Thursday, June 28, 2012

Novels in Nowhere Land

There are times when I’ll find a manuscript that I truly love…but it seems to be in nowhere land genre-wise.

Some fancy new terms have been created for “upper teen” (New Adult) and “lower YA/upper MG” to classify books with more mature voices and atypically aged characters. But what about when the voice speaks to a younger MG audience, but the characters are…over 13 and going through over 13 experiences, or perhaps the characters start out at 12/13 and end up…16? These younger voices with older characters seem to be floating around in empty shelf space.

Usually I’ll let an author in this situation know my take: that I would LOVE to take on the project if they would be ok aging down the main characters. After all, if the voice speaks to a younger audience, the book really is best suited for that younger audience, and today’s MG is predominantly full of MG-aged characters.


Those are some of my FAVORITE novels, and it really pains me to have to tell an author to steer away from these shining examples of MG books with older characters. But at the end of the day…I’m an agent. And I will represent what I can sell…not necessarily just what I love.

I was so torn up about this lately that I went ahead and asked a few editor friends of mine for their take on this; I was really, really hoping they’d prove me wrong.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sara Sargent, Balzer & Bray
I don’t like to make a lot of rules when it comes to books, but if an author is authentically writing about a 15- or 16-year-old protagonist, I have to believe that protagonist would have concerns not appropriate for a middle-grade novel. I’m not talking about lewdness, but about emotional resonance. What resonates emotionally, psychologically, or socially when you are 12 or 13 is not what resonates when you are 15 or 16, and vice versa. 

Alyson Heller, Aladdin
Honestly, if the subject and voice were definitely MG, but the characters were 15-16, I would just have the author age them down to 11-12. I think there would be too much of a disconnect between voice/subject/situation if it all seemed young, but then had a 15-16 year old protagonist. I think with Ella Enchanted, it would probably just be considered “clean teen”, not necessarily MG.

Sarah Barley, Harper Collins
I would consider a middle grade novel where the voice/subject were clearly middle grade, but the characters were 15 or 16. Generally speaking, yes, it’s the rule that characters should be the same age as the readership, but as ELLA ENCHANTED and others show, there are ALWAYS exceptions to any rule!

Some very interesting things to consider here.

First, that today’s definition  of MG is not what it was when the classics above were written – which means, writing like those books…is writing in an outdated style, like writing a Victorian novel. You can write a Victorian novel, and it doesn’t mean it won’t be good…but will it resonate as widely as it would have in 1840?

Second, that though the style is outdated, there may still be a place for them – as “clean teen” – but again: is “clean teen” going to resonate the same way as it did ten years ago, when there are books like THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT to pick up?

I understand this is a frustrating situation for an author; after all, shouldn’t what people love be the same as what sells?!

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Readers aren’t the direct buyers for publishers – bookstores are. Strange to think of, but true: and bookstores won’t stock what they a) can’t classify and b) don’t think is hot (i.e.: what isn’t going to sell).

Maybe this is changing – with e-publishing and self-publishing, perhaps that gap between readers and publishers can be breached. I’m not unwilling to take a risk on a project; obviously, I’m willing to hope I’m wrong. But I am unwilling to give false hope. Representing a project I don’t believe will sell is completely unacceptable. If I have doubts, I can’t be the best champion.

So, while I would always say that if you believe in it, champion it - don’t fight an uphill battle and try to fit a round peg into a square hole. It is important to keep in mind today’s market and readership when considering your ultimate publication goals; writing without a market in mind can indeed cause a writer to end up…in nowhere land.


  1. I'm having this issue right now. I'd call my MS New Adult, but many agents don't want or accept NA as a categorization. I'm to the point where I'm debating rewriting it so that it's an adult fiction, but I've had great beta reads/ crit partner feedback as it is. It's tough when you believe in something, but it just might not sell as it is. :( I'm querying publishers when I'd rather have an agent to work with. Agents bring so much knowledge to the table that I just don't have.

