By Kaitie Howie
In the last decade or so, there has been an explosion of what have been “new adult” (NA) books; while as of 2014, the subgenre was still dubbed a “fledgling category” per a Barnes & Noble publication (Adler, 2014), five years later it has its own Wikipedia page (New adult fiction, 2019). On December 9, 2012, Laura Carter created the Goodreads New Adult Book ClubGroup (see Figure 1). In its first two weeks, the group has only 32 members; now it consists of over 13,000 (Carter, 2012). While initially consisting solely of self-introduction and discussion of the vague and emerging category, there are now over 18 discussion threads to foster community, author and work exposure, recommendations, and above all discussion of the multitude of works in the New Adult (NA) category being released at increasing frequency as the group ages. I argue that the rapid growth and expansion of this group reflects the ignition and subsequent evolution of a recently emerged subgenre and a new category of experiences being chronicled and loved by readers for their singular depiction of mature tales of coming of age and more realistic stories of contemporary life, particularly for those in the 18-25 age bracket, and was largely facilitated by the eBook industry. This is evident in the group’s growth and popular content, heightened national NA expansion and awareness, and NA sales.
The “Welcome” thread is the oldest discussion in this group, initiated by its founder, and provides a space where new members can introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The most oft cited reasons for joining the group include hopes to find books similar to those they like, share their own recommendations, “obsess” together, and a place to discuss their favorite authors (Carter, 2012). The other long-standing discussion threads include links to member NA blogs, Author and Writer tips for writing NA/introductions to the NA community, as well as “Read it Review it”—a thread for reviews of books members have read.
All of which begs the question: what exactly is New Adult?
At the time of the group’s conception, this topic alone was one warranting great debate and consideration, amongst club members themselves as well as the larger fiction community as a whole.
The book club’s description defines the subgenre as books which,
“focus on the period in life where you are becoming a proper adult. The characters are usually between about 18 – 25 and are generally either at college or starting their first job.The catagory fits in between YA and Adult books. It has a similar coming of age feel as YA books but rather than people experiencing their first kisses the content and issues used are more mature such as first serious relationships and heartbreak.”
However, in this time when NA was just beginning, defining the category was not so simple, and provided much fodder for group discussion. Some members understood the label to apply to books whose characters themselves are in the 18-25 age range, “where everything is supposed to finally make sense but it isn’t exactly what you expected,” regardless of classification [e.g. sci-fi, contemporary] (BR, 2013; Lorelle, 2013). Members reference a “common theme of becoming”, in a more mature setting, with a guarantee of more complexity and identity discovery unlike that seen in either YA or Adult fiction (Megan, 2013).
In the midst of NA’s emergence, many misconceptions about the classification arose; primarily, that it mandated romance, as well as an abundance of sexual content. As recently as 2017, a member made the comment that, “there’s an assumption that New Adult = YA + lots of sex,”; one early critic, an author within the group, comments: “If success is peddling Edward/Bella ripoff billionare novels, or books with abs on them that celebrate men like me succumbing to the wiles of some female, then count me out,” (Jason, 2013).
The group creator herself, now a University of Central Lancashire publishing graduate, Goodreads librarian, and employee of Macmillan Childrens’, cites two reasons for the development of the NA subgenre: publishers’ dislike of branding college-age characters as Adult books, and the fact that, “characters of this age gave experiences of this age have experiences that are unique to them and this is what helps to define this category,” (Carter, 2012). In an article on her blog, Carter claims this category is aimedat “ ‘new’ adults”, featuring protagonists often, “learning to be an adult,”; “it [NA] can and does encompass all genres,” (Carter, 2013).
Around the time of this discussion amidst NA Book Club members, ABC News released an article describing NA books as, “a bit like the old Harlequin romances set in modern times, with younger characters, many of whom are in college, coming of age and often exploring their sexuality,”; a few months later, USA Today quoted popular NA author Jamie McGuire claiming the sect to be focused on self-development and discovery (Chang et. al, 2013; Donahue, 2013).
The subgenre is now widely understood as a midrange classification between Young Adult and Adult, featuring, “protagonists in the 18-30 age bracket,” often facing challenges common in YA, but handled in a more mature light; thus, they, “can be published and marketed as adult,” (Wikipedia, 2019). Goodreads itself defines the category as, “focusing on issues experienced by individuals between the area of childhood and adulthood,” and classifies it as an Adult subset (n.d.).
How, exactly, did the group grow from 32 initial members trying to clarify what it is they were drawn together by, to the thousands of members who have discussion threads ranging from monthly reads to beta reading authors’ books?
The poll for the first group read in January 2013, received 45 votes; however, the next month elicited more than double that at 114 votes, topped by 141 that March (New Adult Book Club Group, 2012). The rapid expansion within this microcosm of the community was not the exception where New Adult was concerned, but rather a regularity. “It’s hard to get bookstores to stock new adult contemporary books…because they don’t really have a section for them yet,” remarks one member in early 2013, a sentiment confirmed by one bookstore owner’s assertion that the category would not generate sales, but rather, “be perceived as lame,” (Diane, 2013; Deahl, 2012). However, by April 2013, just four months after the group’s creation, it had bloomed to consist of over 1,600 members (Donahue, 2013), and the subgenre itself was featured on the Barnes & Noble platform the following January, cited as having been brought “into the mainstream” (Adler, 2014). Indeed, this burst of growth is visible in Book Club group creator Laura Carter’s blog; while one of her first posts is specifically created in order to explain what new adult books are, as “not everyone knows what NA is” (February 2013), just five months later she asserts that, “By now almost everyone has heard of New Adult books,” (July 2013).
