Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chick-Lit Check Out

I got an email yesterday asking about the state of Chick-Lit in my store. I know that many of you don’t care about Chick-Lit, may find the name offensive, or don’t see what the trials and tribulations of the sub-genre have to do with you, but there is a lot to learn about the Chick-Lit story.

*cue True Hollywood Story intro music here*

I first ran into Chick-Lit over in England in the late 90s, when I picked up Jemima J while on a tour. Chick-Lit’s strength comes from the ability for the reader to connect and empathize with the character, something that didn’t happen with me and Miss J quite simply because I’ve never had a weight problem, but it didn’t stop the book from being a fun, fast read. A year or two later the book appeared in my store, as part of early part of the British invasion brought about by the success of A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Bank’s first book used many of the same stylistic choices—first person, relatable female protagonist, significant personal struggles—already popular with writers over in the United Kingdom), and we popped it up on the New Release wall where it began to sell, sell, sell.

From there the Chick-Lit market began to grow and then to explode, and by 2003 to 2004 we had a whole table up at the front of our store dedicated solely to the sub-genre (complete with pink sign). My store, situated in an urban business area, had the perfect location to dispense these books to women (young and old) who worked downtown and wanted to read something a little meatier than US Weekly. Sure, my female customers might have been just as likely to wear Danskos as they were to dream about Manolo, but they could identify with the plight of the girl who’s fighting to get her life together, find Mr. Right and afford the life-style that she feels she deserves. After all, weren’t the twenty-somethings devouring these books the result of always being told they could have anything they wanted as long as they worked hard enough, and that a balanced life-style wasn’t just a dream, but a reachable reality?

And they had plenty of titles to choose from, with publishers introducing new lines and titles every week in an attempt to capture this niche market: twenty-something women with cash to spend…or at least credit cards to max out.

The British imports with already proven sales records sat side-by-side the American upstarts both selling at a rapid pace (despite cries that the books were the death of feminism). We continued to change out the table, with stacks ranging from six to twelve copies of each title, and let the books sell themselves because the customers knew what they wanted and knew where to find them. Help was unwanted. Unnecessary.

Until overload set in, that is. I had one customer who has always stood out in my mind as representative of the change in Chick-Lit readers. She was older than most of the protagonists—in her 40s—but she loved the genre, and in the beginning she would just come in (every two weeks or so) and swipe a copy of each new title off the table. Sometime around early 2005 though, she began asking for help and suggestions. It was getting too hard to sort through the derivative stuff on her own, she told us, and there were certain themes she was just tired of reading about. My coworkers and I began reading up, searching for Chick-Lit reviews, so we could help her out and steer her towards the books that really appealed.

These books that turned out to not be Chick-Lit so much as very approachable Women’s Literature. Lolly Winston appealed (except for that whole death thing) and Kinsella was still readable, but the others?

Well, she was done (especially when the Chick-Lit authors she still read started coming out in hard cover). This change was seen in many of my other Chick-Lit customers. Despite the fact that we’d built the Chick-Lit table as a result of their demand for more titles and even created a section just for Chick-Lit titles within fiction, our sales were falling off. “Read one, read them all,” I often heard or, “The British ones are still good, but the others aren’t worth my time.”

The glut in the market had burned out the readers publishers were trying to reach and publishers were realizing it. Suddenly there were Chick-Lit Mysteries with the female protagonist trying to balance her social live problems as well as solve the who-done-it (Evanovich with more Manolo), and Chick-Lit Paranormal featuring female aliens or psychics. Whether these new variations on the Chick-Lit theme deserved to be smashed into the Chick-Lit genre (when they might have just sold better with a Mystery or Fantasy placement), I can’t say due to the lack of an official numbers. What I can tell you is that I didn’t see them move like those first Chick-Lit titles that we stuck on the table oh-so-long (yes, a little over a year is long in the book world) ago.

So what happened? That’s open to interpretation and I would love to hear your thoughts. My theory is that the act of chasing this trend killed it (or at least slowed it down to what would have been a normal pace for any other sub-genre). I have never seen publishers churn out titles in a single sub-genre as quickly as they did during the height of the Chick-Lit reign. Too many books came out that were sub-standard to the titles that created the trend, and the readers binged only to realize that needed to be selective, picky.

They needed to go on a diet.

