New Adult, the 2012 Edition

A few years ago, when the term first cropped up, I wrote a couple of posts about so-called “New Adult” books. At the time, it was a term coined by a couple of editors at St. Martin’s Press who were thinking of putting out a submissions call for a few books like this. If they ever did publish books under this heading, I never heard about it.

Here’s what I did hear: lots and lots of aspiring writers talking about it. I think I probably heard about it more than the average writer, because people often tweeted me in the midst of discussions about whether or not my secret society girl series would fall under this “new” (and functionally non-existent) publishing segment. To which I said, “sure, sounds about right.” Books about college kids, not young enough for YA? That’s totally what the Secret Society Girl books—which were published as adult novels, by the adult imprint Bantam Dell, and will be found (unless some enterprising bookseller or librarian chooses to cross shelve them) in the adult, mainstream section of a bookstore—are about.

I also got lots and lots of emails from aspiring authors (about one a month, over a period of three or more years) about how they couldn’t find anyone to take their college-set books, in either the YA or the adult world, and could I give them any advice. (My advice was usually along the lines of: “why do you think I’ve been writing about either teenagers or late twenty somethings for my last five books?”)

And a few years went by, and as far as I know, no one ever started an imprint at St. Martins or anywhere else, and some of the people who were writing these “new adult” novels, either because they’d erroneously heard that it was “a thing,” or because, like me, they had a burning desire to write a story that could only be about college kids, failed to find a publisher and self-published them. And some of those did really well, and hit bestseller lists, and were picked up by big publishers for a lot of money, and are getting lots of news articles written about them.

Okay, so here we are, several years later, and after years of “trying to make fetch happen” it appears, thanks to the wonders of self-publishing and the anointment that getting a couple of New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly articles about you brings, that “new adult” is officially and undeniably “a thing.”

But is it the thing that people thought it was going to be, or is it something else?

Let’s take a look. Here are the books more than one of the articles mention*:

  • EASY, by Tammara Weber (originally self published): A college freshman (who chose her school to appease her ex-boyfriend) navigates new love and a stalker.
  • LOSING IT, by Cora Carmack (originally self-published): A college senior tries to lose her virginity in a one-night stand, only to discover her partner is her new theater professor.
  • SLAMMED, by Colleen Hoover (originally self-published): A high school senior has an affair with a man who turns out to be her new poetry teacher.
  • BEAUTIFUL DISASTER by Jamie McGuire (originally self-published): a college “good girl” meets a bad boy.
  • FLAT OUT LOVE, by Jessica Park (originally self-published): a college girl moves in with family friends, deals with their dysfunction, and falls for the adult son in the family.

And in case the whole “NYT articles about you” didn’t make it clear enough, at the time of this writing, FOUR of the top twenty titles on Amazon Kindle** are being self-described as “New Adult” (wow, so totally a thing). And here they are:

  • THE COINCIDENCE OF CALLIE AND KAYDEN, by Jessica Sorensen ($0.99, self published and classified as teen and contemporary romance)
  • HOPELESS, by Colleen Hoover ($3.99, self published and classified as teen and contemporary romance)
  • THE EDGE OF NEVER, by J.A. Redmerski ($3.99, self published and classified as women’s fiction)
  • FALLEN TOO FAR, by Abbi Glines ($3.99, self published and classified in contemporary romance)

Anyone else see a pattern here?

All the books these articles talk about are: “modern story about a college or near-college aged girl who falls in love with a man, often older.” (Also, a lot of self-publishing, because traditional publishing is SLOW TO MOVE.)

Yeah, there’s a name for that kind of fiction. It’s called a contemporary romance novel. Now in YA romance, you can have romance novels in first person, or romance novels where there is more than one guy in the picture (Stephanie Perkins is great at this) or deal with something other than romance at the forefront.

In the adult romance market, those kind of things are often frowned upon for a variety of really arcane and rarefied reasons, which is why when those things are published, they are often called something else. Back in the apparently dark ages of eight years ago, when I first sold Secret Society Girl, there was another name for that kind of fiction (and it was the name I called SSG way back then):

Chick lit.

