February 7, 2012

Is crime fiction replacing romance as the go-to escapist literature?


There are a few interesting articles circulating about mass market fiction consumption in the UK library system. The romance genre has long sat atop the list of most checked-out titles, but apparently the last decade has seen a substantial shift, particularly over the last two years, and crime fiction has supplanted romance, according to a UK study detailed in this Hindustan Times report:

“In the decade following 9/11, I believe crime fiction has become more important in people’s lives,” the Telegraph quoted Lee Child, the British thriller writer of the Jack Reacher novels as saying.

“It gratifies their desire for safety and security and the rule of law, because at the end of crime novels, order is restored,” Child said.

The dramatic change in reading tastes emerged from the latest release of figures from the Public Lending Right, the government body that pays royalties to authors.

It found that despite the turmoil surrounding the British library system, the popularity of books remains remarkably robust.

Overall borrowing figures for the year 2010-2011 was 300 million loans down from 309 million the year before, and from more than 370 million on the previous decade.

However, the most dramatic change is the with from romance novels to crime and thrillers.

Back in 2000, The Thursday Friend by Catherine Cookson was the most popular book in our libraries but by 2010 it was The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.

In all there were six romance based novels in the chart and just one crime in 2000 but by then end of the decade the chart was dominated by thrillers and crime novels, especially those from America.

With over two million loans, prolific American writer James Patterson is the UK’s “Most Borrowed Author” for the fifth year running.

But while this story is being billed as romance vs. crime fiction, it seems like there could be a digital subtext. Much has been made of the migration of the mass market, especially romance genre readers, to the digital platform. Cheap, fast, and perhaps the allure of being anonymous are the key contributors to this fundamental shift in preference among romance readers. That old-fashioned romance cover with Fabio‘s bulging likeness on the cover might have been a bit to much chintz for some less-confident fans to read in public. With the rise of eBooks, these readers fled to the Kindle or Nook in order to read their lusty tales in anonymity.

However this could belie reality for publishers and authors. On one hand you have industry leaders touting (or fretting over) the growth of the digital marketplace, and in turn publishing media reporting their view on what is and isn’t bullish in traditional marketplaces. But on the other hand, it’s hard to quantify what is actually selling. It seems like the most obvious solution to any discussion of eroding markets would be to include the total picture. In other words: How many eBooks and print copies of a single title sold, etc? Real information about digital sales is still hard to come by.

Instead it seems the spin is ruling out. Digital is replacing print.  Print will coexist with digital. Romance is being replaced by crime fiction in UK libraries because of 9/11. None of these are certain statements and all of them could use with a more inclusive use of statistics if we want to make decisions based on them.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.