Tuesday, October 09, 2007

I am Dumbfounded

SF Diplomat can't seem to stop writing about things he completely misunderstands. I had to comment on his most recent post, and I'm copying it here, just because:
Romance is not a small, niche genre. Romances are over 26% of all books sold, by units, in the USA. (Further staggering statistics available from the Romance Writers of America.) Perhaps the situation is vastly different in the UK...but I doubt it. You're just not paying attention. Romance, as a genre, is approximately four times the size of SF and Fantasy put together.

As to the lack of romances on the bestseller lists...did you even bother to look? Check out the most recent mass-market paperback list from the New York Times. There are romances at number 2,3,5,6,7, and so on...

You really should check facts first.

Other points:

There has always been fantasy that has an interest in the "genuinely fantastical and weird." It has always sold poorly. (The original Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, beloved in fannish folklore ever since, was a dismal commercial failure.) Starting in the late 1970s, it was discovered that there were other kinds of fantasy which sold very well. Those other kinds of fantasy then grew in importance, for the obvious reason that lots of people were buying them.

There has been a major crossover of writers and readers between romance and fantasy over the past decade or so, but it has nothing to do with the "death of romance." It has a lot to do with a natural confluence of subject matter, which you seem to realize in your very negative assessment.

One of your points might be true if by "relatively recently" (referring to the "boy's club" of genre) you mean "up until the early 1970s." That is, of course, about thirty-five years ago. In popular culture, that's not recent -- it's the dead past.

Yes, fantasy never succeeded on TV before Buffy. We all imagined The Twilight Zone, and Dr. Who, and dozens of others.

You're mildly correct that female readers are conservative. But guess what? So are male readers. Readers in general are conservative. The works that are liked by the largest number of people are only very, very rarely ground-breaking or new. (Please tell me this doesn't come as a shock to you.)

Saying that fantasy is still "overwhelmingly dominated by male authors" is true only if you define fantasy very narrowly. Yes, Robert Jordan is the single best-selling recent fantasy writer. But there are several women published as fantasy in the next rank of bestsellers, and the entire strong-selling subgenre of "paranormal romance" that you seem to think doesn't exist also moves a lot of books. Of all the units of books sold in a given year with fantasy elements in them, I'd bet that well more than half are now written by women.

8 comments:

Ray said...

It may actually be different in the UK. The Bookseller's charts
http://www.thebookseller.com/charts.html
are for subscribers only, so I can't really check.
The Amazon.uk fiction list (which is not the same, I know, but is the best proxy I can find)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/bestsellers/books/62/ref=pd_ts_b_nav/026-4208914-8592427
is not dominated by romance.

Elio said...

I suspect the Amazon.co.uk list may be revealing that romance books are still being bought primarily in brick-and-mortar booksellers rather than on-line through Amazon; alternatively, many women buy their romance on-line from the publishers via romance book clubs. I suspect the romance book clubs are particularly successful.

Other lists may fail to record romance sales because, frankly, my understanding is that the literary establishment is hostile to genre literature of any kind. It wouldn't surprise me if they set out certain rules which made it difficult or impossible for romance to hit the bestseller charts. I could be wrong about this, however.

In any case, according to this recent article, romance accounts for 20% of all retail fiction sales in the U.K. If romance novels aren't showing up on the bestseller lists, it's not because of a lack of sales.

Jonathan said...

There's also the fact, as I said in the original post, that a lot of books that are ostensibly romance novels don't get labeled as romance but as "chick lit" or mainstream adult.

Less of the bodice ripping and more of the "Cripes! their eyes et over a hot photocopier" but they're Mills and Boon with the numbers filed off.

It's a similar phenomenon to all of those people who write SF but claim that it's not SF and all the SF books that aren't marketed as SF.

Ray said...

I'm sure the Amazon list has problems but, as I said, it was the closest I could find. The Bookseller list records everything sold in bookshops. That would exclude book clubs, but I don't think they have a large market share anyway.
The 20% figure is obviously from a Mills & Boon press release, and I'm sure they're including everything they can. Mills & Boon books don't get onto the bestseller lists because they're basically interchangeable - they're not set up to produce star books - not because of lit-crit snobs.

Andrew Wheeler said...

I would be surprised if the romance field was that much smaller in the UK than it is in the US/Canada -- as I said, over here it's more than 1 in 4 of all trade books sold. But the Mills & Boon number for the UK -- 20% of fiction -- is substantially lower.

The UK market, being smaller and more saturated, is much more prone to a boom and bust cycle (as seen with Chick Lit recently), so perhaps we're in a bust cycle for romances there.

I wonder if the other UK houses are mostly leaving this market to Mills & Boon. In the US, we do have Harlequin, a dedicated romance juggernaut, but there are also major successful romance lines from all of the major houses -- Berkley, Harper, Bantam, and so on. The M&B model looks a lot like Harlequin's on this side of the pond: issue a whole lot of books, written somewhat to formula, in different subgenres, and target the voracious readers. The more general houses tend to be more hit-driven (and Harlequin itself has moved that way) -- if the UK hasn't gone through that transition in the romance market, that could be why there aren't many romances on bestseller lists.

Still, I think I reacted so strongly because I thought SF Diplomat got it backwards: the romance field is the huge one, and fantasy is trying to grab those readers. (Fantasy was able to do that because romance had spent the last decade and a half moving in their direction, so it's not a simple process, but romance is definitely the 800-pound gorilla in that relationship.)

Ray said...

Oh yeah - romance: 20%, fantasy: 5% (fantasy excluding Pratchett: 3%), SF: 1%? On a good day?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Ray: In the UK? I'm not sure.

In the US, romance is 26% of all trade books -- not just fiction -- while SF/Fantasy is about 6% of fiction. That's comparing apples to hand-grenades; romance is probably almost half of all fiction.

(And the SF/Fantasy split of that 6% is probably one-third/two thirds.)

Ray said...

26% of all trade books?

Okay, the US and UK markets are very, very different

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