Pondering “New Adult”

February 1, 2010

Nature abhors a vacuum. Cliché but, like the best clichés, it’s undeniably true. For the past few years, the young adult market has been expanding at a prodigious rate. The shelves at your local bookstore are crammed with stories dealing with everything from misunderstood vampire boyfriends to drug abuse.

There’s just one catch: young adult books seem to top out at age eighteen. Write a character out of high school and you find yourself in a strange no-man’s land. Your themes, pacing and general “feel” might be similar to those found in YA but no one seems to know how or where to place your book. With Twilight readers getting older and more adults reading YA, it’s logical that there should be a demand for slightly older characters. It’s just that no one seems to be filling it.

Those of us with characters in their late teens and early twenties have been left with an awful question: Do we try change the age of our characters (changing college settings to high school if need be) or do we simply cross our fingers and hope for the best?

The latest endeavor from St. Martin’s Press—the notion of a new category called “New Adult” * has had some of us anxiously watching and waiting over the past few months. (Actually, we held hands and skipped in circles crying “POSSIBLE SALVATION”; we’re not exactly a subtle bunch.)

The road ahead for those of us with 18+ year-old protagonists is still long (and still seems to be slopping slightly uphill) but it is a much more exciting journey than it was just a few months ago. Why? Because people are actually paying attention to the gap in a way that they weren’t a year ago.

We’re still veering off the map but if the endeavor for SMP pays off, it may serve as a reminder that taking the road less traveled isn’t always a bad thing.

* Please note that there isn’t currently a “New Adult” category (outside of SMP). If you query, you’re better off sticking to established categories.

Disclaimer: A version of this post appeared on Kathleen’s blog on November 11, 2009. With an eighteen-year-old MC, her interest in New Adult is (almost) purely self-serving.

Photo Credit:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessicagarro/ / CC BY 2.0


  1. It would be a good thing, but for me personally, young adult is about coming of age stories and being in my early 30s, I can safely say the 20s are full of realizations and making mistakes and learning a lot about yourself..then again, I’m not in the publishing industry so I guess I don’t get to say what goes, huh? 🙂
    To me, a good story is a good story regardless of the age of the characters and as a young reader I frequently read “adult” titles over other genres. It taught me a lot and my folks were always ok with it. The only book they ever told me not to read as a kid was Flowers in the Attic (which I sneaked and read anyhow)…but I can see how people today might more closely monitor what their kids read these days.
    Either way, it’ll be interesting to see if this expands to other presses.

    • I think the coming of age element is definitely key. In the book I’ve been querying, my characters are eighteen but just out of high school. They’re learning that BFFs aren’t really forever and the changing dynamic of friendships and trust is a key element.

  2. When I made the transition at that age I had long been reading adult genre. I think it’s another way to sell books. That if we call it new adult that kids will flock to it. I just wonder if they took a poll of graduating seniors who read for pleasure to see if that would truly matter to them.

    • I honestly don’t think the label matters much to the readers. I do wonder if having that label might, however, make it easier for writers to be accepted by publishers and agents.

  3. I loved my college years. For me it was the opportunity to find myself, which wasn’t done in high school. It’s also the first time to live as an adult. I still had angst with relationships and jobs like I did in high school but it was different. I can see a market out there for NA, especially when the ya reader’s of today get to college. Great post.

    • Great point about college. One of the things which seems to separate YA–at least to my mind–is that it is so heavy on self-discovery and coming of age and that the pace is often quicker. To me, that’s what college was like. A fast paced, confusing time when I was trying to figure out who I was.

  4. I’m with you, Kath–I’m glad to see a little hope for the post-high school, pre-moving to New York in a shoe shopping craze, MC. I’d love to see a breakdown of how many teens read YA vs. how many adults, bc honestly, I think the adult tally might be surprisingly high. And even if teens might be less inclined to read too far above their age (although, avid teen readers are known to read adult books quite young), the adult audience won’t have that same issue.

    I’m really hoping this SMP thing takes off!


    • Totally agree with you on the numbers. I think they’re higher than a lot of people realize and climbing. I actually have Twilight to credit with my initial forays into the YA section.

  5. Just curious, is there much “New Adult” fiction where the characters don’t attend college, but go straight from high school to working, looking for work, raising a kid on welfare etc?


    • I haven’t seen any but I have heard people talk about it (I believe it came up during a YA lit chat). None of my characters are in college and my main character is waiting tables.

  6. I actually had this problem with my WIP. My characters were at their first year at university in Britain, and you have to be 18 to be in your first year. So, then I started wondering if it was still YA. In the end, i had to make the characters 16 and pull them back to Secondary school. This affected a great deal of my WIP in terms of setting and character behaviour

    • I’ve actually given thought to that too–the changes I could make if I had to drop my characters ages from eighteen and fresh out of high school to seventeen and still students. – Kathleen

  7. This is a really interesting idea. Some of us are still ‘finding ourselves’ when we’ve left school – even when we leave college. Fiction for these forgotten formative years is a gap that definitely needs filling.

    • I definitely agree. And I think the fact that TV shows and movies have navigated these years quite successfully shows that there is an audience for it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a good example. I think season four–when Buffy was in her first year of university–was actually one of the stronger ones. – Kathleen

  8. Coming of age really happened to me in college when I moved out and had to find my place among my (brand new) peers. In high school, unless you’ve moved around a lot, you’re still with all of the people you’ve grown up with since you were in elementary school. That’s still familiar. You’re not out of your element and really questioning who you are and what you want out of life. 18-22, IMO, is the biggest “Who am I?” phase there is. I’m anxiously awaiting the results from SMP’s foray into New Adult (with fingers crossed).

  9. Okay that term is funny. Shouldn’t new adult come before young adult? But I agree there’s a need for the just out of high school/college-aged genre. Hopefully more publishers will catch on.

    • The name is, I’ll give you, a bit amusing. Still, probably better than the alternatives. – Kathleen

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