  2. This is really interesting. I'd never thought about it before. The thing with Ella Enchanted and the Calling on Dragons series (I don't know the others as well) is that they are fantasy, they're about princesses. Just like any Disney movie with a princess, they are older but the audience is younger. A princess finding her prince has to be older, but doesn't really appeal to an older audience as much. Perhaps that's where the exception lies?

  3. I've been having this issue as well, the way my MS is written is a MG level, but the characters are 16-18 and their thoughts and actions are YA.

  4. Thankfully I haven't faced this problem with an MG. Yet.

    Along the same lines, however, I had several agents (before th Hunger Games were released, but while they were probably in the final stages of print) suggest that a dystopian I was peddling fit more into the 'Upper YA' category (which I'd never heard of and felt silly over mislabeling my ms) because the main character was 19 (this was also just as Graceling was coming out) and because the content was for more mature teens. Then the Hunger Games, and Graceling came out and both were just YA not 'Upper YA' and really, I haven't heard the term used since, though I'm sure it still is.

  5. As a follow up on New Adult...though it is still niche considering it started a few years ago and isn't going away it may still become a thing...or maybe the adult genre will widen...*shrug*

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I've been keeping an eye out for it. ;) It was great to read the editors' responses and how widely they varied. The market is always fluctuating and shifting, and it's really interesting to see how one publisher's thoughts differ from another. (One not considering the ages at all, one saying there might be exceptions…) I can understand why a lot of MG stories wouldn't work with older protagonists. I think Rachel Schieffelbein's comment said what I've been contemplating—and where I'm stuck. It's the whole conundrum of "the princess finding the prince" fairy tale not working well if they're twelve years old, but not appealing as much to the older audience.

    I guess then the question is: How do you know which book might be an exception? There's just not really any way to know for sure. I imagine that makes it particularly difficult on you as an agent!

  7. This post should be handed to every author who has just begun writing a novel. 99% won't believe it until they write the first novel and (not that this will happen to you or me) can't sell it, but at least they won't be able to say they were never warned.

    A lot of writers say they don't write to market, and advise newbies to do the same. But "writing for the market" is a vague notion at best. I think they probably mean, "Don't write about an angsty teen who wants her boyfriend/vampire to turn her into a vampire," but the newbie might hear, "Write whatever you want." To sell, having an audience in mind and writing for that audience is sort of essential. . .not that I am any good at that, personally, mind you. Working on it.

    THANK YOU for this post. It explains so much and somehow I've never before understood so clearly the link between publishers and booksellers and how that drives the types of books the publishers (and, consequently, the agents) will accept.

    Learn something new every day...

  8. Thanks for this post, Natalie. I think when authors cry out about ELLA ENCHANTED (love!), SONG OF THE LIONESS (love!), have to realize those books were published in the '90s. The MG and YA genres/publishing industry were different than they are today.

    I also wanted to say that while I agree "New adult is a niche and hasn't really taken off"..... I just read a great YA/New Adult book about 19 year old Marine....published by Bloomsbury Kids and found in the YA section. It can happen - it is just very, very rare.

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  10. It really is a tricky business. I'm not trying to offend anyone, or start anything (great way to start a comment) but this is one of the reasons why I'm self-publishing. I know part of being an editor or agent is deciding how to market a novel to a book store, or whether a novel can be marketed in it's current state.

    Rather than worry about whether my novel is marketable, something that looks risk worthy to agents or editors, I just want to concentrate on creating well written novel. I'm happy to take the risk on it myself, and figure out where my audience is.

  11. I agree it's difficult. Becoming an obsessed e-reader myself (from a previously self-proclaimed Book-only junky) I am finding that I LOVE these middle of the road books. Hopefully, with time, these gaps will be bridged! Cheers!

  12. Thanks Natalie - I met you at a conference last year and you gave me great advice. I wrote a book about a 19 year old character and you did recommend that I try to change the age to 15 or 16. I've been trying unsuccessfully to do this. I've looked into New Adult but I am not sure what to think. As some of the other comments have suggested - it is rare to find a book at this age group. Maybe it will take the right agent or I will need to go the self-pub route. Thanks for providing more information.