Literature vs. Genre Fiction: A Lost Battle in the Digital Age?

RomanceRomance by Thomas Hawk via Flickr
Is Literature a poor cousin?

It has always been one category among many, and the poor cousin of big genre categories such as Romance, Science Fiction or Thrillers, the main wage earners in the publishing industry.

Think of it as a three-star Michelin restaurant against the likes of MacDonald, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pizza Hut. Which makes more money?

Okay, that's one a question that needs no answer.

With the Digital Age now upon us, the role of "genre" as the main book distribution and marketing tool in the industry has come under fire. Amazon in particular disrupted all accepted marketing schemes (and so did all the other digital platforms, Barnes & Noble etc). For the first time, genre became less necessary as a tool to (1) plan sales and  (2) ensure book discovery.

The digital revolution has done away with one of the big hurdles of traditional publishing: gauging sales demand to determine how many books need to be printed. E-books are stored in the "cloud", no need to print in advance. And  Print-on-Demand technology solves the problem from paper books. So in principle, both the virtual and physical book markets should be enhanced by the digital revolution. 

The virtual book market has one big advantage on the real paper market. 

Amazon (and other digital platforms) is able to do something traditional publishers can't:  they can track customer purchases on their computers, and that allows them to operate on the concept "if you liked this [book], you going to like this one [suggestions for another book]".

That's something traditional publishers can't do. They have to rely on bookstores to do this particular work for them - not big bookstores, but small local ones who know their clients and have established a relationship of trust with their readers. For example, when I walk in my favorite bookstore in Paris, the old-fashioned Delamain library near the Louvre, I find they've got the big sellers all laid out on a table so I can't miss them as I walk in, but they've also peppered the whole store with little index cards stuck on book piles with hand-written notes telling me how they felt about the book, the genre, how well it did in its genre and why. I'm grateful to them for these little flyers, they help me in orienting myself among titles that I don't know.

But this is horse and buggy technology! With the digital revolution, book discoverability can be refined, accelerated and fine-tuned to the exact tastes of the client (as expressed in past purchases). And of course readers can get directly involved as they themselves write "customers reviews". Inevitably, as a reader you always trust another reader more than the author or the publisher. 

Indirect marketing (i.e. readers' buzz) always works better and in the digital age, it has become a lot easier to organize (as Amazon knows very well).

That's a sea change in the industry - of course, it applies mainly to e-books, and this year so far e-books have outsold paper books by a whopping 18 percent in the United States. And that's only the beginning of the digital tidal wave: it has yet to come to major readers markets like France, Germany, Spain and South America etc. Amazon has just opened Kindle Stores in some major countries on the European continent but it hasn't really spread yet across the globe (for example there are whole regions like English-speaking Africa - some 200 million readers -  that are still not covered).

We're on the verge of a Guttenberg style change in reading habits. 

I really believe we are. A few weeks ago I blogged about the awsome fact that more american adults read literature than ever before - in 2008, close to 17 million more and most of them young adults  of which the largest group is between the age of 18 and 24, and it's also the one most rapidly increasing: 21%!  

When the Christmas season comes, that's the age group that will be given Kindles and other e-readers as gifts, that's the age group that will download books that are 99 cents or free. Such prices do not however spell the end of the book market. E-reader buyers are still mostly older and better off. For example, they are the ones who buy Apple's Ipads.  But Amazon has quickly grasped that there's a big market out there for a cheap computer tablet.

We all fully expect the Kindle Fire to set...fire to the market this coming Christmas!

That relatively well-off e-reading majority is the one going for the more expensive e-books - at $10 and above, the price practiced by traditional publishers. Below  the $10 point is the preserve of the Indies - self-published authors who incidentally continue to debate among themselves where the "sweet point" of prices might lie (between $2.99 and 4.99) and how long they should leave their books for free before raising the price again etc etc.

Such debates are not terribly useful because nobody knows exactly what is the market composition age-wise and income-wise (though Amazon may have some notions about this)

Market Analysis by Genre Remains the Main Tool for Traditional Publishers

Only one thing is certain: in this fast shifting readers landscape, traditional publishers are at a disadvantage compared to digital platforms. To plan their sales, analysis by genres remains their main tool but, based as it is on past sales reported by bookstores, it will become increasingly unreliable as a means to predict the future. 

How will traditional publishers react? Well that is something we already know. When the world collapses around you, you hold on to what you know. That means traditional publishers continue to privilege all genres that have sold well in recent years (chief among them Romance) and within the genres, their leading authors: facing the digital competition, they can't afford wrong bets (and that of course is not good news for aspiring new authors or mid list authors with declining sales). 

