When book blogger Georgia McBride and St. Martin’s Press teamed up in November 2009 to run a contest soliciting what they called new adult fiction from aspiring authors, they had no idea how huge this new niche would become.

Their request—“cutting-edge fiction with protagonists who are slightly older than YA... fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an older YA or new adult”—seemed simple enough on the surface, but before long the genre was slammed widely as a marketing gimmick.

Traditional publishers thought that readers in the 18-to-25-year-old range—the sweet spot for new adult—were already being serviced by YA and existing adult titles. Booksellers told PW they didn’t think their customers would be interested. Detractors also claimed the distinction could erode sales of YA titles and that authors had been writing “raw” coming-of-age stories for years without a catchy term.

“The traditional wisdom was that books about college-age characters were too old for the YA shelves in bookstores, and too young for the general fiction or romance shelves,” says Margo Lipschultz, senior editor for Harlequin/HQN.

But bestselling new adult author Cora Carmack—and many others—saw an opportunity. “Young adult books are about surviving adolescence and coming-of-age,” Carmack wrote on her blog in 2012. “New adult is about how to live your life after that. New adult is the ‘I’m officially an adult, now what?’ phase.”

“It was an attempt to do something New York houses wouldn’t and couldn’t do, because it wasn’t one genre easily boxed and marketed,” adds Jasinda Wilder, bestselling author of Falling into You.

So Carmack, Wilder, and others began self-publishing. Soon, indie titles such as Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, Carmack’s Losing It, Molly McAdams’s Taking Chances, and Abbi Glines’s Fallen Too Far began hitting the bestseller lists, and traditional publishers reconsidered their stance.

“New adult really surged because of self-published writers,” says Peter Senftleben, associate editor at Kensington Publishing. “When new adult e-books started to hit the bestseller lists, traditional publishers really sat up and took notice. And when you look at the sales figures, you can’t deny it’s a good business decision as well.”

Hard numbers detailing the size and growth of the genre are difficult to come by. As a young category, it’s still taking shape, and an important step toward quantifying the category came only late last year, when a New Adult BISAC designation was created; Bowker reports 326 titles have been classified as such in 2014.

“I credit the community of self-published authors with making this category so popular,” says Harlequin/HQN’s Lipschultz. “They wrote the stories they wanted to write, bypassed the issue of shelf space by publishing the books digitally at a low price point, and discovered that there was an audience hungry for this type of read. The book blogger community embraced this new genre and helped spread the word.”

Soon, traditional publishers understood the vast potential of the new adult genre, as well as a more precise idea of what the category actually was and who it spoke to. In 2012, the major publishers began jumping into the category in a big way, with Atria, Avon, Bantam/Ballantine/Dell, Berkley, Gallery, NAL, and Morrow joining the fray. Others, including Grand Central’s Forever and Forever Yours imprints and Harlequin/HQN made the leap in early 2013.

“At first I think there was a lot of confusion over what new adult was, who the readers were, and where to shelve it,” says Cindy Hwang, v-p and executive editor of Berkley Books. “There’s definitely a lot more awareness now for both readers and booksellers about new adult, and that’s because there have been so many titles published in this category in the past two years.”

Adds Atria editor Jhanteigh Kupihea, “Before indie publishing, traditional publishers might have been attracted to new adult as an emerging genre, but struggled with the question of how to package and where to shelve those books so they could reach the right readers.”

For New Adults, By New Adults

The genre’s focus on coming-of-age issues appealed to—and continues to resonate with—late-teen and 20-something readers who relate to the themes, such as first love and taking on new responsibilities. Because the stories are mostly penned by their peers, readers identify with the tone and the immediacy of the storytelling.

“There’s the nostalgia angle of getting to experience again the tremendous freedom of the college years, which are a time of firsts for so many people—first love, first time living away from home, first taste of adult responsibility,” says Lipschultz. “As a reader, it’s easy to relate to much of what the characters in this age group are going through. There’s the addictive quality of the story lines, too; many new adult books are emotional roller-coaster rides that take their characters, and their readers, on a journey of ups and downs.”

“As a 20-something myself, I know my generation lives in a time of extraordinary change,” says Carmack, whose latest, All Lined Up, was published by Morrow Paperbacks in May. “We’re a generation marked by a marriage between ‘dream big’ idealism and unavoidable stark realism. New adult acknowledges that unique perspective. ”

“What attracts me to new adult books is that they are about a time in one’s life where one is still young, but old enough to enjoy the pleasures of adulthood,” says author Melissa de la Cruz, whose Vampires of Manhattan is due from Hachette in September. “It’s a time in my life that I remember very clearly, getting that first job, leasing a first apartment, falling in love with the wrong guys, and figuring out what to do about that.”

In fact, this last type of relationship is most often at the center of these tales.

“While new adult can definitely include more mainstream coming-of-age stories, the strongest subcategory is definitely romance and within that, angsty, very emotional romance with characters in college or early 20s,” says Shauna Summers, executive editor of Bantam Doubleday Dell.

