New Adult Is Dead. Long Live New Adult.

I’m going to start this post out by being super honest. I definitely stole the title of this post from my MA Publishing thesis. As well as most of the research and findings that I’ll cover in this post. I’m hesitant to post sources, only because most of it, apart from the few I used for specific things that cover sub-genres and other specifics that pertained to my thesis, were all done by me interviewing readers, writers, published authors, editors, and publishers of YA (young adult), NA (new adult), and/or both.

There’s so much I could say about NA. So much so that I think I’ll break this up into sections, especially since I’ve already been asked to talk more specifically about the differences in YA and NA and why things are marketed as YA or adult, what it means, and how NA could change the landscape. All of which I studied on my own for about a year our of curiosity before taking another year to research and craft a thesis over the subject. The thesis paragraph of my thesis (heh) is as follows:

And while publishers will tell you that they tried new adult and that it did not work—that it is dead, mainly in the paperback sales channels—the reality of the situation is that new adult continues to thrive under publishers’ noses in its own way, through its own channels. There are successful new adult authors self-publishing and making it on the USA Today bestseller list. They are making enough—mainly in eBook sales but also in paperback—to sustain their lifestyle, and sometimes make millions. They are making a name for themselves, without the help of a traditional publishing marketing and publicity team. New adult is indeed alive, and publishers need to shape up and adapt to this by taking it on again, or they will continue to lose out on the genre that they are trying to convince the world they killed.

That was my thesis. My hypothesis. What I set out to ultimately try and prove–but theses don’t always end on positive notes. Sometimes you set out to prove something and are thrown for a loop. Sometimes, you end up proving the opposite. That isn’t exactly what happened in my case, but the conclusion of the thesis isn’t as positive as the starting hypothesis was.

I want to take a moment to point out that the language is extremely formal and noticeably different from how I blog. Which–anyone who’s read any of my fiction will also be able to tell you–my non-fiction narrative voice is vastly different from my fiction prose. That’s to say, my thesis has my academic tone (I mean, seriously, when do we ever not use contractions in conversations except when writing formal papers for the tone and, let’s not lie, word count), my blog is written much how I talk, in long and fast sentences. With excitement and enthusiasm about my topic. And my fiction writing? Well it differs depending on whose story I’m telling. I strictly write (novel-length!) fiction in 1st person POV. It’s my thing, my preferred style. This means that most of my books are seriously different from one another, not only when it comes to world building. If you’re confused at all about any of these topics, don’t worry! I plan to cover them and more later on in different posts.

All you need to know that a 1st person POV story is from “I” and “me,” instead of 3rd’s “she” or “he” or “they” and definitely not from 2nd’s “you.” Don’t know what 2nd person POV is? Like I said, I’ll cover it! It’s not important right now except to know that since I write (books) in 1st person POV, my stories center around the main character’s internal monologue and the story’s perceptions come from their understanding of the world and other characters. You don’t know anything they don’t (unless breadcrumbs are left for plot twists that you figure out before them). You find things out as they do.

Anyway, enough about my different styles of writing and back to NA!

Gaw, there’s so much to say about NA that I’m not even sure I know where I want to start, but I guess what I’ll do in this post is discuss what NA is, why it’s relevant and warranted, and end with my thesis hypothesis–what I actually found out after researching through interviews with professionals and fans, (and some not-so-fans) and what the actual conclusion of NA in publishing and being marketed as such decidedly was in Spring of 2019.

I do want to take a small second to say there’s been a bit of a change since then, a positive on in my ending opinion, but we’ll have to get through some saddening and disheartening facts (if you’re like me and enthusiastic about the genre) before we reach our happier…(ish) ending.

