One of the most important aspects of positioning your writing for an agent or editor is understanding your audience. In the industry, we have specific terms to define audience that communicate a general expectation of reader age range, as well as the length, content, and voice of a work. So how do you accurately identify your audience like a publishing professional?
On a basic level, “kidlit” encompasses children’s literature for ages 0-18+, from indestructible board books that are illustration-only to teen series with weighty word counts. In industry terms, there are three broad audience categories:
Picture Book: ages 3-8, 0-1500 words (approximately 32 pages)
Middle Grade: ages 8-12, 40-65K words (approximately 160-260 pages)
Young Adult (YA): ages 12+, 65-90K+ words (approximately 260-360+ pages)
The key factors in identifying your audience are the age of your main characters, the subject matter, and execution of voice.
We know that kids always read “up”, meaning they are drawn to books where the characters are older. A twelve-year-old will seek out books where characters are fourteen or fifteen, locating them as young adult readers, whereas if your main characters are twelve-year-olds, your book is more than likely middle grade.
Content also plays a major role in audience: reader maturity shapes the issues and themes, their treatment, and the overall tone of a work. Young adult is largely open to all topics while middle grade is more regulated. Romance is often principally represented in young adult, as opposed to middle grade where friendship and family are the central relationships.
And, finally, the somewhat obscure consideration of voice affects determination of audience. There is a difficult to define distinction between the voice of each audience that makes it accessible, appropriate, and appealing to particular age ranges. Kidlit writers have to be time travellers, harnessing their younger selves for an authentic representation of their readers.
Kidlit audience is further qualified by specific market parameters. What makes a work YA in the US, may not be the same as in Canada, the UK, or Germany, etc. Regional and cultural sensibilities unquestionably impact audience classifications.
And, of course, there are always exceptions to the rules! Several other audience categories range from concept books to early readers, chapter books, and new adult. Within each audience category, there also exist sub-categories—we might modify “middle grade” or “young adult” with “upper” and “lower”—i.e. “upper middle grade” or “lower young adult”—to signify subtle shifts in target audience. The 8-12 year age range of middle grade might become a 10-13 year age range for upper middle grade. Similarly, the 12+ years age range for young adult might be limited to a 12-15 year age range for lower young adult, or “tween”, or “teen”.
When you accurately identify your audience, you are positioning your work for the market, indicating where you belong on bookshelves, and demonstrating your overall professionalism. Inversely, misrepresentations of audience can cause an agent or editor to summarily dismiss your work. Avoid muddying your audience description by combining age categories, e.g. “middle grade young adult”—your work must necessarily be one or the other!
Read further about the nuanced distinctions between middle grade, young adult, and new adult audiences here: Distinguishing between Middle Grade, Young Adult, & New Adult.
Drawing on our experience, we can help you identify and understand your audience with a First Look!