“New adult is also extremely sexy, often bordering on erotic romance, so strong sensuality is definitely a huge part of the genre’s appeal,” adds Harlequin’s Lipschultz.

Branching Out

While universally acknowledging that the strongest subcategory of new adult is romance, many authors are itching to broaden the boundaries.“For new adult to be anything other than a flash in a pan, it has to break out into different categories,” says Jennifer L. Armentrout, bestselling author of Wait for You, Be with Me, and Stay with Me. “Already, we are seeing romantic suspense, thrillers, and there are several upcoming paranormals and science fiction new adult novels.”

“I’d love for more new adult titles to take an edgy turn, a daring risk,” says Jay Crownover, whose Better When He’s Bad was released by Morrow Paperbacks in June. “I think readers like to walk on the wild side. There is room in the market for exploration. With the boom in the new adult market, authors are going to have to think outside of the box to write stories that haven’t been told a hundred times over already.”

Bring it on, say publishers.

“I think we’re starting to see a saturation of the market in terms of contemporary, college stories, and many of the books and submissions I’m reading are starting to feel a bit too familiar as a result,” notes Harlequin/HQN’s Lipschultz.

“For this genre to survive and thrive—rather than going the way of chick lit—it’s going to have to expand beyond its current boundaries.” Lipschultz points to Jeaniene Frost’s paranormal new adult debut, The Beautiful Ashes, which HQN will publish in September, as an example of how the genre is branching out.

“We’re going to see an increase in new adult titles that aren’t contemporary romance, but are in other subgenres of romance such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and even dystopian science fiction,” says Angela James, editorial director of Carina Press. “I also strongly believe there’s a lot of room in the male/male genre for new adult.”

James has recently acquired Maybe This Time by A.M. Arthur, a male/male new adult; The Line, Book Two: Walled by Anne Tibbets, a dystopian new adult title, and Dreams of a Wild Heart by Danube Adele, a paranormal new adult work. All are expected in early 2015.

Riptide Publishing, an independent house that publishes exclusively LGBTQ titles, has also ramped up its new adult output. The coming-of-age and identity themes that run through the category are a natural fit for the publisher, whose authors include David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy; Two Boys Kissing) and Anne Tenino (the Theta Alpha Gamma series). Among Riptide’s upcoming new adult titles is Saugatuck Summer by Amelia C. Gormley, which is about a college student dealing with the fallout of an affair with his friend’s married father.

“Both the characters in new adult and the readership for new adult are people who are exploring identity, exploring their purpose in life, exploring what’s important to them,” says Sarah Frantz, senior editor at Riptide. “They’re also of a generation where LGBTQ characters and friends are natural, even expected—they don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being LGBTQ—so it makes sense that LGBTQ themes show up in their books.”

In fact, the sky’s the limit on topics for most who are publishing new adult. “The plot of the story can be as crazy as you could possibly imagine as long as the voice and the characters keep you turning the pages,” says Tessa Woodward, editor for Morrow and Avon. “As long as writers keep finding fresh ways to address the very popular tropes, readers will keep coming back for more.”

Series tend to be popular. “We are launching some new adult series in InterMix, Berkley/NAL’s e-initial imprint,” says Claire Zion, vice president and director of editorial for New American Library. Among them are Sarah Harian’s dystopian tomes The Wicked We Have Done, a March launch; Our Broken Sky, due in August, and A Vault of Sins, which will release in September. “Think The Hunger Games meets Beautiful Disaster,” says Zion.

“I think there are some great LGBT new adult books available, but it’s still an area in which I foresee growth,” says Kensington’s Senftleben. “And while I would love to see new adult spread into other genres like suspense, I’m not sure the themes mesh as well as they do in romance. I have a feeling the readers have also come to expect romance from new adult, so for the time being, broadening within the romance genre is probably the next step.”

Appropriately enough for its target audience—millennials—marketing for new adult books is largely digital. “A lot of our marketing and publicity focus is online because that’s where our audience is,” says Erin Galloway, associate director of publicity and marketing for Berkley/NAL. “These are voracious, tech-savvy readers who regularly visit Maryse’s Book Blog and other popular sites and interact on social media to hear about what others are reading and get recommendations.”

“For the indie authors, their success is driven by constant promotion and fan engagement, so we work to amplify their efforts on social media, at romance conventions, and on tours,” says Judith Curr, president and publisher of the Atria Publishing Group, noting that the house has a fall bus tour scheduled with McGuire, Hoover, and Glines. “If readers reach out to us in a big way, as they did when they asked us to put Colleen Hoover’s free e-novella, Finding Cinderella, in print, we turn it into a hashtag and a social media moment.”

