thewwritingroom! Yaaaay! Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by and entered :) Now on to today's post.
I see this question pop up again and again: "I've written a book about an 18 or 19-year-old MC in their first/second year of college. I've been told that the voice is very YA, but that it can't be YA if they're in college. Well, why not? Why can't I write college YA?"
First, I'd like to establish that the following post is going to be about why your YA protagonist (aka The Viewpoint Character) doesn't really work as a college student. Secondary and tertiary characters in many YA novels may be older or go to college. It happens. They're not who I'm talking about.
Here's the short answer to the question: because "young adult" is a specific marketing category, and that marketing category is aimed at adolescents aged 12-18. More specifically, it is aimed at people who are still in junior or senior high school (or secondary school). Please note that this does not mean the novel has to take place in or around a high school, just that the age/experience of the characters is pre-university-or-legal-
Here's a longer elaboration.
Yes, usually you are still a teenager when you start university. However, there's a marked difference between still having "teen" after your age and being in the thick of the "teenage experience." The "teenage experience" pertains directly to that sticky time between being a child and being an adult with adult responsibilities. That's the thing with being 18 and up: you are legally and officially An Adult. If you're going away to school, that means you officially have adult responsibilities ranging from getting your own butt out of bed to go to the classes your parents are paying for to working three jobs to pay for those classes yourself. You're no longer legally required to receive an education, so that's on you.
And yes, many college students are still immature, I know. A lot of them still live at home, a lot of them behave like asshats, a lot of them are spoiled Daddy's/Mommy's girls and boys. I know. Doesn't matter. Eighteen-year-old college freshman are not children. Childhood has officially left the building. And that's a big key factor when it comes to YA. Teenagers aren't children, either, but they're still dealing with a lot of themes involving growing up, discovering sexuality, figuring out who they want to be, etc. Although those issues don't magically disappear the moment they turn 18, at that point the next stage of life begins, because that's the way our society works. You go to high school, you get out of high school, and then you go on to the next thing, whether that's college or a career or traveling the world or freaking out or whatever.
So, because YA is marketed specifically toward people in high school or secondary school, college doesn't necessarily speak to them at this stage in their reading life. Sure, a lot of them are thinking about going to college, but the college experience itself isn't something they're going to relate to until they're living it. There's also the fact that college isn't in the cards for everyone, either out of necessity or personal choice.
BUT IT'S JUST LIKE BOARDING SCHOOL!
No, it isn't, or you would have set your YA novel in a boarding school. I guess the important thing to ask yourself is: why college? What is it about college life in particular that you feel is absolutely necessary to this story? Is it the classes? The freedom? The adult responsibilities? What?
That can potentially give you your answer. Books about college-age students exist, but they're usually found in the adult section because they tend to speak more to people on the far side of college than the close side. If your characters are in college because they need to deal with being responsible adults, then they are adults.
BUT *PUBLISHED BOOK* HAS CHARACTERS IN COLLEGE!
I'm not arguing that there are no books about college students. Of course they exist. However, is the fact that the characters are college students mentioned in passing and not really core to the story, or is the story actually about being in college and living college life? Someone being a college student is just a periphery identifier, much like saying, "Toby's in law school." Stories about being in college, on the other hand, are pretty specific. This isn't to say that no book like this exists or that a book like this couldn't succeed, just that the market is very, very narrow.
And, more importantly to the question at hand, none of this makes a story YA.
BUT THERE IS TOTALLY A MARKET FOR THIS! I WOULD READ IT!
So many people seem to get caught up in this idea that because they would read something, or a handful of people they know say they would read something ("say they would" being the operative term), that means it has a market. Just because a dozen books over several years have been published on this subject doesn't mean there's a market. Having a market for something means there's essentially a ready-made audience waiting to consume that thing. When people snap up vampire romance by the millions of purchases, that means there's a market. When people buy out a popular toy at Christmas, that means there's a market. When a certain genre sells consistently well, that's a market. The rest is just guesswork and risk taking. Sometimes it pays off. More often, it doesn't. Some publishers are willing to take the risk with the hope of a high return, others aren't.
This is an argument for a separate marketing category for New Adult/College fiction, not marketing college fiction as YA.
WHAT ABOUT 18-YEAR-OLDS WHO ARE IN THAT IN-BETWEEN STAGE OF JUST STARTING COLLEGE? AREN'T THEY STILL KIND OF YA?
I'm sorry, but the very small cross-section of young college students is just that: a very small cross-section. It's not going to be enough to float the sales needed to increase demand for college fiction. I know it sucks, because some people might really enjoy a book about this kind of thing, but the sales just aren't there. At least, not right now.
BUT ADULTS AND UNIVERSITY STUDENTS READ YA! SURELY THAT MEANS WE CAN INTRODUCE MORE ADULT THEMES, LIKE UNIVERSITY LIFE?
It doesn't matter that people who aren't in high school also buy YA. I'm sorry. The primary YA market is 18-and-under teens and preteens. The reason those stories appeal to adults is because they've been through that stage of life and can still relate to the themes. Young people aren't to the college-and-adulthood stage yet. It's difficult for them to relate. The themes aren't universal. Everyone has to be a teenager, but not everyone goes to college. Even those who do go to college can have vastly different experiences. I'm not saying that teenagers don't read "adult" fiction, because obviously that's not true. I'm saying that type of fiction isn't marketed to them specifically. It's not about the "outside" people who happen to buy into the market. It's about who the market is intended for. And YA is intended for people who aren't to college yet.
BUT BOOKS ABOUT THE SUMMER AFTER GRADUATION!
Still not college. Books like this are the very tippy-top of YA -- that point in the protagonist's life where they're teetering right on the edge of What Comes Next.
BUT MARKUS ZUSAK! 50 SHADES OF GREY! HOLLOWLAND! COMMUNITY! SELF-PUBLISHED TITLES! OTHER EXAMPLE OF BOOK WHERE CHARACTERS ARE 18-22!
These are outliers, guys. These do not necessarily constitute a market. It only proves such books exist. Also, though a lot of the characters in these books are college-age or even college students, the books are not about college life. I AM THE MESSENGER is one of those slippery books that can be marketed as either YA or adult. 50 SHADES is EROTICA AND NOT YA, dudes. I know it found its inspiration in Twilight, but no. HOLLOWLAND is kind of a weird creature because the age of the protagonist doesn't really pertain to the story at all. She could have been aged down two years or up two years and the story wouldn't have changed. COMMUNITY is a television sitcom and, frankly, not relevant to a literature discussion because those markets are completely separate beasts. Et cetera.
I'll give you self-published titles. I have friends who are self-publishing books they refer to as "New Adult," and that's wonderful. That's what's awesome about self-publishing... niche markets can actually do well there! This sort of thing is what self-publishing is FOR! I have no idea about the success rates of such novels. That's a whole separate area of research.
Yeah. Look, I'm not saying that if you're writing New Adult/College fiction that you need to STOP RIGHT NOW or anything like that. I'm not trying to crap on NA as a theoretical category. If that's the book in your heart, then you should absolutely write it. You might find a place for it. I'm purely speaking to why people say that college students aren't YA. If you're writing such a story, you'll have the best luck pitching it as adult or seeking out agents/publishers who are specifically looking for it. If you're thinking of trade publishing, that is. With self-publishing, you make the rules. Which is not to say that route is always preferable or ever easy, as I'm sure any reasonable indie author would tell you.
Do you have any other thoughts or questions on this subject? If you'd like to share your own opinion, please do. This is obviously a big area of discussion. COMMENT DISCUSSIONS ARE GOOD I LIKE THEM.