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What is New Adult Fiction, Anyway?

by Molly Wetta

*This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of RA News. Subscribe to RA News and any of our other newsletters.*

Chances are, if a patron approaches the reference desk and asks to be directed to the “new adult” fiction, she means the recently released adult fiction, as opposed to the new young adult or children’s literature shelves.

But it’s possible the patron has seen a feature on ABC News or read a piece in The New York Times or even a post on their favorite book blog about New Adult fiction. Even those who have been following the trend and are familiar with this emerging publishing category might be stumped about what kind of books to suggest, because the understanding of what falls within this category is still in a state of flux.

What do we mean by “New Adult”?

Though books about the beginning of adulthood and librarians have a history of targeting older teens, “New Adult” as a separate category is a recent phenomenon. The term originated with a writing contest hosted by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, but really began to gain credence in 2012 when many independently published New Adult novels began to appear on bestseller lists before being picked up by traditional publishing houses. Generally, New Adult fiction encompasses books that feature protagonists in the 18-25-year-old age range (sometimes this is stretched to 30), and many popular titles feature college students in contemporary settings.

This fledgling category is a result of the perceived dearth of novels featuring characters in a post-adolescent but not quite adult phase of life, as well as the growing trend of young adult “crossovers,” or YA novels that also appeal to an adult audience. These novels aim to bring the emotionally-intense story lines and fast-paced plotting of young adult fiction to stories that focus on a new range of experiences in life beyond the teenage years.

Hallmarks of New Adult fiction include first-person narration, dramatic, soap-opera like plots, and characters with “issues” ranging from history of abuse, anger management issues, and troubled family lives.

New Adult fiction has been a reader-driven trend, and particularly popular with readers who prefer e-books. The low-prices and word-of-mouth advertising has catapulted many independently published books onto bestseller lists. Traditional publishers have noticed, and more of their titles are being marketed as New Adult.

The publishing world continues to debate the nature of and need for the category, but what does that mean for librarians? Should it have its own space, separate from adult and young adult fiction collections, or should it be spread between the two? How do new categories change collection development practices or cataloging for librarians? These questions are still up in the air, especially as libraries develop new policies with regards to digital and self-published content, but when it comes to readers’ advisory, librarians can still help connect readers with the types of books they seek, regardless of where the books are found in the stacks.

The Sex Factor

Mainstream news media, such as this article from the Christian Science Monitor, have focused on the racier content of New Adult fiction when compared to Young Adult, but many New Adult authors and readers will contend that this is unfairly reductive. While explicit sexual content may feature in certain popular titles, it isn’t universal. And it's not necessarily what draws every reader to the category. It's important to distinguish between readers looking for fast-paced and engaging stories featuring characters at the high end of the YA age range and those looking for more descriptive and mature sexual content. An easy way to determine their preference is to equate a book with cable versus network television -- would they rather read a book whose adaptation would appear on HBO or the CW network? For the network folks, stick with mature YA, for the cable fans, go with the adult titles.

Contemporary Young Adult Novels with College-aged Protagonists

While the following novels were published for the young adult market, they involve characters navigating the post-high school world.

Just One Day and Just One Year by Gayle Forman
ISBN: 9780525425915 & 9780525425922

The summer after high school graduation, straight-laced, predictable Allyson is touring Europe when she meets a charming Dutch actor, Willem, embarks on an unplanned day trip to Paris, and falls in love, only to be devastated the next morning when Willem has disappeared. After floundering her first year in college and doubting her pre-med major, she decides to return to Europe to hunt Willem down and discover why he abandoned her after their one perfect day. Just One Year, due out this fall, will continue the story from Willem’s perspective.


Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
ISBN: 9781250030955

Cath has always done everything with her twin sister Wren, including writing fanfiction. When they go to the same college but Wren doesn’t want to share a dorm room, Cath has to adjust to living on her own while learning to write a story with her own characters, while at the same time dealing with family struggles and first love.



Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick
ISBN: 9780545464260

Becky isn’t away at college; she’s working at the local convenience store and trying to figure out how to be a grown up. When her mom dies, she’s called by a fashion designer who gives her magical dresses that transform her into beautiful Rebecca. She thinks he’s crazy, until she graces the cover of Vogue and meets a real life Prince Charming. Through this journey, Becky learns to see through the magic and discovers her own inner beauty.


Contemporary Romances with College Setting

These novels have all been marketed as New Adult. All three were initially self-published, but then picked up by traditional publishing houses.

Losing It by Cora Carmack
ISBN: 9780062273246

Bliss doesn’t want to graduate college with her virginity intact, so she figures a one-night stand is the easiest way to remedy the situation. What she doesn’t count on is seeing the guy she left in her bed hours earlier when she walks into theatre class -- and he’s not a student, he’s her professor. Additional titles, Faking It and Finding It, follow other couples set in the same world.


Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire
ISBN: 9781476712048

Abby is a good girl...or at least she is trying to be. All she wanted when she left Wichita for college on the East Coast is to make a fresh start. When she meets tattooed professional fighter and campus bad boy Travis, her resolve is tested. Sparks fly and drama ensues as they negotiate a seemingly doomed romance. The companion novel Walking Disaster tells the story from Travis’ point-of-view.


Wait for You by J. Lynn
ISBN: 9780062294777

Fans of Beautiful Disaster will enjoy Jennifer L. Armentrout’s first New Adult novel under pen name J. Lynn; the plot follows Avery across the country to college as she attempts to escape her troubled past with the help of the swoon-worthy Cam. Initially self-published as an ebook, it sold in a six-figure deal to a HarperCollins imprint and will be out in paperback in September.


Beyond Contemporary Romance

Speculative fiction, whether published for young adult or the adult market, is full of characters in their late teens and early twenties,and they often feature the defining characteristics of New Adult: angst, engaging first-person narrators, and dramatic plots. Fans of paranormal, fantasy, and sci-fi stories in YA looking for more mature stories can find a wealth of titles on a wide spectrum of heat levels and featuring slightly older characters. Readers who love Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver trilogy may move on to Patricia Biggs’ Mercy Thompson series, which doesn't include explicit sex, while fans of Alyson Noel or Melissa Marr’s fairy series may enjoy Karen Marie Moning’s racier Fever series.

Though the New Adult label is currently applied almost exclusively to contemporary romances, it’s likely it will make its way into other genres. Jamie Maguire’s next book, Red Hill, is still a love story and marketed as New Adult, but set against the zombie apocalypse. Sarah J. Maas, author of the young adult Throne of Glass series, has sold a series of fantasy fairy tale retellings, which are being labeled New Adult.

What distinguishes New Adult fiction from both young adult fiction and adult fiction is more than just the age group of the characters and the target audience; it’s also a matter of style and voice. Whether the term New Adult is a passing fad or an enduring trend, there’s no shortage of novels featuring twenty-something protagonists, and offering readers a variety of adult and young adult titles should satisfy New Adult readers looking for dramatic, angst-filled, and steamy novels.

Molly Wetta is an MLIS student and YA librarian assistant at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, KS, where she wrangles a teen book club and manages the library's Tumblr. She also contributes to YALSA's young adult literature blog, The Hub.