New Adult – A Genuine Genre or a Too-thin Slice of a Shrinking Pie?

I can’t say who invented the notion of New Adult as a book genre, or what their intentions were. It’s easy to guess that their intentions might have been centred around something like, um, selling books, but perhaps they saw a body of work emerging that they felt didn’t quite fit the Young Adult or Adult boxes and fell somewhere between.

Is it a real distinction and is it a useful one? I’d be interested to hear what you think. Would or does New Adult as a label have any impact on the books you buy, for yourself or any New Adults in your life? Are booksellers you know using the term? Or does it need to be the title of a movie starring someone like Charlize Theron before it really finds its feet?

I see on dearauthor.com that St Martin’s Press (a former US publisher of mine, and original publisher there of perhaps my most NA novel, World of Chickens) held a submission contest in 2009 for NA titles but, by 2011, they hadn’t published anything as a result of it and one of the contest organisers was quoted as saying: ‘New Adult is a fabulous idea in theory, and authors seem to be excited about it. But in a world where bookstores shelf by category, to them, it is either Adult or Young Adult.’

My publishers, I have to admit, haven’t ever mentioned New Adult to me. I’ve written five novels with teenage central characters – one of whom has just finished school and another of whom was 18 and had left school a while before – and they’ve all been marketed as YA. My books with post-teen characters start with 21-year-old Philby in World of Chickens and 24-year-old Jon in Bachelor Kisses and get older from there, and have all been marketed as Adult.

There’s a system for YA, developed by the book industry and educators, and publishers know how to work it. It’s about schools and teacher librarians, and it produces a wider/longer sales curve. Retail has the look of a secondary market.

Because this market has traditionally worked so well and its gate-keepers work with it so willingly, it’s tempting for any novel with a teenage central character to be shunted down the YA track, even if it’s not its natural home. That might have been the case with my novel Monica Bloom, which has a central character in his last year of school and is set in 1980. It’s past tense and there’s a feeling – or I think there is – of an adult narrator years later, looking back and recalling his story. I always thought it might be an adult novel about a teenager – the way Richard Ford’s Wildlife and Canada both are – and most of the readers who responded positively and strongly to it have been over 40.

You’ll notice I’m not saying that, instead of YA, it’s New Adult.

A recent article in the Guardian proposed the idea that New Adult might be for 14-35-year-olds, to which my first thought was, exactly what does the 14-year-old have in common with the 35-year-old? To me, 14 feels squarely in the middle of YA and 35 seems simply Adult. That’s not to say a 14-year-old can’t read Salman Rushdie and a 35-year-old can’t read Harry Potter, but my point is that I don’t see them hanging out in the same demographic (or, frankly, in many places).

But is there a group aged, say, 18-25 with particular interests who form a demographic and a potential discrete market? Are those the NAs? And, if they are, let me taint this with commercialism and say, are enough of them buying books (and those kinds of books in particular) to make this work?

Is NA as simple as the post-school story being sold to the post-school crowd? And, whether it is or it isn’t, how’s it working?

I thought I’d ask someone who’s looked at this a lot more closely than I have.

Cally Jackson has recently published The Big Smoke, she’s calling it NA and that’s something she’s put some thought into. I’m currently halfway through reading it, as a Somewhat Older Adult, and I can see what she means about where it fits. Its characters are immediately post-school and their concerns are post-school, but I get it as a piece of fiction and I’m not a New Adult (though I was one once).

Setting the pigeonholing aside for a moment, there’s a lot that impresses me about The Big Smoke. It’s narrated in alternating chapters by two very different characters and their voices are distinct, consistent and authentic. It’s a great strength of the book and, in the wrong hands, it could easily have been its downfall. I’m also convinced by the story. It’s complex, and it deals with issues without being dominated by them. Like all good writing, I suspect a lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes, but it’s never evident in the reading. While I might be questioning New Adult as a category, perhaps the best argument for it might be a book like this – this book will mean a lot to some people close to the age of its characters, who are facing similar issues. Sometimes a book is the first thing to tell you you aren’t alone, and for some people this will be that book.

But let’s hear from Cally. I thought I’d ask her a few questions.

NE: First, you’ve seen the Guardian’s stab at it above. What’s your definition of NA, in terms of age range and anything else you think is relevant?

CJ: Rather than give you my own definition, I’ll give you the best definition I’ve come across. It’s by Kristan Hoffman, who was one of the winners of the St Martin’s Press competition you mentioned earlier. Kristan says, “The transition from teen to adult doesn’t happen overnight… 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.”

In terms of age range, 14-35 seems a little broad to me! From what I’ve seen and read, most NA protagonists are aged 18 to 26, and most NA readers are 16 to 26, but the genre appeals to anyone interested in reading about that transformational period of life where we’re officially ‘adults’ but don’t quite know what that means for us yet.

NE: Did you write The Big Smoke as an NA novel, or did you discover NA when you were already writing it?

