Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Research on Market Research: Michael Norris

Yesterday, I posted about the lack of customer satisfaction research in romance publishing.  I cited an annual report by Simba Information, a company that provides various publishing industry insiders with data on book sales.

On a whim -- and because fundamentally I don't know anything about this field so let's ask someone who does -- I sent Simba Information a question:  Did they know if anyone was doing customer satisfaction research with regard to romance novels?

Here's Michael Norris's answer.  He's Senior Analyst for Simba's Trade Books Group, which would include romances.
The short answer is no, we’ve never done customer satisfaction studies on a genre basis, and if the Romance Writers of America haven’t done one in the past I’m not sure who has. We’ve done quality ratings for fall lists by surveying independent bookstores nationwide (How do you feel the quality of the fall list in 2009 compares to that of 2008, etc.) but reaching out to readers themselves is tricky, especially since we know diehard romance fans consume a lot of books, so a quantitative analysis about satisfaction in general would be completely subjective. I’ve always believed ‘books are sold one at a time to one person at a time’ so the quality of a book depends on which reader you ask.

Okay, that answers that question.  (Does anyone know if RWA has done a customer satisfaction study?)

I followed up and asked Norris specifically about this idea that the traditional publishers of romance novels have just two customers: the buyer for Borders and the buyer for Barnes & Noble.  (I got this notion from Robin/Janet at Dear Author; here's the link to her comment.)  Here's Michael Norris's answer to that question:
The choices of readers matter, but most of the time all a publisher has in front of them to base decisions on is a spreadsheet with sales figures on it of the choices readers have made. Put another way, I’m tired of listening to aspiring authors complain about getting rejected from publishers, yet when I ask them what they buy, they practically recite the New York Times bestseller list, which is home to less than 2% of books published annually.  If readers are choosing to scoop up books from the pre-famous authors only, publishers will get the message that those are the books readers want. I tell people who want to become authors to skip Nora Roberts and seek out new authors because if publishers see new voices selling, they’ll want to publish more new voices.

I’d also recommend buying their books at local bookstores; preferably independent ones. The reason for that is: the huge number of non-bookstore entities like Wal-Mart, Target, and CostCo aren’t likely to carry anything other than books published by authors who have created their reputations 10+ years ago. Better to buy books at a place that has a stake in the future of print.

Unfortunately, my experience with independent bookstores is that they either don't carry romance novels at all, or if they do, they carry only "brand name" authors like Nora Roberts and/or cross-genre books like romantic suspense.  (I think I bought Anne Stuart's Black Ice at a small bookstore in Staunton, Virginia for that exact reason: I wanted something to read and they didn't have anything more mainstream in the romance genre.  Still, not a bad pick.)

Here's my point:  we can disagree with what Michael Norris has to say, but not with his familiarity and experience in this field.  He says that sales numbers -- the actual choices that actual readers make -- matter.  I'm willing to believe him, particularly as I have absolutely no data that contradicts him.  And if he's right, there's hope that we readers can make a difference.  Keep buying the books that present women the way you want them presented.  Don't buy the books that don't or that perpetuate a stereotypical and anti-feminist message that heroines are worth more if they're sexually innocent, sexually naive, sexually clueless, or just waiting for the right hero to uh, push the right buttons.  (As someone put it on Twitter: TSTM.  Too stupid to "seek her own pleasure.") 

So maybe Victoria Dahl's contemporary novels are having a greater effect on the market than we realize:  they're popular, they present women as sexually experienced and confident in their own sexuality, there's no suggestion that anyone (the hero, the author, or the reader) should judge the heroine for being confident in her sexuality or for having a variety of sexual experiences. 

People can disagree with me; I'm okay with that.  I guess I believe two things that are potentially unpopular.  First, there is a cause-and-effect at work in the publication of romance novels.  If we see too many "women are judged on their sexual history" books, there's a cause for that.  It might be a complex equation involving what authors are writing, what publishers are picking up from new authors, and what readers are buying.  Or it could just be the buyers for the big box stores.  No matter what the cause, if we want things to change it may help to know what the causal factors are and how they can be influenced.

Second, I do believe that each individual title should be judged on its merits as a romance novel.  If a character is presented as sexually insecure or inexperienced, the author should be doing two things: making that character's backstory consistent with her personality, and presenting the heroine's story arc as one that shows the heroine as self-determining.  Of course the heroine is influenced by what the hero thinks of her.  But she shouldn't substitute his judgment for her own, and she should have sufficient backbone to orchestrate her own change into a more confident and self-determining person.  For that matter, so should the hero.  (It goes without saying that the author should respect her characters and present them as fundamentally interesting.  A sexually inexperienced heroine can be interesting; a sexually inexperienced and wimpy heroine isn't.  At least not to me.)

12 comments:

  1. Interesting post Miss M!

    But if we stop buying the romances that feature this, we'd not have much to read IMO, and damn it I have an addiction to feed! ;)
    - Though actually thanks to my slump I have already started. lol

    In regards to the single book merit, I don't know.. that would be ideal, but in the absence of a reasonable number of heroines who are sexually ocnfident etc, I am starting to think of it as a lazy trope of the genre..

    Edie

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  2. Great post!

    As I buy almost all my books online, my perception of what's hot and what's not is skewed. If a book receives a lot of online buzz, I often assume it sells well in the real world. This is probably an erroneous assumption.