So before my publishing thesis I was a bright eyed, bushy-eyebrowed dreamer. I was determined NA was a thing. It was going to come back. It had to. I mean, not only was I in multiple Facebook groups dedicated to the authors where they contributed in the group, but I was actually friends with them on Facebook! I saw their success. I saw their groups grow. I saw them gain recognition in the year I’d started to follow them and found even more authors publishing NA from them! It was happening. They were making enough money to survive. They were publishing NA! They were…on Kindle Unlimited.

To get into a discussion about Kindle Unlimited is going to be not only infuriating to some, but also a thing in and of itself. And I’ll be posting a blog topic under the publishing part of my writing lifestyle blog because this has to do with (writing, yes, but) publishing standards. I’m going to address all the whispers and rumors floating around about Kindle Unlimited when it comes to self-publishing, debunking and confirming information that may make some mad. But read the tag line: All the fresh, unpopular opinions in publishing you didn’t know you needed to hear. I’m not here to be nice–per se–and I’m not here to be mean either. I’m here to be real and talk about why things are they way they are in publishing and why some things come across the way they do. Such as self-publishing, yes, but pertaining to this blog post, the assumption that NA is all erotica.

I think it’s important to start with this misconception because we need to get into what the hell NA actually is. And the definition is a lot more simple than you’d think.

New adult—or NA—is simply a story in which the protagonist is between the ages of 18 (out of high school) and 29. This is a rough estimation, as the ages can vary some (though the main character must be out of high school). Anything younger than 18 is young adult or YA, which is defined as literature for kids 13 through 17, and generally cannot go past the high school experience. On the other side of the age spectrum, at 30 or older, the books are generally marketed as adult fiction.

I’ll be discussing the actual erotica misconceptions and real sub-genres of NA in another blog post! (I just thought this was a good segue into the actual definition.) It’s too much to fit in this overview on why NA is needed in publishing in the first place.

Why is this distinction important? Why do we need a genre that separates YA novels from adult? One could argue, I suppose, that at 18 (the oldest a typical YA protagonist should be–emphasis on should) is the start of adulthood. Therefore it makes sense that the category that comes after is adult, right? Consider this. YA ages are typically 13-18 (sometimes 12) generally around the time they’re teenagers. And most of the literature focuses on the high school experience. Like NA, MG (middle grade) at one point also didn’t have a proper place in publishing. The industry, influenced by the Big 5, were the ones that decided that it didn’t need shelf space. That it wasn’t worth breaking into the genre and changing the flow of things. However, the issues were, then, that there was no proper bridge or middle ground for what was YA and what was children’s. Would Percy Jackson’s series go into YA or children’s? What about the Magic Treehouse books? Neither were quite ready to be in YA, but at the same time, the readers were out of the “children” experience. They were in a new stage of life–middle school (typically).

If we apply this same principle to YA, NA, and adult, after high school comes what for many? College. Or at least some type of certification or trade job or entry level job into a market that these “new adults” start to train themselves for. Are they adults? Sure, technically. But (those of you who are old enough) are you the same person you were in your early 20s? Even those that are younger, are you anywhere near the same person you used to be 3, 4, 5 years ago? Just the way MG bridged the gap between stages of life between YA and children’s main characters/readers, so does NA bridge the gap for the years where being an adult is new. In some places (the US) you’re old enough to get married, own a house, buy cigarettes (depending on the state), but still can’t drink, rent a car, or go to a casino. You’re an adult, sure, but a new one. You’re newly introduced into this life. And when you are over 21 and the whole world is open (except where you need to be 25 to rent a car) how do you respond? How does it change you? What shapes you? Maybe some will find this hard to believe(?), but from high school to achieving the life goal of turning, we’ll say 30, you’re a completely different person. You don’t come out of high school all of the sudden with the life experience and attitude of a 30-year-old. It makes logical sense to add a category to bridge the gap between stages of life, and your 20s is very much a stage all unto itself.

