"New Adult" — Specious category or market opportunity?

training-wheelsThere has been chatter lately of a new category in publishing, something that people refer to by the breezily condescending handle of “New Adult.” If you haven’t come across New Adult in your daily grazing of the blogs, there was a discussion of it during a twitter YA lit chat a week or so ago, a transcript of which you can read here. (You’ll have to scroll down to 11 November at about nine pm). And there is a pretty cool contest for new writers being run by the brilliant Dan Weiss’s new team at St. Martin’s that ends today, and which you can read about here.

The short of their proposal is this: A “new adult” category of books for high-teen readers through mid-twenties. The distinguishing elements of books in this category? They are concerned with the lives and challenges of this age of readership, but share with Young Adult literature a lightness of style and superficiality of tone and concerns. (Let me be clear: I love teen literature. It’s where I’ve labored for two decades. But teen literature has more modest aims than straightforward adult literature, and that is as it should be.) This audience, it is reasoned, reads a ton of teen literature (they’re the ones who have made the Twilight Saga and the Gossip Girl books crossover successes), and also may find the vast mix of different kinds of literature in general fiction to be too intimidating. They’re the readers of Twilight, sure, but also Catcher in the Rye, and some would argue The Group and Bright Lights, Big City and The Bell Jar and any other book that vaguely fits this new catch-all genre.

But why stop there? Champions for this category are happy to include any book they believe will lend it street cred, so they tap Lorrie Moore and Michael Chabon, but may as well just sweep in the early novels of Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Ann Patchett—we can go on and on. Any book, basically, that may speak to a reader in her early twenties. There is even talk of a special section in bookstores for “New Adults,” where timid readers will be able to go and maximize their shopping time, being spoonfed literature that won’t challenge them too much, won’t strain their newly-developing frontal lobes.

This is a slippery slope, of course, and it’s easy to imagine an absurd Balkanization of bookstores. “Elderly and Disgruntled.” “Stories for Shut-Ins.” “Masculine Asses.” “Pre-Feminist Thinkers.” “Boobs Who Believe Ayn Rand Is the Shit.” Is this really the way we want to infantilize a nation of readers? Isn’t part of growing up about developing your own tastes? About learning what you like and don’t like by being brave and crazy enough to read a book that might not be pre-approved for you? About testing the limits of your comprehension and pushing yourself into books that are uncomfortable? Sure, you’ll escape that Walter Abish novel eventually and go back for a bracing dose of P.C. Cast, but the sampling of stranger things in the general fiction category, why, that’s always seemed to me to be a safe way to sample life itself.

I am all for marketing to early twenty-somethings. There are examples of books that hit that audience like an arrow to a bull’s-eye, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, from the otherwise less-enormously successful MTV Books imprint. But to ghettoize such books in their own category? I know how I would have responded to such a thing as an early twenty-something: I would have run far and fast the other way. Back then, I was deciding for myself at last what was best for me, and I didn’t need any sort of bookstore category to do my thinking for me, thank you very much.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Upstart Crow, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: “New Adult” — Specious category or market opportunity? (http://tinyurl.com/yfzpkef) […]


  2. As we “spoonfeed” our young people more and more, (Some parents are now choosing their college kids schedules each semester, for pete’s sake.)we are creating a generation of people who can’t think for themselves. If you are old enough to be send off to war, shouldn’t you be old enough to read regular, old adult books? I do understand marketing. Of course, publishers will aim for the right audience for their product, but don’t you think putting us all in these categories is a bit Orwellian?


  3. Great post, Michael! The more people are marketed to as if they’re, well, *limited,* the more limited, of course, they are apt to become. (That said, a “Masculine Asses” section might not be the worst idea.)


  4. I have no problems with this category and wouldn’t have minded it when I was in my early 20s, either. We already market lots of products this way–do you know anyone in their 40s who shops at Abercrombie and Fitch? Likewise, I’ve outgrown IKEA furniture, but I liked it when I needed it.

    That Oprah sticker is a secret code for middle-aged woman-suffering-from-ennui-with-a-dash-of-suburbitis on the side.

    But that’s sort of a mean way for me to put it, just as it’s a bit hard on today’s youngish adults to accuse them of not using their brains if they aren’t ready yet for V.S. Naipul. It’s fracking hard to be in your early 20s these days. The kids, in my book, are all right.

