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How reading habits shape the publishing landscape and what authors and...

In The Power of Habit (reviewed here in 2012), Charles Duhigg recounts the story of how the song “Hey Ya” by Outkast became the breakout hit in 2004.  Every person in the music business who heard this song believed it was going to be a hit.  At Arista Records, executives were singing the catch phrase “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” to each other in the hallways.  But when the song was released, it bombed.

Duhigg explains that the tune was not familiar enough to the radio listeners and they would turn the station even before the opening verse was completed.

For instance, when stations played “Breathe” by Blu Cantrell during the summer of 2003, almost no one changed the dial. The song is an eminently forgettable, beat-driven tune that DJs found so bland that most of them only played it reluctantly, they told music publications. But for some reason, whenever it came on the radio, people listened, even if, as pollsters later discovered, those same listeners said they didn’t like the song very much. Or consider “Here Without You” by 3 Doors Down, or almost any song by the group Maroon 5. Those bands are so featureless that critics and listeners created a new music category—“bath rock”—to describe their tepid sounds. Yet whenever they came on the radio, almost no one changed the station.

Then there were songs that listeners said they actively disliked, but were sticky nonetheless. Take Christina Aguilera or Celine Dion. In survey after survey, male listeners said they hated Celine Dion and couldn’t stand her songs. But whenever a Dion tune came on the radio, men stayed tuned in. Within the Los Angeles market, stations that regularly played Dion at the end of each hour—when the number of listeners was measured—could reliably boost their audience by as much as 3 percent, a huge figure in the radio world. Male listeners may have thought they disliked Dion, but when her songs played, they stayed glued.


You see, popular music tunes follow the same sound and even chord progression.

It should be noted that some of the songs in the video are transposed to use the four chord progression even if the originally did not use the chords in the same order (although those same four chords were used throughout the song). But the point of the video is the same as the point that Duhigg makes in The Power of Habit. It’s hard to move the general public away from familiar things.

By sandwiching “Hey Ya” between more popular songs, the record company eventually turned “Hey Ya” into a familiar sounding song and eventually it took off.  “Hey Ya” was nominated for Record of the Year and the album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won Album of the Year at the 2004 Grammys.  DMC has recently made a similar criticism of the music of Jay-Z and Lil Wayne that the reason those artists are popular is due to the repetitiveness of their songs on the radio. DMC calls this “brainwashing.” It is, sort of.  Really what is happening is  record companies and radio stations are working in tandem to make these two familiar.

How does this work in readers?  Easily.  Covers, blurbs, tropes, themes are all repeated in an effort to deliver the Celine Dion fix.  And the readers may consistently come away dissatisfied (and they do according to reviews and message board posts), but we perpetuate the commonality of books by returning to the familiar.

“Sometimes stations will do research by calling listeners on the phone, and play a snippet of a song, and listeners will say, ‘I’ve heard that a million times. I’m totally tired of it,’ ” Meyer told me. “But when it comes on the radio, your subconscious says, ‘I know this song! I’ve heard it a million times! I can sing along!’ Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio. Your brain secretly wants that song, because it’s so familiar to everything else you’ve already heard and liked. It just sounds right.

There is evidence that a preference for things that sound “familiar” is a product of our neurology. Scientists have examined people’s brains as they listen to music, and have tracked which neural regions are involved in comprehending aural stimuli. Listening to music activates numerous areas of the brain, including the auditory cortex, the thalamus, andthe superior parietal cortex. These same areas are also associated with pattern  recognition and helping the brain decide which inputs to pay attention to and which to ignore.

As noted in The Power of Habit, scientists at MIT learned that “behavioral habits prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by the endless decisions we would otherwise have to make each day.” When you are confronted with thousands of new releases, it is far easier to go to one that looks and sounds like you’ve read before, particularly when it is a book you liked.

I know I’ve discussed this before, but this is why Harlequin has been profitable for so long. Within each of its category lines, Harlequin makes a promise to its readers that they will be getting a familiar product.  Harlequin Presents will deliver “about passion and escape—glamorous international settings, captivating women and the seductive, tempting men who want them” where as Harlequin Romance books are about “real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men experiencing the intensity, anticipation and sheer rush of falling in love.”

