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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Reader Question: Current Events and Reader Preferences and Experience

TruGenius recently left a comment asking me the following:
How do current social events shape readers preferences?
I'm going to start this off by saying that I am in no way a genius on this subject.  I haven't spent years studying book sales, trends, etc.  So everything I am going to say on this subject is going to be based on what I know and think I know either through my readings on the Internet or interactions with friends, family, and readers.

One thing that has always surprised me about the publishing industry and readers is how unpredictable they can be at times.  I imagine someone saw the boom in urban fantasy coming from a mile away, but I don't think anyone could have accurately predicted that young adult fantasy and science fiction would explode as it did, nor that young readers would be so eager to set aside their video games and cell phones to dig into a book.  Looking at YA numbers is usually a jaw-dropping experience for me--I'm used to seeing 50,000 units sold as the "big number," rather than the massive 500,000 to 1,000,000 that seems relatively common in YA these days.  But is any of this indicative of social trends in response to the events of the last decade?  Some of it, perhaps.

There is certainly something to be said about recession and book sales.  We saw the sale of e-readers spike (as well as ebooks), and polls have shown that people are reading more now than they were before the initial crash of the economy.  I can't say if these increases have remained steady:  I suspect that the sales have not, but the reading has.  And there isn't anything there to indicate any specific trends (such as in genre).

But this post is more about the influence of current events on reader preferences--specifically what kinds of books people are more likely to read during social, national, or global stress.

From what I understand about trending, the economy can have a big influence on what kinds of books sell and what movies will succeed.  io9 had a post a while ago about the trends of dystopias during economic booms and recessions that showed a correlation between strong(er) economic status and the success or rise of dystopic movies.  The same thing seems true about books:  dystopian fiction seems to do better, or at least is more prevalent, during economic booms (or stable trends in the economy).  But this isn't always the case.  Recently we've seen a flood of Mayan doomsday novels (and films), most of which are doing quite well, even in these difficult times.  I suspect that our relative proximity to 2012 has a lot to do with this and don't be surprised if 2011 is filled to the brim with written works all across the board.  With all that in mind, I think it's safe to say that dystopias will shrink during this recession, Mayan doomsday fiction will remain steady, and other forms of fiction (possibly more optimistic forms) will see an increase.  I could be wrong, though, and probably am.

The one thing I'm not wrong about is that we will see an increase in desire for adventure-based fiction and highly escapist literature.  This may not be reflected in sales, particularly because the economy is hurting just as bad as individual people are, but it will be reflected in readers themselves, who may or may not spend more time at libraries or reading their backlist of books they've bought, but never read.

I would also suspect that Obama's historical presidency would have some influence on books in the U.S., but I haven't seen much in the last year in the way of future ground-breaking U.S. elections.  Maybe we've yet to see Obama's influence on literature.  I think what I'm trying to get at here is that it's sort of impossible to truly know what the market will do at any point (the market, of course, responds to sales, which leads directly to reader preferences).  We can look back and see how major events in the world have influenced literature and reader preferences, but can any of us say that we could have predicted those changes, or that we can use what happened in the past to reflect upon the future of trends?  I don't think so.  The problem is that each event is relatively unique from the one that precedes it.

Current events do shape literature, but it's hard to tell where that shaping will go.  Sure, bad times seem to produce greater desire for escapism, and happy times produce greater desire for depressing fiction, but that might be the only trend we can actually pin down, with the exception to war.  There are, I think, two trends in reader preferences during war:  one is a boom in war-based literature with clearer indications of good and evil, and the other is a boom in war-based literature where the boundaries turn grey.  We get that boost of patriotism in the beginning, and then when things turn out to be different than we imagined, we begin to see that fade.

We saw this happen with the Bush Administration (at least I think so).  At first, when 9/11 happened, we saw patriotism explode:  readers wanted books on the subject, even when it was in their fiction; they wanted heroes of all shapes and sizes.  But when things started turning ugly, when we began to see what was wrong with the war in greater numbers, then readers seemed to want something else:  they desired fiction proposing "the truth" (and sometimes conspiracy theories or propaganda); they wanted stories about wars going in ways unexpected and characters who were flawed, imperfect people.  This is more based on what seems "dominant" than one whether one exists and the other does not.  Both exist and always have, I think, but they shift back and forth depending on what is going on in the real world.

With all that I have said here, I can't say for certain if I have properly answered the question.  Perhaps I focused too much on the object of "current events" as they exist at various periods of time and not necessarily on events today.  The problem is that there really isn't a great way to tell whether what is going on today, or in the last year, have or will have a noticeable effect on what people will read.  The big genres are still big (YA and urban fantasy, with some minor, expected lulls), and minor genres don't seem to be popping up in places they're not expected right now.  I would have thought that lesbian/gay/etc. fiction would be far more prevalent today than it was a year ago, but I can't say that there has been any significant change.  Last year seemed like a big year for lesbian/gay/etc. fiction, though, and it seems to conveniently be positioned around the huge uproar over gay rights across the country--but since books generally take six months to a year to even make it to shelves, it would be wrong of me to assume that the boom in lesbian/gay/etc. fiction last year had anything directly to do with the various gay rights movements in the U.S.

I think I'm going to leave this post to all of you, now.  How do you think current events shape reader preferences, if at all?  Do you disagree with anything I've said here?


Anywho. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, feel free to send it to arconna[at]yahoo[dot]com, or leave it as a comment, or send it as a twitter message with @shaunduke at the front of the message. Thanks!

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