Knowing Your Audience

Earlier today I was having a discussion with friends about a highly touted YA novel just nominated for the Morris Award. We all agree that the book is beautifully written and engaging but we are scratching our heads at exactly who the intended or appropriate audience is for this book. The narrator’s voice feels adult, and the word choices and phrasing feel adult. In the end, the consensus was that this book was more in line with an adult novel that select teens might enjoy than a proper novel for teens.

As a bookseller/buyer, the question of audience in some of the books I read & am presented frequently arises. Who is this book written for, and who can I sell it to are often two very different questions, being able to answer these questions when writing is key to finding readers.

I love reading kids/YA books, but I am keenly aware that I come at them from a different place than kids/teens do. I bring adult experience and ideas to the books and while I do my best to put myself in the head of the target reader, I know that there are books I appreciate that the average kid probably won’t. I love complex ideas and language. I love it when an author does something completely mind-bending (such as Patrick Ness’ More Than This) and leaves you with your jaw on the floor thinking “Wow!” when you reach the last page. I can’t always find a mass number of readers for these books, but I firmly believe that there is a reader. There are some books however that completely miss the mark for a variety of reasons.

A book full of adult language and scenes with child/teen characters does not automatically make it a book for kids/teens. Adult books can have child protagonists (Oceans at the End of the Lane, Room or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night for example) and be appreciated by teens, but they are not marketed to a juvenile/teen audience. Even when the age of the characters are on point, if the general tone of the book is way above the heads of the readers, it is also guilty of not knowing its audience. Consider who is telling the story. Is the narrator recounting something that has recently happened to them, or are they an adult reminiscing about events from a long time ago? Who are you hoping to appeal to with your book? What kind of reader are you trying to reach? There’s something to be said for appealing to the clever, sophisticated kid- you know the one- 10 going on 50- capable of reading far above their age group but not emotionally ready for YA- but don’t get so caught up in being clever that you write yourself out of your market. L Why is Harry Potter so universally loved? Because J.K. Rowling knew exactly who her audience was and she proved that you can provide kids with a rich reading experience while hitting all of the buttons for a wide variety of readers.

Now I turn the question to you- what in your minds causes a book to “miss the mark?” and have you read anything lately that fits this description?

7 Responses to Knowing Your Audience

  1. Ishta Dec 10 2014 at 9:23 am #

    You make an excellent point. I picked up a chapter book at a conference a couple of years ago that had me scratching my head – it opened with a scene in which the MC is in serious pain and being chased by murderous monsters, and he says that he’s used to this because this is his new reality. I thought: what six or seven year old is going to relate to this kid? How is this even a metaphor for the typical six-year-old child’s experience?

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel Dec 10 2014 at 10:16 am #

      That book sounds totally bizarre! I don’t know who I would have been able to sell that to!

  2. Philippa Dickinson Dec 11 2014 at 2:00 am #

    In the UK books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time/ and The Book Thief/ have been published in two editions (adult and YA) in order to reach the widest audience. Exactly the same text, different covers. Some big chain booksellers find that confusing and it takes a lot of co-operation, good communication and joined-up thinking within the publishing house to make it work but, for the right book, it’s worth it as both publisher and author gain incremental sales. I believe the same happens in a few other countries as these books transcend the normal (hidebound) publishing and book-selling classifications.

    As to who the book is ‘for’, I believe most authors just write the book they want to write. Some will have a reader in mind as they write, others are writing the book that is rattling around in their head and won’t let them rest until it’s on the page. Some are surprised (sometimes disconcerted) when their agent or publisher tells them who the book is ‘for’.

    • sdn Dec 13 2014 at 11:47 pm #

      Hi, Philippa! I was going to mention CURIOUS INCIDENT myself — I bought the UK children’s/YA edition when it first came out. We see this double-publishing in the US only, it seems, after a book has become a success (GOLDEN COMPASS, HARRY POTTER, Garth Nix’s books, etc). That said, the Haddon was only published for adults here.

  3. Rowenna Dec 12 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    I agree that keeping audience in mind is important to creating a solid, cohesive story–the story I tell an adult is different than the story I tell a teenager. But I’m a little waffly on the point you make about “language” and “word choice.” I’m not sure that there isn’t room in YA for both simpler and more complex language–it seems to me that, like mainstream adult books, some lean literary and some lean commercial, but that isn’t the defining factor for who it’s intended for. In fact, to insist that YA *must* be less complex linguistically is, to me, to undermine the ability of teens to understand more complex work (not that you insist on this factor, but I have read others who do). Even if we think in terms of writing books “to grade level” we’re aiming “high”–an 10th grade, for instance, reading level, is probably more advanced than most adult books on the market!

    I think you hit the point spot on when thinking about what the young characters in the scene are doing–are they merely present or active? And the point of view–in the moment or looking back? Both of those give me a much better sense than the language of who the story is being told for.

  4. Laura Gross Smith Dec 13 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    I have always been curious as to why I am drawn to YA literature as opposed to adult fiction. I find that sometimes if a book is about an issue that I have dealt with myself, I cannot read it as it reopens the trauma. But give me some Veronica Roth and I am fine.

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