No Limits: The Emerging New Adult Market

http://www.flickr.com/photos/gorillaradio/5424910043/in/photolist-9go5KM-gdW8pq-7AEQQd-7GQVSG-c8nzzq-7AEPMq-c8nzz9-c8nzC1-bw1pqj-dM7y29-8JXeM9-d9X26n-9xc86V-akXfWN-aCHjhU-9RQtyu-7GzM63/One of the hottest topics in commercial fiction is the New Adult market.  It’s on blogs and in marketing newsletters and all over Twitter.  Editors and agents are hot on the trail of the next big writer/book. The very successful trio of Colleen Hoover, Jamie McGuire and Abbi Glines just spent a few weeks touring for their new titles, and the crowds were enormous.

All of this success leads to everyone trying to pin down the market, box it up neatly, pronounce it to be THIS , not THAT.  I understand where the impulse comes from—if writers understand what it is, they can write it. If publishers understand it, they can offer the next bestseller.

But all too often what happens with that impulse is that it bleeds all the life out of an emerging form, making it all too similar so that everyone gets tired of it, or thinks they know what it is. The packaging all ends up looking alike. The tropes all start to sound the same.  Remember “chick lit”? It began as a perfectly legitimate exploration of how young women, usually in their mid-to-late twenties, started their work lives. The questions posed were often excellent: how do you find work you really love? Do you work or get married or both? How do you know a good man when you find one? How can you afford to look halfway decent on a budget of $0 after rent?

Then the powers that be came along and someone decided chick lit should be silly and have cartoon covers and be all about…shoes.

What?

Of course that killed it. Who wanted to read books about airhead women spending too much money on shoes?  Before that happened, there were some excellent books published, about women learning to live with their bodies and dump bad guys and be happy at work.  Good stuff. Important stuff, stuff we’ve all dealt with.

Now here comes New Adult, which is not, first of all a “genre.” Kait Nolan says it very well: “NA is not even a genre, in my opinion.  It’s an audience, an age bracket.  And within that audience or age bracket, you have every other ACTUAL genre.  Romance.  Mysteries.  Sci Fi.  Urban Fantasy.  Contemporary.  Whatever.”

It is a very, very, very new market.

The books first began to show up as self-published phenomenons, including Colleen Hoover’s Slammed, self published in January of 2012. (I found it quite touching to read her blog from the beginning of the journey, starting with the first day of publication. Tammara Webber’s Easy (1,500 reviews), originally published May 25, 2012 and Jamie McGuire’s  Beautiful Disaster (3900 reviews) I couldn’t find the original pub date on that one, but it was in the same general time frame.

There are many more, many many many more, and some of the writers are young.  Emma Hart (Second Chance Summer) for example, is 20 years old and has published 10 books (along with raising two very small children!).  The books absolutely exploded, and New York took notice, signing all three of the above authors (plus many others!) to books that were published before the end of that year.

That means not even quite two full years.

The fact that these books were originally self-published has a great deal to do with their power.  None of the writers had been previously published.  Each sat down and wrote the book she wanted to read, having fun with it, pouring all of her passion and excitement and viewpoint into the work. They disregarded publishing, genre tastes, or anything to do with what should and shouldn’t be done in any given area.

So they wrote the books they wanted to read. Sometimes that was a biker or an MMA fighter. Sometimes it was a guy raising his little brother who writes slam poetry on the side (Slammed, which is one of my favorite books in the NA romance arena).  Sometimes it was a working class guy who couldn’t get through college without a lot of help. These were not “vetted” and combed over by a panel of New York publishing professionals who anxiously wanted to make a bestseller by hitting all the right notes, so the books were raw, real, true to the writer’s vision.  They were not, as McGuire claims in her branding, “Your mother’s romance.”

