your main character?”


Her brow furrowed in concern.  “Hm.”

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t young adults?  Apparently not!  My pitch quickly turned into a brief run-down of the upper age categories in the hunt for mine.  Then the pitch continued, and she was very gracious and asked for a partial, even though I’m clearly an idiot.

So to spare you similar mortification, let’s talk age categories!  This is a really important aspect of your book and your pitch.  In fact, pitches often start with this information right up front.  (I’m querying a MG urban fantasy about… Ochre Skies is a YA historical romance about… etc. You get the idea.)   So let’s take a look at some of the common features in each of the main age categories.

Target Audience Age Main Character Age Typical Content Word Count (varies by genre)
Board Books 0-3 Varies Simple, familiar kinds of stories of everyday life, or concept books (colors, numbers, vocabulary, etc). 0-300
Picture Books 3-8 Varies Revolving around a single character that embodies a child’s viewpoint. Can be mirrors of child’s world, or windows into how others live. 0-1000
Early Reader 5-8 6-10 Simple sentences and words. Story mainly told through action and dialog, with setting left mostly to pictures. 200-2000
Chapter Books 6-10 9-12 More complex stories and structures, and typically run in a series.  Pictures are not relied on to tell any part of the story. 10k-12k
Middle Grade 8-12 10-13 Focus on friends, family, and immediate world. Little introspection and not super dark.  Little to no pictures. 20k-55k
Young Adult 12 and up 14-18 Focus on finding place in world beyond family and friends. Profanity, violence and sexuality acceptable for older target audience. 55k-75k
Adult 18 and up 25+ Varies by genre. Profanity, violence, and sexuality acceptable. 75k-110k

As you can see from these age divisions, children tend to “read up” by about two or three years; a twelve year old tends to read about middle teens, a seven-year-old would likely read a book with a plucky pubescent protagonist, etc.  Another defining feature is the content- is there swearing? sex? violence?  Any of these features can bump a book up in category.

You may notice that I didn’t put New Adult on the chart.  This is because we were told at the conference in no uncertain terms multiple times by literary agents that this is no longer a thing, that it was a blip on the screen that quickly turned into subcategory smutty romance, and we can move on now.  Which is a little disappointing for me, because I feel like, age- and point-of-life-wise, that NA would have been perfect for my books.  (I ranted about this before years ago in Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult.)

As far as overarching adult themes go, there’s very little written about it, at least that I could find.  (It’s actually really hard to find anything about the adult age category  right now because it’s so drowned in all the bazillion articles about young adult or even new adult. *whines*)  But it seems to largely come down to the genre.  Each genre will have its own specific themes and goals that are expected within that classification.  If I handed you a mystery, you could probably guess what it’s about.  Likewise for a rom-com or a thriller or a western.  Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, alt history, etc) can vary quite a bit thematically, though.  (Seriously though, trying to research this age category was like expecting to see a forest and instead finding yourself on the lip of the Grand Canyon.  This might merit a more specific tons-o’-research blog post later.)  So, while other age categories seem to have broad themes found throughout genres, adult literature seems to be more of a mixed bag.  (For reals- I’m gonna research this more, this is driving me crazy.)

There are, of course, exceptions to the generalities presented in my pretty, pretty chart.  For example, Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old boy as the main character, but is definitely not a children’s book.  If you think you might be one of these exceptions, remember that content and target audience usually trump character ages, and then check, and double check, and ask around for second (and third and fourth) opinions before you start flaunting your exceptionality.

So!  I’m sure you all know exactly what age category you’re writing in now so you can present a pitch that doesn’t make someone interrupt you to tell you gently that you’re an ignoramus.  In case you’re not totally sure (because this is a super basic chart about broad generalities), there are a few links at the bottom of this post with more details.  Good luck, and happy writing!

More resources:

Categories by audience age

Categories by ages, pages, and content

Standard wordcounts by genre and age category

Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult

Plenty is being said about Abbi Glines’s Uncut version of The Vincent Boys, so I’ll just briefly hop on the bandwagon here and add this: If all you did to this Young Adult genre book was slap in some juicy sex scenes, does that really make it New Adult? I mean, the characters don’t suddenly graduate, move out, get a job and pay their own bills, too, right? Isn’t that kind of what makes you an adult?

But let me back up. I am writing an epic fantasy novel. I am told that I also need to attach a few more letters for a subgenre: MG, YA, NA, or whatever. No problem, I think. The main characters are basically early-to-mid-twenties. So… New Adult. Obviously. Well, apparently not.

“What?” I cry. “That can’t be possible!” Nearly all the characters are adults, navigating an adult world. They’ve all been adults for some time. The main character starts a new job and has her first serious relationship, even getting engaged to the guy. None of this is sounding very Young Adult.

