Monday, September 24, 2012

Moldy Bestsellers: Today's Books Are (Mostly) All Alike

While many people, including me, thought they would never take to the concept of reading a book from a screen, I have to admit that my e-reader has become one of my most treasured electronic gadgets over the past almost two years.  It was not a purchase I made, but given to me as a Christmas gift by someone who knew I was a lifelong bookworm, and yet had not heard my misgivings about the concept of e-books.  I still read good old-fashioned paper-and-glue books often, but the scales have tipped in favor of e-books by about a 70%-30% margin.  

My two primary reasons for favoring e-books would probably be obvious to any marketer: they are cheaper and they are immediate.  I can find one quickly and buy it instantly at what is usually a reasonable price.  While I love the feel of flipping through pages and always will, I know it’s going to be tough for “traditional books” to keep up in the market against the value and convenience of e-books.

One problem I’ve found in my pleasure reading lately is finding something reasonably new that is geared toward my demographic.  It’s no secret that more females than males read books these days.  Likely it has always been like that.  During my time as an educator, there were piles of research urging us to get boys reading more and better, because they as a gender lagged behind and it put their entire education (and future) at risk.  I put a particular emphasis on getting the boys to see that reading was a cool and useful thing to do, however I was but one fish in the ocean, and female readers still outnumber males these days.  Lately, however, it just seems like the number of titles geared toward women has started to completely overshadow those appealing to men, especially in the realm of fiction.

What types of fiction, exactly, appeals to males and to females?  Well, I suppose we could play into the stereotypes for a moment.  Men like explosions, violence, swearing, hot babes and lots of action.  And women like romance, feelings, love, rock-hard muscle guys, and talking.  

Whether you are a man or a woman, I am sure that neither of those descriptions fits you to a tee.  Yet that seems to be what many publishers are targeting in each gender, if the current bestsellers are any indication.  I have also seen this pattern in output from the independent author realm, of which I consider myself a part.  If you want to be successful, you need to create a product that people will want to read.  So write something that fits a formula that has worked for others, and you are bound for success. If you don’t think this is happening, take a look through the best-seller lists at Amazon or Barnes & Noble and note how many titles nowadays have the pattern “*blank* shades of *blank*”.  Formulas can’t be all bad, can they?

Well, they can be.  I guess it depends on your reasons for writing.  Are you simply making something for consumption by as many members of the public as possible in order to make some cash, or do you have a real story to tell, and numbers are a secondary concern for you?

As for me, I am probably not what one would consider a “typical” male reader.  For me, the ideal novel is told in first-person narrative (though this is negotiable), and has at least some humor and genuine feeling in it.  The characters need to be believable, multi-faceted, interesting, and personally relatable on some levels.  The plot doesn’t need to be full of nuclear weapons, dragons, spaceship chases, or loose women in bikinis, but there should be some sense of tension.  By tension in this case, I mean a pressure of some kind, causing change or growth in the characters, whether they like it or not.  When the story is done, I want the characters to be different in some way from how I found them at the start.  I don’t expect a happy ending every time, but I do like the resolution to be more positive than negative, and for Pete’s sake, make sure you resolve it! Nothing bugs me more than to be left hanging at the end of a novel, the story to be continued in the next book in the series.  I prefer each book to be able to stand on its own.

So many fiction novels geared toward teen and young adult females right now are patterned to some extent after the Twilight series by Stephanie Mayer or The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, with a strong, competent female protagonist in danger and in a complicated relationship to boot.  

Many of those geared toward teen and young adult males are patterned somewhat after the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, with a young male protagonist suddenly discovering he is not at all what he thought he was.  

Lots of adult female fiction these days has some variation on romantic relationships, good or bad and a female protagonist who has gone through a hard time trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps.  

And adult male fiction?  What there is of it often entails crime, law enforcement or military elements, with a few struggles against personal demons thrown in for good measure. 

That’s not to say every single book out there fits these trends, but a lot of them do.  Witness, the Amazon Top Ten Bestsellers as of September 24, 2012.  The portions in quotes are taken directly from the descriptions of each book or series, while the comments in parentheses and bold are mine.

1. On Dublin Street by Samantha Young—“Four years ago, Jocelyn Butler left her tragic past behind in the States and started over in Edinburgh.(A female protagonist who has gone through a hard time trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps.)

2. Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn—“ Marriage can be a real killer…Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.(A romantic relationship story, in this case a bad one, I would guess.)

3. Fifty Shades Darker: Book Two of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E L James
4. Fifty Shades Freed: Book Three of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E L James
5. Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E L James 
Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.(Another  romantic relationship story, though it’s up to you whether it’s good or bad. Sounds nasty to me.)

6. Thicker Than Water (A Leo Waterman Mystery) by G.M. Ford—“Hard living collects its fair share of casualties, but somehow Leo Waterman avoided becoming one of them.” (A story involving a guy struggling against personal demons.  There’s crime too.)

7. A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child—“Four people in a car, hoping to make Chicago by morning. One man driving, eyes on the road. Another man next to him, telling stories that don’t add up. A woman in the back, silent and worried. And next to her, a huge man with a broken nose, hitching a ride east to Virginia. An hour behind them, a man lies stabbed to death in an old pumping station.” (Crime. Plain and simple.)

8. No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden by Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer—“For the first time anywhere, the first-person account of the planning and execution of the Bin Laden raid from a Navy Seal who confronted the terrorist mastermind and witnessed his final moment.” (Military, also plain and simple)

9. Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins
10. Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins
The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.(Not a variation on the popular series, but the actual series itself.  The first book in the trilogy is at #14 right now.)

Now I haven’t read any of these books, and I am not saying any of them are good or bad.  None of them really reach out and grab me though.  By my unscientific reckoning, they skew about 70% toward female readers.  They also all fit neatly into popular molds.  Art (which writing is, remember) is about breaking those molds.  Mozart was different.  Dali was different.  Hemingway was different.  Fosse was different.  The Beatles were different.  That’s part of what made them great.  I’d dare say that ten years from now, the only titles on this list that will still be relevant will be the Hunger Games books.  One could argue they do not fit into a popular mold, because they are the mold into which some others are trying to fit.

The moral of this post is that there are lots of other great reads out there.  Don’t just take what is thrust at you as “must reads”.  Dig around a little.  Run some Internet searches.  Blow the dust off some volumes at the back of your local bookstore (if you are lucky enough to still have one) or the public library.  See what’s out there beyond the bestsellers. 

And writers, don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled these days.  There are always going to be readers out there like me who appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. I limited my reading to Maine authors over the summer. I'm trying to think of what I read that might interest you but with one exception, all books were written by women and are as you described as books written for women. Steve just finished Suddenly, The Cider Didn't Taste So Good and hasn't found something else to read yet. He said nothing sounds good.