Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Consumerization of the Reader

I've never been interested in reading or writing media tie-in novels or the Harlequin contemporary romances, but I never understood why. I just shied away from the displays in the stores and shrugged away calls for submissions to those lines. But as I burrow deeper and deeper into various writing communities, I'm coming across a lot of people who read and write tie-in novels and category romances. And I've read a couple of the romances, trying to see if I could spot the "difference" I gave those books in my attitude. I really couldn't.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I figured out why the entire concept of tie-in novels and Harlequin's categories rubbed me the wrong way. Those books don't make me feel like a reader, they make me feel like a consumer. Coming from someone who easily spends $500 a year on books (one year I'm going to terrify myself and track the number; there's a very good reason why Mark handles the vast bulk of our finances), this might seem like spliting a microhair.

As a reader, I pick up a book because I'm interested in the story. (Well, OK, so I also pick up books to research the market and the industry; but always the bottom line of that research is to compare the story I read vs the data point that brought the book to my attention.) While publishing is a business out to make its profit just like all the others, whenever they push a product, they don't appeal to me as a consumer, they appeal to me as a reader: blurbs, cover copy, artwork, newsletters with excerpts or anecdotes from authors. Hell, even the Borders Rewards newsletters don't just stop short of giving me a coupon and laundry-listing the titles to be released. They often have interviews and excerpts and company exclusives (songs or "deleted scenes", etc).

How (according to my perception) are tie-in novels and category romances different? The tie-in novels feature cover art that has the medium it's based upon front and center. It makes sense to do this in order to get the established fan base of that product in another medium to buy the book. Hence I feel like a consumer: you like this TV show then buy this book and continue with the characters. The focus is not about informing me of the story, it's about moving product through brand recognition. "Buy me! Yes, there will be more of the tangled Starbuck and Apollo angst that you enjoyed in last season's episodes within these pages!"

With Harlequin's books, it's the way they are packaged and sold that kills the illusion of the barrier between reader and consumer. They are on a rack, in categories, sometimes with remarkably similar titles. And they cycle through to a new title every month (or less). I see that display, and I don't hear the siren call of books calling to me with entertaining stories. Instead, I hear: "Buy me! You are a middle class woman with time and money to spend and you are always jonesing for stories about men and women navigating their way to Happily Ever After! And come back in a few weeks and BUY MORE! We know you read approximately 9 books a year! Wait, don't pass us by! Come over here and bow down to the statistics of your demographic! We can show you our research! In pie-chart form!"

Now, I don't harbor any illusions that the other books on the shelves are any different. The team that got that book from manuscript pages to the product in front of me are trying to maximize the chances that I will buy that book instead of the one next to it. But, unless the author is a Big Name, they have only the story to recommend, so all of the decisions they made regarding that book are focused on bringing out the interesting elements of that story to give me a package that says: "Buy me! I will entertain you with a great story!"

Here's the thing, though. The folks behind tie-in novels and Harlequin's category romances know full well that consumers will ditch a product that doesn't deliver. And success in one medium is not going to translate into another without delivering the goods that is expected from that other medium (as well as the added tangle of not detracting from the enjoyment of the original show or movie). And even the most voracious of readers won't buy books if they've been consistently disappointed. So the stories have to deliver in those cases just as much as they do for any other book. You might argue that they have to deliver more because of their differences from the sea of single titles around them.

However, in a world where not a day goes buy that someone doesn't make me feel like a stat to move from "THEM" to "US", I appreciate a product that doesn't do anything overtly to make me feel like anything other than a reader wanting to be entertained by a good story. As I learn more about the publishing industry (hopefully from the perspective of a published author one day soon), I may come to see all books as treating me like a consumer over a reader. It would be nice, though, if instead I got over my "I'm a purty snowflake with unique reading tastes" knee-jerk reaction to tie-ins and category romances.

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