What’s Up With YA?

Why can’t YA be about actual young adults aged 18-early 20s and we have a separate Teen section just for teens?

Short answer: logistics.

Long answer:

  • The entire industry from writers to publishers to booksellers to consumers would have to work together and the failed New Adult experiment proved that can’t happen.
  • Defining YA has always been tricky – what about books about teens that are definitely for adults, like Game of Thrones. What about books for teens about teens where they basically act like adults with full agency, no teen responsibilities, no parents or guardians or school. Some YA fantasy and sci-fi are like this.
  • YA is a marketing term, not a writing genre. It’s who the target audience is.
  • YA probably started out as adult marketers being generous and polite to young people by calling teens Young Adults in the first place to differentiate them from the children’s market of picture and chapter books. There’s a big difference between being a thirteen year old and being an eighteen year old, but they’re both teens.

I like YA because it’s about those first independent steps a young person makes away from their guardians. They often have little money, or if they do, that’s a novelty that has to be explained (summer job/rich parents). They often don’t have the independence to move about and do their own thing, they have family responsibility, school responsibility, they have siblings to deal with, they have friends (it’s super hard to make friends as an adult!).

Adult books about divorce and pregnancy and taxes and cars breaking down and mortgage repayments are boring as fuck.

As it stands now, there is still kind of a New Adult niche market. New Adult is basically college-age stories, but still different to ‘Upper YA’. I have found that NA is basically a way to target the market  that wants to read stories about hot young people having on-page sex. There’s no tangible difference from adult books except the characters are somehow hotter because they’re younger.

I have never read a NA book that did not contain sex. Now I’ll be honest, I have not read widely in NA because it’s not easy to find books in a marketing term that officially doesn’t exist, but I tend to categorise books about 18 or 19 year old to their early twenties where they are not full fledged jaded cynical adults and still exploring their newfound independence as NA. That is to say, there are still plenty of adult-oriented books about eighteen year olds. It’s gotta be fluid, you can’t just take all books about 13-18 year olds and say they’re YA and all books about over 18s to be adult.

Case in point: Sarah J Maas.

  • The Throne of Glass books are YA – aimed towards the YA market (which as we know, is not exclusively teens but has a lot of adults reading it as well). At least the first book is – I haven’t read beyond that. It’s entirely possible the final few books grew up with their audience and became NA, much the same way Harry Potter started out as Middle Grade and graduated to YA with its ageing audience. Don’t judge me for not knowing, that’s not the point.
  • The Court of Thorns and Roses books are New Adult – they are definitely spicier than Throne of Glass. Again, I haven’t read beyond book 1, but I’m pretty sure I remember graphic on-page sex. INCIDENTALLY ACOTAR has more reviews on Goodreads than TOG (989K vs 837k as of this date in 2022).
  • The Crescent City books are adult – I have not read them for this reason. Someone told me there wasn’t any sex in them – is this right? This can’t be right. But also, case in point: New Adult is for the sex, not adult.

Anyway I’m kind of veering off my point here: my point is that you can’t take an existing market (YA) that is always fluctuating and flexible anyway and demand that it becomes exclusive (18-early twenties) when the ‘failed experiment’ niche New Adult market already exists (even if not officially), then create an entirely new market (Teens for 13-17 only).

And yes, this is a problem when New Adult books end up in the YA section of a bookstore. I wouldn’t be comfortable with a 13 year old reading ACOTAR the same way I would be OK with them reading Throne of Glass, but then again, I once saw a child no older than 10 trying to buy 50 Shades of Grey the movie because it was based on a Twilight fanfic.

However, ACOTAR ending up in the YA section rather than the adult section of a bookstore is an entirely different problem where authors – especially female authors – tend to get lumped in as YA authors even when their books are not YA, especially if they have previously written YA. That’s to do with prejudice against female authors who obviously can’t write anything except ‘easy’ YA books and ‘dumb’ romance (not my actual feelings, let’s be clear here that I am being sarcastic). That also requires a whole other essay I’m not prepared to go into today.

I also feel the need to mention that traditionally published authors don’t really get a say in how their books are marketed. That’s up to the marketing department of the publishing house. For example, one of my favourite authors Maria V Snyder’s debut Poison Study was acquired and published by a YA imprint, and marketed towards teens when it’s about a 19 year old dealing with some pretty adult themes and a love interest significantly older than her. That’s not the author’s fault and I don’t think we should jump on authors for how their books are marketed if it’s out of their control (with self-published authors able to market themselves, however their marketing can also go out of control if they go viral or have people like us book content creators pushing their books). Like the fact that everyone thinks ACOTAR is a Beauty and the Beast retelling when it’s not, it’s a Tamlin retelling (it’s even his friggin name people, come on!)

And finally, what I want to know is, what would even be the point of this further segregation?

We have a distinct children’s market, a kind of blurry YA market, and a mostly distinct adult market. Further segregating which books are targeted (or ‘should’ be read by certain demographics) only narrows the market further. So what if a 18-21 year old wants to read teen fiction? I’m in my mid-thirties and I always go to the Teen/YA section first in bookshops and libraries! I was reading adult fiction as a child alongside my middle-grade fiction, and I know many other readers were as well!

I kind of feel that separating ‘teens’ and ‘young adults’ for ease of finding books to read doesn’t really consider the flexibility of the current YA market and the fact that anyone can read anything regardless of age.

It kind of feels like gatekeeping.


To summarise: the reason we can’t just change YA to be for actual young adults aged 18-early twenties and create an entirely new Teen market is because YA is an established and successful market.


About Nemo

A lover of kittens and all things sparkly, Nemo has a degree in English Literature and specialises in reviewing contemporary, paranormal, mystery/thriller, historical, sci-fi and fantasy Young Adult fiction. She is especially drawn to novels about princesses, strong female friendships, magical powers, and assassins.

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