Sometimes I come across articles about writing, reading, and publishing that seem to be referring to an alternate book world that I’ve never experienced. My reaction is: Huh? Where did that idea come from?
Take, for example, a recent article on the Wired magazine website that examined the “surprising” popularity of genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and romance in e-book form. These forms of storytelling, according to the article, “have traditionally lagged behind literary fiction in terms of sales.”
Huh? Where did that idea come from?
A Publishers Weekly/Bowker study a couple years ago showed literary fiction had 20% of the digital market share, outselling any particular genre. But those sales included classics – the e-books that are dirt cheap (and sometimes free) for downloading. How many owners of new Kindles have bought War and Peace or every Jane Austen novel during an initial downloading spree, then never found time to read them as planned?
When it comes to traditional print publishing, can any of us recall a time when genre fiction didn’t dominate bestseller lists? When James Patterson, John Grisham, Nora Roberts and other genre stars didn’t regularly stomp all over literary fiction? The annual Publishers Weekly report on the bestselling books of the previous year confirm that genre rules. The surprising thing isn’t that genre sells well but that there’s any room at all for litfic.
The Wired article names some all-digital genre lines created recently by major publishers – Hydra (SF/fantasy), Alibi (mystery), Flirt (“new adult”), Loveswept (romance) from Random House and Witness (mystery) from Harper Collins – and says the focus on genre fiction “might seem counter-intuitive according to traditional print publishing sales.”
But it’s not at all counter-intuitive. Genre books, particularly romance and crime fiction in all their many varieties, are big sellers in print, so it makes sense to assume they’ll sell well as e-books. And they do. Some genre books sell more digital copies than print.
Why? Some sensible reasons are advanced in the article, but the first one mentioned is this: If it’s an e-book, you won’t be embarrassed by other people being able to see what you’re reading. That sounds an awful lot like: Nobody can see you’re reading trash.
Antonia Storer, a columnist for The Guardian, is quoted as saying she’s more comfortable reading “downmarket” fiction in secrecy on an e-reader and “keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.” In a column last year Storer wrote, “The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material.” After you stop rolling your eyes, go read the rest of the column. It’s quite entertaining.
|Put a cover on your e-reader to make sure nobody can see what kind of trash you're reading!|
Digital-first publishing allows publishers to take more chances on new authors and work that might not make a profit in print. Novellas, for example, have more chance of being published profitably (or published at all) as e-books. As Stehlik says, e-books have liberated publishers from the profit/loss limits of print – and they have freed writers and readers as well.
But it appears we still have a long way to go to free ourselves of prejudice against genre fiction. I’m not ashamed of what I read. I’m not ashamed of what I write. If you see me reading on my tablet, it’s not because I’m hiding something. It just happens to be a convenient way to carry around a ton of books so I always something to choose from.