The Future of YA: Is older YA turning into ‘New Adult’?

This isn’t a new debate, but what’s got me thinking about it recently are two main things:

1. Julia Lawrinson’s Losing It, which is frank, honest, groundbreaking (and beautifully written) exploration of female sexuality
2. Hardie Grant Egmont’s Commissioning & Managing Editor Marisa Pintado’s speech at The Emerging Writers’ Festival publishing trends session, where she explored the new genre of ‘New Adult’

For those unaware, the theory is New Adult follows on from where YA drops off and covers issues facing those in early to mid-twenties: sex, drugs, alcohol, university, graduate jobs, relationships, independence and so on.

Those issues deemed too old for traditional YA, but too young for adult books.

This is something I think about a lot, especially when I hear rumours of publishers who might change details of a manuscript to fit either YA (lowering ages, removing some of the more ‘gory’ themes) or into more mainstream adult fiction (upping the age etc).

This is of concern to me because in my manuscript, the main characters start at 18 (year twelve) and go on to 20 years old. It has mature themes, and, in my opinion, not suited for persons under sixteen. (As I keep telling my aunt, who keeps telling me she can’t wait to give it to my cousin to read. Who is twelve.)

So my primary concern is simple: if this New Adult category is too new, or won’t take off, it leaves me in a tricky situation.

The best news is, though, is that it seems recently more publishers are willing to publish ‘risky’ YA. Take Penguin with Lawrinson, and, of course, Hardie Grant Egmont.

I remember their outlines for the Ampersand series, and it’s clear – if they are anything to go by – that these books won’t be fluff.

I really like this article from the research journal of the Young Adult Library Services Association, where they discuss, primarily, sex and sexuality in YA literature.

Pintado too touched on this at EWF, saying,
“My third and biggest concern about the New Adult category is that in saying certain themes and content are too mature for a teenage readership, we’re at risk of allowing gatekeepers to limit the scope of what teenagers themselves are “supposed” to read, especially when it comes to sex. If you read YA, you will notice that teenage protagonists generally don’t drink, do drugs or sleep around, unless they’re in crisis mode or something bad will happen as a result – exceptions to this are few and far between.”

I whole-heartedly agree with Pintado; in fact, her entire speech was a fantastic study into the New Adult genre.

For years, I too have wondered about the lack of realistic representation of those tough topics in YA.

Is this actually helping anyone? Wouldn’t be better for teens to be able to read about these issues rather than see over-dramatic Hollywood movies or pornos?

I had to laugh during Pintado’s speech where she commented,
“What worries me is that while sex is a dirty word, few people seem to be that worried about violence in YA. Teenagers can murder each other in the Hunger Games, rip each other’s throats out in Twilight, enslave mutant children in Michael Grant’s GONE series, but it’s SEX that’s the problem.”

(I laughed because the situation is obvious, ridiculous and so true.)

When it’s put like that, surely it seems a little preposterous to think that people have a problem with sex – a natural part of any (teenage/adult) human’s life – yet people murdering each other is A-OK! In fact, sign us up for some more! Blood, guts and gore seems to be a reoccurring theme lately.

Again to bring up the Ampersand series, but that’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited about it: realistic contemporary issues in YA books. I can’t wait.

There’s another fantastic article written by a Curtin Brown associate literary agent, Sarah LaPolla. I think I might have linked to it before here because I’ve certainly read it more than once.

She identifies the real gap in the market (hell-o people wanting the next big thing!) for literature for 18-25 year olds, yet laments that if a New Adult manuscript turns up on her desk, she’ll either reject it or ask the writer to change the main character’s ages.

LaPolla makes a pretty compelling argument for why she doesn’t think New Adult will work, and ends with saying that “someone needs to be the pioneer, and unfortunately that someone is going to be you. Write stories about your experiences, as different and as wide-ranging as they may be. Give us something to listen to, and we’ll respond. We might just take a while.”

Of course, there are many similarly fantastic articles on the topic:

New Adult Fiction – the missing genre?
New Adult Genre
New Adult: The Misfit Genre
New Adult? A genre too far?
YA Fiction and the New Adult Category: What Horror Awaits?

