"New Adult" Finds a Home

After college, I became an undergrad academic advisor at my alma mater. I'd loved being on campus as I completed my degree (part-time, in my thirties), so making the transition to working there was a perfect fit. The reason I enjoyed my job was simple: I love people in that typical college age range - the way they think, reason, respond and learn. The level of independence and dependence they attempt to creatively balance. The manner in which they tentatively or wholeheartedly throw themselves into (and out of) relationships.

My oldest child went off to college the same semester I began advising, and his sister started college the following fall. I got the idea for Between the Lines when my son, who's wanted to be an actor since he was ten, was a junior at NYU Tisch. I wrote the novel with 17-21 year old protagonists - like my own kids and the students I saw every day - and then I began doing the research to find a literary agent who might represent me to publishers.

That idea you had about writing college-aged protagonists?
No. Just. No.
Because I'm The Gatekeeper and I said so.

That’s when I began to hear, "No one wants to read novels with college-aged characters." This was a pronouncement from publishers, so of course literary agents followed suit. (In their defense, if they'd tried to buck the system, they'd have ended up with a big client list of unsalable novels. Until, you know, now.)

A year passed. I'd gotten nowhere writing query letters and pitching Between the Lines to agents at literary conferences. I didn't want to age my characters up or down. I'd also completed the first draft of a sequel, so I had two manuscripts that appeared to be dead in the water. After reading an article about indie publishing star Amanda Hocking, my (non-writer) best friend began nagging me about self-publishing. I objected vehemently.

A couple of rejections later, I thought: If I’m interested in reading about characters this age, maybe there's a niche market for it. So I decided to indie-publish Between the Lines, hoping to sell a few books to readers who'd enjoy it. My husband, a former programmer, formatted the interior. I made a very simple cover in MS Paint. I created a Facebook page, joined Twitter, and switched my blog from an anonymous URL to my name, but I didn't actively market or advertise (mostly because I had no idea how to do so).

That moment right after you click "publish."

I was shocked when I sold a dozen digital copies in a 24-hour period during the second week. I was more shocked when it began to pick up speed from there, even making it to an Amazon “New YA Releases” list. And I was utterly flabbergasted when I began getting emails from readers... who wanted a sequel.

So much for "no market."

By the end of 2011 I'd self-published three Young Adult novels and was making just enough to justify writing full-time. I had a story in mind for the final BTL installment, but I began hearing a new voice in my head. I woke up with plot lines for a completely different story running through my brain. I heard dialogue when I was in the shower. I wanted to postpone this new idea until I was done with my series (or forever, because of the subject matter). When that didn't work, I tried to write both at the same time (which lasted about a day). Finally, I temporarily shelved BTL #4, and Easy was born.

That niche market I'd found with the Between the Lines series? I found the hell out of it with Easy. Shortly after I published it (2012), readers began calling it "New Adult," a mystical category between Young Adult and Adult Fiction that didn't exist, though St. Martin's had tried (unsuccessfully) to create it in 2009. I'm no dummy, however; I wanted readers to find my books, so I added New Adult to the description.

Even so, I had written for readers of edgy/mature Young Adult fiction - older teens and adults who enjoy reading YA. For that reason, I'd kept to the sexuality guidelines of novels written for the mature end of the YA spectrum: books like Perfect Chemistry and The Sky is Everywhere and The DUFF. I didn't intend to write straight-up adult romance or I'd have written more explicit sex scenes.

Thanks to the popularity of novels like Beautiful Disaster (which is celebrating its two-year anniversary this month and was termed NA by readers last year), there has been a recent avalanche of novels on the market bearing the label New Adult. And because the characters are technically adults, some writers feel little to no compunction to hold back on the level of sexuality portrayed. Some readers (and authors) began calling New Adult "sexed-up YA."

But I saw NA as a continuation of YA themes with slightly older characters (as did literary agent Kristen Nelson back in 2009: “In other words, it’s not so much about the happily-ever-after, which is the focus for a romance, nor is it about the sex—explicit or otherwise. It’s more about the story that will speak to older teens and twenty-somethings.”). The coming-of-age aspect was an essential aspect of the novels I'd written and wanted to write... though yes, love and sex are often a big part of that process.

 Many readers focused solely on Easy’s romance aspect, and I was fine with that. But as I had deliberately written a story about dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault, I was appalled and saddened when my book was included by name in major media stories labeling New Adult smut.

According to ABC and the NY Times, I write smut for teenagers.

Numerous times over the past year, I've tried to make the point to peers that if we, as authors, continue to allow our novels to be termed sexed-up YA, they will eventually be pulled under the bookseller heading of Romance. And as much as I hoped it wouldn't happen, it's happening... starting with Amazon, which has filed New Adult under Romance. I wasn't sure which publishing entity would ultimately be responsible for making this definitive move, but I was increasingly certain it would occur at some point, and now it has. Nothing against Amazon here. They're only doing what the majority of NA authors and the market (buyers) are telling them to do.

If you're interested in how official book subject headings work, have a look at the BISAC code list, which is governed by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). For authors of fiction (novels), there are only two main headings: Fiction and Juvenile Fiction. Everything else is Non-Fiction. If the BISG was to mimic Amazon's recent categorization of NA, it would be listed under FICTION/Romance. (There's no guarantee that the BISG will create a listing for NA at all, though this is the hope.)

For many authors, Amazon’s move is celebrating-in-the-street news. While I agree that it's nice to have a home, it's not the home I wanted. I wanted to write about 17-22 year olds under the heading of YA. Here is where my epiphany occurred: *insert deep breath* What I wanted doesn't matter.

I had the beginnings of this insight after a discussion on Twitter a few nights ago (before Amazon's move occurred) when I was informed that Lucas (male MC from Easy) would not be included in a YA Book Boyfriend tournament on a popular YA blog despite multiple nominations. Why? Because "Easy is NA, not YA."

I countered that Easy had been republished by the Children's Division of Penguin and its Bisac Code was under Juvenile Fiction. I mentioned other (traditionally-published) Young Adult books with college-aged characters. I stated for the hundredth time that Easy isn't explicit because I wrote it as a Young Adult novel. It had placed second in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2012: Best Young Adult Fiction.

Having Lucas disqualified from this tournament, which might have helped me find new readers, was disappointing. But I was staring a worse truth in the face. The big hope was that NA would get its own category, though I’d doubted that would happen. I’d felt sure, however, that it would eventually get its own section under an existing category. In my mind, there were only two possibilities: Young Adult or Romance.

I wanted it to be YA. Looks like that's not going to happen. Time to reinvent, I think. Stay tuned.

Tammara Webber

New York Times and international bestselling author of contemporary romantic fiction