Particularly if you rub shoulders with the self-publishing, online-frenzied, contemporary-romance crowd, you've definitely heard this term a lot lately. But what does it mean? Is your story New Adult? How can you tell?
What it's not:
New Adult is not a genre. Your genre is what type of story you're telling: fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, literary, etc. Notice not one of these genres addresses the audience. Your fantasy novel could be anything from The Chronicles of Narnia (a child's story) to The Chronicles of Amber (definitely not a child's story), or anything in between.
New Adult is not Chick-Lit. Chick-lit was a genre. Remember, genres are basically marketing techniques, and the chick-lit label was marketing at its narrowest (and most insulting, if you ask me). New Adult is neither a genre, nor a reincarnation of the Chick-Lit movement. Are there similarities? Yes, sometimes. But they're not synonymous.
New Adult is not Erotica. Again, erotica is a genre. It describes what sort of story you're telling, though this is the only genre I can think of in which a category is unnecessary. Every person with a brain will assume you are not writing erotica for children, so erotica is automatically an "adult" genre.
New Adult is not well-defined. This is the hardest part of this post, but it's true. New Adult is a newer phenomenon, and it simply is not yet well-defined. Much like middle grade was a few years ago, or young adult before that, new adult is still finding its footing.
Is it college-aged protagonists? Yes.
Is it the still-kinda-a-kid-but-expected-to-be-an-adult-immediately-post-college stories? Yes.
Is it chick-lit without the "chick" facade? Yes.
Is it none of these things? Possibly.
Some agents and editors will say new adult has no male protagonists, some will disagree vehemently. Some people say it's "contemporary only" because they cannot conceive of an in-between phase in a culture that is not our current culture. Others will howl and rip out their hair if you suggest such a thing.
Just know this for now: New Adult is a thing and it's hard to define.
Okay, fine, what IS it then?
New Adult is the bridge between Young Adult and Adult. If middle grade is all about understanding who you are, and young adult is all about figuring out how you fit into the world around you, then new adult is adjusting to those roles. This is the time of life before people are "settled down" and before they get good at making decisions or understanding their life.
New Adult is about the BIG things in life. Young adult spends a lot of time on the hubris of youth: insta-love, dramatic relationships, the feeling of immortality, etc. New adult has a touch of that, but the mistakes and the relationships are bigger. Young adult is about falling in love for the first time; new adult is about falling in love for the last time. Young adult is figuring our how you fit into the world; new adult is actually going forth and forging that path.
New Adult is mostly self-published contemporary romance. For now. This category evolved as a result of the self-publishing movement, actually. Authors and readers both wanted college-aged protagonists, but agents and editors repeatedly said "We don't sell that" and eventually some of the authors said, "FINE. We will sell it on our own."
And because self-publishing is dominated by romance and/or contemporary, those are the genres that are dominating the new adult category right now. Does that mean that new adult will always be 80% contemporary romance? No, no more than it means that you've seen the last fictional vampire. Trends shift, marketing changes, this whole publishing world will be flipped upside down before you know it.
New Adult is a category. Categories define what age your readership is (or, rather, what age of readers your marketing team will be aiming for). Some loosey-goosey guidelines:
Picture books: birth - 8
Juvenile readers: 6 - 10
Middle grade: 9 - 13
Young Adult: 14 - 19
New Adult: 18 - 22
That list is obviously not a hard-and-fast, set-in-stone set of rules. The readers of these categories are even more nebulous; adults read young adult fiction all the time, and vice versa.
But if you are writing a book that feels too old to be YA, but too young to be adult... maybe you have yourself a New Adult story. Agents are on the hunt for this category, and they are hunting for non-romance, non-contemporary genres.