3.27.2013

Boomer Lit and Big Publishers: a Future Together?

Back in 2008, before the onslaught of the digital revolution, several of the (then) 6 Big Publishers, were already paying attention to Boomer Lit, in particular Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Hachette. The fact was reported by a major publishing industry magazine, the Writer's Digest, in an article with a highly provocative title: "On the Edge, Boomer Lit" (See here

The case for Boomer Lit couldn't have been put more succinctly or with more force:

"It’s difficult to imagine that those 1960s doe-eyed children who brought the world’s attention to Vietnam War protests and love-ins are old enough to qualify as senior citizens. But they’ve finally matured—and so has the fiction being written by and for them.

Seventy-eight million baby boomers are alive today and comprise an enormous chunk of the reading public. As a result, there’s both a growing demand for fiction that deals with age-appropriate issues and a tendency for boomer-age writers to tackle parallel subjects in their fiction. More and more baby-boomer protagonists, both in the genre and literary arenas, are dealing with serious life issues such as unexpected illness, failed marriages and lost dreams."

The article reported on two new imprints intended for boomers:  HarperCollins’ HarperLuxe, which featured large-print books, and Hachette Book Group’s Springboard Press, a line of nonfiction aimed specifically at boomers. 

But no fiction. 

However a few specific boomer novels under promotion at the time were mentioned, including Lesley Dormen’s first novel-in-stories, The Best Place to Be published by Simon & Shuster in 2007, which she wrote after she turned 50 and features a 50-something character. Hailed by Publisher's Weekly as an "accomplished collection", Dormen's book still sells on Amazon as a cheap paperback but with few copies left and it is yet to be turned into an e-book. The editor behind that book, Marysue Rucci, has become famous: shortly thereafter she joined G.P.Putman's Sons and has only recently returned to Simon & Shuster as Vice President and Editor-in-Chief. That may explain why Ms. Rucci's insight that having a middle-aged protagonist "wasn't a deterrent" got lost in the shuffles.

A similar story of push-and-withdraw accompanied the other books listed in the article, as they all sink in the virtual dust (more or less) on Amazon's shelves. I won't go through each one, but you can take Live a Little by Kim Green as perfectly illustrative of how a good intuition gets lost.  Live a Little  features a classic boomer life crisis and was published by Hachette's 5 Spot Publishing (focused on women's fiction and non-fiction). Here too, the acquiring editor, Amy Einhorn was highly supportive saying to The Writer's Digest: " I'd very much like to publish books with older protagonists, both male and female. For the same reasons that older people are often more interesting than younger people - they've lived more, they have more knowledge - these things show up on the page". 

What happened to this enlightened editor after 2008? I'll tell you: she joined Putnam setting up her own imprint and raking up best sellers, she earned the admiration of the publishing community (see here). Her first fiction acquisition, published in early 2009, was a debut novel by an unknown writer about maids and housewives in Jackson, Miss. Well, you know the rest of the story:  The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is still at the top of the bestseller lists and a movie was made that became a box office hit. Across all formats it has sold more than 10 million copies in the United States. Since then,every February, Ms. Einhorn has launched a bestselling novel: In 2010 it was Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, In 2011 it was Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, in 2012 Alex George’s The Good American and the Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye.

All excellent books but not Boomer lit!  

Why not? As I blogged last week, Boomer lit sells, the proof is the extraordinary success of both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach, from which a delightful movie was made and  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a debut novel by an unknown writer just as much as The Help was. The Unlikely Pilgrimage has now gained another 40 reviews in the five days since I last posted about it and gained further in ranking (it is now at #2,351 as I write), suggesting that it is selling steadily and in increasing numbers (see here), even ahead of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

What is the problem then? One word explains it: the stigma that is still attached to old age and aging. When will the publishing industry shake it off? Back in 2008, age-related issues were at the heart of Nancy Thayer’s series, The Hot Flash Club . The series stars five women between the ages of 50 and 62. They meet at a party and share their life problems that come with getting older. The series marked a major genre change for Thayer, who had published 14 novels on family-related themes, but none aimed at older women. “The philosophy in New York is that people won’t buy books about older women,” she told the Writer's Digest. "But", she pointed out, "23 million women are over the age of 50".  

And that's a BIG reading market, these are women with time on their hands to read!

Indeed Nancy Thayer's series still sells on Amazon after all these years. Now an e-book, it is described as a "wise, wonderful and delightfully witty 'coming of age' novel about four intrepid women who discover themselves as they were truly meant to be: passionate, alive and ready to face the best years of their lives."

Boomer Lit is indeed meant to help people discover what their true self is after all those years spent working, and help them live their lives to the hilt. These are matters of concern to some 78 million Americans, not to mention boomers elsewhere. These are people with both the means and the time to buy and read books. How large does a market need to be before publishers wake up to the opportunity of exploiting it?

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