Sometimes that rawness was a little too raw. Jay Crownover published Rule in December of 2012. By January 2013, she’d sold over 50,000 books, thanks to a viewpoint that’s more Trainspotting than Titanic. But she’d also been taken to task by readers for copy editing issues. She wrote on her blog:

1. Do I need an editor or proof reader because I am illiterate and clueless?

– I have had a ton of offers from some very lovely ladies offering to help me out, but no I do not need an editor because ever since Rule became a big deal I did the responsible thing and sent him off to be cleaned up.  The edited version should be available by early next week.  Yes I am evaluating my writing process since I don’t like getting hollered at for spelling and grammar, but only so many eyes can look at a manuscript before it goes in the world…plus I signed with a literary agent because well I’m too busy to do this as a real THING so now it’s Stacey’s job to get hollered at for me.  Oh and I am neither illiterate or clueless just a busy gal that wanted to write a story and never thought it would be read by so many people and that they would be so mad at me about commas.

She was snapped up by an agent and editor and Rule was excerpted in a popular giveaway at Romance Writers of America last summer.  Her Marked Men series is one of the most popular out there, and you can see by the pierced, inked guys on the covers exactly why they appeal.

What happens when something explodes like that?  Everyone wants on the bandwagon.  New York publishers definitely want in on the action, and they’re publishing all of the above-mentioned women now—and doing it well.

Unfortunately, now everyone from bloggers to reviewers to publishers seem to be on a quest to pin down New Adult, become “experts, ”sum it up, make it A Thing we can all point to and say, “There, that’s New Adult.”

WHAT NEW ADULT IS NOT

In a segement on New Adult from ABC news, the reporter said,

“The demand for “new adult” books is boosted by its mature themes. The stories often involve lovers finding their way in a complex world. They are a bit like the old Harlequin romances set in modern times, with younger characters, many of whom are in college, coming of age and often exploring their sexuality. Not Pulp Fiction. Think Smut Fiction.”

Uh, no. Not even close. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. So is the assumption that NA is just YA with sex. No, it isn’t.  It isn’t a revamped version of chick lit.  It is not only working class characters. It is not only tattooed guys or MMA fighters.  Or even just romance. It’s time travel and horror. It’s science fiction and mainstream.  It’s light romance, and smart romance and tough romance. Very sexy and not really.

That need to corral, to pin down, to box up neatly is the only danger.   Which is exactly the thing that will kill it.  The whole point of New Adult is that there are no limits.  It is, as Diana Peterfreund (One and Only by her NA name Viv Daniels) put it, “a genre embryo.” It is not meant to be contained or corralled. It’s mean to be everything that new adults themselves are.  Maybe some of them are in college or have tattoos.  Maybe some of it is romance (a lot of it) and some of it is time travel and some is gritty, like the Lorde video for her original song Royals, and some of it is working class and kind of pretty like the Taryn Southern and Julia Pryce  version of that video.

It’s still emerging, an arm of publishing that has been born of the love affair between authors who perceive no limits and the revolution of self-publishing that allowed it to be born as itself.  New Adult is fiction about characters who are (generally) between the ages of 18-26. It will grow and expand and become itself as writers tell the stories that burn in them, the stories they find most interesting.  Traditional publishing, can you please back off a bit and give it some air and space? Please don’t kill it with definitions and boxes.

And actually, now that I think about it, not even that boxing up will kill this market. There will be another author setting out to write what she (or he) wants to read, and pours in a bunch of focus and power and love, and even if traditional publishing says, “This isn’t NA,” the writer will publish it anyway and make her way and….

Want to learn more? Check out NA Alley, a vast website with resources of many kinds.

Have you read any new adult? Do you have any ideas about it yet? 

PS.  One of the reasons I’m so passionate about this subject is that I’ve just indie published my first New Adult book, Random as Lark O’Neal, the first in a trilogy.

 

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    Barbara,
    I found this very inspiring. I’ve been frustrated and confused about the whole genre issue, having been told that I need to pay attention to where my book ‘fits’. This advice has choked me,which is why I was thrilled to read what Donald Maass had to say on the subject in ’21 C Ficiton’. I have since given myself permission to write the story that, as you so eloquently say, burns inside me. Thanks!

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    • says

      Susan, I’m glad you found a way to write the book that’s burning for you. Sometimes people take that to mean writing a book that’s powerful for you is a namby-pamby “book of the heart” kind of advice, but I disagree strongly. If a writer is fiercely in love with the work and doing everything she can to write it to the best of her abilities, readers feel it and respond.

