In 2009, St. Martin’s Press announced a submission contest. It was looking for books for a “New Adult” line that featured twentysomething protagonists. By 2011, the company had yet to publish anything in the new line. But the spark was lit. Authors and readers online adopted the “new adult” moniker for the books they wanted to write and read, and by 2012 a self-publishing trend was apparent.
So what is new adult (NA)? At its most basic, it is a category of books written about the experiences of 18- to 25-year-olds as they enter the adult world. These “new” adults are becoming more independent, taking on more responsibilities, and facing life’s challenges for the first time on their own. How they deal with and work through those events and challenges is the focus of their stories. Tessa Woodward, editor, William Morrow and its Avon division, says, “Readers are absolutely driving the new adult trend. These books really came out of the online world. Readers were looking for books set during the college years and publishers didn’t have many out at the time, so writers began self-publishing.” Among those writers who experienced success in self-publishing and were subsequently picked up by traditional houses are breakout authors Jamie McGuire (Beautiful Disaster, Atria), Tammara Webber (Easy, Penguin), and Cora Carmack (Losing It, Morrow).
The siren call of strong feelings
New adult books tackle more mature subject matter than YA is able to cover and certainly have stronger sexual content. But it isn’t just the sexiness driving the trend. Readers are drawn to the stories. Margo Lipschultz, senior editor at Harlequin, argues that “new adult books often have an addictive quality—the fresh narrative voice and a story line that takes readers on an emotional roller coaster.”
Liz Burns, a librarian for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLSBPH) in New Jersey and an early adopter of the idea of the NA category, agrees. She thinks there’s something to the idea of these superdramatic stories filling a need. And that’s not a bad thing. Readers “could just be meeting the need for the emotionally powerful story that they want,” says Burns.
Under the radar
The category has faced a mixed reaction. Readers who were looking for protagonists who were like them were thrilled to find books written for them. But early press suggested the books were simply 50 Shades of Grey for the college-aged. Carmack claims that the category has dealt with the double whammy of being too closely tied to both self-publishing and the romance genre, two areas of the publishing ecosystem that notoriously get less respect than others.
This double whammy is evident in libraries. Self-published titles are a mixed bag, to say the least, and many don’t get reviewed at all, let alone in the traditional selection sources used by most collection development librarians. Additionally, “new adult remains a category that is dominated by digital sales,” says Harlequin’s Lipschultz. “This genre got its start primarily among self-published authors and has become synonymous with a low digital price point,” she says. This makes the discoverability of the books even more difficult for librarians. Even if a librarian does find and buy the titles, once they get into the building, a whole new set of issues comes up. Are they YA or adult? Fiction or romance? Should they get their own shelves?
A growing genre
NLSBPH’s Burns thinks progress is being made. When asked about what’s changed since she wrote one of the first articles about the category in 2012, she says that “it’s definitely getting more attention, slowly but steadily, from the outside.” It’s no longer just a “small group of authors and readers who were talking to each other” in a small corner of the Internet.
Dedicated NA imprints launched in the past few years include Entangled’s Embrace, Random House’s digital-only Flirt, and Evatopia Press, which also publishes YA. In addition, many existing lines have announced themselves open to submissions in the genre. Tracy Richardson, president of Luminis Books, sees the category as “a huge opportunity, because this is a group of people who may have gotten away from reading and [new adult] may draw them back in.”
Does it have staying power? Samantha TerBeest, a public librarian in Winona, MN (who falls into the target age group, by the way), thinks it does. “If you look at YA, it started out the same way, juvenile and adult titles were pulled in to create this category that became YA.” TerBeest suggests that the same thing will happen with the NA category.
Carolyn Borgen, a library aide from New Ulm, MN, who runs a new adult book group, agrees. Readers who are outgrowing books in the YA universe, “once they hit college and postcollege, there seems to be a missing part for them. These readers were split between YA and adult fiction but are craving something more.”
Author Carmack, however, is more cautious in her predictions. She thinks that the market is getting saturated and “the bubble is close to bursting.” She attributes this to the normalizing of the market after a boom but figures it could go either way at this point. To ensure stability, says Carmack, the category needs “to expand into other subgenres [than romance] under the umbrella term new adult.” She feels strongly enough about this that she now plans to return to self-publishing to work on her first urban fantasy NA novel.
