Three things happened at around the same time in publishing in the last five years or so:

  1. Chick Lit fell out of vogue
  2. St. Martin’s Press started looking for a thing they called New Adult
  3. Self-Publishing rose as a real, legit publishing option

These things didn’t have to have anything to do with one another. In fact, I’d theorize they weren’t meant to. I’m not sure what precipitated the fall of Chick Lit (though my guess is burnout from far too many copycats of The Devil Wears Prada). As for SMP, I think it’s pretty clear from both the people who were trying to make it happen back in 2009 and the original fiction they did release as NA (Brooklyn Girls, The Heiresses) that they weren’t picturing the highly commercial, contemporary romance-focused category it became.

And then there’s self-publishing, which…I think we’ve all gotten an idea of its power by now. No matter how you feel about it or New Adult, there’s no arguing that the former made the latter possible, and the latter was a huge contributor to the legitimization of the former. When traditional publishing said “GTFO of here with your college-set romances,” intrepid authors who felt they knew better (and did) and readers found another way. (And to this day, I’m still trying to figure out the argument for why the average author should sub NA to publishers rather than self-publishing first, but I’ll get back to that.)

So, those three things happened, essentially concurrently, and thus NA in its modern incarnation was born. Right now, you can give the whole wonderful definition of what NA is by focusing on the ages of the characters and the stage of life and all of that is true. It is. I stand by thinking it’s a category, and it’s one that contains a number of books I’ve enjoyed. But I get why people think of NA as a genre, and not a category. When I say it’ s a category, I don’t do so to be defiant, but because I think to call it a genre is self-defeating. I don’t think it has to be contemp romance; I do think it only really works in a real-world setting. The reason NA became a thing is because a very certain criterion was considered unmarketable—a collegiate setting combined with a commercial sensibility.

So to declare that NA needs to include Sci-fi…why? When did Sci-fi declare this age group out of vogue? When did Historical? Or High Fantasy? Rather, here’s where I think NA and self-pub get conflated. Certain genres did do well self-published as NA that couldn’t find a home elsewhere, and it feels like other genres should be able to take advantage of the same thing when self-published well. But again, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with New Adult. It’s good self-published books that should be able to sell no matter what. I’d make the same argument for a good Sci-Fi self-pubbed book that could’ve theoretically been pubbed as Adult (e.g. The Star Thief by Jamie Grey) as I would for a good contemporary YA self-pubbed book (e.g. Torched by Andrea Colt). Calling a genre book NA is just a way of making sure it doesn’t get lost, the way calling contemp romances NA helped them not get lost. And I get the appeal. And I get it as a marketing tactic. But it doesn’t mean I think it’s a category necessity.

On the flip side is this: who cares? Who cares if it technically belongs? Who cares if it should’ve called itself Adult? Who cares if it could’ve been published as YA? I see this criticism in reviews of books and I want to know why the reviewer thinks it matters. Does it make it a worse book because the main character could’ve been 17 if the author didn’t tell you she was 19?

I’m not saying “who cares” flippantly—I’m saying it because it matters. If in a particular scenario, the answer to “who cares?” is bookstores —and it likely is—then trade publishers are absolutely right to avoid SF NA like the plague. No one should be doing a print run for books that have no market for it. (And right now, even digital publishing has that problem—Amazon doesn’t have a New Adult option for Spec Fic. As a general rule, it will never be the best marketing call for a book to categorize it in such a way that does not correspond to shelf space, physical or otherwise.) To the people who get ragey about this…why? You’re crying discrimination against something nobody was rejecting in the first place. Nobody said “You can’t write Sci-Fi with 20-year-old protags.” They did, however, say that you can’t write Contemporary with them, at least not set on a college campus. If you’d like evidence, I have a lovely collection of rejections to prove it.

Which brings us back to why Contemp Romance does the best in NA: it filled the only real gap in the market that necessitated the creation of NA in the first place. Back at the end of the last decade, college-set books should’ve been able to find a home. YA should’ve claimed far more college-set stuff than it did, and Chick Lit should’ve claimed the rest. But YA didn’t, and Chick Lit died, and pretty much the only people publishing it were doing it themselves. Which no one took seriously.

(Which, sure—who knew how self-publishing gonna go? But there was plenty of time to figure it out between when it was obvious and when they did, which resulted in a crazy glut of the same stuff over and over, and shelling out huge six figure advances to authors who would’ve probably taken five just months earlier, and who’ve already found a huge portion of their audience.)