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      • says

        I’ve heard other writer’s say that they write what they want to read. That has always been a drive for me. I crave the experience of being lifted or changed by a novel, and that’s the experience I want to offer back. Writing to a formula or adhering to strict parameters doesn’t always fit with this. I’m sure not saying it’s easy to cling to the burning idea. To the contrary, its all-consuming and lonely. But it feels very real, and that’s my compass.

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  2. says

    I wholeheartedly agree that there’s far too much emphasis in publishing on fitting work and types of work into neat little boxes. The books you’re talking about would likely not even have been publishable by a traditional method, simply because they didn’t fit perfectly into the existing genres or defined audience categories. But look at how well they’ve been received. There’s a tendency in the book market to repeat what worked the time before, but readers of any age don’t want to be fed the same story over and over again. Maybe the NA example provides us with a good opportunity to listen to what readers actually want, instead of assuming we know what they want.

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    • says

      It’s pretty clear that these books invented the market. In retrospect, it was time and the whole thing was ready to pop, but until the writers created their novels, none of it had come into being.

      Which is really how it should be. Artists create.

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  3. says

    Hmmm. My central characters are between the ages of 16 and 24. They are finding their roles and dealing with love and attraction and discovering their sexuality, all against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. The beta readers who have been the most passionate about the work are young women. And my work is epic historical fantasy.

    Thanks for pointing out that NA is not a genre, Barbara. Interesting stuff.

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  4. Denise Willson says

    Lovin’ this, Barbara!

    I write to a new adult audience. Did I set out to do this? No. My favorite books are fast paced, gritty, controversial, and a tad sexy. I like my protagonists out of school but spry enough to be stupid in love. Young adult appeals to me, but it’s missing something. I love most genres, but crave the above. When I couldn’t find many books that met my needs, I created my own.

    Thanks, Barbara, for giving credibility to this path. I’m right behind you, girl!

    Congrats on the book launch.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and (coming soon) GOT

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  5. says

    This is an excellent description and explanation, Barbara! And yay for NA time travel! Big ups! ;)

    Everyone should read this. Hopefully readers will continue to devour all the NA stories that are out there, which will further make it limitless.

    Giving this a tweet.

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  6. says

    Wonderfully written and thoughtful post, Barbara! (Appreciate the Ally shout out as well. :)

    There’s definitely an “edge” to New Adult. Sometimes that’s a romantic or sexual edge, and sometimes it’s just the characters. And NA is still mostly defined by readers and authors, which is fabulous.

    I visit with new authors every week who are exploring science fiction, horror, and more in NA, so it definitely goes beyond smut.

    Speaking of, I’m going to share this awesome post during our next #NALitChat on Twitter. If there are New Adult authors, fans, or just curious, reading this, please join us–Thursday nights 9 PM Eastern–by tweeting/following the hashtag. Lots of great NA writers hang out there and are always happy to answer questions, etc.

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    • says

      The edge is what makes it appealing to many of us, especially in the romantic arm of the market. For so long, romance as a genre has pulled a gauzy curtain over everything, nothing too dark, too shocking, too gritty, and I have no problem with books that want to be that. I read those, too. Paranormal certainly ripped that curtain off, but NA romance does it in the real world. For me as a writer that is definitely a big appeal. I like real and gritty and honest as a reader, too.

      Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion! I’ll have a houseful of guests tomorrow during the #NALitChat but I’m going to sneak in with the iPad if I am able.

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  7. says

    I’ve been curious about the new adult market. I’m still unpublished and am trying to find my niche. Lately I’ve drifted into dystopian fiction, which generally targets YA, but can’t help but think there are more than teenagers who are fascinated by dystopian, especially with all the uncertainty in our country today. Perhaps new adult is the place to try to break dystopian out of the youth category. Thanks for the post.

