"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 kids and the students I saw every day... and then I began doing the research to find an agent.

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

"No one wants to read books with college-aged characters." This was the pronouncement of 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 later, I'd gotten nowhere writing query letters and pitching Between the Lines at conferences. I didn't want to age my characters up or down. I'd also nearly completed a sequel - so I had two books 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 indie publishing. A couple rejections later, I thought: If I'M interested in reading about characters this age, maybe there's a niche market for it... and I indie-published Between the Lines.

That moment right after you click "publish."

I hoped to sell a few books to a few readers who'd enjoy them. I made a Facebook page, joined Twitter, and switched my blog from an anonymous URL to my name, but I didn't actively market or advertise.

I was shocked when I sold a dozen in a 24-hour period during the second week. I was shocked when it began to pick up speed from there. I was flabbergasted when I began getting emails from readers... who wanted a sequel.

So much for "no market."

By the end of 2011 I'd published three novels and was making enough to quit my job to write full-time. I had a story in mind for the final BTL installment, but I began hearing Jacqueline's voice in my head. I woke up with plot lines running through my brain. I heard dialogue when I was in the shower. I tried to push it off until I was done with my series. When that didn't work, I tried to write both at the same time (ha - that lasted about a day). Finally, I shelved BTL #4, and Easy was born.

That niche market I'd found with the Between the Lines books? Well, I found the hell out of it with Easy. Shortly after I published it, 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 of course I added that label to my book descriptions.

But I was writing for readers of edgy/mature Young Adult fiction - older teens, and adults like me who enjoy reading YA. For that reason, I'd kept to the sexuality guidelines of books 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 books 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. Many readers and authors began calling New Adult "sexed-up YA."

But I saw NA as a continuation of YA. The coming-of-age aspect was the most important aspect of the novels I'd written and wanted to write... though yes, love and sex are a big part of that process. I'd written Easy for readers who (1) read Young Adult romance and (2) avoid issues books that they need to read.

 Many readers focused on the romance aspect only - and I was fine with that. But 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 made the point that if we, as authors, continue to allow NA novels to be termed sexed-up YA, they will eventually be pulled under the bookseller heading of Romance. 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 positive it would occur at some point, and now it has. There's no judgment against them in this observation - they're only doing what the majority of NA authors and the market (buyers) are telling them to do.

**EDIT: 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 is proud of its uniquely diverse membership representing all segments of the book industry, including publishers, booksellers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, libraries, trade associations, and others involved in digital and print publishing." 

For authors of fiction (ie: 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 New Adult (and there's no guarantee that the BISG will create a listing for New Adult at all, though this is the hope) it would be listed under FICTION / Romance.**

For many authors, this is celebrating-in-the-street news - and 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. And here is where my epiphany occurred. *insert deep breath* What I wanted doesn't matter.

I had the beginnings of this epiphany after a discussion on Twitter a few nights ago (before Amazon's move). I was informed that my character (Lucas, from Easy) couldn't be included in a "YA" tournament on a YA blog - because "Easy is NA, not YA." I countered that Easy was republished by the Children's Division of Penguin. I mentioned other (traditionally-published) authors who've written YA books with college-aged characters who have sex. I stated for the hundredth time that Easy isn't explicit - because I wrote it as a Young Adult novel.

I didn't care about inclusion in the tournament. Seriously. Not at all.

What I cared about: I was staring the beginning of the end in the face, and I knew it. I never believed NA would get its own category, but I hoped it would eventually get its own section of an existing category. In my mind, there were two possibilities: Young Adult or Romance.

I wanted it to be YA. Looks like that's not going to happen.

So what's my next move? If what I write isn't going to be accepted in Young Adult, and it's not explicit enough to be Romance (ie: my personal expectations when reading a Romance novel), then what I write is in no-man's land. Again.

Time to reinvent, I think. Stay tuned.

Tammara Webber

New York Times and international bestselling author of contemporary romantic fiction