5 Tips for Writing and Marketing Young Adult / Teen Books

I’m a huge fan of the Hunger Games books, which along with Harry Potter and Twilight, add to the YA (young adult) genre of books that adults also love to read.

YAbooksIn today’s post, YA author Natalie Wright gives us some tips on writing and marketing in the genre.

When Joanna asked me to write a post with writing and marketing tips geared to writers of Young Adult (YA) fiction, I said, “Sure! Sounds great.”

Then I tried to write the post.

crazed writer

Crazed YA writer wrestling with article …

And tried.

I’d said yes to Joanna before pondering whether there are, in fact, writing and marketing tips specific to YA fiction. The elements of what makes a great story are the same across genres, aren’t they? And marketing tips such as you might find here on Joanna’s blog apply to all types of fiction books, don’t they?

After pondering for quite some time, my answer to these questions is yes – and no. There is a difference between a YA novel and a novel written for adults. At times the difference is subtle. Take voice, for example. YA books have a YA “voice”. I’m not sure I can explain what it is, but I know it when I read it (and I know it when I read it because I’ve read a lot of YA books (see tip #1 below)). And because YA writers are marketing their books (at least partially) to children, not adults, there are additional considerations on the marketing front too.

I’ve come up with five tips for you, specific to YA fiction. I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but having self-published two YA novels (and two more on the way), I’ve learned some things (often the hard way!). I’m happy to share these tips with you. Please add your tips below in the comments.

(1) Know Your Genre

This tip is applicable to all genre fiction writers, but I think it bears repeating. Readers of genre fiction have expectations of their beloved genre. If the reader’s expectations are not met, the reader will be unsatisfied with the story, even if the writing is fabulous. Unsatisfied readers do not recommend the book to their friends or give it 5 stars. Worse yet, an unsatisfied reader may pan the book publicly.

How do you know reader expectations of your chosen genre?

Read books in your chosen genre. A lot of books. Read large press books and small. Read Indie. Make a list of the commonalities to determine what expectations a reader may have of the genre.

I read a lot of YA fiction, both large press and Indie. One thing I’ve seen with Indie YA is the occasional misread of the genre by the writer. For example, I’ve come across Indie books categorized as YA but with an adult or child protagonist rather than a teen protagonist. As a reader, this is jarring. The reader is immediately unsure what the book is supposed to be. “I thought this was a teen book, but the main character is twenty-five.” This is an example of an author not understanding reader expectations of the genre.

Know your genre and meet reader expectations to improve your chances of reader satisfaction.

(2) Know Your Audience

Understand the audience for your story before you write the book. If your book is geared to 11-14 year olds, it will be a different book than if it is geared to 16-19 year olds. Think very specifically about your target audience. Who is your ideal reader? Boy? Girl? Age? What are the child’s other interests? If you create a story with a specific target reader in mind, it will make the marketing of your novel significantly easier.

Speaking of marketing, make sure you gear your marketing efforts to your specific audience. If you hire a blog tour company or set up a tour yourself, focus on blogs dedicated to YA fiction. I’ve learned this one the hard way, and wasted valuable time and money in the process. It’s a wasted effort to try to “sell” my young adult paranormal fantasy books to middle-aged folks who read solely literary fiction or adult romance novels. Focus your efforts on blogs that cater to YA fiction, and more specific to your sub-genre if you can. Two companies that work specifically on setting up YA book tours are Goddess Fish Promotions and SupaGurl Tours.

(3) Know the Rules of YA Fiction

Adults read what they want without the need for approval of their book purchase or library lending. Teens, however, are often subject to some form of adult censorship. When it comes to buying books, few teens have unfettered access to the funds with which to buy their own books without parental approval. A librarian will be purchasing the books that she wants to add to the collection, and will often have to consider community standards in her decision of what to buy and where to shelve the book.

Writers need to keep these true “gatekeepers” in mind. Allow me to illustrate with a lesson learned from my own publishing experience. When I published my first novel, Emily’s House, I didn’t adequately consider the gatekeeper factor. I wrote the dialogue between my teen characters the way I “heard” them speak in my head – and the way my friends and I talked when we were in high school – i.e. potty mouth.

I got no objections to the language from teen readers.

The push back came from adults. Parents protested that a single use of the “F” word (at a point where the MC was hit with a cane and she said “What the f***?) was inappropriate. And librarians said they couldn’t shelve it in the YA section because parents would complain.

My solution? I engaged my blog audience and made a game of finding colorful, but clean, language to replace the offending words and phrases. I then released a new edition. Why? Because my target audience for that book are kids ages 11-14, and I don’t want the book to be kept out of their hands because their parents/teachers/librarians find it offensive for them to read.