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    • says

      @Ron Estrada,
      Hi there! I like some Dystopian Fiction and love NA, too (and other genres) but I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for you to write what is burning in your head and heart that being Dystopian for the NA genre if you are so inclined.
      I happen to think it would be embraced very largely because I haven’t seen any Dystopian books for the NA genre so far, unless I’ve missed them. When the NA readers were YA readers there were a limitless Dystopian books for them choose to read and they were gobbled up! Unfortunately, now that they are older and are reading NA, I do believe they greatly miss the Dystopian genre they used to love reading, which makes them having to go back to YA, and sometimes the YA books are no longer fulfilling enough at their older age now. They are out of High School and want books that fit their age and what they are into. This is one subgenre that is definitely lacking in NA. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this and very well may have a large audience for it in this book bloggers opinion. I happen to think it will be embraced and work very well!
      Even though my age is MUCH older than the NA genre, I still LOVE reading it. That goes along with ‘any book that is written with EXCELLENCE is worthy to be read by anyone at ANY age!’ It’s PURE enjoyment! I wish you the BEST with your book(s) you write!
      Laurie

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  8. says

    Thank you so much for this, Barbara! Especially giving good examples of what New Adult is and is not. I still find people calling it a sexed up genre, both of which it is not. I still feel out biggest hurdle lies with online retailers who have no such category for this yet. We can use keywords but that’s about it, especially for those of us, me included, who write outside of college romances (scifi, time travel, adventure, etc.) I guess we still need more time!

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  9. says

    The discoverability angle is still challenging outside of the romance market. Without those bookshelves in the store, how do you find the readers? It’s a conundrum for more than just New Adult, but particularly challenging there.

    More time and more discussion, bringing illumination. Probably there are ways to get to readers through cons of the other genres, mystery, sff, etc.

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    • says

      Hi Barbara!
      Great article! You hit the nail on the head with it!
      Barnes and Noble ‘does’ have a section of New Adult! That was even shown on television on a Nightline special with Colleen Hoover, a few other NA authors, and Cora Carmack getting interviewed and showing her reading out loud to readers from her first book she wrote for NA which was Losing It. They also had the Founder of Goodreads on that show (just prior to them selling to Amazon) and they were standing in front of the NA section! I thought that was GREAT! That showed everyone that NA “IS” a genre! I was pretty happy to see that!
      I’ve been reading and reviewing NA books since they started coming out by Indie Authors who self published a few years ago. I am SO glad they self published! That MADE NA! Thanks, Authors!!
      I love when you said this, “Traditional publishing, can you please back off a bit and give it some air and space? Please don’t kill it with definitions and boxes.” That is SO TRUE! Then you went on to say “It’s still emerging, an arm of publishing that has been born of the love affair between authors who perceive no limits and the revolution of self-publishing that allowed it to be born as itself.” True, again! Self publishing MADE the NA genre! Thanks, authors who self publish(ed)!
      And finally, my favorite thing you said in this article about NA is “It’s meant to be everything that new adults themselves are.”
      I love NA and am much older than the typical age group it is aimed at. Hey, GREAT writers deserve to be read no matter what the reader’s age is!
      Great article! Thanks for writing it! I hope more people read it, too!

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  10. says

    I don’t know if I’ve ever read NA or not. I don’t know half of the genres I read. I only know the genres of the authors I dissect (I’ll be looking for some NA now, though). I’m not a fan of labels, but they have a purpose, and they are necessary at times.

    Just give me a story that’s easy to read with dynamic relationships, tension, puzzles, hope, deep passionate feelings, and a satisfying end game.

    I’m not really concerned with whether or not NA will last, but I hope it does last for those who desire to see it in the far future.

    Don’t let the story cloners contaminate the NA title.

    Thank you

    Barbara

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    • says

      Labels are not all bad, that’s true. It can be a guide, a help, a way of getting books to market. It’s only when the labels get too narrow that it becomes a problem.

      Hope you’ll enjoy dissecting NA.

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  11. says

    Fabulous post, Barbara! This is a great representation of the New Adult phenomenon. Perfect examples, and I know soon we’ll break through that ill-gotten notion that we write sexed-up YA. I am so excited to be a part of the NA community, and look forward to hearing more positive things about our wonderful, and wonderfully diverse, books. :)

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  12. says

    Thanks so much for the clarification of what NA is and isn’t. I kept hearing about it, but wasn’t sure if it was a new genere or sub-genre. Also appreciate all the links to other resources about it.

