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."