Everyone is playing the speculation game over possible fates of the publishing industry, scrying the interweb for ebook and readership trends. Such divination is varied and seems full of either melancholic nostalgia or a barely suppressed Schadenfreude. It can get tiring reading about the iPad vs. the Kindle (like they’re Godzilla and Mothra biffing it out in downtown Tokyo) but it leads to an interesting substrate of literary reportage on smaller trends and how they may affect technology and readership habits. These trends, against the wishes of many looking at them, promise nothing of the future but may be able to teach the astute something about it.
A current favourite in the field of micro-trends is the erotica market. Its growth over the last year has been pretty phenomenal, rocketing upwards at a rate around 60% per annum, fast enough that blood would drain right out of your head for entirely appropriate reasons. It’s quite noticeable in the industry due to the proliferation of erotica imprints amongst the big boy publishers like Penguin, Hachette, Random House and HarperCollins, etc (identifiable by fractionally risqué names like Forever, Delacorte or the anti-eponymous Virgin) established in order to cash in on the escalating sales – sales one might very well call engorged.
On the bookshelves at your local store you’ll find various forms of erotica, the thin edge of the blade being ‘Paranormal Romance’ (though many prefer euphemisms like Vampire Porn or Bite & Bonk), which come in varied temperatures, from the angst-laden but fairly chaste Twilight novels to the Wolf Tales series, 8 volumes and counting, which is completely wanton and unquotably explicit.
But these are add-on sales; the true demographic growth in the erotica industry comes straight from no-fuss, get-on-down, purist erotica – the sales of which are huge and predominantly driven by women aged 25 to 40 with their blogs putting in the hard yards in terms of promotion. Their selections, be they Urban Fantasy, B&D, Paranormal Romance or more mainstream erotica, tend to have two things in common: 1. You won’t readily find them on your bookshop shelves, because almost everyone is too publicly embarrassed to buy them, bookshops and readers, and, 2. Good writing. That’s good writing, competent and engaging, not brilliant. A pastiche of sweaty encounters, described with florid prose, pounded out on a word processor isn’t going to cut it. Rather, well structured, engaging stories with believable characters that can be related to are the form that attracts attention. And, if done well, there is a lot of attention to be attracted. Erotic fantasies, after all, need to have characters, regardless of their fantastical situations, that one can place oneself in. But it is the genre as a whole that is worth paying attention to, rather than focussing on individual authors – mainstream authors like J.K. Rowling and John Grisham may sell squillions, but they are the aberrations that sustain a larger, barely profitable market. But the erotica market makes crazy money. The difference is the appetite. Feel free to read into that word.
Many erotica readers are moving from the pulp romance genre, your average Mills & Boons, to the more explicit, complex and intelligent erotica options (like the aforementioned Wolf Tales series) as readers become more sophisticated and less easy to please. The difference is greater depth of emotion, situation and exploration, layered, in this case, with more dynamic (or, at the very least, athletic) sex and relationships.
The really comforting thing for the smaller publishers who specialise in erotica is that their readers are quickly and efficiently embracing eBook technology, whose portability and pricing is a huge draw card, as well as the ability to read some pretty intense prose in public without anything other than a slight flush to give you away. No one can look at the cover and wonder what on earth that strange man is doing to that woman with his sword. (We must give honourable mention, at this point, to the recent audiobook formating of none-other than The Kama Sutra – put on tape so the blind or prudish can comfortably – or uncomfortably – experience it in the dark).
So, as people look to the future of great literature in the digital age, or even mass market authors like Jodi Picoult and Dan Brown, it may prove astute to pay attention to what genres people are reading more of now when trying to read the tea-leaves of publishing’s future, as that is where the interesting stuff is happening. For instance, the bizarre success of spin-off books from genre series – and I don’t mean Deidre’s Karma Sutra, I mean Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook. Seriously, an imaginary cookbook from a romance novel. Take that expected demographics.
What lesson might an industry learn from the all this?
Books, in whatever format, are always about readership. You can feed and profit off readership, you can try to respond and predict readership. But before that you have to notice readership, because readership is hungry.
Another lesson, a little more abstract, yet all the more meaningful for it, is that if publishers don’t try and generate readership, in whatever genre, they’ll be all carrot and no whip. And vegetables only tempt so much.