Will genres disappear?
I recently wrote a post
where I speculated about the impact of the physical paper medium on the existence of novels (books of a certain length and structure).
Part of the driver of what we read in that case was the physical necessity of going somewhere to get a book.
Well, I’ve been thinking again.
If e-books mean that we can consider more than a million books when we make a purchase (or download a book for free), will genres as we know them become less important?
Let me start out by saying that I consider myself an eclectic reader…but you certainly wouldn’t find an even distribution of genres (romance, mystery, science fiction, narrative nonfiction about animals, narrative nonfiction about math) if you looked at the books I read and/or own. No question, certain genres would be much more represented than others.
However, if you looked at my book acquisition before owning a Kindle and after owning one, that distribution would be much more even after I started to seriously use my first EBR (E-Book Reader).
The investment in getting a book is much higher on a paperbook (p-book). It’s not just the price (although that tends to be higher, especially if you factor in free e-books). It’s also the time and effort.
When I went to a brick and mortar bookstore, even a very large one, that was a significant “expense” in time and energy (even though I enjoyed those trips very much). I couldn’t have started at one end of the store and gone through every book to reach the other end (although I was known to go through every aisle sometimes). Generally, I went to a section of interest and then went through that thoroughly. Without having a section for, say, science fiction, the bookstore would have been an impractical trip. Imagine books randomly distributed throughout the store: one Heinlein next to one Danielle Steele next to one Stephen Jay Gould. Even with a great employee helping me, it would be a lot of work to compare similar titles.
Having those physical sections for genres gave me a good idea where I would find books of certain types.
Why did books of “certain types” appeal to me?
Well, part of it was that I was making an acquisition decision with much less information than is available to me now. It gave more data to know that something was a regency romance or a space opera. Now, online, I can see reviews from other readers. I can download a sample, if I want. I can see what other people bought who bought this one. I can usually click or tap a link and find out about the author, and what else they have written.
Book acquisition now is much more informed.
We might not need the blunt instrument of knowing that this is a cozy mystery, if we can get much more fine tuned information about the book.
That may, and I emphasize may, encourage people to get books based on other qualities than genre.
Certainly, one reason why my reading has broadened has been free books. If I generally thought I didn’t like one set of conventions in story telling, I probably wouldn’t spend my money on any books in that group. When it’s free, though, the risk is much lower. If ten people you know told you (perhaps through what I call “word of mouse”) that they loved a free book, you could get it…even though you wouldn’t spend a dime on it just because of your preconceived notions about that “type of book”.
Free samples also allow us to experiment.
If people begin to make decisions less on a “low risk strategy”, will that also free authors not to follow a formula as much? I think it will. I think we’ll see more books that we can’t define as romance or science fiction or literary fiction. We may also see more that mix fiction and non-fiction.
Another factor is that people can’t see what you are reading. I’m certain that some people didn’t read some paperbooks in public because it would be perhaps defining and potentially embarrassing. Let’s say somebody is projecting as an archetypal “high school jock”. Reading a book that a “brain” would read was a risk, if your friends saw it.
Social media means that a book can be marketed in a very different way than with talk show interviews and print ads (two big ways to sell p-books). If a book is a book is a book, we can select them based on different criteria (like great dialog or intricate character relationships).
Now that I’ve said all that, let me make some arguments why genres will continue.
I like books about time travel. Part of that is that I want to see how this author approaches this topic, which I have already read from several other authors. There gets to be an aggregate experience in reading books of a similar type. You can compare noir to noir. I also think there is some “coasting”. If you’ve read great noir, and then you read a mediocre one, I think you carry part of that great noir experience with you, letting you enjoy the mediocre book more.
People also like familiarity, which explains part of the success of sequels. Just as you might want to read the next book in a series, you might enjoy, say, American Revolution alternate history books. We have a dog who absolutely loves ritual and familiarity. If you do something slightly out of order, our dog doesn’t have that same self-satisfied projection of knowing what would happen. Not that this little terrier doesn’t enjoy novelty (a new toy, for example), but familiarity feels good.
There is also a sense of community. We see this very clearly in fandom. If you know that a certain subset of humanity likes the same type of books, you can feel like you are part of that community even when you are reading a book entirely on your own.
So, we’ll see. My guess is that genres will survive. I don’t think there will be a process entirely like the one that some hypothesize for the “disappearance” of Neandertals, where Homo sap bred them out of existence. Even though “cross-breeding”, books that mix what are now separate genres, will likely increase considerably, the time that we have to invest in selection will still be valuable, even if money investment becomes less important. I do suspect we will find new means of discovery that aren’t as dependent on grouping like books together…but I don’t think that categorizing will go away.
What do you think? Do you partially define yourself by the genres you read? Do you know you’ll enjoy certain books before you buy them, just because of what they cover? Are you more likely to read a “bad book” in your favorite genre than a great book in another? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.