Crime fiction is great, but I doubt it’s the favorite

Via The Passive Voice blog, this perhaps implausible article in the Guardian: It’s no mystery that crime is the biggest-selling genre in books

No offense to the author, Sophie Hannah, but does that seem the least bit plausible? Here is the claim:

It has happened at last! Finally, the literary world is a meritocracy! Crime fiction – which I first became aware of as the Best Genre Ever when I read my first Enid Blyton mystery at six years old – is now officially the UK’s bestselling genre. Nielsen Bookscan data at the London book fair has revealed that crime novels in 2017, for the first time since Nielsen’s records began, sold more than the category rather vaguely labelled “general and literary fiction”. Crime sales of have increased by 19% since 2015 to 18.7m, compared to the 18.1m fiction books sold in 2017.

Now, it does seem possible that crime fiction might have outpaced general and literary fiction. Not only possible but indeed, reasonable and just in a fair world. But . . . Bookscan? Surely Sophie Hannah realizes that Bookscan only counts sales of physical books, right? And not all of those; Bookscan is in fact supposed to do a better job capturing sales of general and literary fiction than genre or commercial fiction.

In particular, I think everyone accepts that Bookscan misses a lot of SFF sales and an actual majority of Romance sales. Also a lot of mysteries, so if the official numbers suggest crime and mysteries have outpaced literary sales, I bet the former is WAY ahead of the latter.

This graph, based not on official sales numbers but on reader surveys, suggests that indeed, mysteries and crime are not just a nose ahead, but far ahead of “literature” and general fiction. Counting “thrillers” in with mysteries and crime naturally inflates that number; also, I wouldn’t do that if I were creating the categories. Thrillers and mysteries offer quite a different reading experience. Granted, there’s a good deal of blurriness at the boundary, but think of cozy mysteries and then a thriller like The Breach by Patrick Lee and really, it’s apples to nutmeg.

Anyway, though I think the excitement is overdone, the linked article is perhaps worth reading if you have a minute. This is an interesting suggestion:

…what accounts for the sudden surge in the genre’s popularity? Here we need to look at another eternally popular genre, romance, which also has puzzle at its centre: where will true and lasting love come from? Is true happiness possible? Is he The One?…

Both crime and romantic fiction are driven by quests for conclusive answers and happy endings. The killer being safely locked up is as much a happy ending as marrying Mr or Ms Right. In both genres, the realism of the driving force (puzzle/need for happy resolution) combined with the not-quite-so-realistic comfort/fairytale value of the genre-prescribed ending (safety restored/happiness with a true soulmate) is what appeals.

Could be, could be! Though I think one might make way too much out of the puzzle aspect of romance, which is almost completely beside the point imo. But isn’t it true of most commercial fiction — not just the categories mentioned, but most SFF and most other genres — that we expect a reasonably satisfying resolution most of the time? Bad guys go down in flames, good guys ride off into the sunset, relationships more or less work out. Yes? Not grimdark, of course, awful endings are pretty much the whole point of grimdark, but as a general rule we expect poetic justice to be done all around and the story to have some sort of feeling of satisfying closure.

Well, that’s two points, not one, so this is not a very cohesive post. Nevertheless: I doubt mysteries and crime are really outpacing romance (even though both this article and the linked survey indicate they are.) I doubt this because of numbers like these: Romance earned $1.44 billion in 2017, whereas mystery/crime clocked in at $728 million. I’d like to know where those numbers came from, but nevertheless, I look at that and think: Sales numbers are collected in iffy ways, but Romance is going to be on top of sales for a long time to come.

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4 thoughts on “Crime fiction is great, but I doubt it’s the favorite”

  1. They always seem to forget about genre fiction, and especially the romance genre. Why, when it’s obviously both the largest and the most lucrative?
    I get that the literature critics regard it as less than the high and rarefied culture they are aiming for: lowbrow, maybe pulp, so it doesn’t count – despite there being plenty of good books and writers to be found in the genre as well, and some new ideas and trends too.
    But why would publishing as a whole, or booksellers in general, go along with ignoring it when it generates a noticeable part of their revenues?

  2. The numbers are provided by sources that don’t track genres or outlets – Bookscan doesn’t track ebooks, for one, and that’s where I gather most romance genre sales have gone. Comments at TPV on the original post say 90% of romance sells as ebooks now.

    Whether they deliberately choose to use these sources so they get ‘better’ results, I have no opinion. Given what I’ve observed of big publishing, it could simply be incompetence.

  3. Mysteries *are* genre fiction. (it’s one of the sections at the bookstore, after all.)
    I do wonder why their sales have more paper books.

  4. Not to throw stones at Big Publishing, but frankly I do think it’s incompetence. Perhaps abetted by a hidden desire to track numbers in such a way as to avoid seeing unwanted data.

    Yes, of course mysteries are genre fiction, so the reported numbers just seems odd in multiple ways.

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