New Adult; or There Be Rough Waters Ahead, Matey!

Something’s been bothering me for some time now. I’ve shoved it aside, stuffed it down, even tried to drown it with reassurances that I’m just being silly, but it just keeps popping back up.

A few weeks ago, I was twiddling my thumbs on Twitter when it came to pass that wise agents from across the land were coming together for an #askagent conversation. These kind and knowledgable folks were holding a sort of impromptu summit, where the eager and groveling masses could come forth to pose questions about all facets of the publishing industry (except no questions involving queries – they were very specific about that).

Pop! Out jumped my worry, the awful little hangnail that had been bugging me.

If a protag. is older than high school age, but part of a coming-of-age/YA-like story, is the story YA or not?

Sneaky me. I knew the answer, sort of.

Part of most people’s working definition is that if the protagonist has graduated high school (or would have if in modern times), the book is destined for the young adult section. Three really nice people, Literaticat, Melanie Golden, and Melissa Manlove all jumped in to basically answer the same way. (By the way, I put their links here because they’re cool and you should follow them.)

I answered that in college (and now, to be honest) I still felt like a young adult, not someone to be lumped in with Jeffrey Eugenides and Jean Auel and the like.

Melanie pointed out that some protagonists start out in high school and then later in the series go to college, which is true. Melissa tried to make the point that “most” college students don’t read much because “they’re poor and busy with other reading.”

I beg to differ. Sure, college students are poor and busy. So are some segments of the minority population. So are new moms. So are missionaries and blue-collar workers and all kinds of other people. Does that mean that these people don’t deserve to read? That they don’t deserve books that speak to them? Good grief, I understand that a genre needs to have a viable audience to make money, but I think I just saw college students get tossed under the bus.

More than that, it’s not just about college students. There’s a whole class of readers who are falling between the cracks.

On one side are books about fresh-faced teenagers, usually in the 15-18 age range. They’re still in high school, but dang, they have great adventures. They’re falling in love and going through normal teenager angst and growth as well as saving the world and finding out they have mythical powers.

On the other side are the adults. They’re doing solid, adult-like activities. Sure, they’re spies and assassins and doing other save-the-world type things, but they’ve got other issues going on. They have their own homes, solid careers in offices, and sometimes live-in boyfriends/husbands and even kids.

So where’s my generation’s books? In case no one’s noticed, there’s a recession going on. The economy is craptastic. The job market is improving, but only because it’s been down for a long time. The majority of us aren’t living in the world of Sex & the City. We’re not striking out for grand adventures in “the big city.” Heck, even if we were, most of us don’t plan on getting serious with someone and having kids for years.

We’re not established adults. We’re boomerang kids living at home with our parents or in an apartment with five other people while we scrape by on temp jobs. We don’t want to read about things that seem to relate more to our parents or other graduates who got out while the going was still good. We still want those coming-of-age stories filled with heady emotions and conflicting paths. We want adventure and excitement!

But we’re not kids. I LOVE young adult lit, but sometimes I wonder if that’s because there’s no other option for me. There are books that I pick up and love everything except for the character’s age.

“Sixteen?” I ask. “Seriously? She’s a master spy/scuba diving treasure hunter/warlord with a spicy hot boyfriend and she’s my kid sister’s age? She’s probably still got a curfew!”

College kids are capable of being warlords, too. I’d like to be a master spy. You think high school is about discovery and self-awareness? Try college. For many kids, it’s their first time living away from home ever. It’s their chance to leave all the garbage of high school behind and reinvent themselves completely, because hey, who would know otherwise? They try new foods, listen to new philosophies, take on new beliefs, meet new people. On top of all that, they’re expected to choose a major that will define them for 4+ years and potentially(unless they find they like something else better) for the rest of their lives!

And what’s more dangerous or exciting than getting out of college? Suddenly, you’re being booted from the heady but ultimately protective nest of college into The Real World. It’s sink or swim. You’ve got to find a job, find a place to live, to eat. Many are still trying to find an identity. It’s not their major anymore, but it most likely isn’t their job either, because the odds of finding an entry-level job that relates to their chosen field is slim-to-none for many.

Some manage to forge their own path and strike off into the wild blue yonder. But too many others drift back home to their childhood bedrooms and a revolving door in a temp office. Still others seem like they’ve headed out successfully but then reach their chosen field (or even just a revelatory class in grad school) and realize, Oh crap, this isn’t what I thought it was; I want out.

Where are our books?