CJ: When I started writing The Big Smoke, I was simply writing a book that I would like to read, featuring characters my age. That was 11 years ago – The Big Smoke has had a very long gestation!

It was only when I began to consider querying agents and publishers that I discovered the NA genre. Honestly, traditional publishers of paper books don’t appear to be very interested in NA, mainly because of the reasons you cited earlier – publishers know how to market adult books and YA books, but NA is largely untried and therefore too risky.

Online, though, it’s a different story. More and more authors and publishers are categorising books as NA, and readers are taking notice. You only have to look at Goodreads (the Facebook for book lovers) to see that many readers are starting to create their own virtual bookshelves of NA fiction. Here are just a few examples: Jaime Ark’s NA bookshelf, Andrea Thompson’s NA bookshelf, Alexis’s NA bookshelf. None of these people are authors trying to plug their own fiction; they’re all readers who have chosen to categorise books in this way.

When I discovered this emerging genre online, I was ecstatic – finally I’d found a home for The Big Smoke!

NE: What made you pick this time in your characters’ lives to write about?

CJ: I chose this time in my characters’ lives because I was the same age (18) when I first began writing it – I’d just moved away from my parents (and the country town I’d grown up in) to go to uni in Brisbane, and I was trying to find my feet as a new adult.

The inspiration for The Big Smoke was a lesson I was trying to teach myself. For some reason, I decided the best way to teach myself that lesson was to write a book about characters having to learn the same lesson (makes perfect sense, right?).

What was the lesson? That your happiness and life journey are your own responsibility, nobody else’s. I think it’s a great lesson for anyone, but particularly new adults.

NE: How does the NA market work to connect books with buyers, and are you concerned about missing a schools market?

CJ: When I was an older teen/early 20-something, I would have loved it if there were a separate shelf in bookshops dedicated to new adult fiction. I’d still love it now, because (selfish author reasons aside) it would make it a lot easier to find presents for that age group and I quite enjoy fiction about that time of life myself. Unfortunately, bookshelf space in bricks and mortar stores is limited, and I don’t see booksellers allocating a separate shelf for the NA genre anytime soon. Hopefully, some might consider segmenting the YA shelf into YA and NA, but that’s the best we can hope for in the near future, I believe.

Online, though, the shelf space is unlimited, and as we’ve already seen, many readers are using the NA classification online to help them and other readers set these books apart from the rest. Goodreads itself actually has a page devoted to the NA genre, recognising readers’ desire for this classification.

Away from the internet, the NA market is still in its infancy in terms of connecting books with buyers (in my opinion, at least). There’s a strong opportunity to establish a relationship between NA authors and universities/colleges because so many students in higher education are part of the NA target market, but I don’t believe this has been explored much at all yet. Off the top of my head, potential opportunities could include stalls of new adult fiction at university markets, talks from NA authors for literature students, and advertising in student guild/union publications. All of these options are on my list to explore for marketing The Big Smoke.

To answer the second part of your question completely honestly: yes, I am concerned about missing the schools market. I’ve had conversations with a number of high school English teachers who have all said that while they love The Big Smoke and believe their students would too, the more ‘adult’ content (specifically, sexual and drug themes) restricts it from being included as part of the curriculum. I realised this was a possibility when I was writing the novel, but I wanted to portray that first-semester-of-uni experience honestly and didn’t think I could do that by ignoring these topics.

Thankfully, I don’t believe the schools market is a 100% no-go zone for The Big Smoke. Although it won’t be included as part of the curriculum, teachers have indicated there’s absolutely no reason it couldn’t be marketed to student libraries. So that’s on my list too!

NE: That’s a good point. The high schools I visit usually have my Adult novels in their libraries, even if most of them use only my YA novels in the classroom. Are there any books that readers might know well that you’d see as NA (even if they predated the classification or people’s awareness of it)?

CJ: Some of my favourite books as an older teen were NA, but they pre-dated the classification (or at least my awareness of it). These include Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy and World of Chickens and Bachelor Kisses by… um, you. I would also classify McCarthy’s more recent novel, Somebody’s Crying, as NA, along with Marcus Zusak’s I am the Messenger.

Outside of Australia, some popular NA novels right now are Easy by Tamara Webber and Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire (which have received 26,536 ratings and 55,085 ratings on Goodreads respectively, so there’s definitely a market for them!). Looking at historical fiction, some people have argued that Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier could be classified NA, considering it deals with a young woman in her first job away from home, dealing with adult situations for the first time.

NE: What’s next for you? Are we going to be seeing more of you in this genre?

CJ: Considering I’m 31 weeks pregnant, what’s immediately next for me is becoming a mum. The dream is that The Big Smoke will become so unbelievably popular, I’ll be able to resign from my day job and be a stay-at-home mum and author.

In the slim chance that doesn’t happen, I’ll still write fiction in my spare time – writing’s in my blood. The idea I’ve currently fallen in love with is more YA than NA, but I imagine I will write more NA in the future – it’s such an interesting time of life. Perhaps I’ll even write a sequel to The Big Smoke. Time will tell…

* * *

Cally Jackson blogs here.

