By Darin L. Hammond
As a teenage boy roaming the narrow isles of dank used bookstores, looking for significant books to put under my belt, I was at once excited and annoyed by all the romance novels that filled the shelves. I was looking for the classics such as Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Truth be told, I was more enticed by the sexy romances and would blush in shelf-aversion.
My big fear was that, if I pulled Harlequin Romance off the shelf, another teenager would see steam rising from across the store or that I would sound the teenage, male pervert alarm. I knew the books were for women, not for me. I experienced novel-envy for the first time, a severe pubescent syndrome.
The only way men shed this syndrome is to diminish and marginalize the romance genre. Men are just fine with our consumption of Playboyand Penthouse, but romance fiction is for sissies and females. Women win in the end as Suw Charman-Anderson reports in Forbes. She reveals the numbers, which defy genre pretensions, with romance cornering 13% of the market in the United States:
Romance fiction: $1.358 billion in estimated revenue for 2010
Religion/inspirational: $759 million
Mystery: $682 million
Science fiction/fantasy: $559 million
Classic literary fiction: $455 million
[Source: Romance Writers of America]
The numbers raise the age old question among academics and lovers of classic fiction—What makes a quality novel, one that “should” be read? At some point in college, I shed my pretensions, deciding that any genre can include great works. At that time, Science Fiction was still on the margins of books considered literature.
The question does not go away with the popularity of ebooks, but is exacerbated. Sales in romance drive ebook sales just as print, and one cannot ignore this powerful force in the market. Charman-Anderson illustrates that the demand for books fluctuates independent of critics and academics, and evidence shows that those who resist might be left in the dust of irrelevance.
Charman-Anderson suggests that women, and people in general, “want a good read and perhaps aren’t as fussy about genre definitions as marketing departments are.” Ebooks and self-publishing are opening the market for more independently minded readers, a positive move for readers and authors alike as they find more opportunities to read and write.
Not that publishers are reluctant to put romance on the digital bookshelf because the numbers speak for themselves. However, new and hybrid genres, fired by authors and readers who value independence, diversity, and sexuality, are making a place for themselves in the new ebook market where multiple avenues to publication exist. Erotica, GLTB, and Gothic Horror are among the groups finding new liberty with the opportunities in e-publication.
Self-publication pushes the boundaries of genre and publishing and provides a forum where authors can test the market and prove their value with little risk. Many are later picked up by conventional publishing, but others, with an entrepreneurial spirit, persist and generate money and success by sticking with self-publication.
Whatever path they take to the digital bookshelf, their influence is felt, and the market for books is more diverse. More authors and readers than ever are now able to find their niche, a positive move in my mind. And, unlike my teenage days of angst, readers can pick up new books in the solitude of their homes--without the pervert alarms. No need to avoid Jenny Jeffries who would tell the whole school I was looking at a smutty romance novel.
The current market fosters and feeds upon change, and while romance will likely retain its high standing in numbers, undiscovered and innovative authors are finding a voice and stirring up the old marketers and consumers.