The New Adult books that sell for 99c a pop and dominate the publishing landscape are the equivalent of a category book. Many are derivative of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster.  Bad boys with anger management issues who are engaged in underground fighting and find their one true love in the arms of an inexperienced virgin speckle the bestseller lists.  Dig deeper and you’ll find that some of the most popular self published titles in the past year or so were Twilight fan fiction, all brewed off the same base of the intensely passionate love one extraordinary young man had for an awkward but seemingly average young woman.  The covers, titles, and blurbs all promise the same sort of story, one that resonated so strongly with readers that entire threads and message boards are devoted to finding the next Travis-like hero. (Travis is the male protagonist in Beautiful Disaster, reviewed here).  This desire for the familiar is so strong that books that are actual copies of Beautiful Disaster and another popular New Adult, Easy by Tammara Webber, that a plagiarized novel by an unknown author came perilously close to hitting the Kindle top 100 before it was removed by Amazon.

Even when those other books never quite live up to the original, we readers keep going back to the same well because it’s easier and familiar. “Listeners are happy to sit through a song they might say they dislike, as long as it seems like something they’ve heard before.”  This isn’t a function of just romance readers. We are just the most prolific of readers but there are readers who love Westerns, cozy mysteries, thrillers, a science fiction books.  To the regular science fiction reader, SFF stories are the familiar and Jane Austen is the unfamiliar.

I remember once reading Linnea Sinclair arguing that terms like the ton and pantaloons are just as foreign as a science fiction term. The problem is that readers of romance have long been exposed to Regency related terms (so much so that even inaccuracies become realities) and they have not been similarly exposed to science fiction romance.  It’s not that the Alien Hero is too strange to readers, but that they aren’t familiar to readers.

So how does something different ever succeed?  “By dressing something new in old clothes, and making the unfamiliar seem familiar,” writes Duhigg.

Publishers have kind of tried to do this with anthologies. The danger is overpromising and underdelivering as well as a reader feeling the subject of a bait and switch.  To really make a sea change in publishing, I think you have to inundate readers with the foreign until it becomes familiar.  This means publishing not just one book but a slew of them until that thing that is unfamiliar becomes ordinary, or in other terms, oversaturated.  Packaging Author A with bestselling Author B isn’t enough. It has to be done over and over and over until people complain of being sick of it.

In fact, you might argue that a publisher and author is not successful until people start arguing the market is flooded and that they are TIRED of all the sameness.  (Yes, I realize that this somewhat negates my “Let the Historicals Die” post but there is a point of diminishing returns. At some point, there will be a denouement.).

This does not mean that a different book can’t break the mold and become a genre leader. That will happen but it’s far harder to create a bestseller out of something foreign than it is out of something familiar.  Because even while we readers cry that we want something fresh and different, we want it to be fresh, different and, yet, familiar.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Lia
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 05:52:57

    Well, that’s me belting out ‘Hey ya’ for the rest of the day. And I always change the channel when Maroon 5 comes on, can’t stand the dude’s voice.

    Am currently reading ‘Steal a Plot’ (at 3 euro’s an absolute steal in itself!) and it basically states that their are a certain number of plot motivators and story spicers, and combining these delivers a plot. This fact in itself is not new, but the way it is presented in this book is interesting. Would definitely recommend.

  2. Cara Bristol
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 07:52:02

    So when a reviewer says, “I’ve never read a book like this before,” it’s the kiss of death. This explains why fast food (besides being fast) is so popular. You can walk into any McDonalds and know exactly what you’re going to get.

  3. hapax
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 08:13:43

    This is one of the most cogent and succinct analyses of publishing trends that I have read in many a moon, and believe me I read a LOT of them.

    It makes me think of reading to my children, when they were quite little. Every parent knows the “Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie” routine — the child wants you to read the SAME book, night after night, until just the opening words make your stomach roil.

    Yet we forget what a thrill that is for the very young; every day they are bombarded with new experiences, shake-ups to the familiar: Yesterday was sunny; today there is rain! This morning I ate cereal; but tomorrow it’s scrambled eggs! Last week there were puppies on my television; this week there are kittens!

    It must be an incredibly exciting revelation that no matter how many times Mama reads me THE RUNAWAY BUNNY, the words and pictures stay just the *same*. How magical it is, that something can be fixed and permanent in a world that seems to be always in flux.

  4. carmen webster buxton
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 08:31:08

    This is an excellent illustration of the folly of trade press publishers who think ebooks are the enemy. NOT READING is the enemy!

