The publishing business can have a tendency to pigeon-hole an author into a certain genre or age group, but a number of successful authors, Iain Banks perhaps most notably, have managed to step in and out of the fantasy and literary or general fiction sections, or like Jane Yolen publish books for both children and adults. Often the same book is marketed to both children and adults, with slightly different editions found in two parts of the same bookstore. This trend became particularly pronounced since the rise in popularity of the Harry Potter books, which were read by as many adults as children. Since then other authors, like Philip Pullman and Orson Scott Card, have crossed the line between the adult and children’s sections of bookstores with the same book.
This fine line exists between the adult fantasy marketplace and teen or young adult fantasy, but books written for middle grade or younger readers will generally have less appeal to adult readers, and won’t be considered for inclusion in the adult sections of bookstores or libraries. There may be some advantage to keeping overtly “adult” themes and situations, especially explicit sex, out of your fantasy novel in order to appeal to a wider audience, but at the end of the day, you’re going to have to write the story you’re burning to tell the best way you can.
The word “adult” has recently started to be a euphemism for pornography, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Though there is a growing market for erotic fantasy that could be considered pornography, this category is meant to describe where a book sits in a bookstore or library, and its intended audience, not simply the level of sexual explicitness it contains. Adult fantasy titles often have no explicit sex at all, actually.
The adult fantasy market is very active, with literally hundreds of novels published every year by dozens of publishers, from major houses to the smallest small presses. Fantasy novels by authors like George R.R. Martin and R.A. Salvatore make regular appearances at or near the top of The New York Times and other best seller lists. Adult fantasy books are rarely shorter than 80,000 words, average more like 100,000 words, and can even be as long as 300,000 words—or more. Be prepared to tell a substantial story, but don’t try to pad a 90,000 word book into 100,000 words, or feel you have to cut your 200,000 word epic down to 80,000 words. Fantasy novels can see a best sellers list at 352 pages (like R.A. Salvatore’s The Ghost King) or nearly 850 pages (like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell).
Teen books tend to be shorter than adult novels. I’d advise a maximum of 100,000 words, and a minimum of 60,000. Teens are willing to read longer books, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which came in at 784 pages, but that series was already enormously successful. It might not have had the first installment (which was 309 pages) been that long.
Teen books are intended for kids ages twelve, or about sixth grade, and up.
Subject matter can get into some territories that “children’s books” have to avoid. Though you’ll never want to write an explicitly erotic scene in a young adult novel (if you want to see it published, anyway) there can be some allusion to sex, and your characters can experience a greater degree of horror and peril.
Middle grade books can be as short as 10,000 words, and shouldn’t be too much longer than 30,000 words. They might contain a few interior illustrations, but at this level, kids are starting to move away from picture books, so don’t ask for too many illustrations.
Boys seem a little more reluctant to stay in the kids’ section and will venture into the “adult” fantasy section before most girls their age. If you expect your audience might be teenaged boys, it’s probably better to keep an eye on your level of sex, violence, and harsh language—keep it at what, if it were a movie, would get you no more than a PG-13 rating—and let the teen boys find you in the adult section. Something like 90% of the Forgotten Realms® audience, for instance, is young men, a substantial number of them below the age of eighteen, and they’re going to the adult fantasy section to buy them.
Slim little volumes for the youngest readers, chapter books are intended for first through third graders, or about ages six to ten. There are an awful lot of fantasy chapter books out there, with stories that often rely on very familiar tropes. This tends to be the land of friendly dragons and young apprentice wizards, but can still surprise with its variety and depth. This reading level is certainly not inhabited entirely by series, but it can seem that way, and a number of them are tied in to popular movies or TV series for kids. Chapter books will almost always have at least a few illustrations, but they should not be essential to understanding the story.
The audience for early readers and picture books is as young as any author’s audience is ever going to be, with books intended for ages zero (yes, zero) to six. The category ranges from board and cloth books for infants and toddlers, through picture books that can be extremely simple or surprisingly complex, to beginning reader books with a very strict curriculum behind them that teach certain words or groups of words, or simple concepts like it’s nice to smile or don’t talk to strangers.
Depending on how broad your definition of “fantasy” actually is, I think you’ll find that most of the fiction in early readers and picture books qualifies as such. Before starting to write books in this category you’ll have to be keenly aware of the limits of the earliest reading levels. Illustrations are a must, and are often essential to understanding the story. You can approach an editor as either both the author and illustrator, or with a manuscript and the hope that the editor will match you up with the right illustrator. The former is a bit harder when it comes to making the sale, but not impossible.
But do all these little kids actually read anymore, or are they parked in front of a computer right out of the womb? According to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts report (as reported in “New NEA Report Finds More Reading Declines,” Publishers Weekly, November 19, 2007), 31% of seventeen-year-olds surveyed in 1994 reported reading almost every day for fun, but that number dropped to 22% in 2004. At the same time, 1% more nine-year-olds in 2004 said they read almost every day for fun than nine-year-olds ten years earlier (53% in 1994, 54% in 2004). That percentage for thirteen-year-olds dropped by 5% in ten years, indicating that the older a child gets the less likely he or she is to spend any time in a given day reading a book.
Maybe what these kids are waiting for is your next great fantasy novel for young readers.