News

Women's brands hard hit by downturn

A squeeze on consumer spending in supermarkets and the migration to digital are being blamed for the spectacular falls in sales suffered by many of the UK’s biggest commercial women’s novelists in 2011

Sales of the most recent mass-market novels by the likes of Marian Keyes, Jodi Picoult, Veronica Henry, Catherine Alliott, Louise Bagshawe, Dororthy Koomson, Maeve Binchy, Harriet Evans, Jill Mansell and Lesley Pearse are all down by more than 20% on their previous mass-market publications over comparative sales periods.

Marian Keyes' latest novel The Brightest Star in the Sky is down 42% on her previous book, selling 260,000 copies since February publication, while Jodi Picoult's Harvesting the Heart is down almost 50% on her previous novel at 120,235 copies. Victoria Henry's The Birthday Party shows sales down 71% to 16,479 copies. These results are echoed elsewhere in women's commercial fiction, set against a fall of 8% in the overall fiction market year on year (compared to a 5% drop in the general book market). Overall, the top 20 commercial women's fiction authors were down 10% in like-for-like sales of their most recent mass market title against the previous one.

Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market shows volume sales for the first eight months of this year in the Supermarket and Mixed Multiples channel are down by 9% compared to 2010, from just over 29 million copies to just over 26 million. Headline director of publishing Marion Donaldson said: "It's possible budget-conscious women doing the weekly shop are denying themselves a purchase they'd have made happily a couple of years ago."

Supermarkets are thought to have cut back book stocks after several years of expansion. One trade insider said some were halving order numbers, reducing stockholding and using cardboard fillers on shelves.

Analyst Robert Clark at the Retail Knowledge Bank said: "What's going on across the supermarkets is that sales and volumes are flat generally. Because there is food inflation, probably at a higher level than non-food, the assumption is it is non-food being cut out in the weekly shop. The statistical evidence does suggest customers are concentrating on the essentials."

Nick Bubb of Arden Partners said: "Consumers are cutting back on most forms of discretionary spending, as they operate to tighter budgets, and that does seem to be affecting the supermarkets' relentless march into non-food."

Curtis Brown's Sheila Crowley said she thought increasing supermarket prices were a "huge" part of the downturn. "Consumer buying habits are changing, and women are probably more conscious of spend." However, she urged the trade to stay positive: "I've been through three recessions and we always bounce back. It's just unfortunate that this time of austerity is coupled with the transition to e-books."

Little, Brown deputy publisher David Shelley said a "disproportionate number" of sales migrating to digital were women's fiction. "We've sold over 100,000 copies of Nora Roberts in e-book, and a large proportion of our e-book bestsellers are women's fiction—Dorothy Koomson, Jenny Colgan, Nora Roberts and Fiona Walker."

Some suggested fashion has turned towards "dark women's fiction" and psychological thrillers, while packaging for commercial women's fiction was criticised. Eithne Farry, literary editor for Marie Claire, said she detected a "swell of discontent" around jackets, with authors and readers feeling packaging no longer reflected content. She said: "People are getting a bit sick of the chick lit look, and the term as a genre label—it seems to cover such a wide range. The jackets make it seem frothy and light, but a lot of books with those covers actually deal with quite serious things."

Fanny Blake, books editor of Woman & Home, suggested books were hit by competition for commuter entertainment. She said: "You can sit playing Angry Birds or watching the latest episode of 'Mad Men'. There is more entertainment in your pocket."

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Why always this distinction on "Women's fiction". Donaldson's comment "It's possible budget-conscious women doing the weekly shop are denying themselves a purchase they'd have made happily a couple of years ago." only emphesises the general opinion that only women read books written by women, and female novelists only write for a female audience. Completely ridiculous. Surely sales on "Men's fiction" is hit just as hard by the belt-tightening of recent years. Why perpetuate this marginalising of women's writing which still keeps the majority of female novelists on the sidelines?

What do the supermarkets say?

Sounds like nobody knows the reason - the sources above are guessing randomly.

Here's another guess - supermarkets are buying up rubbish contrived novels by celebs more than quality women's fiction - this results in dissatisfied readers realising although it is only 3 quid it is a waste when times are expensive.

Quality books add artistic intangible value to lives and as such rarely suffer in recession as they are as important as bread and milk :-o.

