At the Back Fence Issue #236

August 28, 2006

From the Desk of Karyn Witmer (AKA Elizabeth Grayson):

Of Books & Baby Boomers

It seems to me that publishers are in a perpetual quandary about where the book market – including the romance market – is going. Under siege by a growing force of technological developments from TiVo to the X Box, from DVD and MP 3s players to the Internet, publishers do seem to have been mustering something of a counter strike.

Their primary tactic is to target younger readers, drawing them into the book market in general, and the romance market in particular. They entice these new readers with the work of popular YA authors like Meg Cabot and Judy Bloom, who write equally compelling books for adults. They hook younger readers on Lurlene McDaniel’s four-hankie reads, then point them toward books like A Walk To Remember by Nicholas Sparks. They use the candy-colored covers on teen books to attract them into the realm of Chick Lit. All of which is wonderful for the perpetuation of readers, reading, and all the attendant skills and advantages that come with frequent contact with books.

But while the publishers have turned their focus to winning over the young, it seems to me that there is another growing demographic they’ve completely ignored – the soon-to-be-retiring Baby Boomers.

According to the Census Bureau, boomers – born between 1946 and 1965 and 78 million strong – are a group to be reckoned with. Because of their sheer numbers boomers have been the driving force behind scores of trends: things as frivolous as bellbottoms in the ‘60’s, as responsible as demanding smaller, fuel-efficient cars after last energy crisis in the ‘70’s, and as sociologically telling as boomers buying bigger houses as our nation “cocooned” in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.

As a matter of fact I can’t help wondering if any of us would be reading romance novels today if the Baby Boomers hadn’t so enthusiastically embraced the sexual revolution, the women’s movement – and The Flame and the Flower.

For nearly five decades the needs and wants and whims of the Baby Boomers have driven consumerism in America. But now that boomers are moving beyond the marketers’ most desirable demographic – 18 to 49 – this enormous economic force in the marketplace has become invisible, passe.

I think that’s a big mistake.

In the next decade vast numbers of Baby Boomers are going to retire, many even before Social Security kicks in. When that happens, not only will these fifty and sixtysomethings have the leisure time to bike across England, track genealogy on the internet, and take classes in yoga or astronomy – they’re going to have time to read. Voraciously.

When that happens I predict that book sales and library circulation will skyrocket. According to a report done for a group called the International Federation of Library Associations, libraries are aware of the coming onslaught of readers and are making plans.

Publishers? Maybe not so much. Or at least they’re not posting their ideas on the Internet.

Raw numbers from the Census Bureau tell us that Baby Boomers are a the most affluent and well-educated generation alive today – and they have been raised since childhood believing that reading is good, important. If you ask a Baby Boomer what they’re reading and they’re not, they almost always feel guilty and apologize. They say something like, “I know I should read, but I’ve just been caught up at things at work.”

Baby Boomers believe they can learn anything from books: home and car repair, knitting, backgammon, juggling. How to get pregnant, experience natural childbirth, and exercise off the baby weight. Baby boomers have turned to books to solve personal and financial problems. They’ve turned to books when they needed advice on how to eat better, raise their kids better, and understand the world better.

Who but the boomers, newly aware of their own mortality, could have made 1000 Places To See Before You Die a bestseller?

So what changes are the Baby Boomers going to make both in society and the book market?

First of all, they’re going to redefine the term “senior citizen.” Boomers, for all that they love their burgers and fries, are more health conscious than previous generations. All but the die-hards (no pun intended) have stopped smoking. Even if they aren’t actively dieting, boomers are aware of what they should eat and how much they should exercise. They know that life expectancies have risen to an average of 77.6 years in the United States and fully expect to stay healthy and active longer than previous generations.

Among the boomers, women are more likely to see their passage beyond the child-bearing years as a time of personal growth, an opportunity to focus on their life partners, grandchildren, and dreams once set aside. Whether a woman embraces gray hair and wrinkles, or fights them every step of the way, boomer women see the next phase of their lives as a filled with new beginnings – and reading will be part of that growth and development.

Some general boomer reading trends are already making themselves evident in sales of guide books like Fodors and Frommers and books about travel, like those of Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux. In the past few years we have seen a growing popularity of biographies and history books written by historians like David McCullough whose work is well researched – and highly readable. As boomers connect with the past through travel and genealogy, books that bring history to life, like The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and Phillipa Gregory’s fictionalized biographies of English royalty will continue to thrive.

