Last weekend, while at the PNWA writers’ conference in Seattle (which I highly recommend), I inadvertently found myself at the heart of a pretty fascinating debate. Namely, what exactly is “new adult” literature? What started off as an innocent question by an attendee quickly turned into a point of keen interest for industry professionals and writers alike.
And little old me was one-half of the inciting incident. Oops.
But while the conversations that arose from the kerfuffle were accidental, they were a great way to discuss something that is still rather tenuously defined. New Adult has been a largely confusing label for a while now — is it a genre, or a marketing category? Is it a legit thing, or was it a passing trend that’s already died? No one seems to know, and the answers will vary drastically, even among industry pros.
Originally coined as a marketing category by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, the idea behind New Adult has always been that of any literature category: connect readers with the type of books that resonate with them. So why all the confusion? Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
Well, the confusion seems to have stemmed from both a lack of bookseller and sales support (stuck somewhere between YA and adult literature, booksellers weren’t quite sure what to do with NA titles and readers weren’t aware of them) and a surge of genre-specific entries spawned in part by one very infamous title. So, while traditional publishing tried to figure out what to do with NA, and whether or not there truly was a need for it, independent/self-published writers (particularly romance writers) adopted it wholeheartedly.
From there, it sort of became synonymous with steamy, college-aged contemporary romance, to the point that it started to be known as a romance sub-genre rather than a market category. Now, I believe the reason this happened is entirely because of sales. Romance readers are voracious (seriously, there’s a reason this is one of the best-selling forms of literature out there), and indie publishing moves at light speed when compared to traditional methods. So not only was there suddenly a flood of titles in this specific genre, but the sales figures were there to support it. Making it seem like a viable sub-sect of romance, and not much else.
Which brings us to today, where you’ll hear people say that NA is “contemporary romance only,” and then turn around to hear people like me say that NA is a market category and does in fact exist in speculative fiction too. (This is the heart of the kerfuffle I referenced above, by the way.)
But where does that leave querying authors? If the industry itself can’t decide whether or not NA is a thing, what are you guys supposed to do? Well, I may have stumbled on the answer. But before I elaborate on the conclusion I came to over the course of the weekend, let me talk about NA as a market category in general. Because trust me, it is still very much a thing — in certain circles.
As you all likely know by now, I work for REUTS Publications, a boutique publisher specializing in YA and — you guessed it — NA fiction. And all three of our current top-sellers are NA spec-fic. So we’re fairly confident in our stance that NA is still a marketing category and that there is a readership out there for non-romance NA.
Part of the reason we feel that way is because REUTS, and many other small/independent publishers, have heard readers ask for it. We’ve heard people complain about the lack of non-romance NA, heard them wish for books that contain characters more like them: people who are crossing into that post-adolescence stage of life and want to see their struggles reflected in the fiction they read.
There is an entire sect of readers who are more or less aging out of YA, but feel left adrift in adult. Too old for the high school shenanigans and angst of YA, but too young to identify with the 40+ mature characters often found in adult (and speculative fiction especially), this is a category of readers with nothing to read. And more importantly, they’re a group who grew up loving books and who are used to having an entire section of bookstores and libraries cater to them. Are you really going to tell me that those people aren’t prime material for a category like NA?
So now that we’ve established the backstory of the debate, let’s answer the original question. What the heck is “new adult” literature?
REUTS defines it as a marketing category targeting readers aged 18-25 (I’ve seen it go as high as 30, but that’s really just adult at that point, don’t you think?). It can be any genre, but much like YA, it has to revolve around themes which resonate with early twenty-something readers. This includes things like leaving home for the first time, discovering/exploring sexuality, establishing a career, forming serious relationships, having children, and otherwise transitioning from being an adolescent to an adult.
You’ll notice that some of those themes are also covered by YA, but the difference between the two is that YA is very insular. It focuses on the internal growth of a character coming into their own identity and independence. NA is external; it’s about that character finding where they fit in the larger world. Their sense of identity is a little more fully formed, and now they’re stepping out into the world to make their stamp on it. So yes, the two categories are very similar, but they’re also different enough that readers yearn for the added maturity NA brings to the table.
This maturity also translates to the writing styles seen in YA and NA. YA features simplistic, to-the-point narration, with mature content being carefully administered as necessary. (Mature content = sex, swearing, etc.) NA takes the character-driven narration of YA and layers the more sophisticated, sometimes wandering sentence structure of adult over the top. Swearing is fine, sex is definitely present and often very explicit, and the prose just has a more mature feel than its YA counterpart, which, again, points back to this idea of NA being a bridge for readers graduating from the ranks of YA and moving into those of adulthood.
But that’s not the definition many in the industry will tell you. Which brings us full circle to the conclusion I came to — NA is largely a small press, indie-publishing thing.
So, Now What?
The consensus from agents is that the Big 5 presses have more or less given up on NA being a lucrative category, with the exception of contemporary romance. But NA is doing well, and even sort of thriving in the ecosystem of small press, indie-publishing. There is a readership demanding these kinds of books, and authors can find homes for them. But, as with all things publishing, it comes back to understanding the industry and which of the many publication paths is best for your particular project.
If you’re targeting agents with something other than contemporary romance, don’t mention “new adult,” unless they specifically say they represent that in other genres. If you’re targeting small presses or self-publishing, slap that NA tag on your work. It won’t be a deterrent. But understand the difference. Publishing really is an ecosystem. There are many layers, many ways to find publication. Figure out which is the right fit for you, and adjust your approach accordingly. And who knows, maybe NA will eventually become a bookstore staple. After all, I remember the days before YA was a legitimate thing too.😉