Monday, February 2, 2015

Middle Grade, Young Adult, or Both?

Chris Eboch on Middle Grade, Young Adult, or Both?

I’m celebrating the release of my latest novel, Bandits Peak. Rather than make this entirely Blatant Self-Promotion, I wanted to share a decision I made in publishing the book. But first, here’s the description (it’s relevant to the discussion, I promise):

Danger in the Wilderness - 

While hiking in the mountains, Jesse meets a strange trio. He befriends Maria, but he’s suspicious of the men with her. Still, charmed by Maria, Jesse promises not to tell anyone he met them. But his new friends have deadly secrets, and Jesse uncovers them. It will take all his wilderness skills, and all his courage, to survive.

Does that sound like a middle grade novel or a young adult novel?

Default Genre

I started writing this 15 years ago when I lived in Washington state, where it’s set. It was inspired by a true story – more of a brief anecdote really – I found in a book of local history. In the 1950s, a boy ran into some bank robbers in the woods. For some reason, he didn’t tell anybody that he’d met them. I wondered why….

And if you’re a writer, you know what happened next! “Why?” and “What if?” led to a 45,000-word suspense novel.

I wrote it as a middle grade novel. I was a middle grade writer, after all. I’ve had a couple of young adult ideas, but I’ve never gone very far with them. I don’t even especially like reading YA. Middle grade, on the other hand, is comfortable and I’ve had success with it.

Fast-forward 15 years. The novel had been rewritten, revised, edited, and polished – but not sold. I decided to publish it myself, because in the last 15 years that option has gone from an embarrassment hardly worth mentioning to a valid career path. (I’ve written many posts on self-publishing on my personal blog. Click on the link and then scroll down to the self-publishing Label if you’re interested.)

I’ve been writing a column on self-publishing for the SCBWI Bulletin. In a recent issue, I addressed sales. Several authors claimed that YA sold much better than MG. To quote one source: “Anything under YA just doesn’t sell.”

Hmm. Based on my own experience with two other self-published middle grade novels, I can’t disagree. My historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, sold reasonably well in the first year, probably because I targeted teachers who had used my traditionally-published historical drama The Well of Sacrifice in the classroom. But after that first year, sales dropped. My fantasy The Genie’s Gift hasn’t sold well, and our girl-centric middle grade boxed set has done poorly.

Why do self-published MG titles sell so poorly? In short, MG kids aren’t buying as many e-books, which is where the profits lie; library and school sales are important; and traditional reviews are important for library and school sales.

Pulling a Switch

You can’t randomly assign a genre or age range to a novel. In general, something is what it is. However, I realized Bandits Peak worked at least as well if I made the main character 15 rather than 12. Maybe even better. Although there’s no romance, his behavior is largely motivated by an innocent crush on the 20-year-old woman he meets in the woods.

The novel is still suitable for middle grade readers. In fact, I add this paragraph to the description on sales channels:

Readers who enjoyed Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet will love Bandits Peak. This heart-pounding adventure tale is full of danger and excitement.

Would that have changed how you identified the age range for my novel? If you know Hatchet story (and you should), a boy is stranded alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash. He’s 13, and the book is listed for “Ages 12 and up,” but I’m pretty sure it’s popular with middle grade readers as well. (Middle grade is generally considered to be ages 9 to 12.)

I hope that deserving middle grade books sell well in the future, regardless of how they are published. I think it will happen, as digital reading becomes more common for all ages. In the meantime, I guess you can call me a YA author as well.

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Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with 20 traditionally published books for children. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift; a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Learn more at or her Amazon page.

Chris’s book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.


  1. Chris, your new book does sound exciting - and as I (and my 12 year old son) loved HATCHET, yours appeals to me too! I can only imagine the challenges in self-publishing for MG. However, my son eagerly reads both ebooks and print - and he's your target readership.

    Obviously, parents are purchasing the ebooks but if kids find out about it (via friends, library, Amazon search) they get their parents to buy (at least my son does!). I think ebook sales for MG will only grow - and that's good news for you! I have a good friend who self publishes MG and has had success. Maybe a good connection for you? Karen Pokras Toz with her NATE ROCKS series.

  2. Great insights. The older middle grade readership definitely reads up. I can imagine my 6th-grader (if he wasn't a very reluctant reader--how did I produce one of those?!?) reading a book with a 15-year-old character as the MC.

    I think the reality is that many books--whether independently or traditionally published--struggle to find a readership. Only a small subsection of the population actively reads. Most people mindlessly channel surf, play video games, or spend their time on social media on their phones. But it is definitely harder for an independently published title to break out without the imprimatur that being pubbed by a big publishing house gives.

  3. Publishers (or more correctly, huge book sellers like B&N) have decided that middle grade readers will only read books with characters aged 13 and under. Anyone who works with kids knows this is not true.

    I think you made a smart decision. Putting the age of the character as 15 sets it squarely in the YA market, but making sure the content is suitable for middle grade readers widens your audience.

    And Hatchet is a frequently used in fourth and fifth grades -- with 10/11 year olds, by the way.

  4. What a valuable post -- thanks for sharing your insights, process, and experience. I've heard that middle grade is very hard to self-publish successfully, and based on my e-book sales of my MG compared to print numbers, I believe it. I really appreciate your candor, Chris.

  5. I love that this came from a true event and that it's a story that's been in the making for years!

  6. Thanks, everyone! (Testing that my comment will go through before I spend time responding in more detail.)

  7. Hey, it's letting me comment today!

    I agree that middle grade e-book sales will grow. It's hard to predict the market, and sometimes there are surprise twists. I've heard that many kids now prefer print books for pleasure reading, because schools are using more laptops and tablets, so digital formats seem like schoolwork. But one way or another, the e-book market will grow. And of course, you can self publish the print version as well (and I always do) . It's just that print on demand has to sell for closer to $10, so there's a greater barrier to a reader trying an unknown book.

    My e-book sales are also much lower with my traditionally published books.

    Donna, thanks for the tip. I've made a note of her name for future Bulletin articles.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!