So why, exactly, did fans so abruptly take to the category? While, “whether retailers will [would] take to the term,” was up in the air as of December 2012 (Deahl, 2012), USA Today cites them, “roaring up the best seller list,” the following April (Donahue, 2013), a claim supported by Carter’s blog, which mentions that, “Goodreads, Amazon, and now Netgalley have it as a category and hundreds more are being published each month,” (Carter, 2013).
Goodreads New Adult Book Club members proffer many reasons for the ardent fervor of the subgenre, which focuses on a, “period [that] has been neglected,” (BR, 2013). Members cite the excitement of these years of life, wherein new experiences and newfound independence make for an entirely different world of encounters. This category is perceived as very relatable, depicting, “so much self-exploration…They aren’t exactly sure who they are, or where they want to be,” circumstances which many young adults find themselves currently in, and many older adults can sympathize with, considering their own experiences in young adulthood (Carter, 2013). New adult books chronicle the lives of individuals who are, “open to many new experiences and not held back by obligations,” and without the cynicism about the world very characteristic of Adult fiction. For many young readers, “Adults seem to forget what that stage of their lives were like,” (BR, 2013), and the reality is that they, “don’t want to read chick-lit books where the characters are married and have children,”—these are not the experiences currently resonating them, and they want to read stories in which they are able to, “understand what they [characters] are going through,” (Carter, 2013).
Some of the most prominent initial authors in the New Adult Book Club community include Abbi Glines, Colleen Hoover, Jamie McGuire, and Tammara Webber, all of whom are still active writers whose fanbases have multiplied tremendously. These names frequently make appearances in member introductions, as the authors whose works introduced members to the subgenre, “creating a niche where none existed, filling the gap between Young Adult and commercial women’s fiction for readers in their 20s and older,” (Donahue, 2013). McGuire and some readers in the Book Club attribute the explosion of New Adult to the evolution of self-publishing, which enabled the publication of works which prominent publishing houses and booksellers would refuse to take on, especially during the aforementioned period during which a space for the subgenre had yet to form. “Bookstores didn’t have a place for novels about college-aged students so publishers were unable to sell it,” McGuire asserts; and thus, the self-publication platform created a whole new way for this category to take traction—especially in a time during which e-book format was increasingly more accessible for readers, specifically of a young adult age (Donahue, 2013).Thus, the digital revolution served as, “the main driver of the new adult category,” (Naughton, 2014). The e-book platform allowed a space for self-published authors to promote stories of a new type without facing publishing house reluctance to give self-space to an unestablished category; furthermore, digital pricing tends to be lower, and thus more affordable, “which likely helped encourage more readers to…take a chance on a new genre.” After rising to popularity digitally, NA found, “an audience hungry for this type of read,”; NA books claim spots on the NY Times E-Book Fiction Best Seller list as early as January 2013, when Colleen Hoover’sHopelessclimbed the charts—and NA has been present in every iteration of the list since. In fact, a Harlequin representative attributes some of the genre’s growth to the book blogger community, which, “embraced this new genre and helped spread the word,” (Naughton, 2014).
Book bloggers—like Laura Carter, then-19-year-old, whose simple book club to discuss a new and different kind of read now consists of over 13,000 members, a number which climbs every day.
While this community started solely to discuss a beloved book type, featuring, “emotions so raw and intense, everything is felt deeply,” the group now has a range of author interaction with members, from Q and A’s and “Author Takeovers” to opportunities to discuss writing tips, beta read, and provide reviews on books to the group as a whole. The club has now executed more than 130 group reads; this alone reflects mass intake of many similar books being published and a platform for authors in this new industry to achieve massive exposure and a subsequent captive and pre-identified audience (Carter, 2013).
This book club snowballed into not mere existence, but a substantial presence in the fiction community, paralleling the emergence and subsequent skyrocketing of New Adult itself. Only four years after the term was coined, “a New Adult BISAC designation was created,” with over 300 titles in the classification just a year later (Naughton, 2014). Comparatively, Young Adult (YA) more than doubled its publications over a ten year period (10,000 in 2012 vs. 4,700 in 2002) (Peterson, 2018); meanwhile, romance continues to compose almost a third of the overall US Fiction market, grossing more than a billion dollars annually (Romance Writers of America, n.d.; Peterson, 2018).
This evolution of the New Adult Book Club was additionally due to the untapped potential of the genre, the demand left unutilized in the grey area between Young Adult and Adult fiction; a genre so relatable and real that readers found themselves quickly infatuated and eager to find more books of this type that had previously not had a place in the industry. From an unknown term used by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 to describe a subset of fiction just emerging, with no other moniker or identity, the subgenre has rapidly expanded into a category acknowledged by even Barnes & Noble, with a consistent and active readership. The oldest moderator of the book club has been a member since January 2013, one of a handful of enthusiasts; today, she is a part of a vast community of readers still growing and morphing as the conversation of what exactly New Adult is, and continues to develop into in present day.
The passion, the relatability, the stories of an age frame that is universal, but had previously not been present in fiction; as per Laura Carter, “This makes NA books very interesting and enjoyable to read no matter your age.”
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