Unless your name is J.K. Rowling, your writing isn’t going to appeal to everyone. And that’s okay. In fact, it makes your job easier, since it allows you to write for, and market to, a specific audience. To do this successfully, you’ll need to identify who your readers will likely be, then research them and the stories they love. Identifying your audience comes down to two basic questions:
1.) How old are your readers?
2.) What genres and subgenres do they read and why?
The publishing industry divides books into two primary age categories: children’s and adult. Children’s publishing includes writing for everyone up to 18, including teens. It is further broken up into picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, and young adult novels (YA). Adult publishing is for readers 18 and older and is subdivided into new adult and adult. For the sake of this article, we’re going to skip over picture books and chapter books and discuss how to get to know your audience in the other four categories.
Middle grade fiction is aimed towards readers 8 to 12. The general rule in children’s fiction is that the main character should be the age of the reader or a couple of years older, so in middle grade that means you’re looking at protagonists aged 10 to 14. Could you write a middle grade book about the adventures of an elderly witch and her pet cockatoo? Sure you could! But know that the vast majority of these stories feature young protagonists.
Typically young readers want short, they want fun, they want imaginative. Middle grade novels are rarely above 55,000 words. They should have short chapters and the bulk of the story should be told through dialogue and visuals. This is not the arena for writing lots of introspection or inner monologues. The most common POV is limited third. They almost always stick to only one or two viewpoint characters.
Think G to PG ratings. Middle grade books are usually light-hearted, but may deal with serious subjects such as bullying, grief, or divorce, though truly taboo subjects should be avoided. Violence is usually either minimal or cartoonish. Don’t use profanity and stay far, far away from sex. This is the stage of playground banter. “Yuck! Cooties!” Maybe hand-holding if you want things to get really wild.
Don’t worry about being too smart for kids. Kids hate it when you write down to them, so go ahead and write beautiful prose, interesting characters, and unique storylines, but always make your writing clear and easy to follow.
As for what sort of stories to tell, think about the things kids are interested in. I don’t mean the current fads in toys or TV. I mean the conflicts they can relate to: navigating interpersonal relationships, being a part of a team, worrying about failing a test, etc. All those things take place in middle school, but it’s easy to see how a writer could copy/paste those struggles into the life of a character living in a fantasy realm. Create plots and worlds which are fresh and exciting, but with emotions, characters, relationships, and conflicts that kids can understand.
Something unique about middle grade is that the books aren’t divided into genres on the shelf. Your young readers won’t care if you break genre rules, such as giving a single book elements of fantasy and humor and science fiction and fairytale. They just want a fun story to read!
An essential fact about middle grade to understand is that the kids themselves aren’t usually finding the books. Instead, they’re being bought by parents, assigned by teachers, or recommended by librarians. Market accordingly.
Young adult fiction is aimed towards readers ages 12 to 18, and usually feature protagonists ages 14 to 18. YA is huge right now, and is increasingly being subdivided into genres like YA romance, YA urban fantasy, or YA adventure (which is basically ‘YA for boys’). 90% of YA readers are female. 50% are adults. Keep this in mind, while still focusing primarily on appealing to teens.
YA readers want more out of a story then kids do. The sweet spot for length with a YA novel is 75,000 words, and although occasionally a new author will go bigger like Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” (119,000 words), you’re much safer staying under 100,000. The norm in YA is to write in first person present tense, although you can find all the POVs and tenses. The viewpoint characters tend to be way more introspective than in middle grade, with internal struggles on display, but remember to always keep the plot moving forward. YA readers don’t tolerate slow, boring sections.
Think PG or PG-13 ratings. Whether or not to use profanity is up to you. Plenty of YA books freely use the softer curse words (hell, damn, etc.), but you can even employ everything up to and including the ‘f-bomb’, though that will limit your audience. Themes in YA can be as serious as in any adult novel, though the most typical YA arc involves universal teen themes like coming-of-age, first romance, establishing identity, social pressures, and learning to deal with the consequences of your actions. Flirtation, romance, and even sex can play a major role, and in some cases, be explicit. Violence can get very graphic; a good example is Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”.
And here’s the big thing to understand about YA: it’s a really broad category. There’s a big difference between a novel about a 14-year-old boy having a blast at basketball camp, and one about a seventeen-year-old pregnant girl navigating a zombie-filled post-apocalyptic wasteland. Even though both will be labeled as YA, your target audience for each of those books is a very different type of teen. So it’s not enough to say, “Here’s my book. It’s YA. Enjoy.” It’s best to focus in on a specific age and genre within YA.
A recent addition to publishing lingo, ‘new adult’ refers to books targeted to readers 18 to 25 and usually features protagonists 18 to 30. Think of it as YA’s older sibling. Unlike adult books, which can be about virtually anything, new adult stories revolve around the character going out into the world and starting something new, such as college, a career, or their first serious adult relationship. At this point, you’re writing for adults and don’t have to edit for content at all.
Adult: Now we get to everything else. (Know that when a publisher uses this term, they’re not talking about NSFW “‘adult” content. It just means the target audience is readers 18 and up.) With adult fiction, you’re dealing primarily with the second question listed earlier: What genres and subgenres do your readers read and why?
The Genre Reader
What makes a genre reader run to their favorite shelf when they’re looking for a new book? What is it about the experience of reading a horror novel, or a western, or a mystery that appeals to them? These are questions you should be asking when getting to know your audience.
Just as evolution has its ‘tree of life’, so modern literature can be seen as an ever-growing ‘tree of genre’. Genres are constantly expanding, splitting, and adding copious subgenre branches to be explored. So, like with YA, you need to specify the type of story you’re telling. It’s not enough to publish a work of romance, fantasy, or science fiction. The marketing needs to be more focused. Paranormal romance, heroic fantasy, cyberpunk, etc.
Researching your Audience
The first way to get to know a particular audience is simple: read within that age group and/or genre. Want to write for middle schoolers? Then pick up the same books they’re picking up. Want to sell a space opera? Read space operas. It can be good to check out the classics that started a genre, but it’s just as important to read newly-published, successful novels and see how the genre has evolved. This can help you identify which key elements are bringing readers back to these books time and time again, and which tropes and styles are going out of fashion. Try and identify what it is about the world-building, tone, and character archetypes that are unique to each subgenre. How do the really good stories make you feel? That feeling is probably what your audience is looking to experience, so aim for it in your own writing.
If possible, spend time with the age group for which you’re writing. This might be easier said than done. If you’re writing for kids, for example, but you’re not a parent or teacher yourself, it’s not in your best interest to seek out children to stalk while taking notes. (Please don’t do this.) But if nothing else, you can always use your imagination. Remember what it was like when you were a kid, or a teen, or starting out college. What got you excited? What made you angry? What fed your soul?
You may be asking why any of this matters. Why can’t an author just tell the stories they care about, in a way that feels natural, and let any like-minded readers enjoy them? You could try that, but you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. Today’s market is so saturated with content—spread across the internet, bookstores, e-readers, reading apps, etc.—that simply putting your stories out there and hoping they happen to end up in the hands of someone who will enjoy them is not realistic.
But don’t despair. These guidelines aren’t about limitations, they’re about specialization. They’re about matching your passion and writing talent with readers who will love your work and come back for more.