Genre fiction is extremely popular in e-books, publishers find

red planet jupiterSpeaking of Baen, Wired misses a perfectly good opportunity to speak of Baen in an article about why big publishers seem to think genre fiction is the future of e-books. The article looks at how all the recent digital-only imprints the Big Six have been launching lately all seem to focus on genre fiction—science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance. Traditionally, these markets’ sales have always lagged behind “mainstream” literary fiction.

However, Random House VP and digital publishing director Allison Dobson says that the digital marketplace has different priorities. Genre fans were the biggest e-book “early adopters” and even now some genre titles have as much as 60-70% digital sales.

There are a number of different suggestions as to why this is. The “no one can judge me by my book’s cover” theory is popular, but so too is the notion that genre fans tend to be voracious readers, as genre fiction is frequently serialized and e-readers make it easy to grab more and more books without having to wait to get to a library or store.

What they didn’t mention is that many of the earliest successful e-book sellers tended to be genre—Hard Shell Word Factory, Ellora’s Cave, and, of course, Baen. So genre fans were introduced to e-books earlier than most, and primed to see their biggest advantages. Of course, those were the days when e-books made up something like half a percent of total book sales, at least for the Big Six, so it’s hard to imagine they could have had that much of an impact. But then again, how much of sales did they account for among those who published through those e-book stores? Maybe they weren’t buying so many Big Six titles because the Big Six weren’t publishing the stuff they wanted.

Then there’s also the “meta” benefit of reading your books from something very much like what characters would be using in the books you are yourself reading. You can’t blame SF fans for wanting to act out their SF fantasies. If we don’t yet have flying cars and rocket packs, at least we can have every e-book we own right there at our fingertips!

Digital-only has benefits for publishers as well. They can experiment with publishing works of varying lengths without being hostage to minimum necessary lengths for book binderies, and they can get books a lot faster to market without having to worry about setting up for print runs. They can also change the cover, title, and so on to see how they affect sales. Of course, they also run up against self-publishers, but the big six publishers Wired talked to felt confident that they had something to offer to lure writers away from self-publishing, such as the promise of possibly making it into print as well.

As a genre fan myself, I tend to look at the explosion of genre e-books as a bit of vindication. All these years, people have talked down SF’s sales potential: “Maybe it was big in the past, but it’s a niche market anymore, and no one wants to read that stuff except the hard-core fans.” But gosh, look who’s driving e-book sales now?

8 Comments on Genre fiction is extremely popular in e-books, publishers find

  1. MarylandBill // June 27, 2013 at 1:15 pm //

    I definitely think the ability to buy books quickly might play a major role in the success of genre fiction on e-ink devices, particularly in genres that tend to have stories told over multiple books.

    I am a case in point.

    Short of a novel having a borderline pornographic cover, I have never particularly cared if people saw what I was reading. But when I bought books in book stores, if I saw a new series I was interested in, I would often only buy the first book in the series since I wanted to find out if I liked the series before I really committed to it. Now there are two problems with this (for the book seller). 1. Often times the first book in the series would not be in stock, so I wouldn’t buy any books. 2. Even if I like the book, once I am finished it, I will have to wait to my next bookstore trip… by which point I might be reading something else and forget about the series.

    Now, things are different. I finish book 1 in a series, if I like it, the next book in the series is likely on my reader in 5 minutes (and mostly because I keep the wifi on my reader turned off so I have to turn it on before I get the next book). And this behavior has developed since I got a Nook. Prior to that when I had a Sony PRS-505 (Which I still miss), I would have to really like a book to take the effort of getting the next book right away.

  2. @MarylandBill, which is why publishers need to digitize their backlists (and proof them) fast. There’s money out there going to waste because people can’t buy the books or won’t buy them because the quality is so bad.

    I desperately want to re-read Julian May’s “Saga of Pliocene Exile” series, but the reviews on Amazon tell me the book still has scan/OCR problems. If you know the series, you’ll understand why “tore” for “torc” will drive me crazy within a couple of pages.

  3. Where did you get your source that genre fiction lags behind literary fiction? I had always heard Romances sell better than any other category and that’s been true for many years. I’d like to investigate this further.
    (source: Simba Information estimates)
    Romance fiction: $1.438 billion in estimated revenue for 2012
    Religion/inspirational: $717.9 million
    Mystery: $728.2 million
    Science fiction/fantasy: $590.2 million
    Classic literary fiction: $470.5 million

  4. Colleen, the problem with the romance versus mainstream/literary numbers is that the definitions are more about where the books are shelved than what they are. Genre novels which are paperbacks and trades have their own shelves. These shelves are considered ghettoes where mainstream readers supposedly will not go.

    Mainstream/literary hardcover books are the ones which are up front on the tables and special shelves.

    Publishers and booksellers believe that putting a book in the genre section causes smaller sales so books by major bestselling authors like Nora Roberts (several subgenres of romance), Stephen King (horror and thrillers), and other writers who are really writing genre are up front and labeled mainstream.

    If the true genre novel sales are deleted from the mainstream/literary totals the publishers mention and put back into the romance, etc., categories, the numbers are far closer to the Simba numbers you mention.

  5. grammar is wrong here — “Maybe it was big in the past, but it’s a niche market *anymore*, and no one wants to read that stuff except the hard-core fans.”

  6. It’s a colloquialism.

  7. I guess, and I take your word for it. But even as a colloquialism, shouldn’t the person be saying “it’s not a niche market anymore”? Or “it’s no longer a niche market anymore”? Does it need a negative there, or have I been outside the USA too long to understand the new lingo? Maybe. Probably, Must be. I rust me case. Old man out of sync. The only way I can understand it is with a NOT in there as in “It’s not a niche market anymore.” Otherwise one would say “it is still a niche market….” no? I am confused by this colloquialism but i accept your explantion. Interesting

  8. Last I checked, the front tables at chain book stores (which admittedly has been almost a year) tended to have whatever was the hot book series at the moment, regardless of whether it was fantasy, horror, romance, etc. And except for his current best sellers, Stephen King’s back list has generally been in the horror section (can’t comment on Nora Roberts since I don’t read romance).

    That being said, the publishing industry does ghettoize authors and the book stores tend to follow. Still remember making the mistake of trying to find Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove in the western section (This was probably 5-6 years after the mini-series)… It took me several tries before I realized it was in the general literature section. The same would have occurred with Jurassic Park except I read it when it was in the front of the store. I still scratch my head about why it is not in the Science Fiction section.

    Once the publishing industry decides what niche an author fits in, they tend to remain there regardless of how far their writing might drift. The only exceptions I can think of are people like the late Ian Banks who published with two different names.

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