Putting the A in YA

Last week I had an interesting conversation about “New Adult” with the author of this article, “Where Are All The Young “Adults?” She lamented – with good reason – that there is nothing for her to read that’s written specifically for her, at age 22. The closest a genre has come to successfully targeting those in their early twenties is the sub-genre Chick Lit in the late ’90s/early ’00s. Twentysomething males or women looking for something in a different genre were out of luck. I understand why the 18-25 crowd is frustrated with their lack of options, and their confusion over why Young Adult doesn’t include them.

YA is a sub-genre of fiction written specifically for (and starring) high school aged teens. If they are out of high school, the book is not a YA. (Note: There is some leeway with freshmen in college and 18-year-old protagonists, but those are on a case-by-case basis, and truthfully, if you want the book to be marketed as YA, you better have a darn good reason for making them that old.)

I wish YA was called something else (Teen Lit, perhaps?). For one, the name implies that the intended audience are adults. They’re not. Teens are what happen before adulthood and after childhood. I mentioned before that the term “teenager” didn’t come into the mainstream lexicon until the 1950s, and it took almost 40 years for YA – as a genre name – to have its own section in a bookstore. That’s a long time to wait for recognition, and as we all know too well, YA – even in its Renaissance Period of today – barely gets the respect it deserves.

Bringing me to “New Adult,” a sub-genre of fiction trying semi-hard to exist in the post-YA, pre-adult marketplace for those between the ages of 18 and 25. I am all for this. The college experience, figuring out grad school, jobs, not living off your parents, etc. are hard to deal with and they are certainly not “adult” concerns.  They deserve their own literature. So why hasn’t it caught on yet?

To me, there are two reasons why New Adult isn’t a marketable genre, and why it probably won’t be for at least another ten years. 

Theory #1: Before “teenager” came into the lexicon, there wasn’t a need to think of them as something different. Pop culture hadn’t given them a voice yet. They didn’t have rock ‘n roll or heartthrobs or beach movies being marketed directly to them. The concept of marketing to teens separately from adults and children was something that lasted well through the ’80s. But then, the ’90s happened and the “twentysomething” was born. (OK, well technically they were born in the ’70s, but you know what I mean.)

Teens were still being directly marketed to, but now another group of people had their own language and pop culture – Gen X. They read books by Bret Easton Ellis (found in the adult section) and watched movies like Slackers and Dazed and Confused. “Grown-ups” didn’t understand them, and teenagers only looked admiringly at them from afar (like I did).

This idea of an extended adolescence wasn’t something that previous generations had the privilege of experiencing. Gen X was the first generation to come out of the Baby Boomers. Many of them were the first of their families to go to college, have a choice other than marriage or military, and live without mortgages and jobs and car payments just a little bit longer. 

When you think of how long it took for YA to become a genre after teenagers were finally given a name, New Adult even being discussed as a possibility feels like progress. Even a “Big 6” publisher has started looking for titles under that heading. Knowing this, I don’t think New Adult will take quite as long as YA to get recognized by the masses. The fact remains, however, that it’s not a sub-genre that exists yet.

When I get queries for New Adult, I’m torn. I can either request it, knowing I’m only going to tell the writer to make it older or younger. Or, I end up rejecting it if I know the story can’t be older or younger. As much as I think New Adult should be a genre, I know there’s nothing I can do about it all by myself. Writers can’t write for a marketplace that doesn’t exist, and agents can’t sell to a publisher if the publishers can’t sell it to a bookstore. So, for now, that 20-year-old protagonist who’s still in college who you think teens should read about is going to get placed in the general adult fiction section of most major bookstores.

Theory #2: Like I said, New Adult will happen eventually, but the fact remains that it will need to sell in order to prove itself. And, well, I’m skeptical. I think New Adult is great in theory, but as someone who’s no longer in that 18-25 age range, I speak for only for myself when I say it’s unlikely I’d look in the New Adult section of a bookstore to find something to read. While I make exceptions to any genre I’m not particularly drawn to, New Adult holds very little interest to me. So, why? After all, I read YA.

For one, maybe there’s just not enough distance between my current age and the New Adult age, so I’ve had less time to feel nostalgic for it. (And egad! Why on earth would anyone want to re-live being 22??) But I don’t read YA because I’m nostalgic for high school. I read YA because of the emotions it evokes, and knowing that the human experience at that age is pretty universal.

It’s true that not everyone goes to the same type of high school, or even goes to high school, but everyone goes through puberty. Everyone feels what it’s like to not understand any of your emotions or why they are suddenly happening all at once or why hugging your parents is much more embarrassing than it was the year before.

