Features

What women want

This could be the year that sees chick lit stop chirping. It has been a tough period for the women's commercial fiction genre with authors new and old struggling in the recession.
Although there is no specific Nielsen BookScan category for commercial women's fiction, by comparing their most recent mass market paperback novels to their previous ones, even some of the genre's household names are seeing their sales fall (in fact around three-quarters of the Top 20 commercial women's fiction writers have seen sales of their most recent mass market paperback decline and the overall decline across the top 20 is 10%)—Marian Keyes' latest The Brightest Star in the Sky (Penguin) has sold just over 262,000 copies since February, a healthy figure, but 42% down from This Charming Man's (Penguin) similar first 29 weeks of sales in 2008, according to the TCM.

Now, it is not all doom and gloom and some authors have seen their sales rise—Transworld more than doubled sales of Sarra Manning's latest You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, after poaching her from Headline. Headline itself has increased sales for Tasmina Perry's latest, Kiss Heaven Goodbye, by around 100% following her departure from Harper.

But, unfortunately the fall-list does go on: Jill Mansell's To the Moon and Back (Headline) sold 99,249 copies in its first three months on sale, but Take a Chance on Me (Headline, June 2010) sold 137,548 copies in a similar period. Jodi Picoult's Picture Perfect (Hodder Paperback, June 2010) sold 238,832 copies in its first two months on shelves, but with Harvesting the Heart (Hodder Paperback, June 2011) sales fell by almost 50% to just 120,235 copies.

Dorothy Koomson's The Ice Cream Girls (Sphere, July 2010) sold 72,987 copies in its first three weeks, but The Woman He Loved Before (Sphere, August 2011) sold just 47,671 in the same time period, a fall of 35%. Veronica Henry has fared even worse, sales of her The Birthday Party (Orion, July 2011) are down 70% on last year's The Beach Hut.

So, what are the reasons for this decline? As the industry continues in its shift towards digital, the rise of e-book sales often counteracts any loss to print ones, but this does not seem to be the case with women's commercial fiction.

Transworld is a big player in this market, with bestselling authors such as Sophie Kinsella and Joanna Trollope on its list. Sales director Martin Higgins says: "Women's fiction has really struggled recently and many authors are significantly down across the spectrum. But that wouldn't necessarily be reflected if you looked at the e-book charts, which is mainly filled with crime and thriller titles. If you felt there was a cause and effect between e-books and the shortfall in women's fiction, well, that doesn't seem to be the case—it just seems that people aren't buying women's fiction in the volume they used to a year or 18 months ago."

He adds: "Bearing in mind current economic factors, it seems that women will probably be more likely to defer gratification and not buy a book, whereas men are probably a bit more greedy. The price of food is going up and women's fiction is predominantly sold in the supermarket sector and if the average basket spend has gone up, something has to give."

It seems Higgins is right; the BookScan data also shows that volume sales from 1st January to 13th August in the Supermarket & Mixed Multiples channel are down by 9% (in all categories)compared to the same period in 2010—falling from just over 29 million copies in 2010 to just over 26 million in 2011. Headline publishing director Marion Donaldson says: "A large proportion of the sales of chick lit authors is through the supermarkets and it's possible that budget-conscious women doing the weekly shop are denying themselves a purchase they'd have made happily a couple of years ago."
Headline publishes women's fiction authors including Perry, Adele Parks and for Donaldson there are other factors that could explain the genre's decline as well: "Readers are constantly being directed to quite a wide range of heavily publicised book club titles, whether from "The TV Book Club" or Richard and Judy. I suspect that the powerful book club promotions have encouraged and tempted some women at least to try books they might not have risked their money on in the past, particularly in the literary/commercial crossover area. A recommendation from a trusted source is incredibly powerful."

It's not just the sales of commercial women's fiction titles that are in crises however. The very name of the genre itself has recently been called into question, with W H Smith declaring that from the middle of October it will no longer use "Women's Fiction" on promotional p.o.s. material after it received complaints from two female shoppers who found the label condescending and offensive.

Isobel Akenhead, senior editor in women's fiction and digital at Hodder & Stoughton, believes the genre should be re-dubbed: "relationship fiction". She explains: "Women's fiction and chick lit has always been about how modern women deal with relationships, rather than perhaps the bigger issues that are dealt with in other types of fiction. But, I've been reading chick lit for more than half my life and in all that time I've always been astounded by the depth and complexity that exists in a great deal of women's fiction. I think the brand authors that have survived are the ones that can tap into the emotional complexity that the great writers of relationship fiction always have."

Out of range
With such a wide range of authors and titles classed under women's fiction, Akenhead says that there has been "some blurring of boundaries" within the genre. Added to this, literary/thriller-style writers such as Rosamund Lupton and Emma Donoghue have sold well with the commercial women's fiction core market. Yet Akenhead argues the genre "hasn't changed beyond recognition. There has always been some blurring, with books like Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (Faber) and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife (Cape), which is an interesting take on a romantic story and more literary than the chick lit end of the market, but still a novel about relationships."

The downside to this wide range is that crowded shelves ensure an even tougher job when it comes to launching a new writer. Akenhead says: "The fact is the market is tough like never before across the board and women's fiction is harder than most. It's harder than ever with débuts as supermarkets understandably don't want to take risks on someone they don't know. It's the same as them stocking a new range of ketchup, when Heinz does so well. But it is up to us, if we see a new talent that we think is fantastic and want to launch them we have to put more than just enthusiasm behind them and really gun for those slots."

So, what do readers themselves think? Lifetime fans Chloe Spooner and Leah Graham have written the blog Chicklitreviews.com since 2009. Spooner loves the genre because it "isn't just the frothy stuff people think it is, if you get a good author the book can be about a whole range of issues but it's always enjoyable. I think the genre is better than people give it credit for. The older authors bring something totally different from the Paige Toons and the Sophie Kinsellas and within the same genre there is so much range. I read the same books as my mum which shows how broad the appeal is."
For Graham however there isn't always enough range: "I'm not sure if sales figures support it, but it does seem more and more people are reading chick lit because they've realised that it's not just shoes and shopping and finding Mr Right. Yet, I don't think the market has diversified too much, if you look hard enough there are novels that are a bit different, but novels that are ‘different' to the norm tend to be shouted down and it seems all publishers want is the more ‘straight' chick lit. I just wrote in our most recent newsletter about why I'm not a fan of the fact that Cally Taylor had to re-write a lot of her new novel (Home for Christmas, Orion) because the ‘different' part, the magical element, isn't well received in the UK apparently. I think diversity is needed, but I think publishers are reluctant to take a chance on authors who write books that are a bit more quirky."