I’m not sure yet, but I wonder if this new thing called New Adult just might be the ticket. I came across a website called NA Alley. Its mission is to promote the New Adult genre, and at the very top of its About page, it quotes Kristin Hoffman, the winner of the St. Martin’s Press New Adult writing contest:

“The Transition 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.”


Some might consider me late to this particular party. Apparently, the NA debate has been going on quite a bit. But do you know how I first learned of NA? From listening to people in the publishing industry that I respect (note the present tense – still love ’em) poo-poo the genre. It’s a hard sell, they say. It’s not viable, they say. Some even turn their noses up at it and sniff at the awkwardness of it all.

Look, I get all that. But just because something is hard does not mean it should not be done. In fact, in some cases, the very presence of such difficulty makes a cause that much more worthwhile.

Listen up, publishing movers-and-shakers. You’re passing over an entire segment of the population starving for books of their own! St. Martin’s gets it, so where are the rest of you? Don’t mumble something about it not being established. YA wasn’t always around either, but look at it now. I know a lame-tushed excuse when I hear one.

Please, just give us our own stories. Give us our books.

Any other readers out there who feel the same way? What do YOU think about the NA genre? What books would you classify as NA? Why do you think the creation of such a genre is important? Or do you think we’re making something out of nothing?

**For further reading on the subject, please check out NA Alley, Cally Jackson, YA Highway, JJ from St. Martin’s, Becca Hamilton and Diana Peterfreund. I read all of these (except Na Alley) after writing this post, and it’s taking all my self-control not to cannibalize them for myself, because they express things so much better than I just did.

31 Responses to New Adult; or There Be Rough Waters Ahead, Matey!

  1. Sadieforsythe May 15, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    How timely, I was having almost the same debate with someone this very morning. This post sums it up splendidly. Thank you for saying what I was struggling to.

    • Shelver 506 May 15, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      You’re welcome! Send your debate partner over here and we’ll argue together. 🙂

  2. LS Murphy May 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    I’ve noticed that quite a few books lately have been shoved into the YA genre that really aren’t YA but new adult.
    There are readers for New Adult. As writers, we are always told that readers “read up,” so why wouldn’t high schoolers read or want to read about college age kids? It seems like a logical transition.
    I fully support the NA movement (let’s call it that, ‘kay?) There’s a market, one that will grow for these books and will be profitable for authors, publishers, and readers.

    • Shelver 506 May 15, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

      Exactly. And part of the allure of “reading up” is to get a handle on what’s coming next. But do high school kids get that? No. Even on television, either the shows are set in high school or they suddenly jump to a Friends-type post-college setting where everyone is living as independent “real” adults.

  3. Xan May 18, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    I tried writing NA and got slammed for it. So I made my protag younger and made it YA friendly. The same book got slammed for being inappropriate for the YA market, but not mature enough for the adult market. Grrr! I’d love to write New Adult works but if agents don’t think they should exist and if publishers are skeptical where does that leave the writer? Some NA books do exist, like Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid, but then does that really count when the MC only looks 21 and is actually centuries old?

    Here’s to hoping that things will change!

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

      Oh my gosh, that sound incredibly frustrating. Was your book ever picked up? If so, which route did you end up going with?

  4. lgkelso May 18, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    Great post! I agree with many of your points. Personally, I though collegehad much more self-discovery than high school as you said.
    And thanks for the linking to NA Alley! We appreciate it!
    Xan, I think it is going to change because writers are seeing what is happening and are acting upon it. It may b a slow process, but I have no doubt that it will happen if writers and readers want NA.

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

      Absolutely! All of that “yessssss-ing” I did in my post I physically did out loud when I first found NA Alley. There may have been some fist pumping as well.

  5. Sarah Nicolas May 18, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    I recently wrote a post basically making the same arguments as you did!

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

      Oooh, very nice! Great minds, hm? I may have to make a follow-up post someday and systematically dismantle the major arguments like you did. Very, very nice.

  6. Sharon Bayliss May 18, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Thanks for spreading the word about NA! Together we will make this happen. 🙂

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

      Rock on! As I said on Twitter to someone, I felt like this was my “Fight the power!” post. 🙂

  7. bailey m kelsey May 18, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Great post — what you said about pondering if you read YA just because you want the self-discovery adventure & that’s where it can be found… I had that shocking revelation myself just this week. In fact, I was in the car with someone and actually said (out loud to myself) “My gosh, I just figured out why I read YA novels.” Recently, they’ve been bothering me, too, because I want the characters to be older, to have more responsibility, to save the world on their time and not before curfew. It was quite a shocker.
    Thank you for the shout-out for NA Alley, as well. All of us are very much in support of shaking up the movers-and-shakers of the publishing industry, as well as supporting the writers and readers of these stories. Your post, and the ones you linked to at the bottom, do so much for spreading the word about NA and how it’s a reaction to something very real in the world of books. I love reading blogs like this — it was very informative and well articulated and passionately argued. Thank you for writing it.

