On New Adult

Sailor Boy and I have an old joke based on something we once saw on Felicia Day’s blog, or perhaps twitter feed. Day said something to the effect of “Saw an audition announcement looking for ‘a Felicia Day type.’ Guys, I am a working actress.”

Which I was reminded of this morning when I discovered (via The BookSmugglers) that a discussion had been raging this week throughout the YA world about St. Martins Press’s invention of the “new adult” marketing niche and their contest to recruit writers to write it. What is New Adult, you might ask (and many writers did, on the St Martins Press’s editorial assistant’s blog, on a #yalitchat Twitter discussion dedicated to the topic, and on blogs and forums all over the internets)?

Let me show you some:

Secret Society Girl by Diana Peterfreund

Under The Rose by Diana Peterfreund

Rites of Spring (Break)

Tap & Gown

So according to all those Q&As, which time after time name-checked Secret Society Girl, I’m New Adult.

I’m intrigued by the team at St. Martins’ new mission. Intrigued because my standard answer to the dozens of emails I get every year from aspiring writers frustrated by all the rejections they’ve received from editors and agents calling their college-set books too old for YA, not of interest to adult readers and how did I do it is: it’s not an easy sell. The fact that my book sold in a week and a half after submission in a six way auction is a bit misleading and more a factor of the time period in which we sold the book (YA heating up, adult chick lit winding down, my book straddling the fence) and the subject matter of the book (not just “college” but “secret societies” in a year that The Da Vinci Code was king, and a short six months after 2 Skull & Bones members were vying for the US presidency).

Most of these writers end up revising their books down to high school and selling them as YA. I know one who revised it down to middle school and has a crackerjack MG series going on right now.When I sold SSG, we got rejections from YA houses for being “too old.” Some YA houses offered, and one even offered upon the condition that I rewrite the characters to be 18 year old college freshmen.

Those of you who have read the SSG series (oh, and I wholeheartedly recommend that each and every one of you who hope to write New Adult for St. Martins run out and buy the entire series right away — you know, for research purposes. I only have your best interest at heart) know how vastly that would have changed the tone and storyline.

When I wrote the proposal for SSG, I thought (like all those people who email me) that it was young adult. My agent very wisely realized it could go either way, and the rejections we received from young adult houses bore that out. After we sold it as adult novel, it was developed as such, completed as such, and the series was written with a slightly older audience in mind. If you recall, PREP was really big then. It was a story about a high school girl written for adults.

When SSG was sold and then came out, we were living in a very different literary marketplace. Young Adult as a marketing category to be reckoned with was just starting to heat up. Twilight came out late in 2005 (I sold SSG in April of 2005) and though a bestseller very soon after its release, was not the market juggernaut we know today. In the adult writing community, you were just starting to see established writers jumping the chick lit ship for YA: folks like Jenny O’Connell, Sarah Mlynowski, and Ally Carter. YA was still pretty young. You didn’t see quite so many –if any! — plotlines revolving around marriage and motherhood (hello, Breaking Dawn, Impossible, Ice, A Curse Dark as Gold, Madapple). It was an entirely different landscape.

Chick lit, which has enjoyed an enormous popularity for the first part of this decade, was also just fizzling out. The summer my book came out, marketed as chick lit, Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the aforementioned Prep) called chick lit writers sluts in The New York Times and participated with several other women writers in an ill-tempered anthology mocking and degrading their fellow writers who did write in that genre. Urban fantasy, which has now stepped in as the genre of choice for 20-something women, was barely a blip on the radar. The backlash against “pink books” (my hardcover was pink) was intense, and intensely disturbing for a baby debut author who got shoved into the middle of it and was asked at every interview to respond to the allegations that I was single handedly destroying the face of literature as we knew it. A New York Times bestselling author who gave my book away on her blog on its release date admitted it looked good, if you liked books about shoes. (Though my characters wear shoes — a common trait of characters in books of all genre — I don’t think they ever mention the fact.)