With New Adult, there is no universal experience. Within the genre, there are too many niche markets to consider, which makes it that much harder to place. Not everyone goes to college or makes the same choices when entering adulthood. Even within the group who goes to college, the experiences differ in ways that are much more polarizing than going to different high schools. No matter what kind of high school you went to, we were all forced to take the same general courses or participate in the same extracurricular activities. 

The Gen X definition of twentysomething created the template for the next generation, but it’s still considered a privilege to go to college, to live off your parents, to have an extension on avoiding adulthood. If you ask the person who opted to get married and have kids right after high school, or even right after college, their experience of being a New Adult will look a lot closer to what those who chose to wait consider Real Adult.

So, then, is New Adult really “College Lit?” That creates an even smaller market. There’s a reason “The College Years” of high school TV shows fail. There’s just not enough people who care. The original teen audience can’t relate, the adults out of college think of it as too young, and the actual target audience is too busy being in college, working, or starting families to watch TV or read for fun.

To current 18-25 year olds, I know this sucks for you. It’s not your fault you’re the 1st group of New Adults to exist after Gen X (unknowingly) gave you a name. And it’s not your fault no one thought of creating books for you, anticipating your arrival. 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. 
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34 thoughts on “Putting the A in YA

  1. I only recently discovered this category–between YA and regular adult–and it's very exciting. I've been at a loss as how to describe my “Acceptance” trilogy, as the protagonist is 16, but due to the fantasy element, is actually balancing between childhood and adulthood. She is, in her culture, legally an adult, but in American culture still a minor. She actually has to appear in a court to determine whether she is competent to make decisions for herself.

    The book is, I thought, too violent and (later) too sexual to be called YA, but, at the same time, it's probably not going to appeal to older people (although my beta readers were all nearly 50 years old or older, and they liked it). I think “new adult” is a good fit for it.

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  2. I don't think the idealization of youth will ever end. The Greeks embraced it and we still embrace the culture of youth today. The young hero is universal.20 something or late teen heroes will always be with us no matter what marketing gurus call the books they live in. Youth sells always.

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  3. I had no idea this demographic existed. When I wrote my book, I categorized it as an adult space opera. I was shocked to find that it was most popular among the “New Adult” demographic. The readers are out there and they are struggling to find books written for them.

    Thanks for the insight. You've given me something to think about.

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  4. YES!!!! You are so right. The literary world defines YA = 12-18. WRONG!!!

    TV demographic groups are: K2-11, T12-17, A18-24, A25-34, A35-44, A45-54, A55-64, A65+.

    The people in the A18-24 group are the ones that are missing out. No sex for the literary YA as the protagonists have to belong in that age group. OK some fumblng and searching if in the older range. But the NA are neglected literature wise as there is no group for them, and writers can't target their books for them. especially romance.

    People that age do not always want to read the same sort of stories that someone over 25 does.

    To many in that age group, sex is a mystery that they want to explore. A lot are virgins who want to experiment. Many do not want the white picket fence, wedding ring and kids (Yet). They want to explore life, find out who they are, rebel. Yeah, some of these themes are in YA but the protagonists in YA are too young for them to identify with. It's a different type of learning at that age too so the themes would be different. Struggling to cope alone for the first time, balancing work and play.

    Often kids this age don't want sex in their stories (I have 25 year old twins girl and boy with long time BF and GF) and know this for a fact). True a couple of their stories but not every one. They can get adventure and fantasy stories but that's it.

    TV caters for them but literature doesn't. So YES there is a crying need for books that will appeal to them but no classification. Ask a librarian.

    I will be watching this development with interest, though, as the rest of my Saa'ar Chronicles will be aimed at this age group. The first book was too, but as the protagonists were older, it had to be sexed up to appeal to the older readers.

    “Twilight” at least catered for this market and see how popular that was.

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  5. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I posted my feelings over at Verla Kay's boards in answer to a question of whether protagonists just out of high school are “allowed” to be YA (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?topic=59270.0 if you're interested). I think the conundrum that publishers are going to have to solve, in conjunction with booksellers, is the labeling and marketing. Having a new section in the bookstore just sounds stupid and divisive. By the time I was 15 or so, I was happily reading both YA and adult (and still am, because I'm now working on an MA in children's and YA literature), but I felt embarrassed if I spent too much time lurking in the YA section, and I was also curious about the experiences of people older than me, because at least when you're young, you tend to read up. And I hated that my only options for that were WASPy chick lit novels, because they were formulaic and simply not about experiences that I had had or was going to have.