Do I believe that there’s a hole in the publishing market for stories about kids in college? Sure. For years, people would ask me for recommendations for more books set in college, and I didn’t have much to send them. So for my money, this is great.

Do I also think there are a lot of people out there who like these kinds of stories but might, for a whole host of kind of silly (i.e., people told them they should be ashamed) reasons not read something CALLED a romance or chick lit novel so a publisher has to call it something else? Yes, absolutely.***

But despite a lot of people on Twitter rushing to call every book or movie made in the last ten years that happened to have a twenty year old in it “New Adult” – the fact remains that when you look at these books, you aren’t seeing a whole publishing segment, you are seeing a genre trend.

The New York Times called this new trend “Harry Potter meets Fifty Shades of Grey” which is kind of ridiculous to anyone in publishing, because Harry Potter is a middle grade fantasy (not YA), and Fifty Shades, if we’re going to call it “new adult” (as the NYT article does) is one of the sexier of the New Adult novels currently out there (and true to form, was originally self published, did very well, and then got picked up by a big publisher). But none of these are fantasy novels, or thrillers, or historical novels, or science fiction novels or even romantic suspense novels. In fact, none of these are any genre other than contemporary romance.

And that’s great, too. There are all manner of romance flavors – sheik romances, SEAL romances, Greek billionaire romances, vampire romances, small town romances, glitz romances, medical romances… these books that everyone is calling “new adult” are essentially college romances.

So I think saying it’s a new publishing segment is jumping the gun a bit. Perhaps, that too will change, and you’ll see publishers classifying all their books with twenty year old main characters (there are a lot of those in the science fiction, fantasy, and historical romance world already) as “new adult” so as to make it easy on the legions of booksellers the New York Times imagines wants to sell this stuff separately to shelve it there.

But I’m kind of thinking that won’t happen. Because I think the appetite in genres other than romance to separate out main characters by whether or not they are over or under 22 is not quite as rabid as those articles seem to believe. Romance has always been a particularly self –segregating genre, in which people read what they like and often ONLY that. Which is why I have friends who have been forced by their publishers to take new pen names when they go from writing regency historical romances (set in the first decade of the 1800s) to Victorian historical romances (set in the mid to late 1800s); and why a lot of romances have titles like “The Greek Billionaire’s Pregnant Mistress” so that potential readers can know instantly that the story is going to ping their “Greek” “rich” “baby” and “mistress” buttons; and why publishers like Harlequin can get people to actually subscribe to publishing lines where they’ll receive four books a month about, say, doctors and nurses falling in love. (And why, I might add, that a romance publisher like Entangled can announce that they are starting a “new adult” line.)

Now, what happens when a trend hits big is it’s going to filter – when chick lit was really big, you saw a lot of books being classified as “chick lit with vampires” which, when chick lit crashed, quickly got reclassified as “urban fantasy”. So I’m not surprised to see the occasional sale of, say, a YA dystopian as “new adult.” It’s the exception that proves the rule.

And of course, Kindle and other e-tailers can easily add a “new adult” label onto their genres so people can find stuff that way, and there doesn’t need to be any market segmenting there, unlike actual paper bookstores.

So, if someone were to ask me now what I think about this whole “new adult” thing:

  • It’s here and it’s selling quite a bit (especially in low-priced ebooks), which is awesome
  • It’s a self-publishing phenomenon, that rightfully capitalized on a hole in the market (and should feel the rightful smugness of being oh-so-right all along).
  • It’s almost exclusively describing what can also be called chick lit or contemporary romance stories.
  • If someone wants to make a bookshelf of it somewhere, feel free to put my secret society girl books on it, since they still fit that rubric.

And one more thing: as to the charge that “it’s YA with sex in it” – I’ve read plenty of YA novels about high school aged teens with sex in them (and a few of the “new adult” novels mentioned in this post do not have explicit sex in them). As always, what gets called YA is very much dependent on what the publisher chooses to call YA. There are plenty of books with teen protagonists that aren’t called YA, or are only called YA in certain markets. My Secret Society Girl books are published as YA in several overseas markets, and they have explicit sex scenes.