The demographic for mystery and suspense books has traditionally skewed higher than the average book readership, and this trend will continue. New boomer readers will be responsible for the continuing popularity of those genres, and perhaps new sub-genres, as well. I also think that for a generation who has seen both political and social injustice (as well as a start at righting some significant wrongs) the idea of getting fictional revenge and seeing injustices rectified by someone like Jack Reacher, in Lee Child’s compelling novels, will be tremendously satisfying.

Oprah (a boomer herself) may have reintroduced book clubs, and with more leisure time to spend with spouses and friends, readers will spontaneously share and discuss what they’re reading. This sharing and discussing may be especially true of the mystery and suspense genres where wise authors will address both the women’s questions about why crimes have occurred, but also answer the men’s questions about how exactly one goes about picking a lock or tracking the criminal through his cell phone.

As for romance … from the beginning I’ve believed that books in the romance genre have mirrored the changing roles of women society. In the earliest Harlequins women only ever appeared as nurses and secretaries. As women entered the workforce in larger and larger numbers, heroines in romance moved up and branched out in their professions, becoming CEO’s, concert violinists, doctors, anthropologists and engineers. By the mid ‘80’s the women in romances had become super-moms juggling high-powered jobs, family concerns, and probably a new romance – without so much as mussing their hair.

Then, as more and more women realized that the super-mom role model was impossible to live up to, there was a proliferation of books – especially in series romance – where the most prominent element on the cover was either a pregnant woman or one holding a baby to signify a return to domesticity. These books depicted heros – whether the fathers of the children or not – taking a significant role in child rearing. That is linked, I believe, with women across America turning to their significant others and saying, “Well, they’re your kids, too!” and insisting that men handle their own share of child care.

Female role models in the current series market are a little harder to categorize because there seems to be a greater delineation between Harlequin’s series lines. Did tough heroines in the just-cancelled Bombshell line reflect our need as women to be able to take care of ourselves in a dangerous world? Do Silhouette Desires’s fabulously rich, alpha heros express a woman’s desire to be taken care both materially and emotionally? Only time will tell.

And Chick Lit and Hen Lit seem to address other demographics and attitudes entirely.

When you look at historicals, the correlation between what’s happening in our society and romance novels may not be so easy to see. This is partly due to the fact that readers select these books for escape, or as a way of embracing another time, when dresses were pretty and heros could be dangerous without being threatening. Also, since historical romances were the first books that allowed women to have adventures of their own, the portrayals seem to be of heroines who either seek adventure, or who are caught up in circumstances that force them to prove their mettle.

I do think that as historicals have become less tied to historical events and more about social and sexual situations, readers who enjoyed these deeper ties to the past have migrated to other genres. I think this fueled the popularity of historical mysteries for a time, and now many of the historical mystery readers have moved on to support fictionalized biographies like The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, or true historical novels like Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus.

Since the romance market has so often responded to women’s changing roles in society, I believe the influx of Baby Boomers will make their share of changes, too. My guess is that the biggest change will be the way mature women are depicted. Until now, popular fiction has often relegate “women of a certain age” to secondary roles. These women are dedicated homebodies, a source of respite in the hero or heroine’s life. They are wise mentors who advise the characters or help the hero or heroine recognize their true feelings about each other. Often older women are played for humor or as characters in need protection.

When older women are shown to be strong and competent, they often become the antagonists and are depicted as scheming, bitter, and evil. Think of the Angela Landsbury/Meryl Streep role in the movie The Manchurian Candidate.

There’s no way boomer women are going to put up with those stereotypes. They will redefine their role on the written page just as they are redefine it in life. They are also going to demand their chance in the limelight, to become the heroines in their own stories.

Nor – as an aside – are boomer women going to put up with the pejorative words currently used to describe who they are. Some really hot-button nouns come to mind: crone, old bag, hag, witch. But I also bristle at being referred to as a “matron” or having someone call me “ma’am.” I predict that in the next decade the media will coin some new and far-more-flattering phrases that refer to the women of the Baby Boom generation – or they’ll wish they had.

To get back on topic here, one of the reasons I loved the very successful novel Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray is because it dealt with a heroine and hero who weren’t kids. They had history. They had real and complex feelings about each other. They had sex. But most important, they were whole in a way that older characters in novels so rarely are.