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  13. says

    I actually do believe it’s a genre, or primarily a genre. The problem is it’s not an neatly existing genre, and there are a few outliers (there always are in genres). But it’s the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast, vast majority (I’d say 90% if not more) of these novels can be categorized as contemporary romance or women’s fiction. (The remainder, I believe, are novels that would more properly be classified as adult fiction in their appropriate categories, such as science fiction. etc.).

    They are unlike most other contemporary romance and women’s fiction, however, due to tone, characterization and subject matter. I don’t believe they are sexed up YA (not least because YA has sex in it), but neither do I believe they are a marketing category.

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  14. says

    I hadn’t heard of “New Adult” fiction until just now, but I’m relieved that it exists because now I have a label for my current manuscript! I’ve been biting my nails over what to call it. It’s not exactly chick lit, but not exactly not chick lit; the protagonist is too old for YA but too young for “women’s fiction.”

    The closest I could get was josei–a category of manga in Japan featuring and marketed to young women about 18-30, usually college students or young professionals low on the corporate totem pole. But most well-adjusted Americans have never heard of it.

    Though I find the idea of this as an “emerging” genre kind of amusing, because these types of books have been around for centuries. Jane Austen’s novels aren’t really romances, but coming-of-age stories about her heroines, who were usually 19-25, overcoming their personal flaws and obstacles.

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    • says

      Fascinating, Tamara, that there is a form of manga for this age group. And you are absolutely right that Austen wrote coming of age stories.

      Glad you found a label for your current work!

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  15. says

    The New Adult age group offers such variety of coming-of-age topics. I self-published my first book (Saving Toby), a contemporary love story revolving around a couple in their early 20s. What I found surprising was, though I geared the story towards NA, most of my readers are over that age.

    Thanks for speaking out on the behalf of NA. In literature, this age group has long been ignored, but I’m pretty sure it won’t anymore.

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  16. says

    Agreed, Viv, to some degree: mostly the books are are referring to here are romance or women’s fiction about young protaganists.

    That doesn’t mean that’s all it is. YA is a genre in a sense, too, but there are dozens of subgenres. Same with women’s fiction or romance, come to that. So many variations.

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  17. says

    I write old adult stories. Yep. We call it OA. The stories I want to read are about coming-of-age AFTER you got the career, got the guy, got the house, got the kids, and now they’re grown and you’re all smart and mature and everything, and you look around and think, “I’ve got 25-30 more years of – what? WTF? What now?” It’s so exciting. That’s what I read, and that’s what I write. I call it Midlife Fiction, and I’ve curated a collection of titles here: https://www.facebook.com/Midlife.Fiction

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    • says

      I write some of that, too, Lynn. Change in women’s lives, all points of change are what interest me.

      Actually, not early mommy hood, actually. I love babies in real life, but it was tiring and I don’t want to write about it.

      Thanks for the link!

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  18. says

    Great post, Barbara! (And I will check out your new book, congratulations!) I have followed Colleen Hoover and the new NA authors also–they are great storytellers! And Colleen Hoover is one of the best (as in most genuine) authors out there in the way she does social media and relates with, enjoys, and entertains her audience/readers! She is amazingly fun, honest, vulnerable, and funny!

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  19. says

    Excellent post, Barbara. It just shows you want happens when you write what you want to read, not matter what NYC says will sell. Thanks to the pioneers of the genre, many of us have found a new love that we can thrive with.

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  20. says

    Thanks for the post. Very well written and insightful. But what about those of us writing a manuscript with a more mature protagonist and very little sex? My next book will be about a 44 year-old man who has to rediscover who he is after retiring from the Army and finding himself in the cutthroat world of business while still dealing with the ghosts of his past and a family situation that, for the first time, is falling apart. Is this NA or does it have to be sexed up more?

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  21. says

    A timely post, Barbara. Much of what you’ve said makes sense. It has me wondering, however, if NA will become a more mature version of YA romance. The new blog site for NA claims sci-fi has a place, yet I haven’t seen that manifest itself as yet. I’m all for romantic elements, as it breathes life into a story, but so far, I’ve only seen the RWA format in many popular novels.

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