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Growing pains: will “new adult” fiction catch the attention of Canadian publishers?

(illustration: Glenda Tse)

In July 2010, Toronto author C.K. Kelly Martin finished writing her sixth novel, Come See About Me, which focused on a 20-year-old woman coping with the death of her first serious boyfriend. But when Martin “ whose first five YA novels were published by Random House “ shopped the manuscript around, publishers weren’t interested.

Editors said my main character’s age was too ˜middle ground,’ says Martin. Too old for young adult and too young for adult.

In the end, Martin decided to publish the book herself. If she were to submit her manuscript now, she might receive a more welcoming response. Over the past year, a subgenre of fiction dubbed new adult has attracted the attention of publishers, agents, and the media. Bridging YA and adult titles, the genre (also referred to as upper or mature YA) mostly features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 25. Although the term has caused debate, books classified as new adult generally include storylines that would be considered too mature for traditional YA.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, young-adult books are about firsts: a first kiss, first love, first heartbreak, first sex, says Alison McDonald, an agent with The Rights Factory who specializes in children’s literature. With new adult, the characters are still struggling to find themselves, they’re still looking for their own identity, but they’re onto their second things. They had their hearts broken once and they’re going back to love, or they’ve lost their virginity and now they’re experimenting.¦ It’s still about coming of age in a lot of ways, but it’s about the second time or the third time.

The genre has quickly gained popularity on book recommendation websites like Goodreads. Marie Landry, an author who has self-published several popular YA and new-adult novels (Waiting for the Storm, Blue Sky Days), suggests it’s because the books fill a demographic niche.

A few years ago people were saying there was no market for it; that people wouldn’t read about college-age kids, she says. But I know 10 years ago, when I was in college, I wish there had been books like that.

While the number of self-published authors like Landry producing new-adult titles climbs, Canadian publishers have remained cautious. Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Vancouver’s Orca Book Publishers, believes there is an audience, if the right readers can be reached through targeted marketing and digital-distribution platforms.

Looking at the way publishing is going and the fact that adult fiction works very well electronically, I would assume new adult might as well, says Wooldridge. It probably does have staying power if you can get the word out.

Although she says it’s too early to gauge its success, Lynne Missen, publishing director of Penguin Canada’s young reader  division, also believes the genre has a future. In 2012, Penguin imprint Razorbill Canada published Mariko Tamaki’s (You) Set Me on Fire. The novel, about a 17-year-old girl dealing with sexual identity issues during her first year of university, could be considered one of Razorbill Canada’s first new-adult books, although it was never marketed as such. I feel like it was on the forefront of books featuring older protagonists, says Missen. Older protagonists are becoming appealing.

While an older main character may appeal to some publishers, it was only two years ago that McDonald, who is Tamaki’s agent, could not sell (You) Set Me on Fire in the U.S. The main concern was that the main character was in college even though she was 17, McDonald says. We went to several publishing boards in the U.S. where the book didn’t make it past the sales department because of the college setting.

McDonald says the novel did very well in Canada, where Tamaki has an established following thanks to her 2008 graphic novel, Skim (Groundwood Books), and her comic Emiko Superstar. She suggests Canadian readers have already embraced homegrown authors such as Tamaki, Russell Smith, and Richard Van Camp, who have been writing about new adults for years “ without labels.

Joining that group is Toronto author Emily Pohl-Weary. When she began writing her forthcoming novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf-Girl (due out in September from Razorbill Canada), Pohl-Weary made her musician-turned-werewolf protagonist 18 years old “ not to fit into the emerging new-adult category, but because she likes the age’s transitory nature.

At age 18 you’re facing a lot of different issues and making a lot of different choices than you were at 16, she says. For this particular story, about a girl with a monstrous secret, the age of 18 seemed perfect, because she’s just distant enough from her mom to be able to keep it hidden, but at same time there are all these people around her who are still watching out for her.

Regardless of the protagonist’s age, Pohl-Weary and Missen are not concerned that the book will have trouble finding its audience. It never worried me, Pohl-Weary says. If teens are reading and in some ways driving the market, then why are we trying to put any kind of limitation on things?

This story appeared in the June 2013 issue of Q&Q.