If you’ve been following the blogs of agents and authors recently, you’ve probably seen the term “new adult” come up. It’s an interesting development in the world of books, and it’s generating some even more interesting discussion among writers, agents, and editors. The idea of new adult fiction is coming up against some tough obstacles, but it’s also developing a loyal following.
Since it’s such a new and intriguing development, I’ve been doing some research on the topic, and here’s what I’ve discovered, as well as an idea I think might actually solve some of the obstacles NA is encountering.
What is New Adult?
St. Martin’s Press coined the term “new adult” back in 2009 with the launch of a contest for manuscripts with protagonists slightly older than YA range with stories that could appeal to an adult audience.
The current idea is that NA is a category of fiction about a collection of experiences particular to “new adults”- moving out on their own, going to college, maintaining that first adult romantic relationship, buying a car and paying bills, landing and keeping a place in the professional workforce. Kristan Hoffman’s article for Writer’s Digest goes a bit more in-depth on what NA is and could be in the future, and author Sharon Bayliss wrote a great post on the what and why of new adult, so read those if you would like a bit deeper explanation.
Why do we want NA?
New adult currently revolves around the themes and situations common to YA fiction, but takes those ideas further. Becoming independent as a teenager in high school looks different than becoming independent as you move out of your parents’ home and begin your own life. This particular slice of life is rare in adult fiction, and the YA category doesn’t allow for those experiences, either (with a few rare exceptions). YA protagonists are almost always 18 or younger, and 18 can even be difficult to sell. Usually, if the protagonists aren’t teenagers/high school aged, it can’t be marketed as YA. Now this does look different for situations where no high school is involved (say, dystopian or fantasy genres), but the perspective of becoming an adult stays the same. See my post over at YA Stands for a discussion of the unique perspective of YA fiction and what elements make a work YA.
In an interview (here) shortly after that St. Martin’s Press contest, S. Jae-Jones, an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s, talked with Georgia McBride about the gap between YA and adult fiction, and how NA can help fill that gap. J.J says, “Just as YA is about discovering who you are as a person, I think NA is fiction about building your own life.” I agree; there is a gap between the experiences of adult and YA fiction. Writers who still want to explore the themes of becoming independent and taking on the world, but want to do so beyond high school experiences, might find themselves fighting the current. I haven’t yet heard of a great way to market that kind of work, and I do think there is a readership for it.
In fact, Dahlia Adler, a YA writer represented by Andrea Somberg, argues in her post “Whose ‘Failure’ is New Adult?” a market for NA exists, and it’s a market authors will reach with or without the support of the publishing industry. She lists some great deals of NA works originally self-published and then bought by publishing houses–proof readers are willing to vote with their money for NA stories.
In September The Guardian asked readers what they thought about NA, and if they would be more likely to buy NA vs. YA works, and then posted some of the responses. Those responses are excellent for reading some new perspectives on the issue, so I definitely recommend taking a look.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s not all problems and obstacles. New adult IS enjoying some success, which is great. The word is spreading, the group blog NA Alley is gaining a wide readership, and NA works are occasionally being published.
Part of the difficulty NA fiction is encountering is that many people in the publishing world believe it’s not really a thing yet. A few agents represent NA, some NA works have been sold and are doing well, some small presses accept NA works, and involved readers are starting to recognize the term. But just barely. Most of my friends, even voracious readers, hadn’t heard of NA when I asked. Many agents and editors insist it isn’t a separate category. NA is still early in its development, and wide-spread recognition still has to be fought for.
One of the biggest problems NA is facing is where to put those books in stores. Currently, a NA section doesn’t exist on shelves. Publishers can’t convince booksellers to purchase books they don’t have a shelf for. Booksellers aren’t going to create a whole new space for something with only a few recognized works. Most agents and editors aren’t going to take on projects facing this kind of issue. NA simply lacks a defined place in the current market, though recognition is spreading little by little. Canadian actor and writer Adrienne Cress wrote a blog post, “Why New Adult Interests Me”, addressing this problem with NA. She quite appropriately points out the cross-over appeal of upper YA, as some have called NA, but also discusses why it’s hard to sell.
