Thursday, July 21, 2011

Being in the Middle: Question Round Up on the MG/YA Markets

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I haven't done a question round up in a while, and I got some good ones recently, all pertaining to the MG/YA markets. (And for funsies, I'll add in some I got a while ago about my book specifically, since it fits in so well)
I got a little mixed up recently about how publishers divide age groups. Does upper middle grade or lower YA really exist and what would those ages be? 12 to 16? 
It exists from a target audience perspective, but you won't really see it as a category in the store. MG (middle grade) is usually classified in the 9-12 range, or Young Readers in a lot of bookstores. But within that range, you have books that appeal to the younger half, and those for the older half. What a 9 year old wants to read is usually different from what the 12 year old wants. (Same as what the 13 year old wants is different from the 16 year old for the YA market) YA (young adult) is classified at 13+, and usually 13-16. 17+ readers are often moving on to adult books by then. (not always of course). 

UMG (upper middle grade) is in the 10-14 range, aimed at readers who want more grown up books but aren't looking for the full-on YA type stories. UMG focus more on the adventure, less on the romance and adult situations. I've actually never heard anyone use lower middle grade, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's out there in the same general idea. It might apply to the easy reader crowd, and fill a 8-10 range or something. Younger but advanced readers perhaps.
Is that age group an easy sell or a turn off for agents? 
I'm not an agent so I can't really say, but I do know when I sold The Shifter, my editor bumped it down to UMG because that market was bigger. Bigger markets tend to be very attractive to agents, and all children's fiction is hot and has been hot for a while. How long that'll last who knows. Once kids reach high school, they have so much required reading and homework they become very choosy about their leisure time books. An UMG book could go either way depending on how it's marketed, which opens a few more doors.
What distinguishes it in particular as opposed to pure YA?
I asked that same question of my editor. Basically, it came down to sex. MG romance is sweeter, with crushes and holding hands, while YA is more into relationships and physical exchanges. MG is also more about the adventure and the story, while YA is more about the growth and experiences. (This is all very general of course, and there are exceptions to this). The YA market at the time (it might be different now, but I doubt it) wanted grittier and sexier stories. That doesn't mean a clean, non-romance YA story can't or won't sell, it's just where the market happens to be.
I'm curious about all things YA vs MG as it relates to your publishing journey. Did you write The Shifter as YA and the publisher thought it was more MG. Or did you write it as MG but see yourself more as a YA writer for future books?
I wrote it as a YA, queried it as YA, and it was sold as YA. But the fabulous editor who bought it felt it was more suited to MG because it was a grand fantasy adventure and didn't have the elements common to YA fantasy these days. (not as sexy, gritty, etc). So we lowered the ages a few years, and changed one or two tiny details that were more adult. It didn't affect the story one bit though.

I see myself as a writer who just happens to think up ideas for stories involving teen protags, so either MG or YA works for me. Now that I know the subtle differences better, I can tell which stories would work better for which market (though they could change on me during submission). The YA story I'm working on now has more pure YA elements to it (romance and more adult situations) that weren't there when I first came up with the idea. I tweaked to better suit the market. Other ideas I considered YA I'll tweak to suit the MG market since they're more pure fun adventures. When I was first staring out, the story was the story and I didn't write specifically for any age group. Which is why I think I had such a hard time getting anywhere with my first few books. I was writing for the wrong genre and market!
If I read one of your earlier posts right did you start out in early drafts with a male MC then later change to a female MC? If so, why (I'm curious because my in the early stages of my WIP I had a male MC but being a girl :) makes it tough, at least for me, to write my best using a male POV)?
My original story outline was for a boy, but that never got past the outline stage. When I came back to it years later and started developing it, boy protags were supposed to watch out for their little sisters, and I felt that took something away from the stakes.

I've written stories with male protags, so it doesn't bother much to jump back and forth, and I'm a bit of a tomboy so a lot of my interests match up with what boys like. It helps if you think about what the character does and why, and consider if you're writing it that way because you think the boy would do that, or because that's how you would do it. And then you have to think if a boy really would do that or do you just think he would based on stereotypes. Ugh. I find it easier to just create the character as richly as I can and let them do what they want -grin-
What age is your MC? Did the age have a lot to do with it being MG?
She started out 17, but ended up 15 when it was changed to MG. Age has a little to do with it, but not as much as you'd think. For example, a 12 year old protag doesn't automatically make it MG (Stephen King writes about younger protags all the time), though to be YA you do need a teen protag. You don't see many that are over 18. It has more to do with subject matter and story complexity. MG tends to be more adventurous, romance is of the sweet and innocent variety, emotions aren't quite as nuanced. YA is closer to what's acceptable for adults, and can rely on things that need more world experience to understand the nuances of it. (This doesn't mean MG is "simpler" by any means, just geared toward an audience that hasn't yet encountered certain experiences yet. Or are even thinking about them or exposed to them).

Kids like to read up, so you typically aim a year or two higher than your target audience. A year or two makes a big difference in the teen years in what they understand, are interested in, are curious about, etc, so you want your characters in the right range so their experiences and emotional levels are closer to the reader's. A 10 year old may want to read about a 17 year old, but the life of a typical 17 year old might not always be appropriate for that 10 year old (or be anything they can relate to). And if you write the 17 year old lower, the older readers will spot you dumbing them down in a heartbeat. You want your characters to be true to the age whatever it happens to be.

And then there are the intangibles that make one book MG and another YA. I've read books that were called one of the other and there was no discernible difference except how they were marketed. The line is pretty blurry, especially for fantasy.

And that'll do it for today. If you have additional questions, feel free to ask!


  1. This is great Janice :) Thanks for the information.

  2. I have had very similar conversations with my editor about YA/MG and also had to do some rewriting to make my first book more UMG than YA.

    I found this post very interesting to read because of its familiarity. Lots of head nodding.

    Great job again Janice!

  3. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. You are a font of wonderful information Janice. Thanks for another excellent post :)

  5. JA: Good to hear my experiences aren't unique. (didn't think they were, but you never know). I think a lot of it comes down to the individual book and who booksellers think will buy more copies.

    Dawn: Most welcome!

    Gene: Always happy to help :) Makes me feel useful, LOL.