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

      I know. I mean, we’re supposed to believe that Susie Protagonist is going to bring down Evil All-Powerful Government when she’s not even licensed to DRIVE yet? I realize that’s part of the adventure for YA readers, and that’s fine, but it’s not okay when such adventures are promoted at the expense of shoving an older generation in a closet and padlocking the door.

      Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, I hope to work in the publishing industry, and this is one major change that I would LOVE to help foster. Until then… well, I guess it’s up to us to keep stirring the pot every few months. 🙂

  8. zoegasparotti May 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Awesome post! I’m labeling my current WIP as new adult, not just because the majority of my characters are seniors in college but because it involves some issues that I don’t think I could properly address through traditional YA- like transitioning to total self-sufficiency, deciding how to settle down, even possibilities of eloping.

    I think so of these comments make excellent points as well. The whole reading up concept makes perfect sense to me, especially if you’re considering you’re dealing with a high school kid about to graduate and wants to explore what could happen next. Also I totally 110% agree with Igkelso; I’ve discovered a lot more about myself through my three years at college than I ever had before.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this NA movement because I think it could add a new dynamic to the writing community. Don’t we need a transition genre from YA to adult anyway?

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

      Absolutely. I mean, think back. I learned in a class (in COLLEGE, a very NA time, go figure) about how childhood and young adulthood are both social constructs. Kids used to be considered mini-adults. Then that changed, but only so that you were a kid until you were thirteen-ish. And how absolutely bizarre does that appear now? A thirteen-year-old kid is NOT an adult.

      Books followed the same trend. Secret Garden, a beloved childhood classic, was actually written for adults. As others have mentioned, the YA shelf didn’t EXIST until a few decades ago. So if a transition is permissible between picture books and MG and MG and YA, why shouldn’t there be a transition between YA and adult?

  9. Dalya Moon May 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    I write what some would call “New Adult” but on Amazon, we only have the choice of either Juvenile or Adult as categories, so I had to pick one, and I put my books in the Juvenile category. Juvenile is not great, because there are middle-grade books in there! Stories for 9-year-olds! That’s a pretty broad category.

    The day Amazon creates a New Adult category is the day New Adult will “happen.” Maybe they’ll make an actual Middle-Grade category as well. Ah, we all can wish, right?

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

      It’s a Catch-22. Amazon won’t create the category until there’s a solid, profitable market. There won’t be a solid, profitable market until the industry gets off its tuckus and makes it happen. But they won’t see the need to make it happen until there’s proof of a widespread demand… such as Amazon creating a category.

  10. Dalya Moon May 18, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Oooh, just wanted to add. The HBO series, Girls, is definitely New Adult, though in TV format. Still, it may help pave the way.

  11. Stephsco May 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    I read a series starting with The Society of S by Susan Hubbard that I first found in YA. I had trouble finding the second adn third books, because while the protag was still a teen, she entered college early and then left school altogether. I think the industry in general didn’t know where to shelve that story. Sometimes in bookstores I look for it just to see if it’s in YA or adult Lit fiction.

    I’m totally in support of more stories about older teens and young 20 somethings. I still have to be sold on the idea of creating a label for it. It doesn’t bother me if it’s shelved in the general fiction books section. If it’s a contemporary story, then put it in with other contemporary works. If it’s historical, put it there. But I think teen fiction is for books written for a teen audience. Maybe a college aged kid has more of a teen personality and it should fit there (Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride for example).

    So, while I get that an 18 year old is both a teen and an adult, and that’s confusing enough, I’m not totally sold on needing a category to label books New Adult. I agree more stories should be told in this age range, but I don’t necessarily think a squared off section needs to be made to accomodate them.

    Great discussion 🙂

    • Shelver 506 May 18, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

      So why, then, should YA need its own section? Why not lump them back in with other juvenile works as they used to be? After all, the lines are blurry. Heck, freaking Queen of Attolia, chockfull of torture and profanities, is shelved right next to squeaky clean MGs!

      Some NA books would be about 18-year-olds, so those would straddle the line. But the others? The 19, 20, 22, 25-year-olds? Why would those be in teen? Conversely, the graduating senior, tossed from college back into their childhood room and their part-time job at McDonald’s, wouldn’t fit into adult.

