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Not There Yet: The New “New Adult” Genre

Genres shape our reading habits, but their exact boundaries have always eluded us. Genres are “inherently confusing and complex,” as one New Yorker article put it, and that couldn’t be more true than in the case of a new and in-the-making genre called New Adult.

New Adult is a genre of fiction. It features protagonists between ages 18 and 25 (some say 26), usually in college or at their first job. New Adult picks up where Young Adult leaves off. In the words of bestselling author Cora Carmack, “Young Adult books are about surviving adolescence and coming of age. New Adult is about how to live your life after that… the ‘I’m officially an adult, now what?’ phase.” And like in YA, love is necessary, but in New Adult, relationships become sexual. As Margo Lipschultz, Senior Editor at Harlequin, said to Publishers Weekly, New Adult is “extremely sexy, often bordering on erotic romance.”

So New Adult is YA’s big sister— and that’s how the genre was conceived in the first place. In 2009, St. Martin’s Press held a writing contest calling for “cutting-edge fiction… similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult— a sort of an older YA or new adult.” The term caught on with book communities online and then, in 2012, appeared in a New York Times headline when Carmack landed a three-book deal with HarperCollins. (The series, Losing It, has since been completed.) In 2013, New Adult received its own BISAC code (“FICTION / Romance / New Adult”) and became an official genre.

New Adult books are primarily digital. Many of its successful authors (like Cora Carmack, Colleen Hoover, and Jamie McGuire) started by self-publishing, and their knack for self-branding and publicizing on social media soon made loyal fans out of interested readers. When their self-published ebooks began popping up on bestseller lists, some publishers recognized an opportunity. Not many have picked up the genre, but those who have make sure to capitalize on New Adult’s digital savvy. HarperCollins’ Harlequin runs Carina Press, a digital-first New Adult imprint; Penguin Random House has Flirt, a digital-only imprint; Simon and Schuster has no dedicated imprint, but uses a Tumblr page called The Hot Bed “to bring the very best of Romance and New Adult.” Typically, New Adult is grouped together with Romance. Marketing these books alongside YA, no matter their closeness in spirit, would be problematic, given the mature content.

In print, the genre hasn’t gained much currency. Bricks-and-mortar retailers have been slow to embrace it. As Lipschultz later speculated this was because booksellers found the term “New Adult” too confusing or imprecise to attract unitiated readers. One bookseller found it simply unappealing. A New York Times piece also stated that the genre’s hybrid nature— not an adolescent anymore, but not yet an adult— makes the books difficult to shelve. This might have become easier with the introduction of a BISAC code, but even so, few bookstores today have an aisle labelled “New Adult.”

But publishers don’t seem too concerned. They know that online is the best way to reach and engage the genre’s target audience— millennials in the New Adult age range, who are immersed in digital technology and social media. Digital format also allows publishers to deliver new books in short time and for low prices— both convenient for New Adult books, which tend to be fast reads and come in series.

Enthusiasts see New Adult as a genre that captures the experience of a generation. With an ever-evolving digital culture and an ever-narrowing job market, adulthood doesn’t happen the way it used to, and some millennials seem to appreciate the genre for validating their unique experience. New Adult “‘is for a generation that is having an extended adolescence—,’” Meg Cabot (best known for her YA series The Princess Diaries and currently writing the Heather Wells mysteries, featuring the very New Adult setting of a college residence hall) said to the New York Times, “‘maybe they would like to leave home but can’t, because they can’t find a job.’” Acknowledgment and respite— these might be the appeal of New Adult for many of its readers.

Critics, meanwhile, doubt that New Adult is a genre at all. They view it as a marketing ploy, designed to attract the same (but now older) readers who made Twilight and The Hunger Games such phenomenal successes. They think publishers are aging their YA books just to keep this generation of voracious (and profitable) readers engaged. For them, a New Adult book is nothing more than “a Young Adult book with sex and cursing thrown in,” to borrow the words of one Huffington Post Books writer. Others, like this writer for Flavorwire, find the very concept of New Adult belittling for millennials, and particularly for millennial women, who make up the overwhelming majority (if not the entirety) of the target audience:

Why do we think 18-25 year olds need another stepping stone— whether actual or intellectual— before they make it on to full-on adult literature? And forgive me, but isn’t it kind of sexist to imagine that “primarily women” need this stepping stone? Is that suggesting that 18-year-old men can jump straight from Catcher in the Rye to Mason & Dixon, but ladies need more simply-written soft porn in between?

In any case, editors and agents have welcomed New Adult as a promising new opportunity. They hope the genre will help them serve older members of the YA-reading crowd— a demographic they can’t ignore, given the recent data that as much as 80% of YA titles are purchased by adults for themselves. They also hope to see New Adult expand beyond contemporary romance and attract readers of diverse interests. Many New Adult authors have been eager to do this, delivering books with a paranormal, fantasy, and/or sci-fi twist.

YA has become such a recognizable part of contemporary mass culture that hardly anyone bothers to say “Young Adult” anymore. Will New Adult enjoy the same success? Will “NA” make it into our general lexicon? It’s too soon to tell. For now, though, the first thing I think of when I hear “NA” is still “Not Applicable.”

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