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Erotic and romantic fiction: Book-publishing’s naughty secret

Erotic and romantic fiction: Book-publishing’s naughty secret

http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/05/erotic-and-romantic-fictionIN 2013, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) estimated that sales of romantic novels amounted to $1.08 billion, and accounted for 13% of adult fiction consumed that year, outselling science-fiction, mystery and literary novels. In the five years to 2015 in Britain alone, romance and erotic fiction sold 39.8m physical books worth £178.09m. The sector has also been among the most innovative, with a strong tradition of independent and self-publishing. It was one of the first to capitalise on the anonymity offered by e-books and, according to Jellybooks, a British company that analyses e-book data, romance readers are twice as likely to read on smartphones than literary novel or non-fiction readers.

But the stigma attached to the romance and erotica genres remains. The ne plus ultra of the past decade is E.L. James’s “50 Shades” trilogy. Originally self-published, it went on to sell more than 125m copies worldwide after being published in print in 2012. Last year’s film adaptation and a fourth book, “Grey”, broke global box-office and British adult-sales records respectively. Nevertheless, the public attitude has rarely been anything other than scathing. 

Such hostility is probably due, at least in part, to old-fashioned sexism. Romance—along with any other genre of book that deals with strong emotions including grief, revenge and loss—appeals disproportionately to women. (Women are also between two and three times more likely to finish such a book once they have started it, according to Jellybooks, who also note that women have greater staying power as readers across genres.) In fact, the RWA estimates that 84% of romance-book buyers are female, and 41% are between 30 and 54 years old. This gave rise to the derogatory “mummy porn” label coined after the publication of the “50 Shades” trilogy. But some feminists aren’t all that keen on the genre either, attacking the books as retrograde, and even abusive. (Your correspondent voiced much the same view in her review of “Grey”; she stands by this opinion.)

Literary snobbery also plays a part. Because all romance novels are united by two guiding principles—the centrality of an initially-troubled relationship, and a happy ending—they have been written off as formulaic and light reads in contrast to literary fiction. Critics are on firmer ground here. The median reader spends a paltry three to six days devouring a romance book; this rises to between one and three weeks for literary novels and to between three and six weeks for a work of non-fiction.

The good news for publishers is that romance readers are singularly voracious and loyal. A recent Nielsen study reported that around 15% of the genre’s fans buy new books at least once a week; 6% do so more than once per week. Mills & Boon, the venerable British romance publisher that celebrated its centenary in 2008, capitalises on readers’ appetites by having a monthly subscription service for both e-books and hard copies. In turn, the publisher is highly responsive to changing and niche tastes. Their stable contains over 20 different series, from Historical, Medical and Kimani, which features African-American protagonists, to Blaze—“sizzling sexual adventures”—and Nocturne, for those who like their literary liaisons seasoned with paranormal activity. And although shame is perceived to be a significant factor in the romance genre’s success in e-book format, this could be changing. Last year Bea and Leah Koch opened America’s first romance-only bookstore in Los Angeles using $100,000 they raised from the genre’s fans on Kickstarter. The Ripped Bodice is open for business. read more at economist.com