One of my constant struggles as a buyer is finding the appropriate age category for the fiction books I select and sell. First novels are relatively easy to identify and to place. They contain shorter page counts, bigger print, and illustrations. They look and feel like something a 7 or 8 year old would read, and they have a section all their own.
A publisher's job is to sell their books to as large an audience as possible, and therefore, they place as wide an age-range as possible on their books. Have you ever picked up a children's book where the reading level was described as 8-12? The 8-year-old and the 12-year-old reader are two very different readers in terms of reading ability and reading interests, and I often find myself turning to the page count and age of the characters to make a decision on placement.
Even more frustrating than the generic "middle grade" rating which seems to be slapped on virtually every book for young readers is the young adult category. A few brave publishers will place the 14 years and up or even 16 years and up rating on a content-heavy YA novel, but most teen fiction carries a 12 and up rating. Selling books to school customers requires me to offer a deeper level of division within the teen category. I work both with middle schools (grade 6-8) and high schools, and I maintain a special middle school fiction section with "clean teen" reads that are vetted for sexual content and swearing. I also have a 14 and up teen fiction section, which contains edgier novels more appropriate for a high school audience. Before I can determine which category to place these books, I need more information about character age, content and the complexity of the writing. If I haven't read the book myself, I rely on bloggers and reviewers who have read it to answer these questions.
Some publishers maintain that bookstores don't like the 14 and up rating and believe it will hurt their sales. But wouldn't you think that the customers who are shopping for their 12-year-old sixth grader would appreciate this distinction?