“The Terrifying In-Between”: What Are New Adult Books And Why Should The Publishing Community Care?

Here’s a fun fact: 55% of young adult (YA) book purchases are by adults. Granted, this statistic is from 2012, the year after Fifty Shades of Grey came out and the year the first Hunger Games movie was released. But based on the conversations I’ve had in the last few years — both with fellow publishing masters’ candidates and the vibrant writing community on Twitter — this is still very much the case.

Why is this happening? What keeps adults coming back to the YA category, even though they are no longer in high school? In her article “Eight Reasons Adults Read YA”, writer G. Myrthil offers this perspective:

In my parents’ generation, it was normal to graduate college, get a job, get married, and stay in the same career for decades. Millennials are different. As they head into adulthood, they are still figuring out who they are, and what/who they want to be. The emotions and self-discoveries happening aren’t all that different than what teenagers go through.

YA novels meet this need (and others) very well, there is no denying that. I fully support my many adult friends who find the particular voice, style, and message of YA to be meaningful and impactful. However, my theory is that we could be doing even better for our millennial readers (and especially those in the queer community) through the full-scale adoption of the new adult (NA) category of fiction, a category that depicts what NA author Cara Carmack calls “the terrifying in-between.”

What Is New Adult Fiction?

I remember my old library’s YA section back in my hometown. I spent a lot of time in those ten square feet, browsing the colorful, glossy dust jackets, looking for my next favorite reads. As I got older, however, that room started to feel small (and not just because the selection hadn’t changed much in the last five years). Mostly, the problem was that I was no longer in high school — I was a college student away from home, living in an apartment, buying my own food, starting my own career, and generally having emotional and spiritual breakthroughs that wouldn’t have been possible in an insulated teenage life. But moving beyond the YA section of the library brought me into the foreign realm of 30- and 40-year-old protagonists with spouses, children, houses, cars, and settled careers. Bo-ring.

In short, my life experiences were no longer being discussed. Even if I still felt like a young adult, even if I hadn’t “outgrown” it or could still relate with many of the protagonists, I didn’t feel represented. It was a void, one that I couldn’t even name until my first year as a master’s candidate in Portland State University’s book publishing program. That’s when I learned about the under-discussed and under-utilized category of new adult (NA) literature.

One of the best explanations of the NA category comes from a Writer’s Digest article by writer and columnist Kristan Hoffman. I suggest reading the entire piece, but in short, Hoffman says NA lit is about transition.

The transformation from child to adult doesn’t happen overnight — just ask as anyone who is or has been (or is a parent to) a teenager. But the transition from teen to adult doesn’t happen overnight either. There’s a period of time where adulthood feels like a new pair of shoes. The expectations of independence and self-sufficiency are still new, still being broken in. New Adults are the people who have just begun to walk in those shoes; New Adult fiction is about their blisters and aches.

Better Representation Through New Adult Lit

Self-discovery being reserved for the high school arena — besides being unrealistic (maturation is never started at 14 and finished by 17) — is fundamentally biased against groups that might not have had the ability to even begin that process until they were much older. For example, I was home-schooled in a very strict, Christian environment through high school. This meant that typical “high school stuff” was reserved for college, mixed in with all the rest of that self-actualization shit. My first crush didn’t happen until I was a freshman in college. My first messy relationship didn’t dramatically end until after I graduated undergrad.

But there is another group of people who have been consistently ignored by the traditional publishing industry, namely the queer community. A teenager who has gone through their high school years in the closet is going to approach adulthood in a different way, without the benefit of that self-actualization period apparently reserved for straight cis 12- to 17-year-olds. First crushes, first relationships, interactions with family, entry into their careers, etc. may indeed come much later, in college or even after. This means there is not only a dearth of books where queer protagonists are even represented, but that coming-of-age stories are perpetually geared towards different age ranges.

