Genre Fiction and Digital Publishing: A Marriage Made in Heaven

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

digital work laptopAlong with the continuing growth of digital publishing (numbers for 2012 showed a 44.2% increase over 2011) has come, according to, an increased focus on so-called “genre” fiction – sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and romance. Markets, which Graeme McMillan points out, “have traditionally lagged behind ‘literary fiction’ in terms of sales.” [Editor’s Note: We disagree with this assertion. Romance, in particular has always had strong sales and often dominates the fiction market in real terms.]

Case in point: both Random House and HarperCollins have launched their first digital-only imprints, focusing solely on genre fiction. Random House has announced Hydra for sci-fi fantasy, Alibi for mysteries, Flirt for new adult, and Loveswept for romance; while HarperCollins announced plans for its own digital mystery imprint “Witness” in April. And while McMillan argues that “this focus on genre fiction might seem counter-intuitive according to traditional print publishing sales,” Random House VP and digital publishing director Allison Dobson says that there’s a simple reason for it: Digital and print audiences want different things.

“Certain categories [of ebooks] have a much larger digital adoption than others,” she said. “The genres were among the first where readers took to the digital format and the ratio of readers of digital, as opposed to physical, are much, much, higher. I think there is an enormous audience in digital right now. It’s where the action is.”

And since in case of some genre titles 60–70% of the sales are digital, there are, naturally, multiple theories as to why genre fiction dominates. One obvious explanation is the sheer anonymity e-readers provide — no need to worry about the world seeing what exactly it is you’re reading. As Antonio Senior wrote in The Guardian, “I’m happier reading [historical romance fiction] on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.”

There’s also the fact that with so many genre books being serials with cliffhanger endings, there’s a need for readers to be able to find out what happens next as quickly as possible. Liate Stehlik, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins, agrees with that theory, at least in part. She says that genre fans became “early adoptors” of the digital format precisely because e-books are the best possible format “for people who read a lot of books, quickly and frequently. Digital has replaced the paperback, certainly the paperback originals. I think the audience that gravitated to eBooks first really was that voracious reader, reading for entertainment, reading multiple books across multiple genres.”

Stehlik also commented on another advantage of digital publishing, which allows publishers to get books to market quickly which also translates into fast consumer feed back and the ability to adapt to readers’ responses. “Before, you had to wait, you had to put the books out there, wait six months to see what came back and you’d have to think, ‘well, maybe if it had a different cover it would work, maybe if it had a different title. Now, it’s a lot more instantaneous, and you can change the cover, change the title, and see how people respond. You can even engage the audience before you publish, which gives them a kind of ownership over the book.”

In the article, McMillan also pointed out that for both Random House and HarperCollins, hopes are high that their new digital imprints will attract both new writers and those whose only previous experience was through self-publishing, “particularly since it can lead to print publication as well.” “With the new authors we’ve worked with this far, at least half the titles, we’ve been able to sell print editions of those books as well, some in some of the bigger chains such as a Target or Wal-Mart,” said Stehlik. “For us, it’s the first time in about fifteen years that we’ve actually increased the number of authors and books that we’re publishing. It’s a great opportunity for us to grow our list, and our reach.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.