With the publication of one of the UK’s first ‘Steamy’ novels imminent, Alice Vincent reports on the rise of sex in Young Adult fiction and the readers who can't get enough.
by: Alice Vincent
Irresistible is a girl meets boys story. The debut novel of Liz Bankes comes with a 15 certificate and features heavy petting, a country estate and a Facebook account being hacked. Its publisher admits that Irresistible is an attempt to capture the Fifty Shades of Grey success within the teen market, and in the United States raunchy teen literature has been flying up bestseller lists. But is there any more to so-called “Steamies” than a marketing ploy, and how many teenagers are really getting their hands on them?
Steamies are better known in the trade as New Adult Fiction. The genre was coined in 2009 by the Manhattan publishing house St Martin’s Press to reflect a slightly older group of readers who were indulging in teen, or Young Adult, fiction. Goodreads.com, which has 14 million members, is an American social networking website built around users’ reading habits. They first noticed users labelling books as New Adult in May 2011, and since creating a New Adult genre page in September 2012, 14,000 titles – a 500 per cent increase in two years – have been listed as such.
Three of the titles on the current New York Times bestseller list have been Goodreads-listed as New Adult: Someone to Love by Addison Moore, The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden by Jessica Sorensen and Hopeless, the third novel from New Adult author Colleen Hoover. Two of the three titles feature on their covers beautiful young things entwined in passion. Goodreads founder Elizabeth Chandler says: “It’s definitely a trend”.
However, all of this has been happening in America: the birthplace of Young Adult blockbusters Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. According to Dr Lucy Pearson, a lecturer in children’s literature at Newcastle University, it’s nothing new: “Sex has always been an issue in Young Adult fiction, but historically a problematic one,” she tells me. A turning point came, Pearson says, with Forever by Judy Blume. Forever, published in 1975, “is noticeable as a book which tells of teens who want to have sex and do have sex and nothing bad happens”. Pearson continues: “It’s still rare in that aspect – there aren’t many Young Adult novels out there which feature healthy sexual relationships.”
Irresistible falls into a similar trap: Mia, the 16-year-old protagonist, has an inadvisable fling with “toxic” posh totty Jamie Elliot-Fox. She later has her misdemeanours exposed on Facebook, and the first-person narrative suggests a similar situation arose after her previous relationship. Despite announcing itself as “the sexy new thing for teens”, Irresistible remains a cautionary coming-of-age tale with more hot air than bedroom action.
Brenda Gardner, managing director of Irresistible’s publisher, Piccadilly Press, explains that this is the mark of a Steamy. “Irresistible is about passion and love, touching rather than sex.” It is aimed at sophisticated teenagers aged 14 and above, but considering Gardner’s team picked it to capture “the Fifty Shades effect for teens”, the book seems curiously tame.
However, Clare Hall-Craggs from Random House echoes the demand for “safer” teen fiction, “with romance rather than raw sex”. Hall-Craggs cites Beth Reekles, a 17-year-old author and a new signing for the publisher. Her novel The Kissing Booth topped the children’s iBooks chart when it was released in December as an ebook. It has a similar scorned-girl/bad-boy romance feel to Irresistible, and despite its “safer” publishing push, is being listed as New Adult on Goodreads.
This is because these teen-aimed romances aren’t being read just by teenagers. A Bowker survey from September 2012 showed that 55 per cent of teen fiction was bought by over-18s for themselves – and that, surprisingly, buyers aged 30 to 44 accounted for a hefty 28 per cent of sales.
Goodreads’ statistics follow the same trend. Of the users reading fiction labelled as New Adult, 30 per cent sit in the 18 to 24 bracket, and another 30 per cent are between 25 and 34.
Gardner says the trend “isn’t really about sex, it’s more about adults reading teen fiction”. Piccadilly has been publishing teen fiction since the mid-Nineties. Gardner recollects that in 1999 women in their early Twenties were enjoying Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, the first of 10 books in the series Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. “It’s been around for some time, but when Twilight got big [with older readers], publishers started to sit up and notice.”
Pearson explains the impact of the age gap between teen fiction’s intended and actual markets. “Two things happen,” she says, “one is that the older audience are less likely to be satisfied by the omission of detail regarding sex, another is that it changes the gateposts for publishers and booksellers.”
It’s interesting that three out of the 15 New Adult titles on The New York Times bestseller list were originally self-published. Self-published writers are free of the constraints which publishers are finding challenging when it comes to straddling these two markets. Chandler says, “we think the rise in New Adult is linked to self-publishing. So many began as self-published books, then they get reader attention and eventually publishers pick up on some.” It’s the E L James Fifty Shades success story all over again – and it’s worth noting that James started out as a Twilight fan fiction writer.
Hall-Craggs says “readers are clamouring for The Kissing Booth to come into paperback”. When Reekles’ debut novel is published in April, it will be one of the first in the bookshops of its kind. Bookshops have been slow on the uptake. Jon Howells from Waterstones says that publishers are too. “We’re aware of the Steamies/New Adult genre, but there has not been any significant publishing in this area in the UK yet. We’re talking to publishers regarding our expectations for clear, informative advice for parents of teenagers about the content. Publishers have indicated that these titles are aimed at an older audience than even Young Adult, and therefore would need to be stocked appropriately.”
As the first couple are brought into print this spring the UK may begin to mirror American readers’ love of them. As self-publishing and ebooks have shown, there is a real hunger for the genre, but one which is causing awkward decisions for publishers and bookshops on how they will be marketed. It’s only a matter of time before we see New Adult books in high street booksellers – but you won’t necessarily find them in the teen section.