New adult books, which understand that coming-of-age happens differently for different people, and that it often happens after senior year of high school (or the equivalent), could be the answer to a representation issue the publishing industry has been struggling with for ages. It is prime real estate in the fight for inclusion and diversity in books, and should be taken seriously as such.

Speaking With New Adult Skeptics

Now, it is worth noting that the NA category as it stands now does not hold up to Hoffman’s definition of transition, sadly. Collegiate erotica dominates NA, pushed forward primarily by small, independent presses taking advantage of the free and unlimited shelf space and categorization of the ebook world. While there isn’t anything wrong with independently published ebooks or erotica, this tendency has compressed NA into a specific genre that appeals to a limited audience and misrepresents the potential of the NA movement to the wider literary community.

Discussing the NA category with writers, editors, and agents both in person and online will reveal this misrepresentation and bias. Even those in the publishing industry whose opinions I deeply respect and agree with 99% of the time have let me down on this front. They dismiss it as “a fringe genre,” an “unnecessary marketing ploy,” or simply “something that doesn’t exist,” all of which stem from a few fundamental misunderstandings:

1. NA Is A Fringe Genre

Many people will reference the new adult “genre.” In a 2013 Huffington Post article called “The Problem With New Adult Books,” writer Lauren Sarner bemoans the options given readers in their twenties:

Then came the New Adult genre. New Adult is a new genre whose target audience is people like me — young twentysomethings, overwhelmingly of the female variety. A New Adult book is basically a Young Adult book with sex and cursing thrown in.

As you can see, this complaint is predicated on the previously mentioned current NA trend towards erotica. But it also comes from a misunderstanding of how books are classified. Understanding that NA is a category, not a genre, is crucial when explaining its value to people. In the same way that YA is a category which includes every imaginable genre (romance, historical fiction, horror, science fiction, fantasy, etc.), NA can encompass a wealth of different kinds of books. It is important for readers to understand that their options for NA lit expands beyond the genre of erotica, and crucial for the publishing industry to begin categorizing other genre options under the NA umbrella.

2. NA Is An Unnecessary Marketing Ploy

Marketing gets confused with sales and advertising quite a lot, regardless of industry. As such, it is often treated with scorn. In the Jezebel article “New Adult Fiction Is Now An Official Literary Genre Because Marketers Want Us To Buy Things,” writer Katie J.M. Baker points out that:

People have been writing about 18 to 25-year-olds forever, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to Girl Interrupted. Let’s be honest: marketers need “New Adult” fiction — which really just means books about millennials, right? — to be a stand-alone genre, not readers.

Once again, a NA critic is misunderstanding the difference between genre and category, but I’ll let that go. This is a very common argument that those in the literary community (mostly readers, not publishing professionals) like to give. However, as someone who has studied book marketing and worked in the marketing department of one of the Big Five publishing houses, I can tell you the main goal of marketers is to get the book in front of the reader. And the categorization of books plays an incredibly important role in every element of publishing, from acquisition to distribution.

A book is not going to be acquired by a publisher if the marketing team can’t automatically slot it into the existing structure of categories and genres. A book is not going to be shelved in a place where it will be picked up by the right readers if they don’t have shelf space dedicated to it in the bookstores and libraries (shelf space that is primarily divided and allocated by relying on traditional publishing categories and genres).

In short, yes, Baker is right: books about people in their twenties have always existed (Jane Austen, anyone?) But their existence isn’t going to help anyone unless readers know how and where to find them. That’s where marketers come in. Having a NA category isn’t going to force people to buy books they don’t want, but it will ensure those people already looking for books about twenty-somethings will be able to buy with intention.

(Also, just a question: why is “books about millennials” preceded by a “just”? Why shouldn’t millennials, who have broken so many old traditions and invented so many new ones, be allowed a category that speaks directly to and for them?)