And this goes back to tip #2. If I had adequately thought about my audience before I wrote the book, I would have realized that using the “F” word, even once, in a book that was intended for kids as young as 11 wasn’t a smart move.

We want our books to find the largest possible audience. If you write for teens or younger, you need to be aware of what does, and what doesn’t, pass muster with the adult gatekeepers. If you write “edgy” YA books intended for older YA audiences (or “New Adult” books), the “rules” are more flexible. Consider the reasonable expectations of a reader – and their parents. If your book is not edgy, make sure the rating that would be applied to your book is no higher than PG.

(4) Know Yourself

Perhaps better than any other age group, teens can sniff out a poser without even trying. When it comes to our social media and our writing, being ourselves works best.

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

The thing is, when you write for teens, it can be tempting to attempt to be cool or try to fit in with the teen audience. We may force trendy dialogue on our characters or throw in references to popular teen culture. And in social media, we may try to play a part in order to gain fans.

We need not try  to play a role in order to be a successful writer for the teen market. If you watch interviews of the three most commercially successful writers for teens of all time – J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Myers, and Suzanne Collins – you won’t find a “poser” among them. They write the stories that are authentic to them. Not one of them tries to be anything other than what she is.

And their fans love them!

Not because they’re super cool women, but because they write super cool stories. (They may be super cool women too J)

If you dig into your past, you can get in touch with that teen version of yourself. Use your imagination and ask her what she was worried about, or feared, or what she wanted more than anything else. If you channel that teen version of yourself as you craft your story – and write from that place – you’ll find your authentic teen voice. And the authentic writer voice is irresistible to readers, whether the readers are teens or adults.

(5) Give of Yourself

This marketing tip may go (somewhat) against what you have heard from some book/author marketing experts. Social media experts frequently warn us, “Don’t talk about yourself.” They suggest, instead, to share tips and information that will be useful to others.

Good advice. Yet . . .

I can’t speak to the issue of marketing a book written for adults, but as for YA fiction fans, they want to know the writer. Be prepared to share of yourself.

I don’t mean a 24-hour Twitter feed of updates about your newest release and where to buy it. Spamming teen readers with constant posts that scream “Buy my book!” will result in a mass exodus of followers.

If you’ve managed to find a reader who enjoys your writing well enough to hunt down your Twitter handle, or find you on Facebook and hit the Like button, they want to learn more about you – as a person. They are curious about the human being behind the words.

For an example of a YA writer that successfully uses social media to engage her readers, check out Maggie Stiefvater. You can view her lovely website here (from which you can link to her blog), and her Facebook page here. Maggie doesn’t blog about writing tips (at least not often), because her blog is devoted to her readers, not other writers. And her Facebook posts aren’t filled exclusively with “buy my book” links.

Maggie shares snippets of her life, from the giant corn she saw on her book tour road trip to a video of her playing the bagpipes (badly). Maggie started by writing amazing stories, of course. But her fans go to her social media to learn more about her and her books, and Maggie makes great use of it.

And if you study Maggie Stiefvater’s social media long enough, you’ll see that she has mastered #4 tip above. She is authentic, and it shows. Maggie is just being Maggie, and her readers love her for it.

What is unique about you? What other talents, besides writing, do you possess? How can you share of yourself and create your own tribe of loyal fans and followers?

Do you write or read YA? Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Please do leave a comment below.

emilys house natalie wrightNatalie Wright is the author of The Akasha Chronicles, a young adult fantasy series, the H.A.L.F. trilogy, a YA speculative fiction series arriving Fall of 2013. When not writing, blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Wattpadding or eating chocolate, Natalie nurtures her young daughter, feeds her dog too many treats, and can’t resist watching Ancient Aliens, no matter how absurd the show becomes.

Blog: http://www.NatalieWrightsYA.blogspot.com

Twitter: @NatalieWright_

Facebook: NatalieWright.Author

Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/natwrites

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  1. Hedy says

    I am helping a friend set up a marketing plan for their YA novel and have a question I can’t find an answer to online. Are there any additional laws we have to keep in mind when collecting email addresses for an email marketing list? Since most readers will be under 18, is there something additional we have to have on our email sign up forms? Thanks!

  2. says

    Thanks for this Natalie! As a new writer in the YA market, I’m really interested in your point about understanding the genre. I think you can only tell the story which is inside you though. I don’t think I could ever write a vampire story or similar – I am primarily interested in character rather than plot (although plenty happens in my book!). Do you think this is suitable in YA?

