According to a 2009 report from the National Endowment of the Arts, 119 million Americans read books, and most of them are reading fiction. RWA says that 29 million of these regularly read romance. Both readers generally and romance readers specifically are large enough groups that easy generalizations about what readers want or what they like seem specious to me. The most read book of 2010, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, according to Publishers Weekly sales figures, sold 1,900,000 copies. Even if people who read library copies and second-hand copies tripled the number of readers, the best-selling book in America last year was read by less than 5 percent of those 119,000,000 readers. I wasn’t among the 5 percent.
Please understand that I’m not slamming Larsson’s book or any of the other 112 books on PW’s list of bestselling hardcover fiction that I didn’t read last year. My point is that anyone basing his/her conclusions about what readers want on that bestseller list clearly cannot speak for me. With one exception, the books I read that made the list were romance and women’s fiction, two of them by Nora Roberts. But even when I restrict the argument to romance fiction, large generalizations are problematic. RWA lists nine subgenres in romance fiction, and in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers were available, 9,089 new romance titles were released. I read a lot of romance fiction, several hundred books a year, but the books I read in 2009 were just a small fraction of those published.
Most of my romance reading falls into three categories—contemporaries, historicals, and Regencies. I would be most hesitant to describe my reading habits as typical or to draw conclusions about romance readers based on my reading habits or the reading habits of my circle of friends. Even within that relatively small circles, there are as many points of reading differences as there are commonalities. By the same token, anyone who bases her/his conclusions about what readers want only on the popularity of paranormal romance or romantic suspense is leaving me out of the equation.
I understand that publishers and marketers, and perhaps authors, need to make generalizations about readers. I’d just like to see those generalizations qualified. Maybe 85 percent of romance readers do want more novels about vampires, shape shifters, and fallen angels (not a real statistic), but the 15 percent that doesn’t adds up to more than 4 million readers. If just a tenth of that minority read a single book without paranormal elements, those readers would propel the book to bestsellerdom.
Just within the past few weeks I’ve been told by various voices that
1. Readers want hotter romance. (I don’t especially. I’m more concerned with the power of the story and my engagement with the characters than the heat level. I read and enjoy romance novels that range from sweet to hot.)
2. Readers are bored with details of setting. (I’m not. A sense of place is important to me, and I prefer enough details to make the world of the book feel real.)
3. Readers look for action in the first paragraph. (I look for something that makes me want to keep reading in the first paragraph. It may be action, but it may also be a quirky character, a place I want to know more of, or prose that falls upon my inner ear like music.)
4. Readers resent the use of unfamiliar words. (That depends. The best writers make the definition of unfamiliar words clear from the context, and I like expanding my vocabulary.)
I’m not suggesting the people who made these comments were deliberately misleading their audiences. I am saying that overgeneralizations are logical fallacies. A sweeping generalization is one in which there seems to be sufficient evidence offered to draw a conclusion, but the conclusion drawn far exceeds what the evidence supports. Simply adding “some,” “many,” or “most” to these claims would make them more accurate. Doing so would also make me feel less like a reader who is being misrepresented or ignored. I may belong to a minority of readers, but I like to think my voice and my dollars count. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Are you bothered by sweeping generalizations about readers? What are your “soapbox issues”?