Why Boomer Lit Sells and What We Can Learn from a Boomer Best Seller

There are two reasons why Boomer lit is going to be the Next Big Genre:
(1) the potential size of the market
(2) the quality of the content.

The baby boomer market, as everyone knows, is huge: 77.5 million in the US alone, twice as much if you consider the rest of the world. It would seem to be a no-brainer to argue that a genre that puts boomers at the heart of the story should come out a winner.

Not so. Size is not enough. It's a necessary condition but not sufficient. More is needed. 

Quality of writing is what's needed to make it a sure sell.

And quality is something Boomer lit has, no doubt about. By its very nature, because of the kind of stories it tells, Boomer lit attracts professional writers. These are people who know how to write, they have mastered all the different forms from novels to poetry and they are on top of all the writing techniques. In addition - and this is very important - they bring to their writing a lifetime of experience, memories that have enriched them and deepened their understanding of the human condition. They are often boomers themselves  though not exclusively, the genre attracts younger talent too.

To illustrate my point, I'm going to take a look at a recent quintessential Boomer book that was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (but didn't make it) yet was a global success and compare it to another global success, a Pulitzer Prize winner supported by the whole marketing power of Big Traditional Publishing (in this case Alfred A. Knopf). One is Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the other is Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad


If you hop over to Amazon, you'll see Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad presented in bold letters as:

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Best Book

One of the Best Books of the Year:
 Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR's On Point, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice


Then you get a rousing two-line description: "Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption."

How can you resist heart-thumping adjectives like "Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals...blah blah", "music pulsing on every page", "a startling, exhilarating novel".

Wow! After that, what can one add?

Now go over to Rachel Joyce's Harold Fry page. You get a sober two-line book description: "When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life."

Here the tone is subdued, no excess, just the story in a few, well-chosen words.

This is followed by two simple comments:

'The odyssey of a simple man, original, subtle and touching'. - Claire Tomalin

'From the moment I met Harold Fry, I didn't want to leave him. Impossible to put down.' - Erica Wagner, The Times


Yes, that's it, nothing more. 

Take a look now at how both books fare from the standpoint of the market, i.e. compare sales ranks and customer reviews. 

In terms of Amazon Best Sellers rank, Harold Fry comes out ahead (rankings change over time but the difference here is so large that it clearly reflects a substantial difference in the level of sales):
  •   Rank for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: 
            #2,817 Paid in Kindle Store 
            #57 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Family Life
            #78 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Women's Fiction > Domestic Life
  • Rank for A Visit from the Goon Squad
           #4,630 Paid in Kindle Store
           #25 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Short Stories
           #32 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Short Stories > Single Author

Let's note in passing how cleverly the classification has been made for The Goon Squad: it comes out looking better (lower) than the one done for Harold Fry, yet the overall paid-in-Kindle-Store ranking is much higher. Moreover, that classification is actually misleading: The Goon Squad is NOT a collection of short stories and attribution to a "single author" is clearly meaningless: there is only one Jennifer Egan!

The difference becomes much greater if you look at the customer reviews, keeping in mind that Rachel Joyce's book is, by comparison to The Good Squad, a newcomer to Amazon: Harold Fry was published on Amazon on March 15, 2012 and The Goon Squad a couple of years earlier, on June 8, 2010. Logically, the latter should have many more customer reviews than the former.

Yet, it's not the case, take a look at the number of customer reviews and ratings:
  •  Number of Reviews for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: 
           690 reviews, 
           average: 4.3 out of 5 stars
  •  Number of Reviews for A Visit from the Goon Squad
           572 reviews,
           average: 3.5 out of 5 stars

For The Goon Squad, the reviews are fewer (in spite of the longer time it's been up) and the average is lower.

Actually, a closer look at the reviews, relying on Amazon's system to highlight the three most common findings of reviewers, reveals what you already suspected. Customers really didn't like the book in spite of its being massively promoted by the Big Boys and reaping many national awards:
    "And even the stories with the same characters in them didn't seem very connected" (Solanum/ 99 reviewers made a similar statement)
    "I completely skipped the power point chapter just to finish this book and move on to more enjoyable reading." (Meredith Miller/ 100 reviewers made a similar statement)
    "Seems like it is trying to be a bit too clever, and it didn't really work for me" (kiwireader/36 reviewers made a similar statement)
 
By contrast, Harold Fry got very strong and positive support:
    "This is a wonderful first novel, the characters feel very real, such an unusual story and very well written" (Teresa Pietersen/130 reviewers made a similar statement)
    "I found it very satisfying in the end." (L.N.Sims/ 69 reviewers made a similar statement)
    "Harold isn't a character you can soon forget --and his journey of loyalty, redemption, friendship and love will stay with me for a long time." (Megan Snider/ 113 reviewers made a similar statement)

Clearly Harold Fry wins out, and I also made a review (see here) that flows in the same direction. Still, in my opinion, Jennifer Egan's book was very well written, perhaps over-written: one often got the impression that the author was exhibiting without restraint her (very real) talent for words. This of course annoyed a lot of readers (myself included) when all one wants from an author is a good read, not a display of literary pyrotechnics, including a chapter famously written in a PowerPoint style.

So, in spite of all the marketing propaganda, Jennifer Egan's book sank.

While Rachel Joyce's novel is rising.

What is extraordinary about Rachel Joyce's novel is not simply that it is an unusually successful debut novel. What is arresting is that it has achieved this phenomenal success in spite of dealing with issues of disease, retirement, suicide and death, not to mention that the two main characters (Harold Fry and his wife) are both boringly mature, run-of-the-mill and over-the-hill. In short, nothing here that would appear at first glance to have any sort of mass appeal. By contrast, Jennifer Egan's book is far less somber (though it too flirts with tragedy), has some exotic travel destinations like Italy and has several youngish characters, in particular Sasha, the "passionate, troubled young woman" of the book description, surely a character guaranteed to have mass appeal.

This shows that marketing gurus in the publishing industry didn't see the Boomer lit phenomenon coming. All the pizzazz around Jennifer Egan's book in 2011, the innovative writing (including PowerPoint!) couldn't save it. The market knows what it wants. And a large slice of the market - baby boomers - wants Boomer lit! A simple story about an "old man", retired and unremarkable like Harold Fry, can be inspiring and attract thousands, nay millions, of readers over time.

Now that's what makes Boomer lit a totally new phenomenon on the publishing scene, far more unexpected and meaningful than the success of erotic romance à la Fifty Shades of Grey - ok, we know it sold an astonishing 70 million copies and has over 18,000 customer reviews on Amazon, but, please note, with an average of only... 3.3 out of 5 stars! So quite a lot of people didn't like it. Besides, erotic romance is obviously pap for everyone (porn sells, nothing new here) and its success, if anything, is a testimony to the effectiveness of e-readers and other electronic devices in hiding the book cover from everyone around you. Nobody knows you are digging porn when you click shut that Kindle...

 

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