After reading all these articles, I’ve come to some conclusions:

  1. People (okay, bloggers) seem to agree there’s a gap in the market and want some books that cover those issues: moving out of home, university, serious relationships and so on
  2. Publishers also agree there’s a gap, but seem skeptical about actually bringing some books out in the New Adult genre (or, older YA or younger adult)
  3. Everyone seems uneasy about it and unsure of the future

Since this is the Future of the (YA) Book, I figure it would be a good chance to delve into it.

Pintado raises some excellent points about New Adult fiction, than can be (no doubt poorly) summarized into the following:

Why do we need New Adult?

  1. When the book sits in that awkward spot of too old for YA but too young for adult
  2. Many YA feature romance, but not sexual romance plots. (Which is alarming, because how many teens are sexually active (a lot) and how many watch porn (also a lot) so how many would benefit from an even-handed look at sex in books? (All of them))

 Why is New Adult a good idea?

  1. It gives publishers a way to capitalize on that crossover potential between YA and adult readers
  2. The category would help booksellers and librarians find age-appropriate material for their readers

So why is Pintado skeptical?

  1. It’s a marketing ploy
  2. “Publishers of New Adult fiction want to shelve it in the adult section, because the characters are technically adults so at the end of the day, what does it have to do with YA? Why not just publish more fiction that reflects the lives of people in their twenties and thirties?”
  3. Finally, her biggest concern is what I mentioned above: “My third and biggest concern about the New Adult category is that in saying certain themes and content are too mature for a teenage readership, we’re at risk of allowing gatekeepers to limit the scope of what teenagers themselves are “supposed” to read, especially when it comes to sex. If you read YA, you will notice that teenage protagonists generally don’t drink, do drugs or sleep around, unless they’re in crisis mode or something bad will happen as a result – exceptions to this are few and far between”

As for me?

I think something has to be done, because we are alienating the 18-25 year olds who are too old for YA and too young for adult books about babies and mortgages.

I think unless publishers start taking more risks and pushing YA up to include up to 25 years old (and therefore stories about university, sex, drugs, alcohol, graduate jobs and so on), this is a gap in the market that I think should be filled.

It’s difficult, though, because YA does cover readers as young as ten – and reading about sex and drugs certainly isn’t good for 10 year olds. But how can you balance it when YA also includes 18 year olds (and potentially 25 year olds)? It’s such a wide, varied genre.

I also do think that New Adult is simply nothing more than a marketing term, and readers don’t care about what genre is it.

Furthermore, I think that New Adult is a way for publisher’s to capitalize on the booming YA market (personally, I say why the hell not. If it’s working, go for it. I love YA and if it means more and more books are published in the genre/in New Adult genre than I’m all for it).

(I should also disclose I’m right in this very age group – I’m 24 – and also navigating all the issues raised above, and it would be nice to have it reflected in my reading materials.)

And, selfishly, I’m worried for myself and my manuscript as I’m going to have a hard time finding it a home.

What about you? Do you think a New Adult genre could work? Why/why not? If you are aged between 18 and 25, what do you read?

This post was written as a part of the Words in Winder @ Future Bookshop Residency.

8 thoughts on “The Future of YA: Is older YA turning into ‘New Adult’?

  1. Hello!

    I agree, wholeheartedly! I remember thinking about this idea (without the very apt ‘New Adult’ label to articulate it with) when I read Melina Marchetta’s ‘The Piper’s Son’ (my review: http://bit.ly/M3yif1)

    That book, in particular, struck me as something quite new and interesting because it seemed to be straddling the line between Adult/Young Adult. It’s told from the perspective of two characters – one in his early 20′s, and his aunt who is in her early 40′s. It was categorized as YA – but I think Marchetta was very aware that lots of her readers from ‘Alibrandi’ days are grown-ups now, and the book definitely had an older-reader appeal (and was brilliant for the contrast and similarities between the older/younger generations).

    I definitely think there is an age-gap in the YA genre. And the place you see that gap being filled at the moment is in self-publishing (those who can take bigger risks with these malleable genre mash-ups?) I think Jamie McGuire’s ‘Beautiful Disaster’ is very much of the ‘New Adult’ genre – about 20-something’s in college, with explicit sex scenes – the book is pointedly marketed for “Mature Young Adults”.

