When ‘feisty’ Evan Lennox first encounters bad boy, Winchester Youngblood in Liz Reinhardt’s New Adult novel, Fall Guy, she admires his ‘lean, chiselled face’, and the ‘clean lines of his muscles through the thin cotton of his button-down’. Their relationship soon sizzles into life in this ‘hot, sexy and addictive novel for the New Adult generation’.
A year ago, hardly anyone was using the term ‘New Adult’. Now the phrase is all over UK publishing schedules. There is absolutely nothing new about a youthful thirst for sexy romance novels. Decades before New Adult became a twinkle in any publisher’s eye, readers in their late teens and early twenties were sneaking a peek at the work of authors like Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins to find out exactly what more experienced adults got up to in their steamier moments. I myself got an education from a Harold Robbins novel I found in a holiday house my parents rented one year. But the process was a furtive one.
Now New Adult books are specifically attempting to portray the angsty transition to sexually mature adult in a much more frank and mainstream manner. ‘There has always been a readership for erotic romance in that younger age-group, but it was a guilty, hidden pleasure’, says Emily Thomas, Publisher at Hot Key Books. ‘But there’s a legitimacy to it now which has made it easier to buy and talk about’. Given that upfront TV programmes like Gossip Girl, Skins and Lena Dunham’s Girls have been around for a while, it’s perhaps surprising that this is only happening now. Gillian Green, Commercial Fiction Director at Ebury dates the rise of New Adult to a competition St Martins ran in the US to find fresh, commercial voices to write about what she dubs ‘that second coming of age’. ‘Not teenagers becoming adults, but those awkward years where you’re legally an adult but don’t really have a clue. It’s YA’s older, sexier, edgier sibling and as such usually has slightly older characters and stronger themes’. New Adult is usually about firsts: first job, first love, first year of college, first sexual experience.
It would be easy to assume that the New Adult flame – with its focus on hot romance for a core readership of late teens/early twenties readers – was ignited by the global success of Fifty Shades of Grey, and undoubtedly there is a connection. Sarah Lambert, Editorial Director at Quercus Children’s Books can date her first encounter with New Adult to January 2012, just prior to the publication of Fifty Shades. Having just joined Quercus, one of the first books to cross her desk was Slammed by Colleen Hoover which features an 18-year-old protagonist who ‘falls hard’ for a new neighbour. ‘These books were already out there. What Fifty Shades has done is allow the conversation to become more real about how we do sex in teen books’.
You might think that with a core readership over the age of 18, anything goes in a New Adult novel. However, with most New Adult titles being published by children’s publishers in the UK (albeit for an adult readership), editors feel that they still have a duty to publish books with ‘responsible’ content. As Emily Thomas puts it, ‘These books haven’t sold out completely to erotica: they have a sweetness and sensitivity to them’. Hot Key has even produced both a censored, and an ‘uncut’ edition of The Vincent Boys and The Vincent Brothers, the two novels it publishes by US author, Abi Glines. Glines originally wrote for YA, but has seen sales of her books climb since she began adding steamier content ‘You have to work out where the dividing line is’, says Annie Eaton, Fiction Publisher at Random House Children’s Books. ‘The difference is around the fact about it being taken for granted in New Adult books that the characters are ready to have sex’.
So while sex plays a leading role in most New Adult novels, it is seldom the driving force. ‘New Adult is definitely not erotica. It’s much more about the relationships than the sex’, says Lucy Icke, Commissioning Editor at Little Brown which publishes The Secret of Ella and Micha by Jessica Sorensen in paperback this April. Icke downloaded Sorensen’s self-published eBook for pleasure one weekend, attracted by its high Amazon chart position and rave reviews. ‘The main thing which appealed to people was the characters, and their relationships which were touching, emotional and real’.
Whilst New Adult authors and publishers are not constrained by the ‘gatekeeper’ issues which necessarily preoccupy those in YA there is still something a little earnest about many New Adult novels. It’s interesting that books set in southern US states currently dominate the field. In the bayou, the climate is steamy, the clothes are skimpy, and whilst Tennessee Williams it ain’t, there are plenty of streetcars named Desire. However the Bible Belt setting also puts the brakes on the characters’ sexual behaviour . ‘It is all a bit vanilla’, says Jane Griffiths, Commissioning Editor for Children’s Fiction at Simon and Schuster. ‘Although there is still a level of sexual content you can’t have with YA’. Or is there? Brenda Gardner, Publisher at Piccadilly Press is reluctant to label its standout title – Irresistible by Liz Bankes – as New Adult. ‘I’d say it’s more top-end YA. For me there’s a distinction between New Adult, which is very raunchy with lots of sex, and ‘steamies’ which for me are more about passion and first love. They are much more romantic, portraying first sexual encounters as every girl would like them to be’. Confused now? I still am.
