Target Reading Level for Fiction

Is there a target reading level for fiction? Does a novel with a reading grade level of 12 or higher have a chance at publication?

Yes, a novel written at a 12th grade level has a chance at publication!

But I have a qualifier. The content and story line must be aimed at adult readers. You’ll have better luck selling a literary novel at this reading level, than say, a suspense novel or a romance.

I tried to find some sources to back up my opinions, but Google was not my friend. I had a really hard time finding any recent legitimate statistics (backed up by research) on literacy, reading levels of adults, and the average reading levels of novels. Maybe I just didn’t know the right key words to get to it. There were a lot of guesses and some old research and arguments about how that old research is invalid… So if any readers know of a recent valid study, please let us know in the comments.

I asked a few colleagues, and our understanding is that in the publishing industry, most popular U.S. novels for adult readers are written at a  7th to 9th grade reading level. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any popular novels published at a higher reading level or even at a much lower reading level. (Read this article on reading levels of various novels.)

I also found a forum comment that made the following assertions, which “feel” right to me. They attribute their statements to studies done by the healthcare industry, but I couldn’t find the original source.

1. No matter how educated people are, they actually read three to five grades lower than the last grade they finished. People who finished high school read at the level of 7th-9th graders. (LDSP: Uhm, so college graduates would read at or above the 12th grade level.)

2. When a prominent newspaper lowered the complexity of their articles from college level to 4th grade, the number of readers shot up by 98 percent. (LDSP: Not sure of the percentages, but I’ve heard that when some magazines did this, their subscription rates went up.)

3. The books of the most popular U.S. novelists (Stephen King, John Grisham, etc.) are written at a 7th-grade reading level.(LDSP: That’s my general assessment, as well.)

4. Most romance novels (which make up about half of all paperbacks sold in the U.S.) are written at a 5th-grade reading level. (LDSP: Not sure about this one, but I would suspect that the mass market paperback romances [*cough * harlequin-esque * cough] might fit this.)


I also found the ProLiteracy website which seems legit. They indicate that approximately 29% of US adults read below the 8th grade level, with 14% reading at a fifth grade level or below.

That leaves 70% of the adult US population that read at or above the 8th grade level. Right?

So, yes, I think a novel for adults (as opposed to children and teens) written at a 12th grade reading level or above has a chance. If that’s the level at which you’re comfortable writing, do it. If your agent or a publisher likes it but tells you to dumb it down, then you’ll have a decision to make.

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