Agents and Editors on “New Adult”

Agent Suzie Townsend (who represents NA superstar Cora Carmack, among others) recently did a Q&A with several editors and agents about the genre of New Adult. And, despite the best wishes of many aspiring writers and NA fans who wish to retrofit everything from Star Wars to The Iliad under their pet genre umbrella, it became pretty clear that, to the industry at large, New Adult is a) romance, and b) almost entirely contemporary (there were a few who expressed interest in seeing historical-set stories). But even that was delivered with a bit of a caveat:

[Priyanka Krishnan, Random House]: This is a tough question to answer. I would love to see some wonderful historical NA, something with a dash of adventure or mystery thrown into the mix. I think that could be really fun if done right. But that brings us back to the question of what “NA” really is—there’s historical fiction out there with younger protagonists and a romantic subplot. Do we call that NA?

Which is exactly what I’ve been saying. I really think that the “new adult” romance has filled a void that existed in romance but not, necessarily, in any other genre, and that’s why it’s taken off so notably in romance.

Every single agent and editor interviewed stressed the importance of the romantic focus on the genre, and only one–the only male on the panel–seemed to find that focus problematic:

[Gordon Warnock, Foreword Literary]: Oh, yes. A million times, yes. It pains me that Amazon lists NA as a subcategory of Romance.

The problem? That’s not entirely accurate. Amazon creates categories as a reaction to customer demand. Most books classified NA are, and have always been, found under the Genre Fiction>Coming of Age category on Amazon. There is also, very recently, a “New Adult and College” subset of the Romance category in Amazon, same as there is a “historical” category or a “sports” category or etc. Amazon’s addition of NA as a category under romance is because there really wasn’t anything like that before. NA is NEW to the romance genre, and is actually really distinct in many ways from other contemporary romances, and so there wasn’t anything else to put it under.

But look at those links — see any overlap between the bestsellers that show up? I sure do. One only has to browse the NA list (romance or otherwise) at Amazon to see what is selling. And that’s romance.

Having said that, if you are writing NA without romance, and not having much luck with a lot of agents and editors, maybe Gordon is your guy, since he also writes in the article that he’s sold one without romance.

I’m not sure why writers are so resistant to the way this term has been embraced. I suspect there’s some of the old “romance is the lowest form of fiction” stuff going on, and better people than me have written extensively on that subject for decades. I also think, especially for aspiring writers, that you want to believe your genre is the hot thing, so if your space opera just happens to be about 20 year olds, then why not call it New Adult and ride that gravy train?

I am with you! I’ve been there! I seem to specialize in writing books that are not quite this genre, not quite that genre. I mean, when I wrote SSG, there was no genre for it! But from a marketing perspective, it helps to try to see where it will find its best-fit readership.

Buzzwords are buzzwords, and marketers put them on things because they think they can sell, not because they think they are necessarily true-to-definition. (See also: “nano” and “low-fat.”) One of the best bits of writing advice I ever got was from agent Lucienne Diver, who said “if your book has spaceships and ray guns in it, please don’t tell me it’s not sci-fi.” There’s academic classification of genre, and then there’s marketing, and sometimes, they don’t have a lot to do with one another.

Every time I see readers debating over the difference between “a paranormal” and “an urban fantasy” I kinda want to shake my head, because the truth of the matter is: the word “paranormal” when it comes to book genre is a shortened term for “paranormal romance” and the difference between calling something a paranormal romance and calling it an urban fantasy, for quite some time, has been whether or not they think dudes will buy it if they call it UF. If Secret Society Girl had been bought by a different publisher who made an offer on it, it would have been called YA. It was not, and it was called chick lit. Now, it DEFINITELY would have been called NA. These terms are not sacrosanct.


“Dystopian” has come to mean “any YA novel set in the future” even though that’s totally not what it means, and it has led to my futuristic YA sci-fis being called dystopians, even though they aren’t, technically, dystopian. I don’t really mind though, because most readers think that’s what dystopian means, so the kind of novel they are looking for is actually the kind I wrote. It’s like getting the wrong directions but ending up where you wanted to go all the same.

In the same way, “new adult” — for all intents and purposes — has come to mean contemporary romances about college aged characters, even though that was not what the term was originally coined to mean. This has only become more and more pronounced as the genre has developed.

So before you shop your doesn’t-have-romance-in-it-at-all space opera starring twenty year olds as a new adult, ask yourself if you think you will bring in more “new adult” readers (the people reading Cora Carmack and Jamie McGuire and Jessica Sorensen), than the term might drive away people who read, love, and are looking for space operas. For all that NA is a current buzzword, you want it to buzz for your readership.

And, this is why, when I finally got the opportunity to write more books about college students, after a four year hiatus, I very deliberately chose to write books where the romance was at the forefront of the story. I love romance as a genre, and I love that the genre is now open to love stories that are more familiar to me. I met Sailor Boy in college, and until now, college was not a setting where most romance characters got to meet. So I’m all for it.

Which reminds me, you should totally check out Viv’s site, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and sign up to help her reveal the One & Only cover or participate in the Blog Tour. I’m not going to be talking about her as much over here, because, as Diana, I’ll be super busy promoting Across a Star-Swept Sea, which is out next month (finally finally finally!)

Posted in new adult, viv, writing advice, writing industry, YA

4 Responses to Agents and Editors on “New Adult”

  1. Thank you for this post! I’ve been thinking and jotting things down for a “NA thoughts” type of post for a while now. You’ve done a really good job summarizing some of those things I’ve been thinking about — what NA has become despite its original purpose, how romance was really the genre where the NA story lines were lacking, etc. I think by now it’s clear that NA is going to mean romance, and as you’ve pointed out, you might be doing your sci-fi or paranormal novel a disservice by labeling it NA and giving readers expectations that might not be delivered upon.

    (Also, can’t wait for more people to read Star-Swept! I completely adored Persis, and of course Justen’s science geekery <3)

    • Diana says:

      Thank you, Ashley! I can’t wait to read your post. This is a subject very much on my mind lately. It’s interesting because I am meeting a lot of writers who are doing other things, but it’s not in as visible a way and it’s definitely via the path of indie publishing and I’m left wondering if their insistence on making it NA, foremost, is hurting their book?

      And thanks so much for reading Star-Swept. I’m fond of Justen and Persis, too.. Is it October, yet?

  2. Jennifer says:

    What an interesting post. I have been currently struggling on whether to classify the book that I am writing as NA, because it’s characters are in the NA age range, but it is not a romance.

    Thank you for this post.

  3. Page Traynor says:

    An excellent post. I had to laugh since my son can’t hear the definition of books as dystopian without rage as he knows what it does mean. I think your point about asking will a certain classification help your book bring in new readers is the key point. I just have a problem with the New Adult spreading to other than romance because this age group is well covered in other genres.