    People have a right to find art that speaks to them. To be overly impressed with the literary ambitions of certain books–usually written by white guys who went to East Coast schools–is perhaps as dangerous as being overly impressed with books that sell a brazillion copies.

    For me, it’s the aims of the category that count. There are examples of brilliance at all of the levels and in the various niches, and I wish they all enjoyed equal respect.


  5. Sorry, Martha, but I disagree. If you’re not interested in V.S. Naipul (I’ve never read him), then you just skip that dude and go straight on to something that does interest you. Readers are smart enough to figure out what may speak to them. They may have to do some actual browsing, but c’est la guerre. That, too, is part of growing up.

    Who said anything about “being overly impressed with the literary ambitions of certain books–usually written by white guys who went to East Coast schools”? Not me.

    The kids are all right; they don’t need us to hold their hands well into their twenties.


  6. Oh, en garde! And sorry if I sounded crabby in my post. I’m naturally crabby.

    Why would we want to make it harder for people to find books? Think about other retail models. There are departments in department stores. This helps sell stuff.

    And while I know you, the kind and egalitarian Michael Stearns, would never elevate one type of book above the other, the reality is, the literary world does. The NYT story on the National Book award led with the fiction, went down to the poetry, and eventually found its way to YA. The lede even said “The National Book Award went to…,” as if there was only one award given.

    While I didn’t explain the thought-trail that led me to that statement, it’s sort of hard to deny that a certain type of writer gets on the awards list, gets published in the New Yorker, and so on. These books are typically more of your “thinkers,” but maybe because that’s the stuff we get the most practice thinking in advanced literature courses.

    Anyway, while there are certainly people who hate being categorized and are repelled by such things, I think it’s fine to help the rest find books that might suit them. It doesn’t mean you have to shop there, or that you can only shop in that section, but this demographic and psychographic business is real.

    And now, I’m off to browse among the Masculine Asses. Or maybe in the Cougar Department.


  7. I’m not so much a fan of over-categorization but…I don’t know – for a lot of people, I think a “New Adult” section could be a good thing. I’m still in my 20s and had lots of friends in college who maybe weren’t hardcore readers and weren’t likely to spend lots of time in a bookstore combing through the sometimes-intimidating general fiction section. Teen books were too young for these ladies, and chick lit and Nicholas Sparks (ptooey) only went so far. A section for “New Adults,” however small, could make bookstores more accessible to casual readers like these, and eventually they’d branch out into other sections of the store.

    Plus, in a purely selfish way, I find the idea of “New Adult” intriguing. I recently queried a manuscript to agents where my protag is 20-year-old college student and the setting is a university. I heard more than once that the agent liked the writing but had no idea where she’d be able to sell it. Protag was too old for YA, to young for general fiction. With my new WIP, I find myself doing it again. My writing voice veers toward YA but I’m not drawn to teen characters or high school settings. Anyway, there’s my two cents.


  8. Great posting Michael, I want to shop in your bookstore. Being the curmudgeon I am, I often rail at the lazy masses for choosing to exist in the soft and comfy mainstream. Don’t get me started on technology…. But when I truly become philosophical, I realize that with out a center point, there could be no fringe. There will always exist people who are not satisfied with experiencing only what marketers point them toward.

    In the end, art outlives the sales pitch.


  9. I hear you . . . I’ve bemoaned the dumbing-down of our culture for years. I’ve never thought that categories were good for much, because anything I found worth reading was at least potentially cross-genre. I must learn something or have some insight into the eternal human condition, or I feel I’ve wasted my time in reading a novel. (I’m a freak–everyone already knows this.)

    But!! I welcome this new line and new category because I have several books–GOOD books; I don’t want to hear the lecture from everyone about how if I could just write a better book and stop churning out the illiterate dreck, etc.–that star college students or college-aged characters. Or that have college or a music conservatory as a background (NOT as a major plot element, but as a setting). I’ve always loved books set at college (or in theaters), and I thought that the Harry Potter books might open the market to school-set books, but no. Until last week, I was still hearing that agents don’t know where they could sell a book set at a university, unless it were a cozy mystery (which they don’t want and won’t represent anyway.) And I’ve had lots of “helpful” advice saying that my characters needed to be 26+ for readers to identify with them, as college students “don’t read outside class.” Well . . . I knew there were readers like myself who, as teens, wanted to read about what it would be like to be in college or fresh out of college. And readers who don’t care how old the characters are as long as they charm the readers and tell a rollicking story.