  5. Shelly
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 08:58:00

    Had a recent discussion with my editor that plays off of this. I was pitching novel ideas to her and even though we both kinda seem to like one idea, she urged me to instead try to shoot more in the vain of the style and type books I’m already writing. Part of me wants to be like a petulant kid and shout “But I don’t wanna do the same thing!” but the other more practical part realizes that readers like sameness and to betray those expectations is folly – at least early in your career. Publishing can include art, but its also a business and most modern businesses include branding. You identify a product with a name like McDonald’s or Apple, just like you identify a certain style of book with an author like Nora Roberts or Dan Brown. As much as readers complain that hate seeing the same books over and over again, as you apply point out, the same books on bestseller lists shows that they seem to be reading the same types of books over and over and over again. It can be very frustrating from an author’s perspective when you want to break out of the box but wonder if the audience is there.

  6. Rashda/Mina Khan (@SpiceBites)
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 09:36:25

    True…but sad.

  7. Helen
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 09:44:13

    This is a bit off topic but I am dying for a new Linnea Sinclair book. She is hands down my favorite scifi romance author. I hope she is still writing, but it seems like forever since she has had a full length book published. I recommended her books to everyone I know. Even people who insist they won’t read sci-fi. I refused to lend them other books until they read one of hers. They all ended up liking her style enough to read the rest of her books.

    I do think that it is very difficult to get readers to try something new. It is like pulling teeth! I read every genre so I can’t understand when someone objects to reading something they have never even tried just because of the genre the book is in.

  8. Jeannie
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 11:21:48

    I’m going to reveal my annoyingly stubborn nature when I admit that every time I read the Outkast example, I think to myself, “But there’s a chance!”

  9. Janine
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 11:37:13


    Fascinating post.

    To really make a sea change in publishing, I think you have to inundate readers with the foreign until it becomes familiar. This means publishing not just one book but a slew of them until that thing that is unfamiliar becomes ordinary, or in other terms, oversaturated.

    Yeah, but what is to motivate publishers to do something like this? If publisher A tries it, publisher B may continue selling the genres that have traditionally sold well and in so doing, win some of publisher A’s market share while publisher A is taking that risk.

    @hapax: Great comment. It’s depressing from the perspective of an experienced reader who doesn’t necessarily want a steady diet of same old same old.

  10. Laura Florand
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 11:49:10

    I wonder if Jeannie Lin has talked about this much or would care to comment? Her books are so amazing, and yet I had the impression that it was an uphill battle to convince readers to try them? I don’t know this for sure, but seem to remember seeing comments from her about that. And how has Harlequin gone about wooing those readers? And by readers in this case, I don’t necessarily mean reviewers who tend to be eager for something new and very exploratory in their tastes, but the more casual reader, who might read fewer than 50 books a year. (Already a huge number of books, really, for most people. A book a week.)

  11. lawless
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 12:52:20

    Because even while we readers cry that we want something fresh and different, we want it to be fresh, different and, yet, familiar.

    So true. However, given the risk/reward calculation, I do not envision the big publishers (or even many publishers) going the route you suggest. If anything, this seems to be what self-publishing and indie/small/genre press publishing is for (I’m including Harlequin in genre publishing), with the Big Six (or however many of them there are) only stumbling onto such things accidentally.

    The same is even more true of movies, where the indie movement has shrunk and the cost of entry makes the equivalent of self-publishing a full-length movie close to impossible for an outsider.

    I’d love to see some movement on the demand side, but I cannot think of an effective and positive way of convincing more people to put their money where their mouth is and try something different, even if only once in a while. Anyone have any ideas?

  12. lawless
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 12:56:47

    @Laura Florand – All I can say is that I live in an ethnically diverse town in northern NJ/NYC metro area, and my local library does not have anything of Jeannie Lin’s available in any format. (For whatever it’s worth, they don’t have anything by Meljean Brook, either.)

  13. Kay Sisk
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 13:27:09

    The very romance-savvy librarian in the next small town from ours has concocted a “blind date with a book” program for this summer. She wraps the books up so only the checkout info is visible for her computer. She puts the genre and level (YA, Adult) on the wrapper and more or less dares her patrons to pick up an unknown book and give it a try. Most of those that do come back for another by the same author, this time picking off the shelves.

    She does, however, have people who ask, “What if I don’t like it?” as if they were buying it. Uh… put it in the return box?

