Agent Observations

Before You Hit Send v.4

I’m working to the soundtrack of munchkins coloring in the background.

Today, I am going to address a few issues I am seeing in the Inbox: Genre and Target Age.

While the internet has a plethora of sources that discuss genre, I still see dozens of queries with the genre or the targeted age mislabeled.

Genre is more of a bookstore label. It’s what easily lets the reader, bookseller, the editor identify how to categorize your story, how to sell it, how to help you find similar stories that are of the same taste. YA is technically a genre of children’s literature, but with the success of Young Adult in the market, the genre itself has splintered into numerous subgenres. For example Paranormal, Dystopian, Sci-fi, High Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary, Historical. All of these subgenres also exists in good old regular fiction. Regular fiction is where everything else without a protagonist under the age of 18ish goes – with the exception of New Adult (I will talk about that in another post). Adult Romance is it’s own genre just like Science Fiction and Fantasy, but still adult fiction.

So you really need to understand your genre, subgenres, and the associations agents, editors and readers expect. Certain elements are expected in certain subgenres. I’ve found so many queries lately where the author states their work is one thing but it is clearly something else. Paranormal and Magical Realism are not the same thing. (One note, sure, there is blending of the subgenres but for this instance calling something one thing to circumvent agents and publishers is just not going to work) Women’s Fiction is not YA.

Know your genre. Know what is selling and what editors are tired of seeing. Unfortunately, Paranormal and Dystopian are on the down swing right now. Before you shout at me that that’s all you write. Take a deep breath. Don’t get caught up in the trends. The market is like a pendulum; it will swing back. We just can’t predict when (even though we try really hard to). Keep writing. Become better at your craft. Make that story the best it can be. The time will arrive. The pendulum will swing away from whatever is currently trending. Just know that it may be longer to find a place for that type of story.

Now, let’s focus on the target age. Lately, I’ve seen numerous queries where the author states their work is suited for YA/NA or MG/Adult cross-over. Unfortunately, no your Middle Grade cannot be adult, too. Cross-over appeal should be a given. Technically that’s what is meant when something is commercial – the story has elements that both the target age and those outside that age range will find enjoyable. Take for instance Harry Potter. Harry Potter is Middle Grade fiction because our beloved protagonists, Harry, Hermione and Ron are the age of most middle schoolers when the story begins – 11 years old. Within the first books are things that this age group associates with. First is what I call foul humor – like booger tasting jelly beans, fart jokes, ect – also the early stages of learning one’s self identity, bullying, ect  all within a wonderfully crafted world of magic that exists adjacent to our normal world (magical realism). But the commercial appeal to both children and adults is from the basic story of ultimate good versus ultimate evil. As the characters aged the storytelling also matured, introducing things that older tween and teens associated with – like first kisses and first dances – while still appealing to adults.

So know who your target age group is. The first indication is the age of the narrator. If they are between 14-18, you have Young Adult. If they are between 10-14 it’s Middle Grade. Of course, there are gray areas within this group.  Agent Kristin Nelson made a fantastic Youtube video that really breaks down the difference between YA and MG. I HIGHLY recommend watching it. You can watch it HERE.

I will also mention that I have come across queries where the author has mentioned they have a YA or MG, but the story is told in retrospect, as opposed to in the moment. This is not YA or MG but adult fiction. The narrator is an adult recounting their past. Think the Wonder Years. The story is narrated by an adult Kevin as he comments in retrospect on his adolescence.

Next time, the hotly contested New Adult Genre. What it is. What it’s not. Why it’s hot after years of publishing industry professionals discounting it.

If you’d like to see a post covering a particular question you have about publishing, agenting, writing, sending me a note through the contact section of the website.

As always, considerate and constructive replies are welcomed and encouraged!




  • Beck

    Do you send out rejection responses, or not respond at all when it’s a pass? Just curious if not hearing anything yet is good or bad…

    • Cate Hart

      I do respond to every query and requested material, and because I do, it can take some time. Generally, 4-6 weeks is normal for most agents to respond. But I lengthened my response time because I do respond and try to personalize it. So, in answer to you question, if I haven’t responded it just means I haven’t gotten to your query yet.

  • Cora

    Dear Cate, I discovered your blog today and am dissecting it with relish. I have a question about genres. I am currently finishing a novel that focuses on a 17yo travelling back in time to early modern Europe and finding herself involved in the crusades while trying to rebuild the time machine that should get her back home. What genre would that fit in? There’s some science in the first couple chapters, then there’s a lot of history, then there’s science again. So, how should I pitch the story? Historically accurate science-fiction? Is that a thing?

    Anyway, thanks for your educational and fun-to-read blog. Even if my novel may not be ready for agenting yet, I still spend a lot of time fantasising about my future query letter 😉

    • Cate Hart

      Hi Cora,
      Thank you. I’m glad you find the posts helpful!
      It sounds like your story would actually fall under fantasy, or time-slip/time-travel fantasy to be a little more specific. Eons ago when my favorite author wrote her time-travel historical romance, for a lack of anything else to label it, it was labeled paranormal, but that was pre-Interview With The Vampire and Twilight. When you label your story as Science-Fiction, most will think more like Star Trek or perhaps even Dr. Who is considered sci-fi. I think it would depend on the plot. Many times that may help decided what genre it might fit better in. If your MC accidently created a Time Machine and traveled to the past and now they just want to get home without disrupting history, ect, then it’s more of a time-travel novel. If the MC is part of a secret society or future organization that say monitors the past and uses advances machines to travel back and forth, and then the MC becomes stuck while on a mission, that might lean toward science-fiction. Sometimes the best way to figure out what genre your book falls under, especially when it may be a blended genre, is to find other books similar to yours and see what reviewers, booksellers, or that author’s editor or agent have called it.

  • bardconstantine

    Hello Kate,

    I found your profile on Writer’s Digest and wanted to do some research before I query, so I’m glad I found your blog. My manuscript is high fantasy, but if it is not YA, is there a need to mention that it is ‘adult’ high fantasy in the query?

  • Holly M Campbell

    Dear Cate,

    I have a question concerning urban fantasy vs. paranormal. What is the difference? I have a story about two teen psychics (the girl reads minds, and the boy sees how people die) trying to solve a murder mystery before it happens. They do fall in love, so would I call it paranormal romance?



    • Cate Hart

      Great question. I once asked editor Heather Alexander a similar question. What differentiates Paranormal from Urban Fantasy. It’s still really a bookseller’s game, but Heather’s response, and one I’d seen drifting on the Ethernet, was that paranormal romance generally consists of a romance between a human/normal character and a character not of this world or from the paranormal world. Prime example Twilight, Vampire Diaries or Hush, Hush. A human and a creature in love. Even books like Vampire Academy are paranormal romance because the relationship is between two paranormal characters. Fantasy or Urban Fantasy on the other hand has humans navigating an alternate world to our normal one. The romance is between the human characters, even those with extraordinary talents. I always consider The Mortal Instruments as Urban Fantasy, because even though the Shadowhunters have paranormal skills, they are still humans.
      From your description, your story sounds like urban fantasy.

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