YA grows up
Carmack’s idea of expanding the category beyond contemporary romance may be key to its survival. It is something that Daniel Harmon, editorial director for the Pulp imprint at Zest Books, is trying to do. Zest has always published nonfiction for teens but is finding more freedom by moving into the NA realm. Its How Not To Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide, by Meghan Doherty, was a crossover hit. As the editors contemplate sequels, they know that they will need to “push further and be more explicit in order for the books to work.” Pulp, Harmon says, is going to be “publishing books that would have been awkward for our original teen audience (and the librarians who work with them), and ‘new adult,’ as a category, was the most natural place for books that grew out of [the company’s] work with YA but had grown just a bit too mature.”
Harmon also argues that “this audience is interested in more than simply seeing the YA genre translated into a more mature setting. (Although that certainly has appeal.) In fact, what is so exciting about this new adult idea…is that, like the YA genre before it…it’s looking to create something new, something that has the capacity to provoke new interests and new obsessions.”
Something new appeals to readers who have been following the category since its inception. During a recent Twitter #readadv chat, when asked what librarians wanted to see in the NA category, the almost universal answer was diversity. This is the double-edged sword of the newness of the category. Carmack says that while “new adult had this massive growth spurt, mostly online, there are many more mainstream, traditional readers who are just now hearing [about] and experiencing the category.” Yet there are also “readers who have been reading NA insatiably for around two years. There’s been this strange dichotomy where some readers are ready and willing for NA to branch out into other subgenres…[while] other readers are still predominantly interested in the contemporary romance that began the NA boom.”
New adult for libraries
What does this mean for librarians? There is still difficulty in finding and purchasing the books for a collection, a challenge that will ease as the category becomes more mainstream. Also, the debate of where to place the books once they’re purchased is just a variation on an old theme: we’ve discussed for years whether it’s better to break out the genre fiction or keep it all in the fiction section so that authors who write in several different genres can have all of their works found. There are arguments to be made on both sides, and no one has ever come up with a definitive solution. The same may happen with NA. Some libraries may choose to give the books their own section, others to interfile. In ebooks, at least, librarians won’t have to choose but can place the same titles in multiple categories.
What’s key is helping readers to find the books. As librarians are starting to become more aware of NA publishing, readers are, too. If we want those readers coming to us, then we must be prepared in the old-fashioned, readers’ advisory (RA) way. While we struggle with how to label and categorize the books, readers will be asking for suggestions. Though there is a homogeneity to a lot of NA, with its contemporary settings and strong romantic elements, there is still enough variety that RA librarians will want to brush up on a few of the core authors better to direct readers. Knowing that someone who likes Carmack might also enjoy Webber or that fans of McGuire might be more inclined to read Abbi Glines helps. And while Webber’s books feature protagonists who are middle class and working, Kylie Scott is writing a series about rock stars.
Librarians also need to be aware that readers of NA fiction are not necessarily new to adulthood themselves. As noted by authors Shelley Corriell, Penelope Douglas, and Jeaniene Frost, on the United 4 Libraries “Isn’t It Romantic?” panel at the American Library Association annual conference this past June in Las Vegas, adults in their 30s and 40s are increasingly drawn to these narratives, too, just as recent years have seen a surge in adults unashamedly reading crossover hits from the YA list. So readers’ advisors should be prepared to recommend NA titles to those who are nostalgically reliving their firsts as well as those who are experiencing them for the first time.
As author Carmack says, “For so long, publishing ignored this market, but it’s a tumultuous and intimidating time period, and readers are grateful to see their insecurities, fears, and challenges reflected on the page.” That’s a pretty powerful concept and key to understanding what patrons want from new adult titles—whether the reader is 20 now or was 20, years ago.
COEDS AND CLIFFHANGERS and coming of age—that’s what new adult (NA) fiction is made of. Focusing on firsts—first love, first job, first sex—these titles tackle tough issues such as self-harm, suicide, rape, and addiction with more drama, heat, and sexual explicitness than even the most audacious YA novel. Below, some fan favorites and upcoming releases.