Agent Kristin Nelson discusses another hurdle in her blog post on NA. She says the target audience wouldn’t know where to find these books, even if they were to go looking for them. Would they look for them in the teen section or in general fiction? Creating space for them in a book store would take a shift in process and marketing.
Some people in the publishing industry believe these divisions aren’t necessary. Michael Stearns, founder of Upstart Crow Literary, argues here that dividing fiction up this much may become a slippery slope. He points out that in his own early 20’s, specifically because he was becoming an adult and figuring out his own tastes, would have reacted against the idea of a category of books developed especially for people in his age group. He didn’t want to be told what he should be reading at that age.
Another problem is that some people argue NA isn’t different enough from YA. NA is about the perspective of transition. But YA is about that too- the transition between adolescence and adulthood. This is, I suspect, one of the biggest hurdles for NA. I can see how NA is a different point in that transition from adolescence to adulthood, but I’m not sure the difference is distinct enough to change the industry. Different experiences, yes- high school is very different from college. Dorms and apartments are distinctly different from living at home with your parents. But that’s not what categories in fiction really deal with.
An important idea here is that categories are different from genres. Many people mistakenly refer to NA or YA or MG as genres, but they aren’t. Genres are divisions like science fiction, contemporary, horror, romance, etc. Genres are primarily about experiences and structural elements that follow similar patterns- water rights disputes, lone wolf cowboys, and girls who refuse to ride side saddle are common elements of westerns, for example.
Categories are basic divisions that separate fiction (and even nonfiction) into works targeted for picture book, middle grade, young adult, and adult readers. Of course, young adult is enjoying tremendous crossover appeal, with as many adults reading the category as teens. So it’s not just the targeted audience that makes something YA, MG, or adult. It’s the perspective, the lens through which the protagonist(s) view the world. In MG, the protagonist has an experience that may teach them more about himself or the world, but in the end still views the world like a child- which is a great thing. That age was a distinct point in my life, and it’s wonderful to be able to go back and remember it through MG works. In YA, the protagonist meets a challenge that changes how they view the world- they go from viewing the world as an adolescent to viewing it more or less as an adult. S. Jae-Jones (JJ) develops the difference between adult and young adult perspective more here.
Do certain experiences tend to gather around these perspectives? Of course. Perspective influences the events of the story and certain experiences gather around the age category. But those experiences are a mark of genre, not a defining element of category.
So here is my own personal suggestion: NA might meet with fewer obstacles and solve some of the issues it’s facing if it were treated as a genre instead of a category. Many of the experiences and structure elements unique to NA could easily be seen as genre elements, and NA could gain its distinctness and place in the market just like other new genres- steampunk and the genre mashup. Many elements of NA stories aren’t currently marketable as YA, but could NA become a genre of adult fiction? That’s what I wonder.
Truthfully, it’s hard to say what NA is or isn’t, since it’s still developing. To book people who believe the difference in perspective is significant, keep advocating for NA as a category, and keep showing readers how different that perspective is. I’d like to see that more clearly, and I’ll cheer on any NA success I see.
My closing thought, however, is that NA might do well as a genre, instead of a category. Could this genre still have fun being part of a mashup- say, NA paranormal, NA thriller? Sure. But some of the objections I’m hearing from agents and editors to new adult as a category might be solved if it were shaped into a genre.
For those of you who write new adult, Vickie Motter, Lauren Hammond, and Sara Megibow all represent NA. In fact, Vickie Motter wrote some advice on querying NA works.
From NA Alley, here is a list of NA books and films (though some were marketed and sold as either YA or adult):
For those of you who don’t write and don’t work in the publishing industry, but still love books and are wondering why in the world I’m talking about this tiny difference, what you need to know is this: whether NA is a category or genre makes a huge difference in who writers can submit those manuscripts to, how their chances of selling that book sit, and what the future NA as a whole looks like. Those first-time-as-an-adult experiences are dear to a lot of people, so go check out a NA book. You might like it!