Chelsea M. Cameron is the author of sapphic contemporary adult novels, as well New Adult romances My Favorite Mistake and My Sweetest Escape. Originally from Maine, Cameron now lives and works in Boston. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Maine, Orono, that she says she promptly abandoned to write about the people in her own head. Here, Cameron reflects on missed opportunities in the New Adult category, and the outsized role of adult readers in shaping YA tastes and trends.
“I wish there were books that were in between YA and adult” is something I hear and see online constantly. I always stare at my screen for a second and have to hold in a scream so I don’t scare the cat or my neighbors. And then I just sing to myself that line from “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, we could have had it allllll.
I started indie publishing in the beginning of 2012. It was the infancy of KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing arm) and the idea of writing a query letter and sending it out gave me way too much anxiety, so I read every article I could during my day job at a bank (I learned how to get around the blocking software) and released several books over the next few months, including one called My Favorite Mistake. I wrote that book in three and a half weeks, made a cover myself, and threw it up on Amazon and other ebook retailers without much of a thought. I was 26 at the time and desperately missing my college friends and my college experience. I’d seen a few other college-age books that had come out, so it seemed like the kind of story that might have a market. To think that I published with a concrete plan is giving my baby author self too much credit. This was a case of “write the book that you can’t stop thinking about,” and I just hoped I might sell a few copies.
The book blew up. That was the era of book bloggers who could make you a bestseller with a single recommendation. Through a series of unbelievable events, the book hit the New York Times and USA Today lists and I was contacted by two literary agents. Other contemporary college-age romances were also blazing up the charts, including Easy by Tammara Webber, Losing It by Cora Carmack, Rule by Jay Crownover, Wait for You by Jennifer L. Armentrout, The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay, and Hopeless by none other than Colleen Hoover. Book signings sprang up and hundreds of readers flew all over the country, and sometimes the world, to meet and greet their favorite authors. They made t-shirts and autograph books. They waited in line for hours and asked authors to sign their Kindle covers. The passion and obsession was real, and it was lucrative.
Traditional publishers, who for years had told authors to age their characters down to make the books young adult, or age them up to the adult category, were finally seeing the truth: there was a massive underserved market for this new category, which was christened “new adult.” These were stories of characters between the ages of 18(ish) and 26(ish) navigating the murky transition from childhood to becoming an adult and all the mess it entailed—so many responsibilities, so little idea of what the heck you were doing. Publishers scrambled to get in on the trend, signing book deals left and right, throwing money at authors in multiple six-figure deals.
And so the New Adult category flourished and everyone lived happily ever after!
I wish that was what happened, but alas. It was always going to be an uphill climb to find space on the shelves for this new category, to make readers understand what it was, and to figure out how to market it. By almost exclusively signing contemporary romances on the more dramatic and steamier side, readers assumed that was the only kind of story New Adult had to offer. Publishers didn’t seem to know how to market the books either, relying almost solely on the book’s grassroots fame to carry sales going forward. After a brief blaze of glory, New Adult was basically dead in the water in the traditional world.
The only problem: readers still wanted it. Readers were absolutely ravenous for New Adult characters doing New Adult things, and not just in contemporary romance. Some of them would slide on over to the adult category, but many readers took themselves to YA, and helped shape the category going forward.
Adults, who have disposable income and greater ability to attend book conventions and signings, have more power than a teenager living with their parents, often with little income, and without the ability to travel to see an author without adult support. Those readers eager for New Adult went for the Young Adult books that were the closest to what they really wanted: characters in their late teens dealing with adult-like problems, dramatic storylines, and a little spice. They bought them in large quantities, talked about them online, wrote glowing reviews, fancast their book boyfriends, and built entire communities of fans of the same books or series. It was only natural that publishers would want to serve the audience who had the time, energy, and cash to support their favorite books and authors.
In the process, actual teen readers have been pushed aside to court adult readers’ tastes. If New Adult had been allowed to grow, those readers would have had their own space, and wouldn’t have had to settle for Young Adult attempting to mold itself to their desires. As it stands now, the range of books under the YA umbrella is so wide that it feels impossible for one category to encompass. In the interest of courting New Adult readers, publishers have ignored actual teen readers, and not just with more mature storylines. Hardcovers, special editions with sprayed edges, and expensive ebooks are inaccessible for so many teen readers. Not to mention that with libraries currently battling censorship, it’s become harder for teens to get the books in the first place, even if they don’t buy them. If those former New Adult readers weren’t the loudest voice in the room, YA could actually serve the audience it was created to serve: teens.
There is space to accommodate all of these readers, and I wish I could see a change on the horizon. I wish New Adult had been treated with care and had been allowed to flourish. Most of all, I wish all teens could find dozens of books that they want—and need—to read, sitting on the shelves and waiting for them.