In passing, it’s interesting to me the way that urban fantasy has become the new chick lit. You’ve got the same, young, usually first person, almost always snarky, female voice. You’ve got the twenty-something character usually stuck in a scut job (before she realizes she’s the last in a long line of vampire slayers/werewolves/fallen angels/what-have-you), you have the romantic subplot, and you have the mockable/interchangeable covers (instead of candy colored headless chicks wearing high heels, you have magenta and indigo colored headless chicks in leather pants with swords).

Anyway, Secret Society Girl came out, an adult book in the adult section. Adults read it. And teens read it. Lots more teens, I htink, than anyone expected. It got named in the NYPL’s Books for the Teen Age list. My publisher looked at how well YAs like Gossip Girl and Traveling Pants were selling to the adult market (see, it was heating up) and rebranded my paperbacks with Gossip Girl style covers, hoping to hit a crossover market. They set the price of the trade paperback at a teen-friendly¬† and “I’m living in a fifth floor walk up closet with three friends and eating ramen” post-grad-friendly $10 (except for the fourth one, and that’s a whole other story). Young, post grad, ramen-eating young adults read it. More teens read it. Some adults read it and were totally disgusted that it was not marketed to teens. Some adults read it and were totally disgusted that they thought it was marketed to teens.

In some places, it is. Many of my foreign rights sales were to teen imprints, and the books there are released as young adult novels. This is not unusual, in either direction. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is published as teen here but adult in Australia. Ditto Graceling and Fire (teen here, adult in the UK). Some independent stores here in the U.S. (as well as a few chain stores where they know me) cross promote the books in the adult and YA section. I watch with interest the rebranding of Maria V. Snyder and PC Cast’s old adult novels as YA novels in the new HarlequinTeen imprint, and wonder if that would benefit the series.

And I watch with interest the creation of this new marketing category. “New Adult.” As with the explosion of chick lit in the early part of this decade, there are some YA titles out right now that probably shouldn’t be classified as such. Fire of Fire is a teen, I guess (barely), but I read plenty of “adult” romances where the heroine is nineteen as well, and they aren’t YA for all that. The ubiquitous talk of taking lovers and controlling one’s own landed property and armies and who sired who else’s illegitimate bastard children in Fire just didn’t have a YA feel to me. I mean, Hamlet’s a teen too, you know? (Cf. with Graceling, where you got the sense she was a child under the thumb of her uncle and how the book was about her escaping that). Fire, note, is not published as YA overseas. There are other books out, especially of the “I’m a successful UF writer doing YA UF right now” variety that read just like the adult versions of those authors books, except they say the protag is 16. There are “adult” UFs, like Rachel Vincent’s bestselling STRAY books that read younger to me than some of these new YAs. Faythe starts her journey from grad school.

I suppose that would fall under “New Adult” too.

I am curious to see how this does. I’m curious if, when there’s a place that the target market can go to for books, if it will increase the sales (much like creating a YA place did with YA). (however, it didn’t work for Dorchester’s Shomi line, though that might have been too focused on the niche market of futuristic cyberpunk, and did not have the leather-clad covers that were selling so well for the UF crowd).

I like that when people email me now I can tell them that there is possibly a place for their college-aged protag at St. Martins. Many of their strategies seem familiar to me: lowering the price point on the paperbacks to YA-friendly/ramen-friendly levels, marketing to a crossover audience while shelving in the adult section and hoping teens read up. And hey, if this becomes a thing, perhaps it will widen the audience for my SSG books. I’ve already seen folks going out to buy it because of the online discussions (thank you, St. Martins and everyone else, go check them out!)

And thank you also for making me feel, even for a moment, a little bit like Felicia Day. ;-)

Posted in biz, SSG, writing industry, writing life

25 Responses to On New Adult

  1. JJ says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this! When Dan (my boss) asked if anything already out fit into this category, I immediately thought of your SSG books.

  2. Vivi Anna says:

    Great post Diana.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  4. Interesting post. I wonder if the new adult moniker will catch on. It never made sense to me that there wasn’t a bigger market for books with that age of protagonist. It’s such a pivotal time in most people’s lives. Perhaps all it needed was a name to take off.