    @hapax: Thank you so much for the comment about rereading the same book over and over to your children. I wish I’d had this insight 30 years ago. I’ll pass it along to those children, now fathers.

  14. Laura Florand
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 14:08:09

    @lawless: You should start a campaign. :) Did you ask them about it? Some of the libraries I’ve given talks at are very responsive to reader requests, so it’s a good way to get a favorite author on the shelves. Very sad for so many people to miss Jeannie & Meljean’s books.

  15. Tasha Turner
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 14:13:17

    Interesting. I was once a harlequin historical & regency reader until 2 things happened

    1. They added more sex to the books
    2. I really did get tired of the sexist formula after 15-20 years

    I now read among many genres to keep myself from getting too bored by “the same thing”. But I do see people asking for recommendations and listing what they like which are all variations of the same.

    Interesting post and lots of food for thought.

  16. Stephanie C
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 15:01:17

    After the first album I would change the station on Maroon 5 because the song would just be boring but a couple of months later I would be singing along. It drives me carzy!

  17. Jenny
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 15:25:14

    My sister read somewhere that after 7 listens you will begin to like a song that you didn’t previously like. I’m not sure if it’s true all the time for me, but it has happened that a song grows on me. Some songs I hate immediately and never grow to like even though I hear them all the time, but in a lot of cases the more I hear it the more I like it.

    I’m not sure that the same is true for books. I do sometimes seek out books with tropes I know I enjoy, but sometimes I pick up certain books because they are so out of the norm of what I would usually read.

  18. Stephanie Draven
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 17:44:53

    This is a fascinating post. Much fodder for thought. Thanks, Jane.

  19. cleo
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 18:14:11

    This is so interesting. I think this may be why category romances can have more diverse characters and settings than stand alones – because the novelty is wrapped up in a familiar package. I’m not a big category reader but I’ve read quite a few over the past 20 years and I’m pretty sure I read the following firsts in romance in categories – African American heroine, main character with PTSD, Australian setting, New Zealand setting, etc – I’m sure there are more firsts if I could only remember them all.

    And the Hey Ya example also gives me hope that other new things can be successful. I think are other examples of this – didn’t Seinfeld fail all the focus groups because it was too different from what was on tv at the time? And irrc the Sony Walkman also didn’t do well with focus groups because it was too different.

    ETA – seems like one thing my examples have in common with Hey Ya is that someone believed in them enough to take a chance in producing them. I don’t know how Seinfeld and the Walkman found their markets, so I don’t know if there’s a common thread in the marketing too.

  20. Fiona McGier
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 18:24:50

    This explains why even though I DETEST the music that plays in the retail store that I slave away in, sometimes songs will start playing in my head like the brain-worms they are, and I’ll have to take drastic action to banish them! Years ago as a kid, I figured out that if I memorized every note of a favorite song, I could use that to get rid of ones I didn’t like, by concentrating fully on every note, every breath the singer takes. It usually works. But sometimes I have to put my earbuds in and blast some industrial rock to clear my head!

    I really wish my muse would present me with the tropes that are popular. I’m still waiting for “the strong, alpha female who falls for the beta male who has to convince her they’re meant to be together for more than just hot sex”, to become the star of a popular trope…then I’ll be all over that!

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  22. Emma
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 13:15:52

    This is an excellent post, though sad for those who write things that are “different” from the norm. I was thinking about it in the car today when “Blurred Lines” came on. The song has been bombarding me all summer and I had been resisting, but suddenly I found myself singing along. It was such a perfect illustration this concept and so aggravating at the same time to realize that no, I’m not “special” and fit into the same psychologically predictable patterns as most people. (And for the record, I’m still totally humming Robin Thicke. “Everybody get up.” Argg.)

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  28. Martine
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 01:22:37

    Actually, I think the problem is that this generation is obsessed with “originality”. Shakespeare stole his plots from historical writers. That doesn’t mean his works are not original. Tropes are there because they are a part of the writing craft. They are actually more complex and necessary then readers realize, I think. The trick is to write something that is good, not something that is unheard of. Not to mention that I don’t think much of uncredited surveys. However, one thing I really am sick of are the post Buffy fantasy heroines. THAT really is a little silly. I walk by that section in book stores, and see dozens of these women with their tough-girl glares sneering at me from the book jackets. And every one has the blurb describing so and so as a smart, sassy, spirited ….and unique heroine. Its very funny.

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