3. NA Is Something That Doesn’t Even Exist

Granted, many people with whom I speak about NA don’t know what I’m talking about. Thus far, it has gone largely undiscussed and unadvertised. But the idea that it doesn’t exist — or that it couldn’t exist — is not only patently untrue but also reveals a lack of understanding about the development of the publishing industry as a whole.

First of all, NA does exist. Right now, as previously stated, it is dominated by a single genre and reliant on poorly-funded independent publishers who publish digitally, but it does exist. It picked up a lot of speed between 2012–2014 on blogs and magazines, after St. Martin’s Press ran a contest to find new voices and pushed the term “new adult” into the spotlight.

Second, using this argument as a way to discredit the NA movement reveals how little one knows about YA history. Until librarians and booksellers tried to shelve books like Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (1942) S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) without angering parents did the YA category really pick up steam. According to a CNN article on the history of YA literature, “the term “young adult” was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association during the 1960s to represent the 12–18 age range.” Genres under the YA umbrella weren’t incorporated effectively for another twenty years.

Did books about teenagers exist before the 1960s? Of course. Did people know they needed the YA category, think it was necessary? Not always. But the fact was that these books were languishing in obscurity in the adult section, and raising eyebrows and parental ire in the children’s section. Now 55% of adults are reading YA, many of our most popular blockbuster films are based on YA books, and it has become one of the most competitive, lucrative, and forward-thinking subsections of the publishing industry.

Now, to be fair, the argument that “NA doesn’t exist” is valid when discussing pitching manuscripts to agents or editors. It would be like pitching a book as YA before 1960. You might know what you mean, but it’s likely the agent or editor won’t. And even if you and your agent/editor are on the same page, the requisite industry-accepted category necessary for acquisition has not been set up yet. It’s not a helpful tag yet.

So, yes, for now, don’t pitch your novel as “new adult” unless your agent or editor specifically requests those kinds of manuscripts. But just because it doesn’t exist yet in its fullest form doesn’t mean that it’s not the next big thing, and agents and editors should be constantly on the lookout for NA’s Stephanie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, or Suzanne Collins.

Why The Publishing Industry Should Care

Finally, if you want to get technical, there are some really compelling monetary reasons that the publishing industry should care about developing the NA category. Knowing how the YA category got its start and how popular it became is a compelling point in and of itself, and is the first step to understanding how to utilize the NA category.

But let’s go back to that first statistic I referenced at the beginning of this article: the 55% of YA lit buyers who are adults. This group is extremely valued by publishers already. Publishers Weekly says that:

The trend is good news for publishers, as these adult consumers of YA books are among the most coveted demographic of book consumers overall. Additional insights from a Bowker study show these readers are:

  • Early adopters: More than 40% read e-books, equivalent to the highest adoption rates of adult genres of mystery and romance
  • Committed: 71% say that if an e-book of their desired title was unavailable, they would buy the print book instead
  • Loyal: Enjoying the author’s previous books has a moderate or major influence over the book choice for more than two-thirds of the respondents
  • Socially active: Although more than half of respondents reported having “no interest” in participating in a reading group, these readers are very active in social networks and often get recommendations from friends.

What would happen if this “coveted” group of readers were given books that still held the YA spark they loved so much, that continued to speak to that familiar and valued set of coming-of-age themes, but were also geared specifically towards them, dealing with age-appropriate issues and settings from a perspective congruent with their generation? Would we tap into a larger percentage of that demographic, hitting 70–80% of these 18–40-year-old readers? Would we compound numbers, with these people continuing to buy YA while also expanding to incorporate NA books?

We need agents, editors, and publishers who are willing to take the chance on NA lit, whether or not it’s the safest bet. We need booksellers, distributors, and librarians to once again in highlighting the need for appropriate categorization. And mostly, we need writers (ideally queer writers) who will lead the charge in creating this formative category, break this new ground, become the face of a movement that will not only reach a wider, more specific, and more inclusive audience, but will also prove that the publishing industry is not dead: that we are still willing to be fresh and exciting and meet the needs of current generations.

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