1/ 'Trade Insider' - A worthless comment.
2/ 'Womens Fiction' - Did not think it could be called that now.
3/ 'Alternative Publisher' - Look and see just what the customers are buying, it has nothing to do with whatever the Supermarkets are or are not doing.

Thank you

"Women's Fiction?" Maybe the decline is more to do with women having more choice in reading material than what the publishers say they "should" be reading. I love reading but I prefer historic novels & thrillers. I think I have only every read 1 or 2 chic lit books, they really aren't for me.

that jodi picoult title is a reprint and is old. Her latest novel Sing You Home is also very topical and not all fans would go for it. I think her fiction novel for 2012 will be a far better seller. As the topic is more broader for her followers and non followers

Great point.

Exactly, Katy D, these gender specific pigeon holes and boxes that jam pack the publishing world have to be smashed up, mate.

Maybe publishers are not selecting the novels the reading public is actually looking for?

The monopoly on distribution the industry has always enjoyed has enabled it to be complacent about its choices - in spite of the fact that a majority of books fail to earn out their advances. Now any reader with a Kindle has the option to buy a self-published novel instead, and some of them are better than those available in bookshops.

Rebranding needed. Those god-awful citrusy and pastel covers with identikit vector graphics and swirly curly fonts are not helping the situation.
If we want to capture the girls/women reading Twilight, they want edgier covers. These girls don't want to be seen carrying a turquoise book with daisies scattered all over it. They want edge.

It's funny how exercised people become over pastel covers - the crime section in my local bookshop is overrun with dark, brooding, fairly obscure covers with similar typefaces. But that's OK apprently, as is reading the increasing gore-fest of serial killer novels with ex-druggie/ex-alcoholic/ex-married detectives. The debate about 'women's fiction' is simply mysoginistic.

Why always this distinction on "Women's fiction". Donaldson's comment "It's possible budget-conscious women doing the weekly shop are denying themselves a purchase they'd have made happily a couple of years ago." only emphesises the general opinion that only women read books written by women, and female novelists only write for a female audience. Completely ridiculous. Surely sales on "Men's fiction" is hit just as hard by the belt-tightening of recent years. Why perpetuate this marginalising of women's writing which still keeps the majority of female novelists on the sidelines?

Great point.

Exactly, Katy D, these gender specific pigeon holes and boxes that jam pack the publishing world have to be smashed up, mate.

What do the supermarkets say?

Sounds like nobody knows the reason - the sources above are guessing randomly.

Here's another guess - supermarkets are buying up rubbish contrived novels by celebs more than quality women's fiction - this results in dissatisfied readers realising although it is only 3 quid it is a waste when times are expensive.

Quality books add artistic intangible value to lives and as such rarely suffer in recession as they are as important as bread and milk :-o.

1/ 'Trade Insider' - A worthless comment.
2/ 'Womens Fiction' - Did not think it could be called that now.
3/ 'Alternative Publisher' - Look and see just what the customers are buying, it has nothing to do with whatever the Supermarkets are or are not doing.

Thank you

"Women's Fiction?" Maybe the decline is more to do with women having more choice in reading material than what the publishers say they "should" be reading. I love reading but I prefer historic novels & thrillers. I think I have only every read 1 or 2 chic lit books, they really aren't for me.

that jodi picoult title is a reprint and is old. Her latest novel Sing You Home is also very topical and not all fans would go for it. I think her fiction novel for 2012 will be a far better seller. As the topic is more broader for her followers and non followers

Maybe publishers are not selecting the novels the reading public is actually looking for?

The monopoly on distribution the industry has always enjoyed has enabled it to be complacent about its choices - in spite of the fact that a majority of books fail to earn out their advances. Now any reader with a Kindle has the option to buy a self-published novel instead, and some of them are better than those available in bookshops.

Rebranding needed. Those god-awful citrusy and pastel covers with identikit vector graphics and swirly curly fonts are not helping the situation.
If we want to capture the girls/women reading Twilight, they want edgier covers. These girls don't want to be seen carrying a turquoise book with daisies scattered all over it. They want edge.

It's funny how exercised people become over pastel covers - the crime section in my local bookshop is overrun with dark, brooding, fairly obscure covers with similar typefaces. But that's OK apprently, as is reading the increasing gore-fest of serial killer novels with ex-druggie/ex-alcoholic/ex-married detectives. The debate about 'women's fiction' is simply mysoginistic.