    For a while, chick lit fed this market (IMHO), at least for females. It was typically about a young woman in her first job and/or going to some sort of college or tech school, and it was a coming-of-age as well (not in the sexual sense, usually, but in the sense that she had to learn to stand on her own. At least that was true in the GOOD chick lit, not the junk that got churned out to put between powderpuff covers and that said “if only I could get a man, it’d be OK.”) When the edict came down that “CHICK LIT IS DEAD,” not only did some of my books go into the Twilight Zone, but also I found that there was no place for any new-grad heroine. Illogical, Mr. Sulu!

    Thus I welcome the creation of a new line and category. I’m on the other side from you of that invisible line between the Unwashed Unpubbed, remember, and ANY line that is buying fiction is GOOD. If they are actively looking, YAY! I have novels, polished manuscripts that have not found homes, starring those younger people who’re too old for trad YA but not old enough to interest Oprah’s Book Club and the blue hair crowd. There’s a readership being neglected. Let’s at least TRY to reel them in.

    And who knows? Some of this literature might prove to be Worthy Adult Literature after all . . . it’s just in a Catcher-in-the-Rye setting, or tells the story of a new holder of the Associate of Arts who goes forth to battle dragons and tilt at the windmills of advertising. Let’s give it a chance. ANY new line sponsored by a large NY house where I might make the cut is to be lauded and praised!


  10. I believe the common thread to this blog and your blog of Nov 19th on ‘The Era of Instant Word-of-Mouth’ is they both highlight the challenge of too much information. We are lost in a maze of TMI from a myriad media sources. I confess to being totally lost in a bookstore sometimes. Thus anything that helps to bring some semblance of order to help us navigate, be it a ‘New Adult’ category or be it recommendations by word of mouth or internet is welcomed. I live in hope that high-teen readers through mid-twenties will navigate themselves through the maze to refine their own literary tastes………

    By the way, to help you navigate through the maze of query letters you receive I’d like to recommend one sent by yours truly on Oct 25th.


  11. . . . Munk’s got my vote—so poetic!


  12. This is a total marketing ploy, anything for a demographic to feel catered to and special. Do late teens, early twenties even read for pleasure? Do they have time? I’m going to say “No” since most of the “reader” types in that age range are in college and bogged down with Thomas Hobbes and Tolstoy. I see this backfiring. When I’m in a bookstore, it’s tweens and teens and middle aged adults. I never see “New Adults.” Apologize for all the quotation marks.


  13. I am pleased an American publisher wants this category. Here in New Zealand my book has been on the best seller list for weeks but American houses are passing it because (according to my agent)it doesn’t fit in the YA or the Fiction category because some of my characters are in their late teens and some in their early twenties.

    Here, the book is being read and raved about by both teenagers and adults all the way up to people in the sixties.

    As a secondary school English teacher of over twenty years (and a writer of children’s and YA for 15) I maintain good readers read what ever they want but reluctant readers are often guided by word of mouth and/or direct marketing (a film version often helps as well).
    IMHO (which prob isn’t very humble)
    Dunedin, New Zealand


  14. I’m thrilled about this new category because my book fits perfectly into it, but I’ll be surprised if we ever see a New Adult section at the bookstore. When I was that age, it never would have occurred to me to read anything but adult literature. That’s the age when people read Hemingway and Vonnegut and Steinbeck. At least they used to. Maybe that’s changed.


  15. This i-phone generation wants things fast, snappy, now- they don’t want to wade through stuff meant for grown-up grown-ups. Look at all the new divisions popping up- Simon Spotlight Entertainment for one that already seems to cater to this demographic.

    see here- http://ctscanhollywood.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/why-the-new-adult-book-section-is-needed/


  16. […] these divisions aren’t necessary. Michael Stearns, founder of Upstart Crow Literary, argues here that dividing fiction up this much may become a slippery slope. He points out that in his own early […]


  17. […] So that’s where the name came from. But it didn’t really work like St. Martin’s hoped – publishers didn’t jump on the New Adult bandwagon in 2009, and for years the term New Adult merely floated around the blogosphere as people said “wouldn’t this be nice” and agents and writer’s groups said “no, and please don’t put that in your query letter because its ridiculous.” […]


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