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Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.
The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed. At the time of writing, the bestselling Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) Kindle book was Asylum Harbor, by Traci Hohenstein. Crime sells. Try a sample, I dare you. In digital, dross rises. But does this have implications for publishers’ decision-making, as we increasingly migrate?
One of the problems publishers face in setting strategy is the absence of industry-wide data on ebook sales. Amazon, the dominant player, is secretive with its numbers. As the company revealed its mixed results for 2011 last week, all its UK division would say was that ebook sales over the past three months were up five-fold on the equivalent period last year. No actual data.
Amazon has started supplying data to Nielsen BookData in the US for the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller lists, but the information is limited. UK publishers know their own genre titles do best as Amazon tells them this privately; across the industry there is nothing to go on.
A study in the US last year by Publishers Weekly and Bowker found that literary fiction outsold all forms of genre fiction, winning 20% of market share. But this figure includes classics. Most new Kindle owners buy an avalanche of classics in their initial excitement. All of Trollope for £1.99! All of Dickens for £3! But are they actually read? The genre of sci-fi came in at 19% and Christian fiction, God help us, third, at 16%.
Price is a big driver of digital sales. Self-publishing authors have cannily priced themselves into the game. Publishers watched the demise of the music and newspaper industries. Should they keep prices high and differentiate their wares from the unedited efforts of the self-published? Should they cut prices for ebooks and risk accelerating the decline of print?
But price is not the only factor. Industry figures point to the mechanism of searching for new titles – genre sells well because its readers know what they like and where to find it. On finishing one read, it’s the matter of seconds before you can summon another from the ether.
Mills & Boon has done particularly well. While 6%-12% of the UK book market is digital, depending on whom you speak to, Mills & Boon publish in excess of 100 digital titles every month, and only 55 physical ones. Tim Cooper, its digital marketing director, says it is helped by its “habit-forming books”. Fresh subgenres are emerging. Fancy a Christian romance, or a racy paranormal shagathon? Easy. Last week, on its website, it was promoting “Sheikhs vs Greeks”. The realist version would be “megalomaniac misogynist vs bankrupt tax-dodger”. Mmm, which should a girl choose!
There is a literary snobbishness at play here, clearly. Reading has always been a competitive sport. Why else would anyone have read Ulysses? Consider those boys who read ostentatious poetry to pull winsome girls; the girls who read Vanity Fair to let the poetical boys know that they are clever and minxy.
The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.
Publishers say that there is little real change going on, just substitution: those who buy genre books start buying digitally instead. I’m not so sure it is wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public. They may intend to go to the Economist website to read the latest in the euro crisis, but oops! they’ve ended up on Mail Online reading about the Kardashians. Traci Hohenstein, anyone?
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.