HOWEVER. The main character does move back in with her Dad for a good portion of the book (extenuating circumstances, I might add). She spends a lot of time pining and whining. But most important of all? No sex. That’s right, none. Except for some crazy dragon violence and whatnot, the whole thing is pretty PG. So. Where does that leave me?

I’ve been trawling the internet all morning on what started as a very simple quest. How long should this book be to be marketable? If it were YA, I’d have some idea, but NA is still pretty new and there’s not much out there by way of guidelines. But what started out as a hunt for an approximate word count quickly morphed into something else. What in blazes does New Adult even mean? Is my book NA at all?

Elizabeth Burns over at School Library Journal tried to tackle this question in an awesome listing of many other people trying to tackle this question. She dredged up answers varying as widely as “a sub-genre of Young Adult, with ‘slightly older’ characters and sexytimes” and “post-adolescent life” between ages 14-35. Hm.

Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times wrote about this, too, in “Beyond Wizards and Vampires, to Sex“. Sadly, she seems to equate coming of age with sex, which I don’t necessarily agree with. (Note: If you really need to have sex to feel like a grown-up… you’ve probably got a little more growing up to do. Your sexuality shouldn’t define you.) But she did have something to say about the subgenre’s definition that resonated with me:

“While publishers like the concept of creating a new-adult category, its hybrid nature has been problematic. The books fall into an undefined territory between adult and children’s literature… But while publishers hesitated, a crop of young authors began forcing the issue: they began self-publishing novels on the Internet about 19-to-25-year-olds who are leaving home for the first time for jobs or college or a first real relationship.”

This is what I want my book labeled with: that ambiguous time when you’re legally adult, but you certainly don’t have all your duckies in a row just yet. But not necessarily sex. Kaufman also mentions that industry pundits will admit to it being little more than letting people know to expect a bit more spice than Hunger Games. So maybe New Adult isn’t really a genre so much as a warning label: “Hey Grandma, maybe you don’t want to get this for little Jenny- head back over to YA where the steamy never quite comes to a boil!” Do I really want that label affixed on my book?

But I so want NA to mean more than that. As a new adult, I find this incredibly narrow definition to be a touch irritating. Even if I shelve my own problem as a writer, it’s still problematic as a reader. I don’t want to read about some 17 year old’s sextivities, I want to read about growing up. As a 20something myself, I’d like a story involving people my age, dealing with being an adult. I don’t want to get beat over the head with someone else’ sex life.

“Ms. Cabot [author of the Princess Diaries, now moving on to write NA] said that while she changed the settings and added some sex for good measure, the genre’s core was still about fantasy (Kaufman).” What? “[A]dded some sex for good measure”? Is it just me, or does that make it sound completely unnecessary?

I mean, am I the only one that gets REALLY TIRED of high schoolers breathing all over each other’s necks à la Twilight? I mean, I like a good YA story, but I can honestly do without reading up on teenagers hooking up every other chapter. I enjoyed the Harry Potter stories, but my least favorite part was reading about Harry and Ginny snogging in the halls and in the rec room and between classes and in the grass around the lake and everywhere else possible. Honestly. Maybe I’m being immature here, but come on. And they weren’t even really doing anything! You’re trying to tell me there will be more of that in NA? I’d probably have a cerebral aneurism.

It’s funny, but I gained the most hope from an article on Dear Author: A Romance Review Blog for Readers by Jane Little. “New Adult, however, is not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life.  The post high school / pre responsible time period.  Easy; Slammed; Point of Retreat; Sea of Tranquility are books with suggestive hints of intimacy but involve largely fade to black love scenes.” Ah. Thank you. That’s what I want.

“In New Adult books, readers aren’t responding to teens having sex… New Adult is a time period and a feel — a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others (Little).” Yes! I’d argue that they shouldn’t be teens at all, but still.

“What I would not like to see is the requirement of explicitness in all books.  In other words, if Abbi Glines wants to write explicit sex scenes in her books, great; but publishers shouldn’t force other writers like to do so if that isn’t what they want to include in their stories. In other words, I want New Adult books to focus on the characters and their emotional connections, not the physical ones (Little).” Thank you! Geez, I just want to paste the whole article over. There’s hope!

So… I think I’m going to keep labeling this as NA. I might be completely wrong, but it feels better there, despite some of its more voyeuristic neighbors. But I still haven’t solved my original question: how big is this thing supposed to be? Well, at any rate, probably not as big as it is. Ah, well, back to the chopping block.

But what’s your opinion? Is NA all about the spicey? What am I thinking writing a celibate book? What makes NA what it is, and is it actually a viable market now? Let me know!