So now that we’ve established what NA is and how it benefits bridging gaps that are currently in the publishing industry and why it needs to be there, let’s dig into the differences between YA and NA, because most people think it’s one thing. YA with sex. I won’t lie. I’ve read a lot of NA over the years. Trade published (traditionally published by a publishing house) and self-published works on Amazon Kindle’s Unlimited. There is generally sex in there. You know where else there are explicit sex scenes? In almost every single published series Sarah J Mass has ever written in YA. While I dig deep into that in my thesis, all I will leave you with, is that in two separate series, there was talk of “his seed spilling into me.”I’ve read some steamy NA in my time–never have any of them mentioned this…old-fashioned and frankly disgusting phrase of someone’s cum being in them. Honestly, the actual cum (the liquids and lubrications produced during sex) isn’t mentioned nearly as much as I believe people think. The act of coming (orgasming) or “I came”/”He comes with a loud groan,” is generally the only come I read about. (I really don’t want to get into the cum/come debate, but according to CMS, which is the editing style that Trade Houses use, these definitions are not up for debate. “Cum” is used for the substance while “come” is used to describe the feeling of sexual pleasure.)

So yes. There’s sex. And yeah, it’s a bit hotter than the “allusion” scenes you read in YA or even a simple little sex scene. It’s hotter than Sarah J Mass’ work as well, with added bonus of better phrases and sexier language. But what else? The obvious was just discussed. The phases of life. If YA can be surmised as the genre of “firsts,”

  • First kiss
  • First love
  • First sexual experience

The NA can be considered (in general) the genre of “ends,”

  • Last first kiss
  • Last relationship
  • End of innocence

While most of these are referring to romance, which I would argue is the biggest driving force in both genres, I’ve read plenty of NA where the MC learns a truth they’ve thought their whole life as an adult is a lie. I think this is important because I feel like a story with this type of betrayal hits harder at an NA age. Learning everything you thought was a lie at 16-18 is hard yeah. But what if you were 21-25? A bit more devastating, in my opinion.

But what about those “upper YA” novels you ask?! Upper YA shouldn’t be a thing. At least not the way it’s portrayed right now. I agree that there are different levels to YA, but upper YA shouldn’t be these Sarah J Mass novels with protagonists that are 19 and older and having some seedy sex on the beach or on a table covered in paint. Just how there are differing levels in MG as well, NA also has an “upper” stage! College romance books are definitely the lower part of NA. They’re in a completely different type of life and style and situation as NA books I’ve read about protagonists that are 22+. I’d consider them (college NA) the stepping stone or maybe introductory books into the NA genre. The characters are still pretty young and immature and figuring their shit out, usually the hardest way possible. Not to mention reminiscent of YA protagonists just with different types of decisions and consequences but the added bonus of alcohol and university life drama in the mix.

But these NA books that are being placed in the upper category of YA are generally done so because of mature themes and sex. And most of the MCs are old. Too told. They’re not upper YA books. They’re the lower NA novels. Books such as AFTER are a perfect example. Published in YA as a college romance. Totally done for the marketing strategy. It’s not the markers fault. In fact, it’s the smartest move at this point in publishing’s life to get the most sales. The publishing industry’s influencers (looking at you Big 5) are the ones who refuse to make NA a category. Books are marketed into the wrong category all the time. Most of the upper YA fantasy with female protags are put in YA when content and age wise, it needs to be in, well, at the moment “adult fantasy.” But does it not make sense that if NA were a thing it would solve the problem of these books purposefully being marketed wrong to get the best possible reach of views? There’s a stat in my thesis that says MG and YA readers (of the actual intended age) are reading 3-5 years above their own. So when that 15-year-old, innocent freshman picks up that seedy sex novel, they’re in for a big surprise, aren’t they?

The overall point I want to make is NA bridges a gap in YA content when it comes to age and content/life experiences.

