In uncertain times, people turn to books for escape

The New York Times had an interesting article last week on how, in the midst of this recession, people were escaping by turning to romance, fantasy, and sci-fi novels:

In a recession, what people want is a happy ending.

At a time when booksellers are struggling to lure readers, sales of romance novels are outstripping most other categories of books and giving some buoyancy to an otherwise sluggish market.

Harlequin Enterprises, the queen of the romance world, reported that fourth-quarter earnings were up 32 percent over the same period a year earlier, and Donna Hayes, Harlequin’s chief executive, said that sales in the first quarter of this year remained very strong. While sales of adult fiction overall were basically flat last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, the romance category was up 7 percent after holding fairly steady for the previous four years.

At Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest book chain, where its chief financial officer, Joe Lombardi, recently warned that overall 2009 sales were likely to fall between 4 percent and 6 percent, sales of romance novels are up. And in the first three months of this year Nielsen Bookscan tracked a 2.4 percent rise in romance sales compared with a slight decline in sales of general adult fiction for the same period. Those figures may underestimate the demand for romance, since a significant portion of sales come from retailers like Wal-Mart that are not tracked by Bookscan.

Like the Depression-era readers who fueled blockbuster sales of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” today’s readers are looking for an escape from the grim realities of layoffs, foreclosures and shrinking 401(k) balances.

“Given the general dismay and gloominess,” said Jennifer Lampe, a lawyer in Des Moines and avid romance reader who runs a book blog under the pseudonym Jane Litte at, “reading something like a romance with a happy ending is really kind of a relief.”

Such escapist urges are also fueling sales of science fiction and fantasy, said Bob Wietrak, a vice president for merchandising at Barnes & Noble. Mr. Wietrak said sales of novels with vampires, shape shifters, werewolves and other paranormal creatures were “exploding,” whether they were found in the romance, fantasy or young-adult aisles, where Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series continues to dominate and inspire look-alike books like the House of Night teen novels by P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast.


Romance readers have always tended to buy in much higher volumes than people who read other genres like literary fiction. So even though some romance readers may be cutting back — Sue Grimshaw, the romance buyer at Borders, says people are buying four or five instead of five or six books a week — they are still buying more than readers of other book categories.

This makes sense. Women can’t do without their romance fix, even when times are tough :)

I’ve got an even better suggestion for those who are cutting back on how many paperback romances they buy a week: visit your local used book bookstore, where you can buy more for a lot less. I can’t tell you how many used paperbacks I’ve purchased over the years for about a fourth of what I would have paid at store like BAMM or Borders. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find something current, but most of the times it’s something at least a couple months old or older. It’s still worth it, though.

Which brings to mind something else. When you’re done reading a book, if it’s not something you want to keep in order to read again at a later date, don’t throw it away! Start a pile of books you no longer want, and donate them to one of those used book bookstores, or sell them at your next yard sale. There are people out there everywhere who are going to want those books!

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