  5. Fabulous post, Diana.

    *ahem* Of course, Ana wouldn’t have known about this if it hadn’t been for me bending her ear about it for half an hour yesterday. ;)

    I’m fascinated by this, because I’ve purposely ‘aged-down’ my protag in an on-spec book I wrote. Now I might just put her back where she should be – 19 or so.

    How old is your protag in SSG in the first book?

    Also, the reason I like the idea of ‘New Adult’ is because if it takes off and gets its own shelf space (one day), it would mean cutting through those genre boundaries. That’s what I love about YA: that we can write any and all genres, and still just be shelved under YA. Chick lit next to Mystery next to Fantasy next to Contemporary next to Historical, etc. I really love that.

  6. Now that you point it out… it IS weird that there aren’t more books centered around that late-teen/early adult period. I mean, half of YA kills off the parents or removes them in some other fashion so that it can be a coming-of-age story but many teens don’t struggle with that until they leave their parents house. Maybe this new genre will have more living parents in it too!

  7. Diana says:

    JJ, best of luck with the new acquisitions! One thing that’s nice about SMP is that they’ve got a certain freedom to acquire what they want to. They were the first house that showed interest in SSG.

  8. Diana says:

    Vivi Anna, thanks. I wonder if there is really an untapped market for this, like Maureen McG mentions, or if it’s a challenge to get those people into stores. When I was in college, they worked really hard to drum any sense of reading for fun out of me. I could watch soap operas or sitcoms, but if I was going to READ, it had better be SERIOUS LITERATURE OR ELSE.

    When there was an article about my books in my college newspaper, the journalist passed some copies around her dining hall — the responses, from students who’d done no more than see the cover — were amazingly harsh. they all thought they were too “old” to read it. One said she thought it was written “for 12 year olds.” It was fascinating. You saw the same stuff when chick lit crashed, arguments that no one who was actually in her 20s would read that stuff. Ignoring, of course, that the most famous chick lit book was about Bridget Jones, who was in her 30s.

  9. Diana says:

    Karen, Amy is 21 and finishing up her junior year in college (university) at the start of the series. She’s 22 at the end.

    19 sounds, to me, like YA. There are a ton of YA novels about 19 year olds.

  10. Diana says:

    Cassandra, ironically, I have absentee parents in my adult novels and very present (too present) parents in my teen books. I think that more reflects their situations. The protag of my adult series lives independently of her parents and has for many years — some of her friends however, have to deal with their parents, and parental expectation do form a backbone to many of the plots and subplots in the book (for instance, there’s a gay character whose parents would cut off funding for him to finish school if they found out, there’s one whose parents’ religious beliefs make her struggle with her own faith, whose parent’s extra marital affair makes him loathe to ever be in a relationship, etc.). But the difference is they CAN make the choice to divorce themselves from their parents’ way of life, and suffer some consequences, but it’s a choice they can make.

    Astrid, in Rampant, is a minor. So if her mother wants to pack her off to a nunnery in Rome, it would take legal action to prevent her from doing that. She’s very much under the control of her mother. I feel like that is a huge difference between YA and not.

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  12. Tiff says:

    Fascinating post. I think I was pretty much every demographic you mentioned, Diana. At the time I picked up SSG, I saw it as chick lit. My friend was actually starting a book club around prep school/university/secret societies–so there was definitely a market. She loved Prep, and didn’t really like SSG because she felt it was too chick lit. I was the opposite – kind of loathed Prep (I felt it was just a bad YA book masquerading as an adult book!), and loved SSG. I had gotten back into YA books, sort of ashamedly, and I felt like this was a great compromise – it was a fun book that straddled that YA/adult genre. So I really think the market for “New Adult” is there. It’s sad that I was ashamed of reading YA books, but I think there’s a lot of us like that out there, and maybe the “New Adult” idea will help re-invigorate the adult fiction genre.