What is not in doubt, is that New Adult – however you define it –was such a massive self-publishing phenomenon in the US that it became impossible for UK publishers to ignore it. In September 2013, Ebury will publish The Lost Boys by Brazilian writer, Liliane Carmine, a book about a teenage girl who falls in love with a ghost. In its self-published incarnation, it clocked up over 32 million reads on writers’ website, Wattpad. Cora Carmack’s Losing It, now out in print and eBook in the UK, sold over 32K copies in a single week when she originally self-published it in the US. Not surprisingly, mainstream publishers soon decided that they wanted a share of this substantial pie; a self-published author with a proven track record, and a ready-made fanbase is likely to be magnetically attractive to most publishers.
Simon and Schuster has one of the most extensive programmes of New Adult publishing of any UK publisher this year. Ten titles by four US authors are due out in paperback between April and June 2013, with the eBooks available in advance. As recently as the end of last summer, the publisher’s sales team was still unsure as to whether New Adult had legs. No such doubts now. On 7th March, Simon and Schuster published the eBook of Abi Glines’ Fallen Too Far, her first UK title never previously to have been self-published. It sold 10,000 eBooks in 3 days, half of which were pre-orders: the highest weekly sale for any Simon and Schuster eBook to date. Jane Griffiths feels that it is an eye-opening example of how big an impact the fans can have. ‘If you can make the most of a fan base like Abi’s then you can build a real presence on the list’.
Despite the fact that many New Adult novels are now appearing in print editions for the first time, digital sales will almost certainly continue to dominate the field. Publishers typically predict a split of 70/30 in favour of eBooks over print, which is just as well given that retailers are still debating where physical editions of New Adult titles will sit in the bookshops. According to Lucy Icke, fans of New Adult are ‘really fast, voracious readers who rip through their reading on their digital devices. That is one reason we are seeing substantial digital sales in this area’. ‘(New Adult) is still clearly not considered serious enough to put on a shelf in the living room’, says Emily Thomas.
The numbers are promising so far. But for most publishers the jury remains out as to whether New Adult is here to stay. ‘I don’t know that we’ll be using the term New Adult in a major way’, says Annie Eaton. ‘We’ll have to see how it gets picked up by the UK trade. If the words New Adult speak to the audience, we’ll use them. Otherwise, it’s the books and packaging that will do the talking. ‘It’s probably too soon to say, but I see New Adult as part of a broader movement in commercial fiction. So my sense is yes it’s here to stay, but it will continue to evolve’, says Gillian Green.
The New Adult buzz has begun to spread to other territories beyond the US and UK. Gillian Green reports a raft of European proposals in the run-up to the London Book Fair. So is the time ripe for a crop of home-grown New Adult writers to emerge in the UK? Again, publishers are hedging. For some, New Adult remains a phenomenon with a distinctly American flavour. ‘There’s still a glamour about the US: the writing does something different for UK readers’, says Sarah Lambert at Quercus. ‘When it comes to romance, there’s no hunk quite like an American hunk’.
Piccadilly is so far one of the few UK publishers to offer a British title with Irresistible by Liz Bankes. Whether you recognise it as New Adult or ‘steamy’; it’s a well-crafted story with more humour in it than some of its more earnest US cousins, and perhaps this is an indication of where the British take on New Adult might go. Meanwhile a little bit of traffic has started to go the other way across the Atlantic, with both Irresistible and Undeniable, Liz Bankes’ second novel, sold to Bloomsbury US.
So much about the New Adult trend remains unclear, from whether it is primarily a US trend and how much sex you are allowed, to whether it crosses over with YA or is firmly in the adult domain. Even the age demographic of its readers is complex, given last year’s Bowker research which suggested that 55% of buyers of YA books are aged 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44. I like Lucy Icke’s theory here. ‘I think New Adult is also attracting an older readership who are reading these books nostalgically, because they are about first love. People are really latching on to that, because everyone remembers their first love’. Despite the impending launch of some stand-out titles, it appears that the definition of New Adult is likely to remain in soft-focus for some time to come
Fall Guy Liz Reinhardt Definitions 978-1782951230 £6.99
The Vincent Books Abbi Glines Hot Key Books 978-1471401213 £7.99
The Vincent Brothers Abbi Glines Hot Key Books 978-1471401237 £6.99
The Secret of Ella and Micha Jessica Sorensen Sphere 978-0751552287 £6.99
Irresistible Liz Bankes Piccadilly 978-1848123380 £6.99
Losing It Cora Carmack Ebury Press 978-0091953386 £6.99
Fallen Too Far Abbi Glines Simon and Schuster 978-1471118616 £6.99
Caroline Sanderson is a writer and editor.