I'd love to be able to please everyone. Honestly, I would. But since that isn't possible, I have to pick a road and drive on it. The stories I write are labeled “Mature Young Adult” (by me) and feature characters in the 17-22 age range (in keeping with the fact that young people generally like to “read up”). I strive to realistically portray those ages as much as possible.
My definition of a Mature Young Adult reader is 17+ (or younger, with parental permission - and if you aren't checking what your kid is reading, you've effectively given your permission).
A review I read recently posed the judgment that "YA Mature" should mean “later college” at the youngest. UM. The people in charge of entertainment ratings - panels made up of parents - do not agree with that statement. Let's take movie ratings as an example. In the US, at age 17, a person may purchase a ticket to see an R-rated or an NC-17-rated movie - or the movie itself in DVD form - without parental consent. We're not talking about words on a page here, folks. We're talking film: mature language, drug and alcohol use, physical violence, explicit sexual scenes.
To reiterate: Your 17-year-old high school junior can run down to the cineplex and see any damned movie she pleases. Pornography may be legally purchased at 18 (or viewed on the internet by anyone with free rein to surf at will).
Game ratings follow movie ratings closely, though the lettering is different. Once again, a 17-year-old high school junior may pop by the local video game store and buy any M-rated game (which may include intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, mature language) with no parental consent. Adult-only games may be purchased by 18-year-olds (high school seniors). These may include scenes of intense, prolonged violence and graphic sexual content.
Young Adult (YA) literature has a problem. It lumps 12-16 year old readers in with 17-18 year old readers. Anyone who works with or has kids in that age range knows there's a big difference in maturity between say, 14 and 17. (If a child is a very mature 14-year-old, she is most likely going to be more mature at 17 than her peers, as well.) Maybe the child is an advanced reader, but isn’t yet mature enough to handle mature content. This is where parental guidance - the notion that you know your own child best - comes in.
I began vetting YA books for my kids when they were 12-13 and had become bored with MG (middle grade) books. It didn't take long to realize that the ratings for Young Adult literature weren't good enough. I was going to have to read or at least skim through everything they wanted to buy until I felt they were old enough to choose for themselves (for my kids: around age 14).
As an author, I can't invent a book category. Distributors like Amazon and B&N give publishers and indie authors category choices at publication. My current category (Young Adult) contains no separation between 12-16 year olds and 17-ups. The best I can do is include, in the book description, my own warning/disclaimer, and that's what I've done since I first published Between the Lines.
I'm not required to do this. And by the way, this is not something traditional publishers have been doing. This is something I took it upon myself to do because I was the parent sitting in the bookstore floor, reading through books to make sure they were appropriate for my own precocious reader. I have zero problem with someone deciding my books are too edgy for their kid. I have lots of problems with someone deciding my book is too edgy for someone else's kid.
And please, before you assume that all indie authors are running hell-bent-for-leather into sexual situations that no traditional publisher would ever condone, please go read Looking for Alaska (Printz Honor Book), Perfect Chemistry (NY Times Bestseller), Going Too Far, The DUFF, The Sky is Everywhere, the Wicked Lovely series, The Wolves of Mercy Falls series... all of which are amazing, wonderful, traditionally-published, "Young Adult" books with edgy content.
The authors whose works are listed above are well-respected by the publishing world and the general public, as well they should be. You won't find anything in any book of mine that I can't find in a Big-Six published young adult novel (which will include no parental warning by that publishing house).
If the publishing world comes up with a book category reflecting the independence and maturity 17-ups are afforded in every other entertainment venue, I'll be happy to move my books into that category. Until then, I'm motoring down my chosen road, marking it as best I can.