    The really interesting thing is what you say about how college beats “reading as fun” out of you. In grad school, when I started realizing that I wanted to study YA books, I had very supportive profs, but really dubious colleagues. No one knew what YA fiction was, no one thought it was a “serious” genre, and no one thought it needed to be studied. But everyone I knew was watching Gossip Girl, had watched Buffy, the OC, and Veronica Mars. It was like English literature was some sacred thing where no one could ever read or study anything that wasn’t “important.” So, of course, the second one gets out of college, one stops reading because reading has been so “important” and such a job for the past four years. And I think that’s where adult fiction is losing readers. Reading for fun becomes a kind of foreign concept. When you go out to brunch with those post-grad friends, and you talk about books, people don’t want to talk about the Dan Browns because, of course, you can’t learn anything from that (and don’t even get me started on YA books). It’s better not to have read anything at all than to have read something “trashy” or something off the bestseller list/front table of Chapters (or Borders, or Barnes and Noble). It’s a snob/hipster/intellectual attitude that’s been coming to the forefront of everything lately. And I really think that attitude, the one that starts in university and continues through the mid-twenties, is what puts adult fiction in such a rut. It’s that someone or something dictates what’s good and what’s not, what’s worthy of attention, and what’s not worthy. Dave Eggers is “good” literature, Haruki Murikami is “good”, but Audrey Niffenberger is “bad”. Why? I think maybe this is the conundrum that “New Adult” is trying to solve (and book clubs, because that’s when people sort of start despairing that they’re not reading at all, and then they read book club books and start to realize that reading DOESN’T have to be SERIOUS). I’m not sure “New Adult” is necessarily the right way to re-brand this genre, but I think that the idea of trying to change that mindset of “reading must be important and serious” to “reading can be fun, and you can learn from almost anything you read, and you don’t have to be ashamed” is so laudable. It’s a huge task, but I think it’s a great idea.

    Sorry for the long post. And congrats, Diana, on being a trendsetter. =)

  13. Diana says:

    Tiff, your Canadian is showing. ;-) Audrey Niffenegger “Bad” seals it. Americans, if you think genre snobbery is bad here, try Canada. It’s insane.

    Honestly, I don’t know if NA as a genre category has a future. The only other publisher I know who tried is out as an imprint failed. If you look at the Booksmugglers post on the subject, the comments there show what kind of response READERS are going to have to the issue. (Hint: do not even intimate to a bunch of twenty-somethings they aren’t “ready” for “real” adult literature.)

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  15. Tiff says:

    Ha! That might be true about my Canadian-ness. I think it’s more true of my age. Like you said, Diana, twenty-somethings don’t want to be told that they need a literature that’s not as “mature” as the adult genre. In university, every next person is extolling the virtues of Faulkner and Hemingway and Sidney. After that, Niffenberger and Arthur Golden are like fluff (and don’t get me started on books like Prep). I don’t think that’s just a Canadian thing, I think it’s a post-grad thing, and it takes a lot to overcome. Wondering if there are any university courses teaching Niffenberger yet…

    I think the problem is the branding and genre title of “New Adult.” Best make it into more of a niche genre, and VERY CAREFULLY explain that genre in a way that does not denigrate its target audience or the adult genre. I like the idea of it, though, because it somehow legitimizes reading for fun, especially for an age group that has literally had “reading for fun” beaten out of it. All I’m saying is that it’s much bigger than just creating a genre–”New Adult” will have to change those mindsets and deal with a lot of criticism of its own legitimacy, and the necessity of putting certain authors into the confines of its genre, in order to succeed.

  16. Diana says:

    Good point, Tiff, and soemthign I saw a lot this weekend.

    My Canada point was about the comparison you struck between Eggers and Niffenegger. I think she’s very respected as an author of literature down here. My canadian genre writer friends say that Canada is much harsher on them than the states. Because of the existence of Canlit, you see. We don’t have that here.

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  18. Cassandra Yorgey says:

    I quite liked the amount of mother-interfering in Rampant. I rather suspect more teens identify with having an overly protective and embarassingly interactive mother than growing up an orphan.

    Also, OK FINE YOU WIN. I will read SSG. Even though it doesn’t have any unicorns. *adds to Reading List*

    I often wonder if the problem with Young Adult (and now New Adult) is not that people don’t want to read that type of story, so much as we just keep giving the genres stupid names. I vote we change the YA section to the “Literary Fantasy” section and see how it affects sales.

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