Are romance readers lying to themselves?
Recently the documentary about romance produced by Laurie Kahn has generated a couple of positive articles about romance and romance readers. The lede for these two articles and most articles about romances today includes the statistic that romance is a billion dollar market.
For years I believed this fact unreservedly but since I’ve learned more about the industry and how the industry categorizes romances, I’m starting to question this oft trotted out fact. Romance books, as categorized by the industry, includes authors such as Nicholas Sparks (97 million in sales and counting), Emily Giffin, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Jude Deveraux, Debbie Macomber, Nora Roberts. Of the preceding, I think Nora Roberts is an author most romance readers would identify as writing romance. The others? Not so much.
Most of the industry’s success generally rides on a handful of books. It’s the Pareto Principle which, as it applies to the trade publishing industry, means that twenty percent of the books published account for eighty percent of sales. Because of this, it’s safe to assume that the authors such as Sparks, Giffin, Steele, etc. are responsible for the majority of what is deemed romance sales.
Back before Harlequin was purchased, it represented the largest portion of romance book sales (in 2002 it published over half of all romances sold in North America), and in the year before it was purchased, it documented $362 million in sales. The total number of romance books sold may be in a decline as well. RWA reports $1.368 billion in 2011 sales versus $1.08 billion in 2013 sales. How can Harlequin with only $362 million in sales represent the largest portion of romance sales and still have romance be a billion dollar industry?
It can’t unless you include authors most romance readers wouldn’t categorize as romance.
Why is this even worthy of a blog post?
For a couple of reasons. First, because romance readers (including me!) have often used this statistic to justify our existence and elevate our genre. When the number is fallacious or overinflated (as I think it is), it is hard to understand why others don’t give us more credit. The sad fact is I don’t think we are a valuable customer. Romance readers are huge consumers of books, but we are also the most price sensitive meaning we’ll abandon a product and move to a different, lower priced product with greater ease. We care about quality but price is the overriding factor. Because we are voracious readers, it also means we might cost more than other customers. For instance, in subscription services like Kindle Unlimited that pay per download and read (past 10%), the romance reader costs the company more than the casual consumer.
Our desire to have more for less makes our dollar not as worthwhile as the consumer who buys one book a month at $25. For publishers (and for self published authors as well), the most valuable customer is the one who buys regularly at the highest price. In the airline industry, it’s the business traveler and in the traditional publishing realm, it’s probably the lit fic reader or even the thriller/mystery reader. Romance readers are lower down on the chain because while we may buy more, we want to buy at much lower prices. There’s nothing wrong with that. I prefer a deal as much as any one. I like subscription services and rarely spend more than $4.99 on a book. But because of my buying preferences, I’m simply not the type of customer that a high margin business wants to cultivate.
Second, romance books and the genre should be important and valuable regardless of the dollar amount we represent. Romance is a world full of females writing for female readers and regardless of whether its a billion dollars annually or $500,000 million annually, it still represents a world of literature that is worthwhile. Trying to justify our existence on the value we represent to the industry is like saying that the genre only has worth because it sells. No. It has worth because the genre includes stories written for women about women (generally speaking). It also includes love stories for about gay and lesbian lovers. It has worth because exploring the fantasies and desires of historically marginal classes have value. The value of the romance book and the romance reader is independent of any monetary contribution.
Third, because I think big changes are coming to the romance market (or may have already occurred). For most traditional publishers, mass markets and digital first programs have very small margins as compared to a trade or a hardcover. The traditional publishers have little interest in competing in the shallow end of the publishing pool where books are sold for 99c and the high dollar point is $4.99.
The always endangered mid list appears to have declined dramatically with many migrating to digital publishing, either through digital first arms or self publishing. The midlist was the place where new authors were cultivated and grown into front list or “lead” authors. It can take several books for an author to “break out” and generate enough sales to improve an author’s statute from mid list to lead. As one commenter to the preceding article noted:
If Ian Rankin had had to make a financial payoff for the publisher by the fourth Rebus book, he’d never have made it and would be languishing with a small press while teaching English as a foreign language. I well remember him at a Crime conference in ’96, moaning about his crap sales. The following year he published ‘Black and Blue’ and now he sells one in ten of every crime novel sold in the UK.
We see that with our own genre in the likes of Nalini Singh, JR Ward, and Ilona Andrews to name a few. Eloisa James wasn’t a household name when she started publishing and neither was Stephanie Laurens. When advances were better, publishers took to the risk to provide a diverse variety of books. With smaller lists and the erosion of the midlist, traditional publishers are looking increasingly to sell only front list. Entrepreneur authors will write books that are marketable. When they are fronting the costs of a book and a career, it’s more advantageous to be risk adverse. And many self published authors think only of the moment rather than long term. I have huge admiration for authors like R Lee Smith who write what they want no matter the market dictates.
There’s also a certain burnout that romance readers can experience. They consume huge quantities over a prolonged period of time but then their interest in the genre dies out. Personal life experiences affect their reading or their reading tastes change or they move away from reading.
Already I see the romance brand eroding. More and more books are classified as romances but don’t deliver on the satisfying ending promise. A couple of weeks ago, Janet wrote about this market change. I predict that this will happen increasingly in the future as publishers (and authors) try to shock and amaze readers. The next big thing after Fifty Shades was not another Fifty Shades. It was Gone Girl. Now it’s The Girl on the Train. Tomorrow it will be some other intriguing, different, high concept story. I suspect that romances as we see in bookstores will deliver more unpredictable endings and that romance readers will retrench, buying either reliable authors, buying less, or by abandoning the genre altogether. It will be difficult to measure this loss because of the overstated size of the romance industry.
I always think its good to manage expectations. In this case, I think the overstated romance industry statistic leads to outsized and erroneous expectations.