Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Market Research -- What Do You Want to Read and Why Aren't You Getting It?

The subject of market research came up recently on Twitter.  I have thoughts on this topic that just couldn't be shoe-horned into 140 characters.  Nothing says "New Blog Post" to me like the inability to communicate something within Twitter's restrictions!

I did a little Googling, and found that there's market research on romance novels as a genre within the publishing field.  Simba Information, for example, puts out an annual report (which I could, but won't, buy for $3,000) entitled: Business of Consumer Book Publishing.  The 2009 edition includes in its table of contents the following sections:
Romance Books
Size of the Romance Book Market and Title Output
Five-Year Romance Book Trends: Format, Segment, Performance
Key Romance Book Publishers
Kensington Books
Penguin Group
Random House 
and the following tables:
Table 3.76: New Romance Titles vs. All New Titles Released, 2004-2008
Table 3.77: Five-Year Trend: Romance by Consolidated Rating
Table 3.78: Format and Segment Trends: Romance, 2004-2008
Table 3.79: Top 20 Romance Imprints, January-December 2008
Table 3.80: Bestselling Romance Books, 2008
(There are also some specific references to trends in e-publishing that would be fascinating to read, but not $3,000's worth of fascination.)

What's apparent to me, looking at the sort of information Simba gives its customers regarding romance novels, is that it's all about how the market is performing and not at all about what customers want vs. what customers think about what they're offered.  That would be customer satisfaction research, and I can find no evidence that anyone's doing any of that on paperback books in general, and romance novels specifically.  

Now, I have the tiniest knowledge of market research (I worked one summer at a friend's firm in London -- thirty years ago) but ironically I did prepare a concept paper for my boss that summer on customer satisfaction research for paperback books.

I dimly recall writing about what I foresaw as the problems of doing customer satisfaction research for paperbacks.  I think I mentioned the deeply subjective nature of readers' opinions, choices, and preferences when it came to specific books within a genre.  Which translates to the researcher's inability to get statistically significant answers to any of the following general questions:
What type of book(s) do you like to read?

Why do you like to read those books?

When you read those books, what do you hope to get from your reading experience?

On a scale from 1 to 10, how satisfied are you reading those books?

and so forth.  (My boss didn't object to fill-in-the-blank answers, tabulating them was what I got paid to do.)

Imagine filling out a questionnaire like that.  I like to read a lot of different kinds of books, but I think the complexity of a questionnaire designed to determine if I like mysteries more than thrillers, but less than romances, would be counter-productive.  Readers, I think, are complicated actors in the marketplace for books.

And that would only provide information on readers' preferences in categories of books, genres, periods, degree of sexual activity/explicitness.  Imagine how hard it would be to find out if readers actually want what they're offered as opposed to what they aren't offered.

Over on Dear Author, Robin/Janet has posted another op-ed piece on female sexuality in romance novels.  She and I don't disagree on everything, but she rightly objected to my comment that with regard to historical novels, the prevalence of virginal heroines is the result of the marketplace: it's what authors want to write and readers what to read.  But to describe that as circular because we can only read what we're given and that's not necessarily what we want to read misses a couple key points.

First, if more authors (and particularly well-established authors whose books regularly sell well and make their publishers money) wrote historical romances about sexually experienced heroines, we would read them.  The problem is, among the upper classes, that sort of sexual freedom wasn't widespread.  I can think of two prototypes: the Emma, Lady Hamilton type -- a socially well-placed female conducting serial relationships with different men; and the sort of bluestocking that believed in pursuing sexual pleasure -- and love -- regardless of societal mores.  (I found it hard to find specific examples of that sort of proto-sexual liberation; Mary Shelley perhaps?  I had thought more of the female members of the Blue Stockings Society were in this category, but a very quick click through Wiki's list suggests that the females were actually all a bit worthy...)

I think we can conclude that the books written by well-established authors are the ones those authors want to write, regardless of market forces.  If there's insufficient sexual experience among the heroines in those romances to suit Robin/Janet, her post may inspire those authors to write about women with more experience.

What then of the slew of books that are by first-time authors, or mid-list authors who might be influenced by agents, editors, or others sufficiently to change their minds about the sexual experience of heroines?  Are first-time authors having manuscripts rejected because their heroines were too sexually experienced?  Unless a writer steps forward and says that happened, we'll never know.  And certainly there's no statistically significant research (that I could find, at least) as to a conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the traditional publishing industry in favor of a certain level of sexual experience.

[Oh, except of course for those series romances with "Virgin" in the title.  I'm pretty sure Harlequin is influencing its authors and/or first-time submissions to have, uh, significantly less sexually experienced heroines.]

Finally, what of the reader?  We might approve of a more realistic depiction of women's sexual experience in our heroines, but never be able to use our wallets to get the traditional publishing industry to reflect that preference.  As Robin/Janet rightly points out, we're reading what we're given to read.