    • says

      There is plenty of room in YA for all types of stories. Many are more character driven than plot driven and most do not have vampires. Yes, you must write the story that’s in you to write. But when it comes time to market your work (or query it or even when uploading it to Amazon to publish), you need to be clear about genre and where your book fits into the larger market. So not only knowing your own story inside and out, but reading (a lot) in your genre. YA generally and then more specifically finding books that are similar to your own. Publishers and readers both like something to compare it to. For example, my next series will appeal to fans of T.V. shows such as The X-Files and Roswell. Boom, a reader can tell right away if this is up their alley or not. And I know my target audience. This is more important, I think, than I knew it was when I was writing and publishing my first book.
      Best wishes with your project and thanks for reading my post.

  3. Bobby Sentell says

    I recently got an acceptance of sorts suggesting that my submission might mesh with their young adult/new adult publishing (a genre that I did not intentionally write for). Then they asked me to send them a marketing plan. I have one scholarly book out that has done fairly well, and years of newspaper and magazine work behind me, but I have never been asked for a marketing plan. Is this the new paradigm – indie publishers wanting the author to do the marketing? I have never written fiction before, so this is all new to me, but I really would like to get this particular story published. What am I supposed to do?

    • says

      ALL authors, no matter how the book is published, need a marketing plan. All publishers expect a “platform”. If you are new to the idea of marketing, start with Joanna Penn’s books about social media and marketing. I can also recommend Joe Konrath’s blog and book on marketing (“A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing”) and Kristen Lamb’s book “We Are Not Alone”. That should get you started.
      You know your book better than anybody. You know the message you want to convey with your marketing efforts, so you are in fact in the best position to begin creating your “brand” and marketing your work. And now is the time to start, not after the book has already come out.
      Best wishes!

  4. Tony says

    Hi Natalie,
    I find your advice(s) extremely useful, I am a first time writer,my email address indicates my birth year .My book is multi-topic (4) the contents covers most aspect of human behavior, Humour ,self-examination question Questionare,Reflections,& Related stories .The target audience (s)is in sync with the book’s theme it is motivational and lures the readers as active participants as the questions and interviews identifies with almost all of us.
    I speak of myself not in a bio form but give synopsis of who am I, identifying with some of the participants ,who relates their experiences and acts of redemption.
    What is your take on my concept .
    Your response is awaited

    • says

      Tony – It sounds like you have a lot to say. That’s not unusual with a first book as first-time authors are often bubbling over with a lifetime of things to speak about. I have two alternating suggestions. First, you could write the book regardless of whether or not anyone else thinks the concept is a good one/marketable, etc. Write it because you want to/need to and do not worry what others think of it. It may end up being something marketable or it may not. It doesn’t matter. Write what you want to write.
      The second and alternative approach would be to clarify your concept and your “pitch”. Right now, the concept is a bit murky (to me at least) and that speaks to the issue that you have not, perhaps, worked it all out. With this second approach, you hone your concept and pitch and then try it out on others before you begin to write. You may find that it does not resonate with others in which case you may choose to alter the concept further or to come up with a different idea.
      As for me, I tend to write what I want to write because I’m not sure I can live a life any other way. That means that not all of my ideas are highly marketable ones but that’s okay with me. I enjoy the writing process and learn from it. The thing that I needed to say/explore got said/explored and I move on to the next project. The main thing for any new writer is to write. And if you begin asking for “permission” from others (i.e. seeking out opinions about whether your idea is good/worthy) before you even begin, you may never start. I follow Stephen King’s advice and write my first draft “with the door closed”.
      Don’t know if this helps 😉 Best wishes with your project, Natalie

  5. Yolanda says

    Hi Natalie, I want to write for the YA genre, but I don’t know what I can’t seem to think of a good story line in my head. What should I do?

    • says

      I suggest that if you’re just starting out writing, don’t worry about genre. Just read and write as much and as often as you can. The more you do those two things (read and write), the more your own stories will take shape in your head. When writing, perhaps start small. Work with a single character or scene. This will help you develop your skills and you may find that one scene or character inspires you to a bigger story.
      As far as genre goes, if you want to write YA, then read a lot of YA. Read independently (self) published books, small press and large press. Read the genre you’re interested in writing so that you see what “YA” is – what readers expect of the genre. Then, when you write your own stories, keep the elements in mind that make a book “YA” while adding your own voice – your own unique perspective.
      Best wishes on your writing!

    • NEB Inskip says

      Hi Yolanda,

      I’m with Natalie, just start! But one thing I do is to always pose a question, a starting point if you like. I call these ‘What If’s’.

