When I first started blogging back in 2005, I really didn’t notice trends. I was a reader then and hadn’t started looking at big picture. The things that interested me were micro-focused. Did this book interest me and if so, why?
But as I began to immerse myself in the business of publishing, the similarity in concepts from covers to tropes to even tone began to emerge.
It was with covers first where I noticed the first signs. Despite the fact that nearly all the historical romances I was reading at the time featured similar looks—flowers, houses, perfume bottles—with pretty painted setbacks, the word “trend” didn’t attach to my book vocabulary until chick lit came along.
It may be because I saw the birth—and subsequent death—of an entire subgenre that I finally started paying attention. The trend was cute, cartoon figures drawn impossible thin on a pastel background with a matte cover on a trade paperback.
This was pre-digital days.
The narrator was almost exclusively a female, in her mid-twenties. The voice was first person, often present tense, and as quirky as possible. If the protagonist ate all her food with a fork, including cereal and soup, all the better.
Around 2012, chick lit was declared dead and at the time, spectators in the industry were stunned by the speed in which the sub-genre had collapsed. After all, we’re still reading Regency historicals in romance above every other time period despite the Regency period being all of nine years long.
Today’s burn through rate for trends is markedly faster. What’s popular today will be tiresome in a year, maybe even six months. Penelope Ward hit it big with “Stepbrother Dearest” in September of 2014. That lead to a wave of stepbrother romances. For a period of time, it seemed like there was always a stepbrother book in the top 100. Even traditional publishers climbed aboard that train with “Stepbrother Mine” by Opal Carew, published by Macmillan. Today, it’s sports romances with successes such as Elle Kennedy’s “The Score” and Vi Keeland’s “The Baller” and hot bearded guys on the cover with Brittany Cherry’s “The Air He Breathes” and Alexa Riley’s “Mechanic.” Motorcycle clubs used to be all the rage, but that’s given way to individual angsty stories about widows and tragedies.
A trend lasting ten years in the digital market would be an eternity because the self-publishing machine is incredibly efficient. A fast writer with an adept marketing hand can meet those swift trend changes and there are enough of these fast writers in the marketplace that it is soon glutted. Traditional publishers were better able to manage the length of a trend by not buying multiples of the same stories. I.e., If they had a Jill Shalvis, they wouldn’t add another light-hearted, sweet, small town contemporary but rather look for a darker, edgy romantic suspense or perhaps a city setting with different character tropes. In self-publishing, authors are in charge of their own lists and thus the massive glut in the marketplace.
Readers speak of fatigue and actively look for something new, but often return to their tried and true titles.
When contemplating the birth, the rise, and the subsequent fall of trends, I’m reminded of the passage in Charles Duhiggs’ “The Power of Habit” wherein he recounts the near-failure of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Duhigg explained that because the song was so unusual, listeners would turn the radio dial before the opening verse was completed. Most popular songs follow the same chord progression and Outkast’s song was an outlier.
The record company paid to have “Hey Ya” played between two familiar songs and eventually the tune took off.
It’s not so different with books. Readers (and I count myself as one of them) subconsciously or consciously seek out books that are similar to the ones that they’ve liked in the past. Thus the success of “shelf talkers” in bookstores or “Also buys” in digital stores. Readers want the same emotional hit to be delivered…until they don’t.
Meaning tastes change and often those tastes are changed by one brilliant book or, at least, one book that speaks to an emotional string in readers that they didn’t realize that they needed played before.
Recently I’ve been seeing a rise in the modern contemporary and I asked an editor about it. She admitted it was chick lit in disguise—first person stories with a quirky protagonist, focused more on relationships.
As with anything, the pendulum always swings back.