Wow, I had no idea that the publishing world was writing off “lad lit” fourteen years ago… but it’s true. In 2004, Publisher’s Weekly published an article titled “Lad Lit Hits the Skids”, and it was kind of frightening to read.
What if publishers created a subgenre and nobody read it? In the case of “lad lit,” the answer appears to be that they would produce even more titles. Despite disappointing sales of fiction and nonfiction that turns chick lit’s self-deprecating gaze on young men and their dating woes, a slew of new books are on the way. Whether that’s a result of stubbornness or sexism, the bottom line for booksellers is “the only place lad lit exists as a viable genre is in the imaginations of publishers,” as Borders’s fiction buyer Leah Rex put it.
The author of the column, Natalie Danford, notes that despite ample media coverage for “these boy books” sales were disappointing.
If there’s a patron saint of lad lit, it’s Nick Hornby, whom Brad Thomas Parsons, senior editor for literature and fiction at Amazon, termed “the go-to guy in this genre.” Yet even Nick Hornby isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. While Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (Viking, 1998), launched the chick-lit category after selling more than two million copies in hardcover and paperback, it took Hornby six titles in trade paperback to hit that level of sales.
Wow. Who knew? I certainly had no idea. What’s the answer to the lack of sales (at least compared to chick lit)? It seems to me that appealing to women readers is the way to go. This article hints this as well, though doesn’t quite commit to this theory.
Pocket’s Downtown Press imprint is publishing three paperback originals with announced first printings of about 25,000 copies apiece: Mike Gayle’s Dinner for Two (June), John Scott Shepard’s The Dead Father’s Guide to Sex and Marriage (July) and Simon Brooke’s Upgrading (Aug.). Louise Burke, executive v-p and publisher, doesn’t expect the titles to draw male readers. “These women are reading chick-lit books like popcorn, so you have to keep giving them an eclectic selection,” she said.
But it’s far from clear that focusing on female readers will spark sales of lad lit. There don’t seem to be enough young male book buyers to allow the subgenre to survive without crossing gender lines. And so far, it hasn’t consistently attracted enough female readers to become commercially viable. For women, the appeal of lad lit may be “spying on the other side, getting a look into the locker room,” said Lynda Fitzgerald, events coordinator for the 10 Barbara’s bookstores in Chicago.
So, at least in 2004, the answer wasn’t entirely clear. That was a long time ago, and certainly things have changed. But, maybe the truth is more obvious than those of us who write “lad lit” and read it are willing to admit. Nick Hornby may be the king of lad lit, but in the past several years, he’s been dabbling a lot more in movie writing than novel writing. Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 breakout novel This is Where I Leave You offered hope for the genre, but he’s only published one novel since (which honestly was not his best work) and has been doing a lot more with television writing lately it seems. Are two leaders of the genre telling us that those of us trying to write and sell books that might be described as lad lit are wasting our time?
I’m going to write the books I want to write, but it seems to me that the issue with lad lit is not a problem with quality or content, it’s marketing. So the answer must be not to market specifically to men or women, but to market to both. Look at the cover for Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You. It doesn’t appear to be meant to appeal to men over women or vice versa. It’s got big bold letters and doesn’t feel too masculine or feminine. It did very well and was made into a movie. His earlier books, on the other hand, their original covers (not the post-TIWILU redesigns) felt very much like they were designed to appeal to men. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.
I recently wrote that I was giving thought to an alternate design for my novel’s cover… one that was a bit more in line with other lad-lit… illustrated… bold colors… maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe my gut was right in the beginning.
Or, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. When I look at the covers of British writer Matt Dunn, (both the UK and US versions) I see an interesting pattern. Several of his UK covers have a chick-lit feel to them, and others more masculine and neutral. All of them are illustrated, so clearly that route clearly works for him.
My favorite cover from his books is for What Might Have Been. It’s bold and simple. It definitely feels like lad-lit while also not being overly masculine. As for the covers that appear more like chick-lit… that probably was intentional, because there have been many words written documenting the success of the chick-lit genre, and I’m sure those covers were designed with that in mind. Since Dunn has written more novels than Nick Hornby or Jonathan Tropper each have, and has a new one coming out in September… I suspect what he’s done has worked just fine for him.
Perhaps I’ll invite Mr. Dunn to chat about this issue sometime on this blog.