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Ask an Editor: Young Adult vs. New Adult

What’s the difference between Young Adult and New Adult books, and how do I tell which group my manuscript fits into?

A book isn’t YA just because of the age of the protagonists, although that’s part of it, but also because of the types of experiences they are going through. YA is all about firsts—the first time you fall in love, the first time you have sex, maybe your first heartbreak, the first time that you cared about something enough to really fight your parents for it or to stand up to authority—those kinds of things, things that cause a coming of age. Usually these things happen junior or senior year of high school, possibly freshman year of college. Usually.

YA books need to feel authentically teen. Not just in the plot, but the voice as well. They need to feel like stories about teens for teens. As an author, you’re talking to them—not down to them, not at them, but to them—and you’re telling a story, not teaching a lesson. If the voice feels nostalgic, it probably isn’t YA. The characters are learning, not looking back from a place of experience. So a lot of what makes a YA book a YA book is in the voice. For more of my thoughts on this, check out this blog post about teen novels.

New Adult is a little older. Think college, not high school. So maybe it’s the second time you fall in love, or it can be a new set of firsts, like the first time that you have to live on your own or the experience of being in a college dorm or your first drunken frat party. New Adult is such a new category (the term started in 2009) that it is still strongly connected to a contemporary setting. It’s post-high school, usually college, but occasionally your first job or internship. The important thing is that your life is changing and everything is in transition.

NA books often are dealing with more adult issues than in your typical YA novel. Think sex, drugs, and rock and roll. For example, the heroes will often have drug issues or the heroines are overcoming abusive backgrounds. There’s a lot more sex in a New Adult book generally, and it’s a little more graphic than YA. Not like erotica-level sex—not Fifty Shades of Grey—but they tend to talk honestly about sex and the characters have it more often because these books are set at the time of your life when people are experimenting with sex.

YA as a mainstream category started with the later Harry Potter books, Twilight and The Hunger Games. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been YA books, but they weren’t widely recognized or labeled as such until you had these kinds of phenomenon books. But New Adult came out of self-publishing. Many self-published authors were filling a gap in traditional publishing. There were books for very young kids, middle graders, and teens, and then there were books for adults. But there weren’t any books about 20-somethings except for a few chick-lit type things (such as The Devil Wears Prada). But then suddenly there were all these self-published bestsellers about teens in college or just out of college, bridging that transitional gap between being a teen and living with your parents and being a full adult with a stable job, supporting yourself and dealing with adult things. After we noticed this gap, traditional publishing started trying to fill it by picking up authors like Cora Carmack and Abbi Glines.

So if you’re trying to decide whether your romance novel is YA, NA or adult, start by asking yourself how old your characters are. Are they in high school? Are they in college? Are they living on their own and working on their career? Then, ask what kind of issues they’re dealing with. Is it firsts (first loves, etc.)? Are they in transition and experimenting with life? Or are they fairly confident in who they are, and it’s just time for a change?

If it’s the first two, maybe consider submitting it here at Swoon Reads! *winkwink*

Have a question for our editors? Let us know in the comments below.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Semi-professional fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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