Despite popularity and a passionate readership, genre fiction gets a bad rap. The guilty-pleasure, low-culture stigma of Harlequin romances and Dungeons & Dragons–inspired fantasy novels can wrongly paint all genre fiction with the same fluffy brush, relegating it to the backs of bookstores and readers’ bookshelves.
But just as the Internet has shaken up the news industry, these early days of electronic-book publishing suggest much-maligned genre fiction is now running side-by-side with—or even outpacing—literary fiction.
Fiction in general is leading the way in e-book downloads, with literary fiction and the genre-fiction categories of science fiction and romance each accounting for more than 20 percent of all e-book purchases. That’s according to an ongoing study of consumer attitudes toward e-book reading by New York’s Book Industry Study Group. The research, which started in 2009, tracks the habits of American e-book readers through survey data collected by Bowker LLC’s PubTrack Consumer, a publishing information service. The latest survey analysis was released in April.
While some book publishers continue to scratch their heads over how their industry will survive in the digital age, fiction’s overall success in the electronic market proves that e-books are lucrative as long as the reading platform fits the literary product.
BISG research shows that people who use dedicated e-readers (a Kindle or Nook, not a multipurpose device like an iPad or Android smartphone) read more fiction than anything else. They’re least likely to use e-readers for textbooks, travel books, religious literature, or young-adult literature, or for academic or professional purposes. Readers who do more interactive reading that includes information graphics and multimedia prefer tablet devices like the iPad.
“Where are places that e-book technology really does a great job? It tends to be in places where it’s pure narrative, where portability is a big benefit, where cost is a big benefit,” Steve Paxhia told the Georgia Straight. The publishing-industry analyst cowrote the latest e-book consumer report for BISG with partner John Parsons.
Reached by cellphone on a train home to Boston, Paxhia is a frequent traveller and enjoys reading mystery novels. His e-reader’s compact size and capacity to store a generous library has trumped his previous preference for print books.
“It also has to do with where you don’t want to keep your book,” he said. “I love mystery novels, but after I’ve read them, they just take up space.”
Paxhia’s tendency to finish a mystery quickly and not reread it is a common habit among genre-fiction enthusiasts, according to Linda L. Richards, a journalist and author of six crime-fiction novels, many of which are e-books.
Richards noted the e-book shift is easy for genre-fiction consumers because they’re voracious readers frequently on the lookout for new material. She recalled that, during a recent mystery readers’ and writers’ conference, fans said they read multiple books a week. “They’re hungry for new stuff,” she said by phone from her home on the Gulf Islands.
The appetite for new material holds true in the romance genre, too, Richards noted. While BISG research shows that general fiction and mystery are the fastest-growing categories for e-books, romance leads all genres. Canada’s Harlequin Enterprises is one of the top sellers.
“Electronic books are doing well in certain parts of the market where the readers are voracious,” Richards said. “And they’re seeing a huge cost saving and a huge physical-space saving.”
Peter Darbyshire worked for six years as a proofreader for Harlequin Enterprises, until he left Toronto for Vancouver in 2003. Since then, he’s focused on fiction writing and journalism, and has authored two novels.
Darbyshire noted that the romance industry has done for years what the electronic market has only now pushed other authors and publishers to start addressing. Romance wisely cuts out industry gatekeepers and focuses heavily on readers.
“The romance industry has always done a very good job of reaching out to the readers [as] opposed to the bookstores, which is what [traditional] publishers normally do,” he said, on the phone from his home in Langley.
Darbyshire doesn’t consider himself a genre-fiction author, but his own forays in electronic publishing have been gratifying. In the process of rereleasing a 2003 novel as an e-book, Darbyshire enjoyed a great deal of creative control and considerable savings on production costs.
“There’s no substantial cost to putting out your own e-book,” Darbyshire said. “It’s this incredible, democratic new medium. Anybody can publish with no problem and start making an income off of it. It’s kind of made the whole gate-keeping model obsolete.”
For those print booksellers and industry gatekeepers who carry on in the e-book era, survival will rely on specialization, by genre or otherwise.
Along West 10th Avenue in Point Grey, Walter Sinclair has co-owned White Dwarf Books for 33 years, and Dead Write Books for 20. His science-fiction and mystery bookstores have survived the ups and downs of Vancouver’s tumultuous book-selling landscape because genre readers read more than others, he maintains.
Sinclair acknowledges genre fiction’s struggle for literary legitimacy. “Genres have always been sort of ghettoized,” Sinclair said by phone from White Dwarf, “despite the fact that there are literary successes in genre fiction as well as in general fiction.” Avid readers, according to him, are responsible for the genre-fiction industry’s success.
These same readers have kept his businesses alive. “I’m a science-fiction and mystery reader. That’s why we chose our specialties,” Sinclair said. “But one of the reasons that we hoped that—and it turns out it was—a success was because, yes, genre readers do read more. It’s definitely helped us survive.”