What strikes me as so strange from all sides is the approach to the market gap here. Of course college-set romance was gonna blow up—no one else was publishing it. And by the same token, of course NA in other genres don’t do as well. Historical with 19-year-old MCs? That’s already a thing. That’s how old queens were. You’re not filling a market gap with NA historical; you’re going up against Philippa Gregory.

That said, with the settings that do fill the gap, I think there’s so much more we can do. And for whatever reason, NA is one area where trad pub doesn’t take leaps and is so wrong in risk assessment, so I’m curious to see who’ll be getting it done. All NA needs to “justify” itself as NA is some realistic world confines. After that, let the sky be the limit: Racial diversity, QUILTBAG, Urban fantasy, Psychological Thrillers, Literary. (Though I struggle with saying the latter because college-set Literary actually seems to do really well as Adult.)

The other thing I’d say is that NA books always need to understand their crossover audience. NA is always going to have a crossover, because it didn’t exist five years ago. It’s probably going to be Romance (Erotica or otherwise), or YA, or both. Find support in your crossover area(s) and reach out there too. In NA, you unquestionably need blog support. You need a social media presence. This is a category that came up through self-pub, and that means digitally. Online is where people find your books, and you need the 1-click links at their disposal everywhere you can shower them. It helps to be accessible, too—people like to promote accessible authors. If you’re a YA author with a NA pen name, of the two, you’re better off throwing more social media time into NA (assuming you have print books in stores).

With regard to those crossovers though, and by this I really mean the YA/NA, I really wish people would stop looking to books like Fangirl as proof there’s a market for that kind of thing in NA. Fangirl in literally no way proves that. Fangirl was sold as YA. It doesn’t matter that the age of the characters was NA-range, or that it was in college. It matters that it got YA coverage, YA store placement, a huge print run (which is extremely atypical in NA)…basically, nothing comparable to how NA is marketed at all. It is not your example of NA IS OK. Neither is Just One Day, or Just One Year. Not Daria Snadowsky’s duology or Something Like Normal or Where She Went.

As a NA author, it does you no favors to make false marketing comparisons.

I blogged about this exact thing some time ago, and while some circumstances have changed since then, particularly with the continued rise of self- and digital publishing, I still maintain a single fundamental point: NA is still at the stage where you should ask yourself when marketing and publishing it, “Why am I making this NA?”

That doesn’t mean I think it’s hard to come up with a justifiable response. Frankly, if you can pass off a book as NA that you’re either self-publishing or publishing digital only, I think it’s absolutely the wisest to do so. NA is something people actively look for digitally. In-store placement obviously helps the books that are getting it, but that’s the tiniest sliver of the category, limited to authors who’ve proven themselves.

And when it comes to self-publishing vs. traditionally publishing NA, well… *shifty eyes* I mean, unless you really, really don’t want to self-publish for some reason, can someone please explain to me why you’re better off trad-pubbing it? Having never done so, I’m not intimately familiar with the contracts, but thus far I gather that they often require signing away print rights that the publisher has no intention of using until you hit an extremely high sales threshold, effectively making you strictly digital. Once you’re strictly digital, how much can house backing really do for you? When you take out the in-store placement factor and offsetting printing costs, and take into account that advances for digital only publications are pretty low…where’s the difference between the trad-pub e-book royalty rate (25-40%) and the self-pub royalty rate (70%) going? Covers don’t cost that much, and honestly, very, very few have been remotely memorable. The obvious difference in turnaround time would suggest fewer rounds of editing. So where’s the justification there? I’m not even trying to be a jerk here; I really, really want to understand it, and I don’t. (Note: A couple of fabulous trad-pubbing NA-writing friends have mentioned they’ll comment on this soon, so, check back, and learn more while I do!)

And finally, BRANDING. I get that a certain thing in NA sells. Certain cover elements sell. White People Kissing, or Shirtless Six-Pack Man…yeah, these things work, we get it. But what are they working to do? They sell your book, but they sell your book by making it recognizably NA. They don’t sell you. I’ve bought a zillion NA books at .99-2.99 a pop, but how many of those titles do I remember? How many authors’ names? So often I scroll through my Kindle and think, “What is that?” Meanwhile, there are maybe three authors I actually care to follow to see when they’re releasing a next book. So please, I know it’s a business, but it’s not a guaranteed business. Already people are growing weary of the same covers and tropes. Do yourself a favor and cater to yourself and not what might be a raging trend everyone’s sick of by autumn.

Plus, ya know, it’d be cool to finally see some black people. Or lesbians. I’m not picky.