It was once the frothy genre that spelt big profits for publishers. But the latest sales figures read like a horror story
By Adam Sherwin
A stiletto and a cupcake on a pink jacket used to guarantee that your novel would fly off the shelf. But now publishers are asking if the "chick-lit" genre is exhausted after a spectacular slump in sales.
Sales of the most recent novels by commercial women's authors including Marian Keyes, Jodi Picoult, Veronica Henry, Catherine Alliott, Louise Mensch, MP (née Bagshawe), Dorothy Koomson, Harriet Evans, Jill Mansell and Lesley Pearse are all down by more than 20 per cent on their previous mass-market publications over comparative sales periods, The Bookseller has found.
Victims include Marian Keyes, whose latest novel The Brightest Star in the Sky has sold 260,000 copies since February, down 42 per cent on her previous book. Jodi Picoult's Harvesting the Heart is down almost 50 per cent on her previous novel, with 120,235 copies and Veronica Henry's The Birthday Party recorded a 71 per cent slump to 16,479 copies.
The Bookseller found that women's commercial fiction was underperforming compared to the rest of the book market with the top 20 commercial women's fiction authors down 10 per cent in like-for-like sales for their most recent mass-market title against the previous novel. Overall, the fiction market has fallen by 8 per cent.
The decline has been blamed on a squeeze on supermarket spending, with retailers drastically reducing the number of titles they order and a shift to digital books sales.
But literary experts believe that readers are rejecting the identically-jacketed "sex, shoes and shopping" tales pushed by publishers in favour of more complex, psychologically ambitious novels by women writers.
Kathy Lette, the author who claims to have invented the genre by penning "first person, funny, feminist fiction" 22 years ago, welcomed the apparent demise of "chick lit". She told The Independent: "Men who write first person, social satire, like Nick Hornby and David Nicholls and co, are compared to Chekov. While women authors get pink covers and condescension."
Ms Lette, who would like to rename the genre "clit lit", argued that "the market has been flooded with a lot of second-rate writing." She said: "Many 'chick lit' books are just Mills & Boon with Wonderbras, with the heroines waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining Armani. So, perhaps, in this economic downturn, a creative cull may ensure that only literary lionesses prevail."
Eithne Farry, literary editor of Marie Claire, blamed patronising marketing campaigns. She said: "Chick lit has become a derogatory term. I'm surprised when I see that a lot of books are sold in covers with shoes and cupcakes because often the subject matter of the book inside isn't frothy and frivolous."
Ms Farry believes Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, a dream-like story about competing 19th-century magicians and Daughter Of Smoke and Bone, the first in a hotly-tipped fantasy trilogy by Laini Taylor, will fill up space on women's shelves.
Sheila Crowley, a literary agent at Curtis Brown said: "The move to eBooks and the impact of austerity is having a massive impact on consumer behaviour."
Tastes are evolving. Ms Crowley said: "The culture of the Richard and Judy Book Club has encouraged the reader to be more aspirational and to 'read up'. That's benefited writers like Jojo Moyes and Santa Montefiore."
The backlash against "chick lit" resulted in the author Polly Courtney publicly dropping her publisher, HarperCollins, in protest at the "condescending and fluffy" sleeves they had chosen for her books. "The implication with chick lit is that it's about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams," Ms Courtney said. Although acknowledging that her new novel, It's A Man's World, set in a lads' mag, was "page-turning commercial fiction," she said it should not be reduced to "chick lit" because it dealt with social issues.
Maeve Binchy challenged her inclusion in The Bookseller list of mass-market female authors whose sales have fallen. A spokeswoman for Ms Binchy said: "Maeve is by no means 'chick lit' and we don't think her sales are falling. Electronic books have, however, added another dimension."
The history of chick lit
Derided as novels defined by "sex, shoes and shopping", the term "chick lit" was first embraced in the late 1980s by US students seeking a literary equivalent to Hollywood's "chick flicks". The phrase entered popular consciousness with the publication of a 1995 anthology titled Chick Lit: Postfeminist Fiction.
Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary sparked a wave of novels exploring the conflict between the independence enjoyed by young, professional "singletons" and the emotional security offered by a partner. Fay Weldon led the backlash, complaining that her novels were being sold in misleading "chick-lit" jackets and dismissing most similar books as "instantly forgettable".
Irish novelist whose 1995 book Watermelon, about a dumped wife who finds love again, is a key chick lit text. Keyes has sold 22 million copies of darkly comic stories which often trade on her own experiences. Sales down: 42 per cent
American writer who has sold 14 million copies of emotional novels which often deal in struggles to overcome illness. She sidesteps a lack of critical endorsement by touring the world to meet her fans. Sales down: 50 per cent
Author and Heartbeat television scriptwriter has twice been listed for the Romantic Novelists' Association prize. Novels such as Marriage And Other Games praised for being "easy to read" and great for the beach. Sales down: 71 per cent