Highly successful in a lowbrow way

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 in which vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.

The e-book world is driven by ­so-called genre fiction—categories such as horror or romance. It is not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No ­clichè is left unturned, no ­adjective underplayed.

At the time of writing, the bestselling Amazon 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?

Elusive figures
One of the problems publishers face in setting strategy is the absence of industry-wide data on e-book sales. Amazon, the dominant player, is secretive with its numbers. As the company revealed its mixed results for 2011, all its United Kingdom ­division would say was that e-book sales over the past three months were up fivefold on the equivalent period last year.

Amazon has started supplying data to Nielsen BookData in the United States for the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller lists, but the information is limited.

UK publishers know their own genre titles do best because Amazon tells them this privately; across the industry there is nothing to go on.

A study in the United States last year by Publishers Weekly and Bowker found that literary fiction outsold all forms of genre fiction, winning 20% of market share.

Avalanche of classics
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 e-books and risk accelerating the decline of print?

But price is not the only factor. Industry figures indicate the mechanism of searching for new titles—genre sells well because its readers know what they like and where to find it. Mills & Boon has done particularly well. Although only 6% to 12% of the UK book market is digital, depending on whom you speak to, Mills & Boon publishes in excess of 100 digital titles every month and only 55 physical ones. Tim Cooper, its digital marketing director, said it was helped by its “habit-forming books”.

Literary snobbishness

Fresh subgenres are emerging. Fancy a Christian romance, or a racy paranormal shagathon? Easy. On its website, it was recently ­promoting Sheikhs vs Greeks.

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 am 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 am 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 have ended up on Mail Online reading about the Kardashians. Traci ­Hohenstein, anyone?—



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