Monday, October 12, 2009

Romance market trends

From 8/8/09:

I haven't been to RWA national conference this year, and so haven't heard the market news, but that's fine...I know what they are, anyway. Which sounds arrogant, I guess, but anyone who has met me will tell you I'm not that kind of person. It's just that one of my hobbies is the study of demographics and market trends, focused mostly on publishing and in particular the romance market. I've studied it for...let's see...since 1995, ever since my vampire Regency (The Vampire Viscount) and paranormal Regency (The Devil's Bargain) first came out. Yeah, I wrote them way back before the vampire/paranormal thing was huge. I have a habit of doing that. It's tough going, because when you write ahead of the trend, most people think you're crazy. Hell, I predicted during the 2000 RWA conference that we were going to see a surge of kick-ass heroines and that paranormals were going to be huge, and gee, guess what? It happened--it was the news during that conference.
I gave a talk at the Emerald City RWA conference in 2006 about demographic trends, and predicted that we were going to see a social crisis in the next year or two, akin to the Great Depression (yes, there is a reason why our 401K is still okay, though it did take a hit, as everyone's did. Clue: look at the events 80 years ago). I did another workshop in a few years later on the exact same talk, and didn't change the date on my PowerPoint, to prove my point. The Seattle Chapter will vouch for me on this. :-D

Anyway, here are my predictions for the next few years:

Based on my observation of generations and demographics, plus the economic times, I figure romance and women's fiction--with an uplifting ending--are going to remain strong. As during the Great Depression, romantic comedies, stories with optimistic endings with the belief in the decency of every-day human beings. Think Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire, such movies as "Daddy Long Legs," "Topper Takes a Trip" (romantic comedy/ paranormal), "Bringing up Baby." Comedies in general will do well--remember that Charlie Chaplin made millions during the Great Depression when movies were 25 cents per ticket.

And gee, as an aside, is it any surprise that musicals are becoming more popular with the under 30 set? The Seattle area is considered a "bellweather" region, and I'm seeing participation in musical theater and music like never before amongst the young 20's and teens. I want to emphasize the areas outside of Seattle proper--there are relatively few children and teens in Seattle, compared to most any other place in the nation except for San Francisco. If you want to watch for trends amongst teens and the early 20's, look at King County, outside of the city. Places like Kent, Auburn, Everett, Bellevue, etc.

Paranormals, and those stories with a spiritual/religious component will still be good sellers. Again, whatever gives a belief in something beyond ourselves will be popular, because in general, I think people's attitudes about society and our elected officials (on both sides of the political fence) is sort of...soured. Easier to believe in a larger abstract higher concept than individual fallible leaders.
Anything with a theme of overcoming difficulties to success/love/contentment should be popular.

In particular, I think vampires, while not as popular as before (saturation in the market) they will still be good sellers, in that these have the themes of encountering something potentially dangerous and navigating through discerning if it can be trusted or not. That reflects our times, plus the early 20-something and teen set. Anything else with that theme--encountering danger, going through a period of discernment, then triumph will be popular, because those just beginning to start their adult lives are facing the theme of a scary world in which they have to make their way. However, that theme has broadened to all generations because of the current economic and social crisis.

Also, though this theme is popular overall, for the Millennial generation (those born approximately from 1980 to 2000), stories with characters having a higher purpose and/or who are special in some way will be popular. This is why the Harry Potter books were so popular, and continue to be popular with them (aside for the fact that these books are simply danged good reading). In fact, they also had the strong, very strong spiritual/religious underpinning. No, they're not obvious to those who aren't familiar with religion (and ironically, a lot of religious people aren't familiar with their own), but trust me, they're there.

Despite the economic downturn, the Millenial generation is coming into their time of buying power. It's not as huge a buying power as the Boomers (still) have, but it's considerable simply because that population is so large compared to GenX and the Silent Generation (those who were children during the Great Depression).

And historicals..they'll keep going on. But what's missing--and wlll probably be popular when they do come about--are ones set during the American Revolution and possibly Civil War. Ditto WWII. Why? They all reflect what's we're going through/going to go through now. David McCullough hit a nerve with his books, John Adams and 1776. This is why he is both a bestseller AND a Pulitzer Prize winner (well, he's an awesome writer, so there's that).

Those are the eras the current crop of Millennials will find some common themes. The young people of those eras grew up in severely divisive times--as we do. Their elders could not come to any kind of consensus, and more time was spent squabbling and pointing out scandals than solving problems. The real concerns of the rural areas and those areas with less infrastructure (the American colonies during the Revolution, and the more rural South during the Civil War) were pitted against the concerns of the more sophisticated urban citizens (the British, and the very industrialized North, respectively). One of those crises ended up with a relatively healthy unity. The other...did not. WWII ended up with a healthy unity of purpose, and that was when we built the massive infrastructure that is now, unfortunately, aging to the point of danger to life and limb.

The current era...well, time will tell. We get to choose whether we get over our differences, find common ground, and work together, and I REALLY don't want finger pointing at the OTHER side that you just CAN'T talk to. Be the first to hold out the helping hand and open mind, people, and keep doing it. Really find out where the other side is coming from, what their fears are, and I mean their root fears, where they are suffering. Your survival depends on it. Although right now, my feeling is that either side's intention in finding out about the other side's suffering is in the interests of crushing the other side into dust. Or ignoring the other sides' suffering, period, because of course they're BAD. Yes, this Pollyanna is fighting cynicism.

