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Moving Mountains

Flickr Creative Commons: Theophilos Papadopoulos

Kim here to welcome Dee Willson to Writer Unboxed today! Dee is the award-winning author of A Keeper’s Truth, GOT (Gift of Travel), and No Apology For Being(WIP). You can learn more about Dee on her websiteFacebook and Twitter.

So, I find myself blocked by a mountain. Okay, maybe blocked is a strong word. I am facing a mountain. A big, unmovable mountain. This mountain is publishing in a very specific sense. It is the great divide between two major categories created by the publishing world only forty (or so) years ago, but holding strong, despite confusion and change. The divide between YA and ADULT.

Before I go any further, maybe I should be clear: genre and target market are two different things. First Books (FB, Birth-School), Middle Grade (MG, -12), Young Adult (YA, 13-18), Adult (ADULT, 18+)…these are demographics, audiences, ages used by sales, merchandising, and marketing people. Horror, romance, sci-fi, fantasy…these are genres. Stephen King straddles several genres, but mostly writes for an adult audience. Harry Potter, even the last of the series, targets the YA reader, kids under 18. Harry Potter falls under the fantasy genre. Some books blur genre lines, some appeal to more than one audience. I was excited when NEW ADULT hit the scene. But NA got twisted into a genre when it should have been a target market. Two very different things.

Gosh, Dee, get back to the mountain….

Recently, two contradictory things happened in the same moment.

I opened an email from my agent – feedback from the big boys of publishing regarding my latest manuscript. “Love it, but is the author willing to make the protagonist eighteen or under, make the book YA?” My first thoughts were wow, how the hell do I alter an entire manuscript to appeal to a different target market? Can I? Should I? Why? I don’t consider myself a YA author.

While reading this email, I was opening a package, a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, Seventeenth Edition, ‘The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers’. For those unaware, this is an industry bible. The book mostly covers non-fiction and editorial tips, but what really struck me was that it’s in its seventeenth edition. As in: changed, updated…seventeen times since its original incarnation. I thought, here is this tome, this style manual, rewritten to include up-to-date details, keeping up with the times. It moves, turns like a spoke in some massive publishing wheel.

Would changing my manuscript to YA be a positive change, a nod to society, a give required by the 21st century? Would it tell my character’s story best? Would it sell more books? Would it make me, the author, flexible, a spoke? Or would it be surrender, giving in to a publishing push, intimidated by the mountain?  

You might be wondering how I got to this thought process. So let’s take a step back.

I write characters in their early twenties, present day. First person, if it helps to know. It’s a difficult age to write, to voice. So much is happening at this age. And so much is not happening at this age. Over 75% of twenty-somethings today are still in school, still dependent. Basic necessities like shelter, education, clothes, food, are funded by Mom and Dad. Even newly-minted graduates are hard-pressed to go it alone. Housing and food are crazy expensive, student loans take years to pay down. It’s a confusing time, a stressful time. All these life-altering decisions to make, massive changes….

You get the idea. Their minds are mush. And no 13-18 year-old could relate.

Now, had 2018’s twenty-something been born a few generations ago, they’d be married with two-point-two kids. They’d want to read about characters balancing parenthood with careers, money, mortgages. They’d relate to adult experiences. But this is no longer the case. Twenty-somethings today are not kids or adults. Worse, a thirteen or seventeen year-old is so far from a young adult these days, it baffles the mind. The world has changed. Society has changed. Why hasn’t publishing?

Publishers today, in my experience, have difficulty with a twenty-something character. Why?  Who am I to say? But from this bird’s-eye view, it looks like the publishing industry hasn’t caught up with the times, with society, and could take a hint from The Chicago Manual of Style. Maybe things need to be re-written. Blurry lines can be defined by new standards. Confusion can be replaced with clear expectations. Agents should know exactly where their authors fit, without question. Authors shouldn’t have difficulty pin-pointing the best market for their work. And editors and sales teams should never buy and promote a book to the wrong target market.

“But we are mountains,” they cry.

And they are. Big, ancient, stable…they must know, right? They must have reasons. They can’t possibly be wrong, or miss the mark. Is the wheel that hard to move? The problem couldn’t be fixed in a boardroom on some dreary Monday afternoon, the heads of publishing and retail bowed together? They must notice the massive black hole between YA and ADULT, the missing demographic, that the 20-25 (age) reader is in desperate need of literary connection. Just a couple hours online and anyone can see this target market is aching for stories with characters and experiences they can relate to. Blogs and online forums, even those where our youth congregate, are littered with statistics, articles, reports. Will publishing ever see the potential of the twenty-something character with a voice that falls between the sofa cushions, between YA and ADULT, silently binge-watching Netflix?

Maybe. I don’t know. I sure hope so.

In the meantime, here I am, at the base of this mountain. “Make your twenty-something character eighteen,” says the mountain. “Or give her an adult voice with adult problems.”

But she’s twenty.  My voice is kinda whiny.

I am a spoke. One, scrawny spoke. The wheel doesn’t technically need me to work. There are other spokes to do the job. I could move, make changes to my manuscript, accommodate the mountain. I could cut and paste and rework my protagonist until she fit, neat and tidy, into the YA box. It might sell more books. It might not. It might connect with an audience. It might not. I could go around the mountain. “Self publish!” the Indies cry. Man, it is awesome to have choices. But we’re talking about mountains here. And there is no clear path.

Why is that? Why is there such confusion between the YA and Adult target markets? Are we really so set in our ways? Can we not rewrite the tome? Are industry leaders really so…solid?

Then again, mountains are moved. One rock at a time.

Maybe this is only my experience, and you have a totally different viewpoint. Have you hit this particular mountain? What did you do? Are you a spoke or a rock slinger?


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.