    New Adult needs to exist in that people need to publish those stories. Aside from all the great reasons you mentioned that I won't reiterate, there's also the fact that NAs are in creative writing programs in which they're pigeonholed into writing short stories (which no one reads) instead of novels about older people, because that's all they're allowed to write. So maybe if the market encouraged them (so many issues with the unrealisticness of creative writing programs in general, but that's neither here nor there), we would get *quality* NA novels.

    That said, I think it would end up being expensive, not useful, and a disservice to writers if it was shelved as such or if new imprints were created for it. Publishers should encourage those stories and market them the way they market any other good story, and then they should be shelved in a sort of crossover fashion, sitting mostly in the adult section and being published in whichever adult imprint the publisher wishes, but perhaps also highlighted in the YA section.

    But this might be wishful thinking.

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  6. Well, this is a wakeup call for. My book Candyflip is about a group of ravers in their early twenties. The explicit sex scenes are not suitable for a YA novel. The tone and subject matter will appeal to YA readers who also shop Adult.

    I do agree that New Adult is a section most readers over thirty won't visit. I love Bret Easton Ellis, and would not look for him in a New Adult section. He belongs in Adult Fiction.

    This wannabe author's perspective: Adult Fiction is a tumultuous sea filled with too many boats trying to navigate towards Best Seller island. Which means my writing and marketing better be damn good to keep afloat and not end up in the bargain bin.

    Thanks for this post. I'll be sure to NOT list my manu as New Adult. Commercial Fiction will do just fine.

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  7. I agree with a lot of your thoughts. I wonder why we need the distinction; some of those books exist, so I feel like people will find them if they want to. Maybe the larger issue is people want to write those books but they aren't getting published. I've read on blogs it's a hard sell for this age group. Maybe because it's so narrow and so many college agers are reading for school rather than “fun.” ???

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  8. Great post. You've made a lot of insightful comments and observations. It's got me thinking about a lot of things, which I hope to blog about this week (possibly tomorrow).

    There's just one little thing I wanted to respond to directly at the moment:

    “With New Adult, there is no universal experience.”

    I respectfully disagree. I mean, just as puberty, or a change in attitude toward parents, are common experiences for teens, there ARE things that are somewhat universal about your twenties. You are expected to get a job and become a “productive member of society” (whatever that means). You have hormonal changes AGAIN (i.e., coming out of puberty). There are a whole set of universal experiences and emotions at any developmental stage, and the point of literature is to explore and share the many iterations of that. To show the common humanity between the 19-year-old unwed mother, and the 24-year-old investment banker, and the 22-year-old solider in Afghanistan.

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  9. I feel your agony. I wrote a novel about a twenty-something werewolf trying to find herself, and now I have no luck marketing it as YA or adult. And when I try to sell it as “New Adult”, I just get weird looks. *sigh*

    The annoying part is, when you think about it, it's so ridiculously irrelevant. I know teens who read adult books, and adults who read YA, so it's like… who cares in the end, really?

    (My query is in your inbox right now, if you're interested. ~_^ )

    -LupLun
    Shooting for the Moon

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  10. The novel I just finished and the one that I will be writing for NaNoWriMo both focus on women in their early twenties. I've also been a bit frustrated at the lack of literature specifically for this age group, but had never given it too much thought. I figured I was always just looking in the wrong places!

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  11. As soon as I was out of high school, my reading pretty much stopped. Life got busy and I wasn't riding a school bus any more.

    I notice a lot of book bloggers who review YA are new mothers.

    I'm guessing the years between graduation and first kid are when women do the least amount of reading. (Totally my unscientific guess!)

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  12. Great post. I've heard the “new adult” term be tossed around here and there over the past few years, but as you say, it's not taken off yet. Another reason (which you addressed in regards to TV shows) that I think it hasn't really set the world on fire yet is b/c the NA's are ridiculously busy. I'm an insane reader, but my college years saw almost zero pleasure reading. By the time I'd done coursework reading, I was brain-fried and eye-strained.

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  13. Awesome post! I want to write for this genre as well. I love to read classics (as any serious wannabe published author should) and I don't mind reading young adult stuff. But I want to write about the challenges that my age group faces. There are good stories there that are being drastically changed because we don't have a market. I think there is a market out there. I might not like e-readers much (love the old book smell) but if that's where I have to write to sell, I guess I'll be writing for e-readers. I hope more writers write for this audience as well. The more that do, the fasterthe genre will be recognized and embraced by publishers.

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  14. I've been struggling with this issue for a while now. One of my novels features a protagonist in college. The story really doesn't work if she's any younger or older. It's frustrating to bump up against these artificial walls.

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