To get back on track: As a result, there is a certain hunger in Millennials for hope (that is their nature), for the idea that difficulties can be worked through, that people can work together, that there is a higher purpose out there for every one. And, optimism is the very nature of romance novels, so I believe you will continue to see these novels prosper. Heroic fantasy will also do well, and fantasy in which the protagonists are fighting the powers of evil (Dresden files, is a good example).

GenX--do not dismiss this generation. This scrappy generation will help get us through the hard times. They do not hesitate to get their hands dirty and get the job done, and in hard times, that's what's needed. Think Patton. Yeah, those disaffected 1980's youth dressed in black and piercings end up being Patton, wreaking havoc amongst Hitler's armies. And they are really good consumers of paranormal stories that feature grim, realistic protagonists that wade through death and degradation to wreak destruction on predators. They are good at defending the weak and innocent while shooting off a witty quip, knowing that they will get no reward for their heroism, but that they're just here to do the job, hopefully with a small group of loyal friends or a devoted partner. (Think Buffy.)

Both GenX and the Millenials are hands-on, practical groups. GenX is a bit more gritty and pessimistic, while the Millenials are more optimistic. Both get the job done, and sooner or later become impatient with high-flying rhetoric.

I really also want to emphasize the religious/spiritual angle. When times are hard, when there is a crisis, people often turn to religion. This is why it is the most impoverished areas of the world that are the most religious; when you have very little, when your next day may bring hunger or the threat of poverty, then the only thing that often keeps you alive is hope in something higher and better, whether that would be your still-innocent children, or God, or both. In other words, these things represent hope for the future.

As a result, I expect books on religion and spirituality will stil be strong. Inspirational romances sales will probably hold steady, especially if there is some real spiritual insight there and realistic integration between some real, human life questions and religion/spirituality.

And...I expect the readership amongst men for romance novels will grow, and has been growing. Romance novels--especially those with suspense/mystery/action--will be especially appealing. Romance novels are probably one of the few fiction areas that feature men as good guys (we have heroes, after all!), and people, men need hope, too. That they have not much hope is reflected in the steep increases in male suicides, especially amongst teens and 20-somethings, in the last few decades, as much as 5 times that of females. It's also reflected in the fact that of all graduating high school seniors, 80% of girls apply to college, whereas only 20% of boys do, and that has been going on for a decades as well. That's another reason why the Harry Potter books were so popular amongst boys--these books are one of the few instances that featured a boy as a protagonist, a boy who was special, and who tried his best to do good. That's a hopeful thing for boys who are looking for a book to read.

So in essence:
  • Romance will be strong, and hold steady
  • Paranormals strong, vampires have glutted the market, but will still hold steady (and zombies as protagonists or heros--oh, please. A bump in the road. I could be wrong, but having a guy who has to keep sticking his face back on with superglue because his flesh is just a bit on the rotten side is not romantic. However, innovation does occasionally win).
  • Ghosts...give those a try. Demons, ditto. However, redemption as a theme should be strong. We have a very punishing society, with almost no forgiveness unless you have money or fame. Redemption themes as a result is another source of hope for the rest of us.
  • Romantic comedies--yes!
  • Historicals will hold steady, but do give the eras of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII a try, although I expect these will probably be most popular in about 5 years. If Europe, Puritans vs. the Cavaliers, and Tudor era would work. the The authors MUST do the research on those, as ever. Less costume dramas, more historical meat.
  • Inspirationals strong, but must integrate realities and questions of life
  • Perseverence and success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is always a good theme.
  • Good vs. Evil, always a good theme, but make it real.
  • Oh, and the theme of fighting or subverting an ever-encroaching totalitarian government should also be popular in science fiction/fantasy/romance. Wouldn't hurt to bring back a Matrix-like theme, although I expect that'll be more like 10 years from now.
  • More can-do, decent, heroic guys. Guys need hope, too, and they're going to be looking for something to keep them working and holding on. As a result, it'd be good to defeminize the covers on the action/romance/supspense romances--not a problem, as I see they're doing much of that already. Wouldn't hurt to do that to some of the historicals that have more action/suspense, etc., too.
  • Forgot to mention above: Graphic novels. Always a good thing. Will do very well in the coming decade(s) as they are very adaptable to both print and electronic media, and the concepts are easily transferred to the big (and small) screen. The more mutable a story is to differing formats, the better. If a romance novel--especially if action, suspense, and/or paranormal--can be translated to a graphic novel/manga format, perfect.
One more thing: Because the Millenial Generation is large in numbers but is going to be struggling for jobs, they're going to try to find their entertainment where they can, whether they make it or find it inexpensively. This means the publishing industry will have to find better ways to deliver their goods. They know this already, or should. E-books will do well, I'm sure, but if they're the same price as paper books...well, we'll see. Those who have a handle on this relatively new technology (and please, formatting!!!!), will do better than others, in the same way movie theaters that grasped the sound aspect of movies back during the Great Depression thrived rather than went out of business. It's a big initial investment, but it'll pay out in the end in both stability and profits when the economy turns up better (not right away. Expect a big downturn around 2012, and with luck it'll start rising steadily again. What mistakes this and the last administration have made will come to bear then. Invest in capital and be thrifty now, pay off what you can, then be prepared).

Even so, I don't expect paper books to disappear for a long, long, long time.

You fill a need in an economy, and you will survive as a business, and publishing is a business. Hope is a need. And in this economy, everyone needs hope pretty badly right now.