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.


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.”


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.



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.