Sure, they might revisit the oldies but goodies like the favorite ice cream that you only get to experience once a month, but they became picky about what other calorie filled treats they also experienced. This meant that the old, founding authors (Kinsella, Keyes, Green, and a few others) continue to sell—even get a pass if one of their books doesn’t hit all the right notes—but new authors encounter a much heavier scrutiny. And even older authors weren’t immune: Weisberger’s second book went to fifty percent off in hard cover as did Weiner’s latest (ETA: I was just informed that Weiner and Weisberger's books went to 50% as part of a Simon & Schuster initiative to bump them back on the extended NY Times list. My mistake) and the last outing by the Nanny Diary Girls. With Hollywood making movies involving the first and the last of the authors, they may see a bump in sales, but whether that momentum will carry through I don’t know.

Is the sub-genre dead? No.

Is it dealing with the after-effects of a sugar overload? Quite possibly.

Chick-Lit is no longer the market wunderkind, but it’s also not dead; it’s simply slowing back down to what the normal distribution of a sub-genre should be. Hopefully this will result in higher quality tales all across the board now that the hangers-on have fallen off. It may also mean that certain titles will get marketed to the appropriate genre instead of getting shoe-horned into Chick-Lit thanks to similarity of voice.

What does this have to do with anything else? The Chick-Lit rush and the Da Vinci Code boom that followed showed the short lives of the knock-off titles. Derivatives don’t have the long legs for continued sales down the road and are quickly and easily forgotten. They don’t create the backlist that most publishing companies make their money on, nor will they ever have the power to, and the customers are getting savvy to this (fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me).

Do you see the Chick-Lit build up happening elsewhere in publishing? Has that sub-genre managed to avoid the crash? What up and coming sub-genres do you think they will run with next or do you think the lesson has been learned?
All thoughts and comments welcomed.

16 comments:

lady t said...

Well,I remember reading Jemina J after several customers had told me how great it was and discovering such authors as Anna Maxted(who was cursed with awful cartoony covers in the US but her new book seems to have broken free from that horror show),Marian Keyes,Sophie Kinsella and plenty of others. I prefer the Brits when it comes to chick lit,mainly because they're less hung-up about themselves than Americans and deploy the humor with ease,IMO.

You're right about the market getting overglutted-it's the same as when one type of movie does well at the box office and then six other guys in Hollywood all rush out with new films riding the same theme. It happens to plenty of genres-horror is a prime example. It has it's ups and downs but never completely dies out. Chick Lit will survive,especially with the sub genres growing strong.

Oh,and I've read the new Lolly Winston book,Happiness Sold Separately(even reviewed it this week-shameless plug!)and it's very good. I don't think of it as chick lit,really but it is female friendly:)

Marta said...

Hi, BSC, really interesting post, especially since I've been following the chick lit debate for some time.

I'd say the chick lit build up is happening with paranormal fiction. Nathan Barker, owner of Kaleighbug Books and Scrybe Press, told me that romance books outsell all other genres 5:1 and that more speculative fiction is now being published as romance than as spec fiction.

So male fans of spec fiction will have to sneak into bookstores and buy books under romance imprints, saying, "It's for my girlfriend, honest!"

Of course, with that popularity will come the inevitable flood of badly written, formulaic paranormals that are rushed out to cash in on the trend. No, the lesson is never learned because people always think they can get in before the market is tapped out.

My own novel, which is a comedy with a paranormal element, is getting classified as romantic fantasy, paranormal romance, chick lit, women's fiction, etc. I've learned that the gender-specific labels were created to target the vast majority of book buyers, who are women.

I guess we only complain about the labeling when the association becomes more detrimental to sales than beneficial.

Jane said...

I think the historical set in Regency England suffered this effect only on a much slower pace. I worry about paranormals, frankly, but hopefully it all works out with writers writing within the genre that suits them best, rather than trying to write to the market.

M-Y said...

I have a feeling erotic romance could go this way. While there is truly a lot that can be said by exploring sexuality, while it can still be daring and liverating to many, and while it can be a plain lot of fun to explore physical desire, it is also really easy to stick in a bunch of sex that is the same old thing the last 20 people wrote and that means nothing.

