Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
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.