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Kathleen Tucker – at her Stouffville, Ont., home – has become a success story with her Ten Tiny Breaths series.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Author Kathleen Tucker had self-published three young-adult romances when she decided to try her hand at something aimed at a slightly older audience – with more sexually explicit content.

The results were better than anything she expected. A month after she self-published her novel Ten Tiny Breaths online in October, 2012, Ms. Tucker, based in Stouffville, Ont., had raked in more than $50,000 and sold more copies in a day than her three previous books had in a month combined.

Since then, countless authors have followed the same route, taking advantage of a new and growing genre of literature aimed at primarily female readers between 18 and 25. Known as "new adult," the genre features mainly university or college-aged protagonists dealing with early twenties life, in particular romance and sexual relationships.

The segment of the book-buying market is hard to quantify as the wider industry has been slow to embrace the genre and the bulk of sales are made online. But a recent report by author and publishing data website found that self-published books make up as much as 25 per cent of Amazon's bestseller lists. The overwhelming majority of those were in the romance genre, many of which were new adult titles.

New adult has spawned a host of successes such as E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey and Colleen Hoover's Slammed, with the former reportedly having earned $95-million (U.S.) between mid-2012 and mid-2013. Several authors, such as Ms. Hoover and new adult romance author Bella Andre, have also managed to negotiate with larger publishing houses for print-only deals while keeping e-book selling rights – a rare luxury that happens only when authors hold some clout.

New adult or NA was born out of a casual mention in a call for manuscripts sent out by New York-based publishing giant St. Martin's Press in 2009. But the throwaway term caught the attention of the online book community and, finally last year, received its own Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) code, which assigns genres to books so that booksellers can more easily place them in sections.

It's a far cry from new adult's early days, when Ms. Tucker says friends tried to pitch ideas but received little attention. The genre was too new, she added, and many agents felt it was too soon to take the risk.

But mainstream publishers started to embrace the genre in 2012 after self-published new adult titles, such as Ms. Hoover's Slammed, shot to the top of bestseller lists, proving that the success of Fifty Shades a year earlier wasn't a one-off.

"I think … a lot of the interest is among romance publishers or contemporary publishers who have some interest in romance," said Monica Pacheco, a literary agent with Toronto-based Anne McDermid & Associates. "I think in the last year, I've seen a little over 30 deals for it, and by and large, they were mostly romance."

Thirty isn't an astronomical number, but it's an indication that interest in new adult is growing among traditional publishers, she added.

Ms. Tucker, who was signed to New York-based Simon & Schuster's imprint Atria Books shortly after Ten Tiny Breaths came out, said the industry now sees her and others as hybrid authors, those who have some titles signed to big-name publishers, but who also release their own e-books on the side.

But while new adult is picking up traction in digital sales, large publishers are grappling with how to handle print versions of the books.

Margo Lipschultz, senior editor at Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., said that although new adult titles have made their way onto tables and featured spaces at the end of aisles, few retailers have gone so far as providing the genre with its own shelf space.

"I think they find the term a little confusing or not specific enough to capture a large readership," she said, adding that Harlequin has been focusing resources on the genre after observing its digital sales success.

"We're always looking to ensure that we are growing awareness among print readers," she said. "That can entail anything from including bonus material that's exclusive to print editions or just looking at ways we can partner with booksellers to ensure that we are shelving them in the right places."

Other publishers have also made efforts to show traditional sellers that the market for new adult is healthy and thriving by bringing the authors to the stores. Atria has jumped full force into new adult and now plans to release 15-20 NA titles every year, compared with none before 2012.

"The thing is in … convincing booksellers that it's not just a fad, it really does exist," says Judith Curr, publisher and president of Atria. "They haven't really seen people coming into the bookstores and asking for the books perhaps. Whenever it's a new area, they ask, 'If I really am going to dedicate shelf space to a new area, what am I going to take it from?'

"All of the readers who made [young adult] explode are now new adult readers potentially," Ms. Curr says.

What is clear to her, however, is that new adult will have to expand outside of its current literary conventions if it hopes to continue its success. Authors such as Ms. Tucker, whose pen name is K.A. Tucker, and veteran Canadian author Kelley Armstrong, who predicted the wave of new adult way back in 2009, agree.

Already, Ms. Armstrong says, the writing community is quickly responding, with authors branching out into paranormal and suspense. She predicts that in the future, new adult books will be even meatier and plot-driven, though in her experience, publishers interested in the genre now are still mainly interested in what has worked for the past two years.