There is some disagreement about whether the choice of books is too large (400 titles a month is more than anybody can keep up with) or too narrow (it could be 4,000 titles a month but if they're all, effectively, the same, volume is not equating to great variety or choice).  I think both perspectives are accurate: we seem to be getting a lot of very similar books to read.  Some are better written, and we're grateful to sites like Dear Author to help us find the gems.

Wouldn't it be nice if publishers, editors and agents kept track of op-ed pieces like Robin/Janet's so they knew what educated readers wanted.  But in a wildly anecdotal report from a publishing insider, I was told recently that the majority of romance readers are conservative (politically and socially), less educated, and more likely to be living in a Red State.  That's not me.  Which tells me that in the viewpoint of Simba Information's reports, my opinion probably doesn't count.


  1. I would love a different representation of women in romance books, but I do not think it is going to happen in regards to sexuality until it is more mainstream culture.
    Realistically Romance is a mainstream category, with a mainstream audience.
    Look at how well category sells.. who is the biggest romance publisher?

  2. Realistically, romance is a mainstream category

    I have to agree with that.

    I, too, believe that readers read what they're given because they're addicts and they need their fix--not necessarily what they want.

    The problem is that publishers use what people are buying as an absolute that that's what people actually want. Romance readers are a different breed, IMO, in that they *are* actually, addicts and will take what they're given.

    If they complain... Who knows? And oh, well.

  3. Girllit -- Um, Harlequin Enterprises -- they publish over a thousand titles a year here in North America, in lots of different categories. I suspect they may have done some sort of market research to develop various lines and sub-genres, but that would be proprietary research so not available to a casual reader on the Internet. :-)

    We know Harlequin Enterprises adjusts their category romance lines because we've seen, over the years, lines disappear and new lines emerge. Those decisions -- business decisions always made with the bottom line being numbers of books sold -- are probably the result of passive consumer research: if not enough people were buying one line, maybe it got tweaked.

    I just counted: there are 24 "lines" among the Harlequin, Silhouette, Steeple Hill and Kirmani imprints, plus 7 stand-alone imprints like MIRA and LUNA. Now, with all those imprints and lines, surely there's room for some sexually experienced heroines (other than in Harlequin Spice, their erotica line)?

    You really have to wonder why Harlequin Enterprises isn't providing readers like us different choices in how their heroines are portrayed.

    No answers, I'm afraid, just more head-scratching.

  4. Moriah -- But are there enough of us complainers to constitute a market? What if the majority of romance novel readers don't care? I agree they should: we should all be proactive in our choices.

    There's what is and then there's what should be. I don't see an easy way to get from one to the other -- except for romance writers to write what they want to read.

  5. What if the majority of romance novel readers don't care?

    Then that's what consumer research would tell us, isn't it? ;) Fact is, they have no vested interest in doing consumer research, especially when their customers aren't readers. The customers are the bookstores.

    There are two people IN THE COUNTRY who buy the majority of romance books: the buyer for B&N and the buyer for Borders. Those two people (and the drabble of counterparts here and there) are the publishers' customers.

  6. Sorry I worded the first post wrong.
    HQN have room for a diverse range of representations of female sexuality, but they work with what sells on the mass scale, and the asexual heroine who doesn't get awakened until she meets the overpowering hero is the standard that sells. The public has spoken, which is why I said that attitudes will have to change externally before the publishers will change it.
    Though I agree with Moriah on the romance readers at addicts, reading what they get their hands on even while longing for diversity different stuff, I do feel that the majority wouldn’t currently welcome ie. HQN doing such a line, it would be soon axed for not getting the sales required. As it just doesn’t fit most readers ideals? Expectations of feminity?
    And I do not really think I have said it any better this time! Sorry

  7. Bloomin eck, I thought I had edited that, "as addicts" not at.
    And also managed to cut out somehow the asexual heroine is the norm across all the lines realistically.

  8. Run, don't walk, over to AAR and read how a wonderful Kiwi book store owner, Frances Loo, runs her store Chapter. Fascinating! And check out what true fans are willing to pay for books: incredible!!

  9. Given how many books they publish, and given that Jane and Robin have vouched for HQN's overall favorable record in publishing a range of books with a range of heroine-types, I'm more willing to accept that assessment than read 120 titles a month to see for myself! :-)

    It seems pretty clear that publishers are conservative by nature and so they want to publish what sells. If only "good" books sold, we'd have no problems (and all our blogs would dry up), but as DA has pointed out, there's too much of the "spaghetti" approach -- publish a lot of books and see what sticks. I gather it's cheaper to publish a so-so book than it is to hire experienced editors (and enough of them) to work harder to find, and polish, more good books.

    I blithely assume that good books will include more appropriate and respectful images of women! (Let's have a bitter virgin as the spiteful ebil Other Woman, shall we?)

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