Bertrand, Cara. Second Thoughts. Luminus. (Sententia, Bk. 2). Oct. 2014. ISBN 9781935462071. $19.95; pap. $11.95. ISBN 9781935462125.
Secrets, lies, and looming deaths are all things Lainey Young deals with in a typical day at her New England boarding school, where the majority of students and nearly all the staff are members of a hidden society of the psychically gifted. In her senior year, Lainey has even more to worry about: classes, college, her boyfriend, and a vision of her impending death.—Jane Jorgenson (JJ)
Carmack, Cora. Losing It. Morrow. 2013. ISBN 9780062273246. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062273253.
Who knew losing one’s virginity could be so tricky? At 22, college senior Bliss still has her V-card firmly in hand. Determined to cash it in, she goes in search of a one-night stand and finds Garrick, a hunky blond Brit with a penchant for Shakespeare. Bliss brings him home, indulges in steamy saliva swapping, then freaks out once she gets him naked in her bed. She flees her apartment sans shirt and shoes at three in the morning, shouting that she has to pick up her (nonexistent) cat from the 24-hour vet. The humiliated Bliss thinks she’s hit rock bottom, but she hasn’t—yet. That comes the next day, when she arrives at class and discovers that the hot British hunk whom she so spectacularly dumped is her new theater professor. Carmack bills her work as “new adult romance with a side of awkward goodness,” and she’s not kidding. Her voice is fresh, flirty, and funny. Her debut novel belongs on the very top shelf of the NA canon along with the rest of Carmack’s “Losing It” series (Keeping It; Faking It; Finding It; and Seeking Her). [Xpress Reviews, 12/14/12.]—Jeanne Bogino (JB), New Lebanon Lib., NY
Grace, Elisabeth. Rumor Has It. CreateSpace: Amazon. (Limelight, Bk. 1). 2013. ISBN 9780992106812. pap. $10.49.
Ellie Wagner has had her 15 minutes of fame and now she can’t escape it. After an embarrassing YouTube video goes viral, everyone knows her face, including the HR manager of the dream job that now she’ll never get. Reviled, humiliated, forced to live with her spaced-out mother, and working as a drudge in a real estate office, all Ellie wants is her obscurity back. She’s not looking for romance, but when a dreamy hunk with a heart of gold enters the picture, Ellie falls—literally—head over heels. There’s a problem, though—Mr. Perfect is Mason Nash, a hip-hop star soon to launch his own reality TV series. Ellie and Mason are utterly captivating, with humor, sensitivity, and hot-as-hell chemistry. Debut author Grace hooks and holds her readers while shining a beacon on the ploys and pitfalls of today’s online culture. The second series entry, Picture Perfect, released in March 2014.—JB
Hoover, Colleen. Maybe Someday. Atria. 2014. ISBN 9781476753164. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781476753171.
Music maker Sydney’s pitch-perfect life falls apart when she discovers her boyfriend cheating with her best friend. Devastated, she moves in with the next-door neighbor, Ridge, whom she’s noticed playing guitar out on his balcony. Everything’s platonic since Ridge has a girlfriend, but something about Sydney strikes a chord deep within him. They begin writing songs together and assure each other that the relationship is strictly about the work, but the attraction between them is on the rise. Soon enough, their connection has moved beyond the music and is approaching a more intimate boundary, one they both know they mustn’t cross. NA staple Hoover (Slammed; Point of Retreat) has done it again, weaving a passionate, powerful, and utterly absorbing tale of betrayal, friendship, and love. The book has its own original sound track, created by Hoover and musician Griffin Peterson, which can be accessed online.—JB
Jackson, A.L. & others. When We Met. NAL. Nov. 2014. ISBN 9780451471925. pap. $14.
This is the first shared-world anthology of NA novellas NAL is publishing. With Jackson, along with Molly McAdams, Tiffany King, and Christina Lee, it features two New York Times best-selling authors, one USA Today best-selling author, and one new talent. Each tells the story of one of four roommates at a university in Michigan.—JJ
McGuire, Jamie. Beautiful Disaster. Atria. 2012. ISBN 9781476712048. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781476712055.