So things that have shabby romance plots will get some sex stuck in them and suddenly become classified as the risque "erotic romance." The sub-genre seems to be new enough now that people will buy them, but then they are going to see that many of the authors didn't really have anything to say about physical relationships. Instead they got a shoddy romance with some sub-standard sex tossed in that they just skip anyway.

I am NOT saying that this is what erotic romance is. Remember my beginning list of lots of the virtues of reading erotic fiction. I am saying that this seems to be a hot category that could easily become saturated with derivative products.

Amie Stuart said...

I LURVE Lolly Winston! I think you nailed the problem with chick lit, paranormal seems to have moved slower, but I think the markets about to pop and I'm with M-Y on the erotic romance--the potential for another genre binge is definitely there.

Diane P said...

I agree that paranormal market seems to be overloaded right now and not in a good way. I am falling back on my favorites because I've been burned by some of the ones coming out. That is not to say that all are below par but I am picking and choosing much more carefully now.

I am burned out on the erotic, I mostly skim if I read it at all, again the story lines and characterization is not good.

I may move back to fantasy reading for awhile or cozy mysteries.

Molly said...

I have a stack of chick-lit books I bought after falling in love with Marian Keyes. I still haven't read half of them - the ones I did were disappointing, and I just got bored. I guess my pattern fits with the readers in your store. I'll still buy any new Keyes book but not just any old thing marketed similarly. IMHO authors and publishers forgot that what makes Chick Lit good isn't brand names and glamour careers, it's appealing characters and HUMOR.

Shanna Swendson said...

Like you, I discovered chick lit in England, but my finds were Wendy Holden and Jenny Colgan.

As much chick lit as I've read, I didn't really run into the stereotypes and repetition. I found maybe two books that were cookie-cutter chick lit (and then I didn't read those authors again, so I guess that eliminated a number of potentially weak books from my reading list).

My problem is more that I have a hard time finding enough classic chick lit that falls in line with what I first fell in love with. The American publishers, in particular, seemed to be trying too hard to make it "different," and as a result, it wasn't fun anymore. Instead of lovably quirky characters I could still relate to, they were neurotic and whiny to downright pathological and weird. They tried to get too deep and literary. I don't turn to chick lit to read about someone overcoming an abusive childhood or something like that. Chick lit can cover serious topics well (see Marian Keyes), but it needs to keep that light, fun tone and the overall attitude. Every time I hear an editor talk about what she's looking for in chick lit these days, I groan because what they're asking for from authors is not what I want as a reader.

I haven't found too many American authors who give me what I'm looking for in chick lit. Emily Giffin is one. I loved Sarah Dunn's book. Johanna Edwards's latest was great, and then there's Meg Cabot. Otherwise, I tend to gravitate toward the Brits. My bookcase has a very British accent. :-)

My own books could possibly have been published as fantasy, but I think at their core, they're still your basic, classic chick lit at heart -- just with a classic chick lit heroine who happens to work at a magical company. I use magic to make some of the chick lit cliches literal.

And speaking of cliches, where did this whole shoe obsession stereotype come from? The obsession with Manolos was from Sex and the City. I can't think of a chick lit book that had that element to the extent that the press and critics keep harping on about it. Yeah, chick lit heroines go shoe shopping sometimes, but I can't remember a book where shoes play such a primary role (except in my latest when there's a supernatural reason for being obsessed with a pair of shoes).

Allison Winn Scotch said...

BSC: I think you really hit the nail on the head with your post - there was simply a glut of CL books and far too many of them were crap. So a lot of us gave up on anything with pink covers and swirly lettering.

It's been interesting working on the marketing of my novel, which has been compared to Lolly Winston, both in tone and content (only mine deals with a 30 year old who gets breast cancer), but at the same time, has also been deemed a sort-of CL book. At first, I cringed whenever anyone said "CL," but now, I think this will be the new trend: CL with more heavier plots and deeper characters. Maybe that's really women's fiction? I dunno. It's confusing both to me as a writer and as a buyer...but the bottom line is that I don't care so much about the category it falls into as I do the quality of writing.

Susan Adrian said...

BSC:

Well, there's been quite a bit of concern voiced lately that urban fantasy (Kim Harrison/Kelly Armstrong, etc.) may be heading the same way, even faster. Everyone's jumping on the bandwagon now, so there's worry that there will be a glut.

I think it will turn out just fine in the end, though--like chick lit, the cream will rise to the top, and readers will still be interested in the good writers even if the genre bandwagon fails.

jp said...