    And I think part of the reason readers want ‘New Adult’ books is because the entire young adult genre has really exploded and gone beyond its readership (to the point that ‘Harry Potter’ was re-sold with more serious, adult covers and there are ‘Twilight Moms’ who got stuck into the Stephenie Meyer books, along with their kids). Where once young adult books were very much segregated by readers, now they’re so popular (and often the summer blockbusters – hello, ‘Hunger Games’!) that they’re all-inclusive …

    I definitely think the young adult genre is an adaptive one – and will make room for ‘New Adult’. I mean, the ‘young adult’ genre didn’t even exist really until the 1950′s – thanks partly to savvy marketing, but also because books like ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ were written for adults – until the ‘under 30′ generation appropriated them as voices of *their* generation – along with ‘The Outsiders’. I think, like in the 1950′s, it may come down to readers leading the revolution and letting publishers know that there is a new age-bracket and specialized genre that needs to be catered to.

    Great post :)

  2. As a little P.S. – what might also hurry this genre along for publishers is the statistics showing that people in their 20′s are living at home longer (so we’re even less ready for mortgages, weddings & babies since we’re ‘stuck’ in the nest … a perfectly good reason why we still think the ‘young adult’ genre is still relevant to us – but needs more mature themes and content).

    Was thinking of this article, ‘Generation stuck at home’, specifically: http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/life/generation-stuck-at-home-20120611-205nv.html

  3. Very interesting. I want to hate New Adult because it does seem gimmicky. But I haven’t yet convinced myself.

    I don’t think that you can argue YA is for readers as young as 10. I’d say it ranges from about 14 to 18. Ish.

    But my biggest problem is that I wonder if we try to put an age restriction on it, try to pigeonhole YA as “belonging” to a specific age group – even if “New Adult” is trying to extend that – maybe it will mean limited and restricted stories, themes, perspectives etc etc.

    I’m all for anything goes, if it’s written well, engages readers and offers a unique view on the world.

  4. Great post!

    I expect New Adult will become a fully functioning genre sometime in the next few years. Twenty years ago, YA didn’t even exist. Books went straight from MG to Adult and books with high school characters were normally published in the “adult” section.

    I have read a few YA books with college age characters but not many. I think the extreamly large number of YA books with characters that attend boarding school is a result of authors lowering the ages of their characters to fit the YA mold. Many of those books would make more sense set on university campuses not prep school campuss.

    All it’s going to take is one or two big bestsellers in the New Adult age range for publishers and bookstores to jump in completely. Who knows, maybe yours will be one of those books.

  5. Hi Megan,

    I find your blog really interesting, as I had only recently started thinking about how I’m struggling to find books that I want to read that can fit into my age group. I’ve discovered that I’m way too old for the issues in YA fiction and am getting tired and bored with teenaged angst, but I can’t quite bring myself to bother with adult fiction because I can’t relate to any of the characters yet, so from my perspective I think it is true that there’s a gap in the market for literature for 18-24 year olds.

    I’ve found that some of my favourite fiction for people my age is only really in the form of original fiction that is being posted in blog format on the internet, but it’s not really the same as novels because they’re rarely complete and part of what makes them enjoyable is the discussion surrounding the progress of the work, and where it’s going, because it’s being written by people in the 18-24 range who are discovering writing for the first time and I feel I end up relating more with the author, rather than with completed work itself.

    I look forward to hearing more about New Adult in the future. Thanks for the article,


  6. Frankly, the whole Teen / YA / New Adult branding is a bit of a non-issue, because teenagers are going to read whatever they want to. If anything, telling teenagers that something is inappropriate to read is just going to make them want to read it more!

    These labels are more designed for parents who might want to avoid giving their pre-teen kids something they might not be ready for yet. However, at the end of the day, a teenager can walk into a bookstore, or a library, and pick out any book they like. Including those from the adult fiction area. And they do.

  7. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the new adult genre debate. I believe there is a gap in the market and I think it would be helpful to actually have these books shelved separately in bookstores so people who are specifically looking for books like this can find them. And as my own novel falls into this category, I also want it to exist for selfish reasons!

    I’ve decided to self publish my novel because I believe there’s a market out there for it and perhaps if many of us achieve independent success with these books, traditional agents and publishers will take notice. My launch date is end of October, so getting pretty close – very exciting!

    P.S. Thanks for linking to my post! That’s how I found my way here. :-)

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