Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Confessions of a genre fiction addict

The time has come to reveal a shameful secret.

It’s not the can of SpaghettiOs I keep tucked behind the boxes of penne in my cupboards. It’s not my nail-biting habit, or my compulsive cycle of buying and returning shoes, or the fact that I sometimes pair pinot noir with Doritos. No, to most of the bookish people I work and study with, it’s far worse than that.


I am a genre junkie. Fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, urban fantasy, romance, most especially anything with fangs or kilts on the cover. Throw it in the cart. I think there’s room under the family-size bag of MSG-laden tortilla chips.I am risking the scorn of my fellow Appazooglers to tell you this because of an interesting truth: genre fiction, specifically romance, is one area in which we can quantify the growth of digital sales. In its 2010 Annual Report, Torstar, parent company of romance publisher Harlequin, boasted that the company’s North American digital sales more than tripled in the year. In its third quarter filings for 2011, Torstar reported continued growth in digital sales—and that revenue was up overall, meaning that rocketing digital sales more than compensated for declining sales of print books.

As the digital revolution marches on, publishers and booksellers struggle to anticipate just how much digital sales will impact print sales. We struggle to figure out just what’s selling as an ebook. This is hard to do, because no two genres are growing alike. Digital fiction does better than digital nonfiction, but to what extent? What factors are driving people to buy digital over print?

In the case of genre fiction, I have identified two suspects. One is the mass market format. These books simply aren’t intended to last very long. They’re small, the paper is thin, and it yellows quickly. While I am a big fan of mass market paperbacks—so small! so light!—these aren’t the books I’m hoarding for my grandkids. When a book wasn’t going to be printed to last anyway, I can easily see readers choosing digital over print. If they’re like me, they’ll read the book in a sitting and not pick it up again, eventually carting it off to the fine people at Salvation Army. Buying digital saves you the trip when you finally tire of dusting the oeuvre of MaryJanice Davidson.

The second, though, is the shame factor. We can’t say for sure; shame isn’t easily quantifiable, nor is it something people like to talk about. I spent many years skulking about those ignoble aisles in Barnes & Noble and the grocery store, hiding my literary junk food under Nabokov novels and bottles of shampoo. Amazon was a balm to my embarrassment; I could buy “quality” books in public, and my smut would arrive on my doorstep in nondescript brown boxes. Buying an ereader and going digital would just be another step on the road to closeted, shame-free genre enjoyment.

I know this won’t hold true for all genres or all genre readers. But I would be willing to bet that perceived prestige plays a larger role than many would care to admit in our book buying habits.

7 comments on “Confessions of a genre fiction addict

  1. Molly Trover
    December 4, 2011

    Don’t worry, we can be genre junkies together. My romance books tend to feature hunky Civil War soldiers on the cover, but I’m quite interested in the kilts as well. Book swap? Great post…I had no idea the digital sales for that genre had increased to such an extent!

  2. Jenka Eusebio
    December 4, 2011

    Great post! And no feelings of scorn from me. My entrance into the world of literature was, after all, framed by piles and piles of YA fantasy books. You make many valid points here, which gets me to thinking how other genres respond to the digitization of books.

    Now it’s my time for a few confessions of my own: experience leads me to believe that there is quite a bit of overlap between the science fiction/fantasy market and the RPG (Role Playing Games) video game market. I’m not ashamed to say that I used to play RPGs primarily to figure out how the plot was going to unravel. The ‘gaming’ aspect was somewhat secondary to my enjoyment of the story, music, and visuals.

    With this in mind…I have a feeling that this section of the market would be pretty receptive to enhanced (hey, maybe even interactive!) e-books.

  3. Jenna Gilligan
    December 9, 2011

    I think price is a third factor–I’ll bet the growth of this sector is in part fueled by how easy it is to get these books for free on Amazon. They don’t take up room on your shelf, no one sees you reading them–and you don’t have to pay for them? Or you only have to pay $1.50 for them? That’s pretty hard to resist.

    I think that’s another reason that fiction in general does better in ebook form than nonfiction. A nonfiction book, you can pretty much tell if you’ll like it before you buy it–like history? Try this history book. Like gardening? Try this gardening book. For me, at least, it’s a lot harder to predict if I’ll like a novel just by reading a quick description of it…having to only pay $9.99 for it makes me more likely to take the risk.

    • Frantik
      January 9, 2013

      I just picked up a used copy of Dune a clopue of days ago for $0.50. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to starting it. I really don’t want to start any more series until I finish up a few, particularly The Dark Tower and The Belgariad. With TDT I have 3 books to go; Belgariad, 2 (I think). That’s not counting the Mallorean, which I think is a sister-trilogy to Belgariad.

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This entry was posted on December 4, 2011 by in Culture, Opinion and tagged , , .

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