“These authors are very entrepreneurial,” says Molly Birckhead, associate director of marketing for Morrow Paperbacks. “As such, they take immense interest in their careers and their brands and, along with their publishers, are very involved in strategizing social media strategy, planning blog tours, and facilitating multiauthor events. On the marketing side, we’re going to keep improving upon web strategies and continue to push the print books in physical stores.”

Joining the Party

All queried think that the new adult is the real deal, and new players continue to enter the category. Kensington will publish its first new adult titles this fall, in print with Scratch by Rhonda Helms and in digital-first format with three back-to-back novellas by Shannyn Schroeder: Her Best Shot, Her Perfect Game, and Her Winning Formula, due in September, October, and November respectively.

Whitney Ross, editor for Tor/Forge/Starscape/Tor Teen, just acquired her first new adult manuscript, Stacey Kade’s 738 Days. “I’ve been a longtime reader in the genre and have offered on other projects,” says Ross. “The competition for these titles can be fairly fierce.”

Zest Books, a San Francisco publisher, which has published nonfiction for teens and young adults since 2006, announced in June that it’s launching Pulp, a new adult imprint. Like Zest Books, Pulp will publish contemporary and narrative nonfiction books—specializing in memoirs, graphic novels, and art and humor books—but for an older audience, notes editorial director Daniel Harmon. The house’s titles are distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“New adult is often dismissed as something of a contrivance, but honestly, for us I think it’s simply a refreshing alternative to the notion of young adult, which is now so thoroughly established as to be at times something of a limitation,” says Harmon.

Indie publisher Cleis Press, distributed by Publishers Group West, will introduce new adult with its newest imprint, Tempted Romance, this fall. Diversion Books will also enter the category in November with Luck on the Line by Zoraida Cordova.

And publishers believe new adult will endure. In fact, its appeal seems to be broadening. “The readers, especially the ones connecting with the authors on Facebook, are in the 25-to-34-year-old range,” notes Avon and Morrow’s Woodward.

Cleis’s Knight agreed: “Naysayers that say [new adult] is on its last leg should stand in line for a couple of hours with these enthusiastic fans. I imagine doubtful curmudgeons who were at BookCon are probably racing to sign up their new adult books right now after seeing a sea of new readers.”

Going on an E-book Binge

Just as digital-first and e-book only publishers were instrumental in fueling the growth of the erotic romance, they’re doing the same for new adult. And they’re influencing a slew of traditional publishers in the process.

“Digital books were and continue to be the main driver of the new adult category,” says Angela James, editorial director for Carina Press. “While there’s been some uptake in bricks-and-mortar bookstores of new adult books in print, that print retail market is still cautious. Voracious readers of the genre are still turning to the digital format to getting their new adult fix.”

Amazon Publishing has made a move into new adult, which, perhaps, is not a surprise, given how digitally oriented the audience is.“Kindle readers are devouring Amazon Publishing’s new adult books. We’ve been thrilled with the response to Rebecca Donovan’s Breathing series, Jessica Park’s Left Drowning and Flat-Out Love, and Addison Moore’s Someone to Love series. These titles have thousands of customer reviews with average ratings exceeding 4 out of 5 stars,” says Jeff Belle, VP of Amazon Publishing.

Most houses queried say that new adult titles make up roughly 5% of their overall lists, though some report that new adult titles make up a much higher portion of e-book lists. Shauna Summers, executive editor for Bantam Doubleday Dell, says new adult titles are 20%–25% of its digital-first output. “As with everything, the more digitally positioned we are, the better placed our books will be to reach our customer, and new adult is no different,” she says.

The category’s target demographic—20-something digital natives with a voracious hunger for new titles—makes digital publishing a nimble and natural solution. “We publish several of our new adult titles in e-book first, then in original trade paperback several months later to hit both the digital and print audiences separately,” says Rose Hilliard, an editor at St. Martin’s, whose authors include Season Vining, whose Beautiful Addictions was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition.

“The market for new adult titles is highly engaged, and there is a lot of binge reading,” says Molly Birckhead, associate director of marketing for William Morrow Paperbacks. “It’s a very fast publishing schedule, with authors writing three or more books a year. Also, because readers are so invested in these series, there is a lot to be done with innovative bonus content, such as incentivized preorder campaigns, cover reveals, content leaks, rolling excerpt releases, and companion e-novellas.”

The lower prices don’t hurt, either.

“Because new adult really got its start among self-published authors and grew to popularity in the digital space, the price points of these books tended to be lower—often in the $2.99–$3.99 range—which likely helped encourage more readers to buy the books and take a chance on a new genre,” says Margo Lipschultz, senior editor for Harlequin/HQN.

“New adult romance seems to have a wider audience in digital than in print,” says St. Martin’s Hilliard. “Most new adult stories are told in the first person, they’re extremely dramatic, emotionally intense, fast-paced, and voice-driven. Those who read on devices seem more concerned with intense, immediate action and have less patience for subtlety, texture, nuance, and descriptive language—qualities that work much better in print. The competition is fierce—but there are an awful lot of readers who eat these books up.”