I think this pursuit of "let's do what She did" is driving a lot of publishing houses. And the houses appear to be pushing the authors into molds that don't necessarily fit them. Or, as in the case of some authors in different genres, maybe they are being pushed too fast to produce, thus producing less than stellar work. While I've loved Linda Howard since her romance days and even into her romantic suspense period, her most recent books are not superior. Since LH is usually a top selling author, perhaps the publishers are pushing her too hard. Other authors; i.e., the Queen of Outputs, Nora Roberts, seems to do pretty much what she wants to do. While the publisher may suggest a different field for her to try, if it's not successful for her either personally or professionally -- she's got the clout to say no and make it stick. NR has a vampire trilogy coming out later this year; if it doesn't work, I doubt we'll see any more vampire stories from her.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Very interesting post, BSC!

I fell in love with the voice of chick-lit, and like so many others, wanted to be a part of such a fun, hip new genre. When I finally finish my WIP (I'm dreadfully slow), I don't think I'm going to tout it as chick-lit. I would have said humorous women's fiction, but then I read Jenny Bent compare chick-lit and women's fiction, and in her opinion, women's fiction has more characters (particularly family members)and deeper themes. If I remember right, she said chick-lit is lighter and usually in 1st person. So maybe agents will see right through me...

Virtually every novel I've read that was marketed as chick-lit, I've enjoyed (maybe I just haven't read enough). All those little observations that aren't typically touched on with a 3rd person point of view just bring such a unique quality to the stories.

Parnormals seem to have really exploded (personally I just don't get that genre), but it doesn't look like they're going to fizzle anytime soon.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'm not convinced that "women's fiction" got that label because the majority of fiction readers are women. In any other area, where there is (or has been) a heavy bias towards either men or women participating, the majority becomes the default. So, "football" and "women's football" (meaning soccer, btw), "menopause" and "male menopause", etc. If the labels applied to fiction did reflect the gender bias, we would have "fiction" (ie what's currently called women's fiction, chick-lit, etc) and "men's fiction" (hard or military SF, presumably...). So, no, I think there's some other reason...

Molly said...

I've always thought the "women's fiction" label sounds awfully dreary and unattractive. It makes me think of a book that's not funny or popular enough to be chick lit, but not beautiful or deep enough to be literary. Just sort of mediocre, depressing nowhere land. And, of course, ghettoized by gender.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I've read and loved books which are categorized as "women's fiction." It's the label I can't stand.

jcm said...

I stopped reading chick lit over a year ago - and I'm a chick lit writer. Maybe because in the 7 years since I discovered the genre I've gotten older, but I don't think so. Funny is funny, good characters are good characters no matter what age you are. I think the books just got bad because they tried too hard to emulate the successes - how many "assistants" can you read about, or women with terrible bosses who take advantage of them, or shoe shopping obsessions or boyfriends who are supposed to propose but break up with you instead? I still think that GIRLS GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING is the best book in the genre. It's smart, well-written, but most of all, unique. It didn't try to be anything other than a wonderful read, and it succeeded on its own merits.

As an author, I don't want to churn out the same crap book after book just because it's popular. I think that publishers need to let chick lit authors spread their wings a little and stray from the stereotypes. I hope that readers continue to give chick lit authors a chance to blow them away with wonderful stories and characters, but if they don't I can't blame them. They've been burned too many times.

Anonymous said...

"Do you see the Chick-Lit build up happening elsewhere in publishing? Has that sub-genre managed to avoid the crash? What up and coming sub-genres do you think they will run with next or do you think the lesson has been learned?"

1. Yes, vampires, vampires, vampires, and shapeshifters. They are churning them out and quite a few are formulaic.
2. Next along will be romantic erotica where BDSM is concerned. It is on it's beginning slant up. I won't name names but there are already two Epubs I can think of who have stuff that is so formulaic that I've stopped buying them.
3. Lesson has not been learned. What happens, IMHO, is that a few publishers try to hold out on the mad dash, but then they see the money going elsewhere and they have no choice but to join in by then the feeding is frenzied.

I am an avid reader and used to spend $100 minimum monthly at epubs and bookstores on the vampire genre. I've since stopped. I try, I really try, but it's slim pickings these days. I read the back, I read the first few pages, I put them down.