Moreover, news that have recently come out that the leading genres among e-book readers are Romance and Sci Fi is likely to further comfort them in their publishing choices.

Is Literature, already a poor cousin, likely to get thrown even further down the line?

I don't believe that's a likely outcome, on the contrary. First consider the statistics: apart from the fact that we are facing an expanding readers' market, let's remember that it hasn't yet gone digital entirely, and not by a very long shot: at least 80% is still printed material! As Laura Hazard Owen reminded us in an excellent article (in The Truth about Amazon Publishing), while Amazon has done beautifully so far in the digital world, its battle in the real, traditional paper world is not yet won. Libraries continue to have their say and view Amazon as a dangerous rival. It's going to be hard for Amazon to place its published trade paper books in traditional bookstores...

So horse and buggy technologies for book discoverability still prevail in about 80% of the readers market in the United States (and of course more so elsewhere). 

Genre as a marketing tool isn't about to be blown away or replaced with sophisticated purchase tracking computer technology.

Literature will continue to be aptly supported by traditional marketing methods, including book prizes like the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize.

This is not to say that the digital age will have no effect - or has none yet. I believe it is already having some effect in that it improves the chances of authors who don't fit into formulaic genres to be discovered. Including literary authors who (by definition) are NOT formulaic.  

The digital age's biggest effect: expanded book discoverability

Readers who have eclectic tastes will find more easily what they're looking for on a digital site by typing in key words of their own choosing. For instance if you typed in historical+paranormal+thriller+coming of age you'd be likely to come across odd books that would include my Fear of the Past trilogy (mmm, you'd have to add Sicily to the lot! And besides, I don't pretend to be "literary"...) 

And I'm convinced there are many more eclectic readers out there than most publishers give them credit for. I'm certainly one. I don't know about you, but after reading a series of books in a given genre or by the same author, I get tired of it. I start to see the formula too clearly and I need a change of pace. Monotony breeds boredom, change is the source of all pleasure. 

In that sense, literary fiction has the ability to surprise and delight. It doesn't fit into any predetermined formula, as was brilliantly displayed by Jennifer Egan in her Goon Squad (she even had a chapter in the form of a Power Point Presentation). She won the Pulizer Prize but didn't draw much consensus on Goodreads, one of the American main readers community site. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I participated in a reader group reading Egan's novel and noticed that my fellow readers on the whole felt the book didn't "grab" them. Not too surprising, considering that points of views kept changing from one chapter to the next making it difficult to "enter" the book. 

Another example of a literary letdown? Take Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, last year's runner up to the Man Booker Prize. It also drew lots of mixed reviews and for much the same problems.
 LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 08:  The six short...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
If you've read it, you'll have noticed right away a problem that seems to be common to a lot of literary fiction: as a reader, you can't get "into it", and whenever you finally do, you can't stay "in it". Because the author constantly changes the game on you: characters drop out and don't reappear until much later if at all. Major tragedies happen to them (like in the Glass Room, the husband dies in America and his wife goes blind) but this is never adequately explained or explored, yet they were both Main Characters at the start of the novel.

When Literature becomes too "literary" for its own good.

This ability to set up a plot and characters and then drop them, then pull them up again is pure virtuosity. You as a reader are literally asked to admire the talent with which it's done, and of course you do. But you also get annoyed after a while: what you want is to be told a good story that is going to keep you going with bated breath! It's not pleasant to be picked up only to be dropped down again.

Now some big literary giants don't do that and (not too surprisingly) they are rewarded with stratospheric sales. And something else is noteworthy about them:  they tend to come up from among the genre fiction writers. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is Stephen King. He came out of the horror genre but has shown himself to be capable of pure "slice of life" writing in the best tradition of Great Literature. I can think of many more like Khaled Hosseini or John Le CarrĂ©, and you might care to add to that list.

But I think what all these particular GLS (Great Literary Sorts) have in common with GR (genre writers) is the ability to fix on a plot, keep the characters in there from the first page to last, and never drop their readers out in the cold, forcing them to make efforts to "get into" the book again and again. On the contrary. They grab you and keep you in.

That's a trick literary guys could really learn from genre fiction writers!

The Outlook for Literature: Rosy!

Once literary authors do - and I'm sure a lot do and will - then chances for Literature with a capital L will really start looking up. Literary novels will become page-turners, exactly like genre fiction!

And the outlook is rosy indeed. More books are sold than ever before, both e-books and printed books, and  there are more readers than at any time in human History. And with the digital age, more flexibility is introduced in book access and discoverability. If as an author you don't fit into any genre niche, you can still hope to make it!

In spite of all the moaning and groaning brought on by the digital age, writers take heart, the future of publishing looks very bright indeed! And readers enjoy, you'll get more and more of the stuff you like!


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