PS: Sarah Rees Brennan also has a take on this “new genre” worth reading.


* The most recent NYT article falls into the trap of asking book publicists what they would consider as fitting into the trend, and the book publicists all throwing any title they’re pushing that even remotely fits at the wall, which is why you get mentions of erotica starring 20-somethings like the Crossfire novels, or chick lit series begun in 2005 like the Heather Wells mysteries.

** FWIW, the other titles in the top 20 break down as follows: 4 books with movies made out of them: (Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Hunger Games, Life of Pi, and the Hobbit – all of which, interestingly, have juvenile ties); 8 thriller/mysteries, primarily by marquee names: Tom Clancy, James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, John Grisham,  Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovitch, and Gillian Flynn, this year’s “it” book; 2 adult contemporary romances by Angie Stanton and Stephanie Bond: and 2 books that are adult contemporary romance-adjacent: a new Nicholas Sparks and 50 Shades of Gray.

*** Because I saw what happened when news outlets and writers started telling readers that they should be ashamed to read chick lit novels. I was told to my face by a reporter at a big city newspaper that I should be ashamed for having written them. While they were interviewing me for a profile. It was… interesting. And I think it’s also interesting how these “new adult” romances have been very much an ebook phenomenon, which means no one on the subway or at your lunch table at work can sneer at your candy-pink cover. Yay, ebooks and reading privacy.

Posted in biz, new adult, other writers, SSG, writing industry, YA

15 Responses to New Adult, the 2012 Edition

  1. This is a great post. The New York Times is really good at garbling pop-cultural trends.

  2. Carolyne says:

    For me, if it gets more authors attention, sales, and/or contracts that pay the rent, I’m all for it.

    When I was a slush reader for a YA publisher, I had to pass on many–many–excellent manuscripts that didn’t fit the mandate of books for teens or younger, because they dealt with post-college life, first job, establishing a household, other things beyond the presumed scope of interest and experience of teens, and with or without a romance front and center (though often relationships figured strongly, since they often do at that phase of life). It’s still hard to push a novel that has a twenty-ish protagonist with a background of, to take one specific example from an urban fantasy series,WWI veteran. Too old for young, too young for old. So I’m glad to see New Adult become a category, and have been wanting something like this to be a “thing” for many years. If it gets the stories out into the world and noticed, more power to everyone.

    True enough, the fantasy and science fiction genres are full of twenty-year-olds on quests–the essence of New Adult, “stepping out into the world.” That part of a story defines it as “NA” for me much more than as a subset shifted out of Romance or Chick Lit.

    I came to your site from a link at Dear Author. Thank you for the in-depth discussion of the topic, and I’m looking forward to reading more here.

    • Diana says:

      It is interesting though, that “the part that defines NA” for a lot of the people on the writing/publishing side of things is NOT what seems to be defining it on the reader side of things. What you are seeing right now is exclusively a rise in chick lit and contemporary romance — not in WWI veterans or etc.

  3. Carolyne says:

    I should add that it was hard to push those twenty-ish heroes to adult publishers sometimes, too, on their theory that grown-up readers weren’t interested in some twenty-ish kid angsting about senior year or about getting a first job or about the meaning of existence before they’ve even existed for very long 🙂 In the hands of the right writer, though, these can be great stories deserving of an audience.

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  8. mclicious says:

    I agree with Carolyne. As you noted, nearly everything that is coming out is self published, which means the publishers that claim that their adult and YA books are already doing it are lying. I would love to see more books relevant to my post-teen years, but I’m not about to start reading through the slush that is self published books to do it – I’ve been roped into reading too many shoddily edited piles of horrible to do that, and if people are making such a big fuss about the new category (though I also agree that a new shelf isn’t as necessary as just buying and publishing the books, and maybe throwing them in both the general fiction and YA sections is fine), then that should trickle down to publishers taking those stories on.

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