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Open Question: Will Genre Fiction Die Off With Traditional Readers?

In a recent Washington Post column, Jonathan Karp outlines a theoretical scenario where the convergence of technology, self-publishing and consumer taste will force traditional book publishers out of the “disposable book” market. Karp writes:

Many categories of books will be subsumed by digital media. Reference publishing has already migrated online. Practical nonfiction will be next, winding up on Web sites that can easily update and disseminate visual and textual information. Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it’s hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year. The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle. [Emphasis added.]

On first blush this “generational” point makes sense: multitasking and abundant entertainment options don’t mesh with the languid pace and time investment required to enjoy genre fiction. But — playing devil’s advocate here — are hyperactive tastes a defining characteristic throughout a person’s lifetime? Isn’t it possible that today’s texting teen will, at some point in his/her life, gravitate toward the long-form storytelling found in genre fiction?

Please share your thoughts in the comments area.

(Via Peter Brantley’s read20 listserv)

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Comments: 4

  1. I think the archetypes within genre fiction are, like mythology, powerful structures that appeal to many people in a basic way. Personally, I’m a huge sucker for any sort of intricate, book, movie or
    TV show (particularly if it’s a series with overarching questions — e.g. “Lost”). I know plenty of other folks who are predisposed toward horror, or mysteries, or procedurals, or sci-fi. Some of us just get hooked on certain storytelling conventions. There may be ebbs and flows in popularity — particularly on a genre by genre basis — but overall I see the “genre fiction” universe hanging around for a long, long time.

    Sidenote: I feel it’s important to acknowledge that Karp’s column isn’t about the future of genre fiction. His core point about book publishing’s ill-advised infatuation with flavor-of-the-week subjects is well argued. This genre business is merely something that caught my eye amidst Karp’s broader piece.

  2. I can certainly believe that genre fiction might move almost exclusively to an electronic format. I have friends who churn through pulp sci-fi, fantasy and romance at an astonishing rate and have no attachment to the physical books (except for select favorites). These are people who now use libraries or used book stores and might be happy to switch to inexpensive digital books that simply evaporate once they’re read. Print-on-demand would be a great option for them when they find a title that they really love and want to keep it in a physical format.

  3. @Liza: You bring up an interesting point — rather than dying off, genre fiction may very well serve as a launching pad for digital content. It can be serialized with relative ease and it’s easily digested in small chunks, which corresponds with the “snack” reading many digital consumers employ.

    Your comment also dovetails with a recent analyst observation (http://tinyurl.com/5sub7h) that younger generations don’t really care about collecting material (e.g. DVDs, books, etc.); they’re perfectly happy tapping the cloud and renting. Genre fiction could easily fit into that type of buying pattern: find, digest, move on …

  4. I tend to think genre fiction will have a better chance than most other categories of books, not worse. Genre fiction is generally better at attracting and maintaining fan communities, and the behaviours of these communities have been augmented by social media and recommendation engines. So you’ll end up with the kind of deep niches Sara Lloyd mentioned in her publisher’s manifesto for the 21st century. And while I agree with Liza that genre readers are probably more likely to take-up digital content quickly (because they just want to get their hands on it as soon as possible) I think they will also continue to be the basis for demand of print editions, especially high-quality fetish items like limited edition hard covers etc. Publishers who can successfully build community around genres will have a deeper and more loyal market to mine than those trying to market book by book, such as reference, non-fiction etc.