The first and foremost difference between new adult protagonists and young adult protagonists is their age. And with age comes various stages of life, which is also an important factor in deciding if a novel is young adult or new adult. As discussed before, new adult protagonists start from ages 18 who have graduated high school to around the age of 29. However, these two ages—and the ages close to them—are not the bulk of new adult protagonists. If we think of new adult protagonists like we would a bell curve, we would see that the protagonists ages between 18-20 and 28-30 fall into two percent each, for a total of four percent out of 100. This means that the bulk (96 percent of protagonists) fall between the ages of 21 and 27.

To explain this visually, see the diagram of the new adult age range below.

Right, so now that we know that, I’ll quickly get into what the actual conclusion of my thesis was. Basically, I started out as a naïve country girl from Ohio who moved to the big apple to make a name for myself…and fell prey to every trick and trap in the book, hardening me into a bit of a more cautious and reluctant believer in NA. Not believing that the genre isn’t good and doesn’t need to be there. That opinion has never changed. But I started off with much promise, thinking that what was happening on Kindle Unlimited would surely sway publishers. That editors and publishers I talked to and discussed this with would come back with a resounding, “Yes, we’ve seen the popularity of it in self-publishing, and it’s something we intend to capitalize on.” What I really got was more along the lines of, “Yes, we’ve seen the popular trends of NA on Kindle Unlimited, and it’s going to stay there for now, possibly forever.”

What was my official conclusion?

When I first started this paper I was very enthusiastic about new adult and where I thought this paper would go, how I would feel when it was over, and how I would help make my mark on the new adult world. Was I naïve or what? The outcome could have been much, much worse. I could have run into much more negative feedback and opinions from the industry, authors, and editors, but it was overall, a pleasant and engaging experience. I want to be clear, I am not less enthusiastic about new adult than I was before, but my opinions on what the future holds for new adult have changed.

I came into this thinking that when I was done I would still hold the view that new adult would make it into the publishing industry faster than any of us know. But after talking to a multitude of people, my view slightly morphed into one more closely held by Reader 1. It isn’t that I think new adult will never make it into traditional publishing as I have shown a number of times that it has already been here. But I honestly believe that it will be a while before NA is fully accepted by publishers as a legitimate genre they are willing to fight for.

I believe the future for new adult is in self-publishing for the moment, and that it will fester and grow here like a mold in the nooks and cranny of a house. But I want to relay that I’m still hopeful that—like mold—it will one day make its presence known in the industry, I just think it will take time for that to happen. New adult books are popping up on USA Today bestseller pages and hitting charts that might have felt impossible just a few short years ago. The genre is very much alive and thriving in its current environment; I just believe that it will have to stay here for a while before it makes more headway. There are a few big publishing houses with new adult imprints such as Kensington, Sourcebooks, Entangled, and Bloomsbury Spark. However, these are mostly digital imprints—which just goes to show that new adult most certainly can throve in the right environment. Even if that environment, for the moment, is just in an online, digital platform.

I do want to add though, the little bit of sunshine I said would be coming at the end. The Big 5 have a lot of power in publishing. Just like their name implies, they’re the 5 houses that make the biggest profit off of books. But, even since I graduated a year ago and did this research the year before bleeding some into 2019, independent publishing houses have been popping up and claiming to outright publish NA novels. They’d been around the years I was researching, yes, but the difference is, in the last year or so I personally have seen these smaller houses grow in recognition. There are pros and cons to publishing with independent houses, just as there are when you pit them up against any of the Big 5 imprints. But the fact that so many are gaining a name for themselves through the publishing of content that people want–yes! People, we, I want NA!–they’re gaining momentum in publishing. Even if the Big 5 take years to fully accept and try to add NA to bookshelves as its own section–or never do–there’s still hope. There’s still a ray of light. There’s still hope. And the Hunger Games trilogy taught us what?

So those of you who dream, like me, of publishing your rightful NA books in its category, keep hope. Let the publishing houses fear our determination and zeal toward pushing this category into its deserving place, nestled between YA and adult. Let us hope, because we’ll conquer their fear, one way or another in the end.

🌞

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