Nineteen-year-old Abby Abernathy is embarking on a new beginning at Eastern University, one she hopes will mark an end to her troubled past. Enter bad boy Travis “Mad Dog” Maddox, the physical embodiment of all that Abby seeks to escape. By day he’s the campus charmer with his quick wit and the smile they call the “panty-dropper.” By night he earns his tuition fighting for money in a clandestine campus ring. He’s all alpha, all about sex appeal and bravado, and all over the virginal Abby, who can’t help responding despite the warning bells he’s setting off. This addictive read is told from Abby’s point of view. But there is a treasure trove of Travis in McGuire’s 2013 follow-up, Walking Disaster, which is told from the oh-so-hot hero’s perspective.—JB
Sanghani, Radhika. Virgin. Berkley. 2014. ISBN 9780425276310. pap. $16.
In this debut novel, Ellie Kolstakis is starting to feel as if she’s the last virgin in London. At 21, she’s convinced she is past her expiration date. Even her doctor has the word virgin emblazoned across her medical records. (So she’s a medical oddity, too?) Ellie’s virgin status has left her feeling like an outcast. She doesn’t know how to flirt with guys at parties. And she doesn’t have the slightest clue how a Brazilian wax differs from a “Hollywood.” Ellie is convinced that there’s a whole world of experience just beyond her reach—and she’s sure that she’ll have to “punch her V-card” to gain admittance.—JJ
Wilder, Jasinda. Falling into You. Seth Clarke. 2013. ISBN 9780989104401. pap. $14.29.
Kyle and Nell grew up together and were best friends since babyhood. It seemed preordained that they should fall in love. They are destined for each other, at least until Kyle’s young life is cut short by a tragic accident. At his funeral, Nell encounters Kyle’s older brother, Colton, for the first time in years. He’s the family black sheep, the bad boy to Kyle’s golden child, but he offers Nell comfort without question or judgment. Two years later in New York, the two meet again. Nell, still haunted by the loss of Kyle, has begun cutting herself to deal with the pain. Colt, having struggled with similar ghosts of his own, sees, understands, and extends a hand to help her through it. Riveting from the very first sentence, Wilder’s poignant, lyrical story of love, loss, and healing addresses tough issues like self-harm and learning disabilities, all swathed in supersteamy sex and infused with romantic passion. Gorgeously written, emotionally powerful, this NA novel will stay with readers for days.—JB
Wolfe, S.A. Fearsome. S.A. Wolfe. 2013. ISBN 9780991019786. pap. $12.95.
Jess graduated from high school at 14, earned a master’s degree from MIT at 19, and, at 20, has a high-powered career as a computer software developer. She works 60 hours a week, but it’s an okay life. A busy life. A lonely, sexless life (yes, she’s a virgin), until she receives the news that a distant relative has died and left her a house in the small rural town of Hera. Jess has no recollection of her great-aunt Gin, but memories come flooding back when she arrives in Hera, especially of the strapping Blackard brothers, who were once her playmates. Younger brother Dylan is flirtatious, fun, and fascinated with Jess, while the elder Blackard, Carson, is more reserved, equally sexy, and just as smitten. Each carries his own set of baggage, each is determined to win her heart, and the inexperienced Jess finds herself falling fast, but for which brother? At its core, Wolfe’s debut novel is about growing up and learning to love, but it also delivers the passionate sex and superstudly heroes for which NA fans hunger. Those who want a bigger helping of Blackard beefcake should check out 2014’s Freedom.—JB
Wood, Heather Topham. Falling for Autumn. CreateSpace: Amazon. 2014. ISBN 9781496191830. pap. $9.99.
When Autumn arrives at Cook University, the last thing she’s looking for is a boyfriend, especially not campus lothario and star running back Blake. She had enough of that kind of guy when she was a popular high school cheerleader with a BMOC boyfriend and part of the in crowd, at least until the betrayal that left her traumatized, ostracized, and homeschooled for the final semester of her senior year. Blake is precisely the type she wants to avoid, but he’s suddenly everywhere, offering the no-strings, nonjudgmental friendship that Autumn so desperately needs. Blake has secrets of his own, though, that could cause Autumn’s past to collide with their future and destroy the fragile love they are trying to forge. With well-developed, likable characters, emotional depth, and a shocking 11th-hour reveal, Wood injects new life into the “girl runs away to college to escape her painful past” cliché with neither a cliffhanger nor a sequel.—JB