  12. May 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    *cheers* Yay, someone else who “gets it.” I don’t understand how we can go from teens going to prom, to adults, with nothing in between. If anyone is looking for NA, you won’t find it in the bookstores, but you will find TONS of indie authors that have embraced the genre. Some good ones include Shelly Crane, Nicole Williams, Jaime McGuire and Amy Bartol.

    My next release (I’m an indie author) features a character that is at the end of her senior year in the first, summer before college in the second, and beginning of college for the third. I’m filing it under YA, because it’s relatively clean and could be read by a younger audience.

    It’s so hard to determine where books should go. On one hand, I think there should be more classifications. On the other, sometimes you can have too many and it gets confusing. I’d just like to see the traditional publishing world recognize that NA is a thing that people want to read.

    • Shelver 506 May 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

      I’ll check out the names you mentioned. Thanks!

  13. Stacey Trombley May 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Ever kind of change is resisted, and most likely especially in the publihsing industry. But it’s the big risks that usually end up paying off. I think this one will, if given the proper chance.

    I don’t however think there needs to be a new genre. Just a sub genre within YA (or adult who cares) is all that’s needed. But it’s like the college age is looked down upon. In YA it only works if the characters started in high school (in a first book that did well. At that point publishers just want you to keep writing!) Or pushed into adult and get lost.

    This is a big gap in the market that needs filled, and even though I’m not a big fan of the term “New Adult” it’s needed.

    and by the way, if most people were asked what Young adult meant they would say up to mid 20s, because that’s what it is- a YOUNG adult. Not only teenagers. Just saying.

    • Shelver 506 May 20, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

      In the real world, yes, young adult is SUPPOSED to mean up to mid-20’s. True. But publishers refuse to let that definition be reflected in the books that they publish. YA stops abruptly at 18, maaaaaaybe 19 if there’s money to be had.

      Just as it seems silly, in retrospect, to combine the themes and tones of the MG world with those of the YA world, so it (to me) seems silly to try to force the “youngs” and the “adults” to play nice. Every age group faces unique challenges, emotions, and changes. Every other age group also happens to get their own category, except NA.

      I don’t know, it just makes me sad to think of NA books sitting next to first-kiss and prom stories.

  14. I cannot begin to express to you my love for this post. So, so much. I have read a couple of books over the past month that I would classify and that the author classifies as NA, but due to Amazon labels have to put Adult.

    I can’t wait for bookstores and publishers and all of the folks who make the rules, to final accept this genre.

    • Shelver 506 May 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Yay! I’m telling you, reading comments has been the best part of making this post because it gives me HOPE. I’m not the only one who wants this change. Someday, it WILL happen.

  15. Lourdes May 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    Thank you so much for linking to this blog post. I completely agree that the excuse of college aged youth not having money or time to read is unfounded. I read a copious amount of YA during college (not as much as in high school but still a far amount) and I had the summers. The excuse of not having funds is lessened greatly when you mention one word: library. I also stumbled upon NA after I wrote the blog you commented on. I had no idea it existed. However, I am noticing a trend where because a book has teens/young adults in them but are labeled as “Adult” they are quickly referred to as NA. I would not be surprised to see “NA’ labels on library book spines in a few years – especially if they are considered a subcategory of YA or Adult. (I think is this changerover had to start anywhere, it would be in a library.) Also, have people noticed that NA can be read as “not available” which I kind of find so apropos and hilarious. Thanks again, and I love the blog. (A book suggestion: “The Piper’s Son.” Not only is one of the main characters older than 20 but chapters alternate between him and his aunt! Who is pregnant! And it’s YA!)

    • Shelver 506 May 21, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      I loved your post, so I’m especially glad to see you here! And thank you for the book recommendation.

  16. BRKingsolver August 5, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    I found your blog through NA Alley. Although I won’t be submitting my novel to you for a review (I read your policy), I agree with this post. My protagonist in an urban fantasy setting is 22, and due to subject matter would not work at 16 or 30. She’s coming of age, and her transition is key to her character. I find it puzzling that publishers seem to think I’ll read Harry Potter and Hunger Games, but wouldn’t read a book about someone a few years older. Believe me, a college-age person is a lot easier for me to relate to than a high schooler. And while we’re at it, how much would it change HP if Hogwarts was a university?

    • Shelver 506 August 5, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

      You get a virtual hug for reading my review policy and actually following it. You rock. And I agree completely! There’s SUCH a huge gap between the ages (as anyone who’s freaked out over a 16 y.o. and a 25 y.o. dating can attest to).

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