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.