      ‘What if I noticed that my friend, Amelia’s eyes had changed colour?’

      ‘What if I saw a mysterious machine in my neighbour’s garage when I went looking for the ball I lost over the fence?’

      ‘What if the house next door was missing when the fog lifted?’

      I find the simplest question can start a whole chain of things to write about, all you have to do then is keep writing.

      Good luck with the writing,

      NEB Inskip.

  6. Natalie says

    I am writing a book (I’m 13 and on page 136 of right now) and I need tips:
    1. Making chapters
    2. I have a person that dies in my book and it’s a close friend of the MC. Tips about it?
    3. Editing it and making it flow
    4. Making parts not too short and not too descriptive, or not descriptive enough
    5. Taking time to finish it
    And if I want to make it about 250 pages, how long will it take me if I am busy from 6am to 4pm on weekdays, 10am to 4:30pm on Saturdays, and 12pm to 4:30 on Sundays? I am only 13 and I can give a summary of the book if anyone needs it.

    • NEB Inskip says

      Hi Natalie,
      136 pages awesome effort!
      1. I’m sure there are rules round chapters but according to my editor I usually ignore them so maybe I’m not the best person to reply, but I will anyway. I usually start a new chapter where there is a natural break in the story, as in where one story line is paused while you follow another or where the circumstances or location changes. Basically though, I wouldn’t worry too much as they are easy to change if you get them wrong. so write first worry later is my advice.
      2. Coincidentally I have a death in my current book. There are a few different components to a death and how much you use each one depends on the significance of the character, so in my case it is one of the two main characters so it is pretty impactful. A death us usually built up to so you have to detail the circumstances around it. Describing the death is usually pretty easy, it doesn’t even have to be very graphic if you don’t want it to be, it is the impact of the death on others that tends to move the story along. Note this can be positive or negative; yes, some people might be happy about it, and some people can be heartless or insensitive.
      3. I usually do a read through and a rewrite before I get someone else to read it and comment, then I make any changes and then send it off to the editor. The important thing is to not take editors comments personally, it’s not about you, it’s about the copy on the page. I personally do not enjoy the editing process, but I know people who just love getting things perfect.
      4. I think you just write it as you write it and again don’t worry too much. My editor once told me he thought one of my characters was much older than he turned out to be which is an example of not enough detail. One thing I find is that I can see what’s going on in my imagination but my poor readers can’t tell it was raining and the drops were rattling across the window pain. The other thing is, sometimes you don’t need much detail to make the point. ‘She slapped on sun screen,’ tells the reader it is a hot and sunny day and that she is going to be out in the sun. So, I don’t think you can have too much or too little detail, it’s a bit like Goldilocks, finding what’s ‘just right.”
      5. This is an easy one to answer. whatever time it took you to get to 136 pages, since that’s about half way. I must admit I am terrible at keeping to number of words. My current book (not YA) was meant to be 100 000 words, then I said 120 000, but since I am at 122 000 already it’s probably going to be 130 000. I think it’s best to make it whatever length required to tell the story. If it’s a young adult novel, 70 -80 000 is ok though mine tend to be around100 000.
      Hope that helps and I am sure wiser people than me can add more. Best of luck, I admire your effort.

      • mariadarling@cfl.rr.com says

        What is the ‘now’ thing to write about for 16-19 year olds? I wrote a paranormal story recently, having no idea the whole “paranormal, vampire thing” was OUT. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  7. mariadarling@cfl.rr.com says

    I recently tried to have published a story with paranormal undertones not realizing that sort of thing was ‘out’. Can someone give me an idea of what the new thing is to write about that would appeal to 16-19 year olds? Thanks.

    • Joanna Penn says

      I would never write to the market – it is always changing and people will always want books of all types. Just write what you love to read.

  8. says

    I have just completed my second YA novel–a mystery. The story revolves around a 14-year-old girl whose life if thrown off balance (and she gets involved in dangerous situations) after she discovers her parents in a threesome. The reader doesn’t see this, and there is nothing graphic; it is told through the protagonist’s POV when she confides in her paternal grandmother who helps her deal with the situation.

    Is this too racy a topic to be in a book about a 14-year-old?


  1. […] YA or Young Adult is typically (and very loosely) defined as a book whose target market is 11-19 year olds. MG or Middle Grade is generally written for children between 9 and 13. In reality, and as seen by sales for blockbusters like The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series, all age groups read books written for these markets.  For more on what makes a book YA or MG, read author Joanna Penn’s excellent blog article on the subject here:  http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2013/01/18/writing-marketing-ya/. […]

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