The Big Smoke is available as an ebook and in paperback, with details here.

It’s also the first selection for NA Alley’s New Adult Online Book Club and anyone interested can chat about it there on 19 Dec.

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8 Responses to New Adult – A Genuine Genre or a Too-thin Slice of a Shrinking Pie?

  1. Interesting. When I hear the term “New Adult” I think of some macabre minting process, or perhaps a really uncool music genre.

    My experience of reading as a teen was that the novels for that age group generally featured protagonists of the same age, and were often self-consciously about “yoof issues”. This sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. A dedicated New Adult genre might be useful, to represent the comprehension of ideas of that age group, but it would be tedious if most of the characters were necessarily of the same age, or all the stories were, “Hey, that’s just like what’s happening to me right now!”. A whole shelf full of books under the heading Slightly Older Solipsistic Vampires With Disposable Income would suck (so to speak.)

  2. Lauren says:

    New Adult…finally a classification to fit my answer to, “So what kind of books do you like reading most?”

    I loved YA stuff in my early teens and as I grew older I looked for the older version of it. Moving from about sixteen onwards to a now twenty-three, well, it’s at times been hard to source the stories about people my age going through the things that people my age might be going through. They’re there, yes, but half of them are labeled YA and half Adult and these two catergories are monstrously big. To be able to walk into a bookshop and straight to a section holding books about people at university or undertaking their first real job or whatever it is we new adults are meant to be doing, well, that might be a bit swell.

    I’ve often thought that a big part of growing up as a reader is learning to love books about people not exactly like you, or in this case not exactly your age. Books serve to help the learning of undestanding and compassion. But, like you said, sometimes books also exist as a reminder that one is not alone in a specific set of circumstances. When in need of comfort, these NA books are what I would probably reach for first.

    I say, the ‘coming of age’ movie has it’s own well-known category, so why not for the New Adult book?

    • Couldn’t agree more, Lauren!

    • nickearls says:

      It’s interesting that the industries have developed so differently that ‘coming of age’ has long been a major movie genre, but in book terms some c-o-a titles are at the top of young adult and some are adult. As Cally says, it’s a fascinating time of life – a time when a lot is up for grabs – and it’s an interesting time to write about, read about and watch, whatever box you try to fit it in. Interestingly, I hear from some people in the film industry that the audience demographic for the c-o-a movie isn’t what it was. It used to be 15-25, but that’s a demographic that now spends much of its entertainment $ on something other than movies, and most of its few cents on movies on big genre films (vampire franchises, Transformers, etc). When 48 Shades was released in 2006, it was aimed at teenagers but its most enthusiastic audience was people a lot older, nostalgic for their long-gone youth and prepared to embrace a film with a 1980s pace (rather than 21st century). That’s giving us something to think about when working on the World of Chickens film. Of course, I’m forever optimistic that we can make a movie everyone will love …

      • Lauren says:

        Of course you can! Optimism optimism!
        If you wanted to flip the whole thing on its head, you could release it as a New Adult movie. Though you might pull an unexpected crowd initially…

  3. Adam Ford says:

    Interesting stuff. I think that one problem with New Adult might be the name itself. When I clicked on the link to this post, I thought that the “new” in the name referred to the style of the writing, not the target audience. I was all set to make an “adult contemporary” joke. That said, grouping books according to the life-stages of their protagonists is a novel (no pun intended) idea.

  4. Pingback: Nick Earls interviews me about new adult fiction, Mental Health Monday, and writing from the perspective of the opposite sex | Cally Jackson Writes

  5. Interesting discussion, though in the end I haven’t much in the way of answers. The YA/NA/A thing confuses me at times, mostly because I think it seems like a lot of what people think of as YA lately are miscategorized as such. Like Twilight and Harry Potter, for example, which I’d argue are more romance and fantasy, respectively, but then there’s that pesky fact of the protagonists’ age (well. Bella’s age, in the former, as Edward Cullen has been high school aged for a thousand years, and talk about a private circle of Hell, eh? I once read Stephenie Meyer’d had plans to revisit the first novel in the Twilight saga with an installment retelling the story from Edward’s point of view, and she claims she abandoned it after it leaked on the internet, but I’ve always wondered if she just simply suddenly realized she was writing about a very old man pining after a very young girl, and on doing so understood she didn’t have Nabokov’s chops). As so many so often note, age ain’t nuttin’ but a number. I don’t think anyone would ever argue The Catcher in the Rye as “Young Adult,” for example, regardless of how old Holden might be.

    I grew up reading the Hardy boys, then skipped to Stephen King when I was in sixth grade and blew through all his books, as well as those by Koontz and Crichton. This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there weren’t any books like the ones you’re discussing here. So I never really read them, but then again, one could probably make the case that both my novels are “new adult.” For my part, I never really thought about it, aiming instead simply to tell the best story I could concerning the characters as I saw them. That they happened to be in their twenties is as likely because, well, hey, I was too.

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