    Buying books at Amazon also doesn't reflect a book's representation at a regular brick-and-mortar bookstore. As long as it's still in print, just about every author's backlist is in stock at Amazon.

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  3. Edie -- help me out here. Next time you're reading a book where the heroine is both wimpy & sexually inexperienced, come back and post (or email me) the title. I'll do the same if I read one. Not a challenge, I'm just interested in a wider range of tiles that this applies to.

    One for sure is Pride & Prejudice, which I'm embarrassed to admit I have never read (yes, I deserve everyone's censure for that) but am listening to now (an unabridged version I got for Christmas: very good). The men are judged on looks, income and disposition in that order. The women are judge on looks, connections and accomplishments, in that order. No suggestion of sex, of course. But also no suggestion that virginity is valued. I think it's just taken as understood that at the beginning of the book, all five sisters are virgins.

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  4. Sarah -- Oh, I'm even worse: I buy all my books used, so those statistics really won't show up. But I'll pay attention to what I buy at the big box stores from now on! (I already only read Nora Roberts out of the library, so I'm heeding at least that much of Michael Norris's advice!)

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  5. Edie -- Just thought: Elizabeth Bennett not wimpy. Never mind. *headdesk*

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  6. Sorry for the late reply!

    As an aside, I would argue that Jane Austen books are not romances but social comedies. *gasp* LOL

    I wouldn't be that hard pressed to gather a whole list of the books for you Miss M. It is a severely common trope, it is not soo much the wimpiness (though there is plenty of that going around) but that if you take out the erotic romance genre, 95% of the romance heroines are sexually inexperience IMO. Even in the ER genre it is still a high ratio.
    Which in many ways puts them at the mercy (or more vulnerable) to the more experienced hero.

    Does that ramble make any sense?
    I promise this time to be back to see response!
    Edie

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  7. Edie -- Okay. Here's where I am on this one. If a contemporary heroine is sexually inexperienced, I hold the author to a higher standard for explaining why that might be. (By contrast, I just expect historical heroines to be relatively chaste and that not much should be made of that fact, pro or con.) But if the heroine is sexually inexperienced and wimpy, I don't think the author can backstory her way out of that combination.

    So, Ms. Girllit (4334 & Counting) Books -- what do you have for me in a relatively well written contemporary published, say, after 1990 where the heroine is sexually inexperienced and a wimp?

    (I feel like I'm shopping for shoes... "Does it come in navy?")

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  8. Oi I made it to 4444 tonight! :P

    Sorry I should mention that most of my whines are not really relevant to historicals, as I rarely read them. I am a 90% paranormal reader, with the other 10% whatever caught my fancy from another sub-genre, generally contemporary.

    I guess my point that I am not explaining properly and is probably not relevant, ;) is that yeah the author can explain it with good reasons, or reasons that suit the story/heroine, but when it is sooo common across the genre, doesn't that make it a trope? And a problematic one? (Okay maybe just for me + a few others LOL) If it was the case of the odd book out, then I would have no problem taking it on book by book basis.
    Is that any better? I am not denying that it can be used well, and can even often fit a story when used well, but damn it it is used too often! *whine*

    Can I cheat and just say 90% of the Mills and Boon titles, esp. sexy, sweet and medical? :P

    I guess I should explain why I am all het up and rambly on this issue, the last straight contemp I read, was a Liz Jarrett duet (I think) and the heroines were both the good girls, only one on the wimpy side IIRC with daddy issues, but both stories had blatant other women who were ridiculed for being sexually forward or free with their favours with one bloke. And then these posts popped up, so off I ramble... it is all in the timing. ;)

    Edie

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  9. Wheres the edit button? *sadeyes*

    * relevant to this exact post
    * problematic to the minority most likely
    * Odd book out - or even just half the mainstream books I read. Instead of the majority.

    Edie

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  10. Edie -- Deeply, deeply ashamed and apologetic about the failure, thus far, to switch to WordPress and get this blog a comments function worthy of your brilliance and perspicacity. (Sorry, I'm in Jane Austen mode -- see post of 1/22.)

    So I'll see your *sadeyes* and raise you *deep blush of shame and mortification*.

    Substantively, you are SO right about the other women being portrayed as hussies, sluts, or whatever when really what they are is powerful and know what they want. This has to be very old skool thinking by certain authors. Let's start reading books where the "other woman" (if there even needs to be one!) is a faux-virgin with daddy issues and who sucks up in a craven and reptilian manner to the hero.

    Because don't we want women powerful enough to a) have the sex life they want and b) smart enough to know they want the hero, also to be c) perceptive enough to see that the heroine is after him too and then, d) decent enough to stop making a play for him herself? Where is it written that a sexually confident woman is by definition a sexually predatory woman and one who thinks going after a guy just to prevent wimpy heroine from getting him is good sport?

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  11. LOL at the delay, no probs! I am a bit slow with my blog hopping these days.

    And I think I have come back to full circle, the "other woman" being the sexually confident aggressor to the sexually innocent/naive heroine is biggest part of the problem with the representations of women in romland..

    I just had to fix like five typos, the waking up thing doesn't seem to be working for me this morning.
    Edie

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  12. Edie -- There continues to be a good discussion going on about this topic -- see recent posts by Lynn at AAR and Mrs. Giggles at Den of the Ogress -- and I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of it. I'm hoping Jessica at RRR will weigh in at her blog. She's the professional philosopher among us. :-)

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