In real life, women are curious about not just who a person has become, but why they are who they are. Mature readers who’ve lived and changed and grown expect this same kind of personal history for the characters in the books they are reading. Boomers will find the lives of their contemporaries interesting because those characters have lived longer and made more mistakes. They have experienced joy and regret, and have a great deal to say about themselves. A wise writer who wants to attract a boomer readership will give her characters that extra depth – and find a positive way to tell the truth about how life works.

So what kind of books will give boomer women the kind of stories and heroines they crave?

I think we will begin to see books with the “family as hero.” What I mean is that the overreaching story deals with a family group – whether they are related by blood or not – that pulls together in a crisis. People only get through life’s tough times with work, determination to keep the familial bonds intact, and a special and enduring kind of love. One of my favorites of this genre is Barbara Samuel’s marvelous, family story No Place Like Home. It explores the concept of family in several permutations. It looks at the need to understand and forgive people you love and to make an effort to move beyond mistakes that happened years before. Because I believe in the inherent drama in the concept of “family as hero,” it’s the theme I chose to explore when I wrote my first contemporary novel, A Simple Gift.

Stories like these come closest to what each of us deals with in our daily lives. I think that’s why I find these stories compelling, powerful, and deeply moving. I think they also sometimes offer encouragement to us as readers and create models for solving problems we all face. Just the way romance novels, in mirroring women’s roles, always have.

Characters boomers can relate to also show up in multi-generational stories. Patricia Gaffney’s terrific novel Circle of Three is a prime example. In it Gaffney depicts the complex relationship between three women – grandmother, mother, and granddaughter – and gives each of them equal time. In writing the novel she gave each of those women a problem to solve, and a chance to grow and change both as individuals and participants in the family. What I suspect is that there will be an upsurge in the readership for this kind of multi-generational – dare I use the word saga? – that connects the women in a tangible and believable way.

I think that at a time in life where women are widowed or long divorced, the women’s friendship novel will continue to hold an enduring place in readers’ hearts. One of the truths we discover in high school is that girlfriends stick together, that women help women in ways that men will never fathom. Novels that celebrate this female bond – like Mary Alice Monroe’s The Book Club – are an important part of women’s complex and endlessly fascinating relationships.

I also believe novels that explore the burgeoning relationship between an older couple and a younger one within the same span of a story will become more popular. This is not a new idea. It was used successfully by Georgette Heyer for several of her novels, including readers’ perpetual favorites, The Talisman Ring, The Nonesuch, and Sprig Muslin. I think the format of dual-romances is a kind of story that will have a real resurgence as boomers return to reading in large numbers.

I would be remiss in considering the popularity of boomer fiction, if I did not mention Harlequin’s “Next” series. In spite of some very good novels by some very good authors, the books seemed to have received a lukewarm acceptance in the marketplace. My theory is that the idea for novels about more mature women is a good one and has a very definite place in the developing market. The problem is, I suspect, that Harlequin may have been five to ten years ahead of the curve in terms of their target market. Perhaps if they had introduced this concept a few years later, it would have met with greater success.

Baby Boomers will most certainly continue to read books outside their demographic. All of us read romances to rediscover the magic of that first encounter, to embrace the sweetness and optimism – and sometimes angst – of falling in love. But I think that there is an expanding market for books that directly address the roles a woman embraces as she ages: as she has the time and freedom to explore options she has never been able to entertain before, as she assumes the role of the wise protector of family and community, as she rediscovers her worth and the power she attains in this new guise.

Many of the kinds of stories I’ve mentioned are not new. But as all of us who’ve been reading women’s novels for awhile have probably observed, the book market is cyclical. As the pendulum swings, driven by forces in society, the economy, and changes in ourselves, everything old becomes new again. Ideas and concepts return, but when arrive they are usually altered in some substantive way, refreshed by an alternative point of view, or targeted to a new and emerging population. For the enjoyment of us all.


Karyn Witmer

Laurie Likes Books: Jill Marie Landis and I got together at RWA in Atlanta this summer, and while we talked about the state of romance, her friend Karyn Witmer – aka Elizabeth Grayson – wandered by. We asked her to join us and soon we were talking about how things have changed in recent years, and how it seems the publishers are going after a more youthful demographic even if perhaps that demographic is doing less novel reading than in earlier generations, what with the continual growth and adaptation of technologies that affect leisure time activities.

We then got more into romance novels themselves, questioning why today’s romances do not satisfy as many readers as they used to, and brainstorming what sorts of romances readers might like to read. Karyn suggested that an interesting addition to the “courtship romances” that comprise 99% of books available would be “relationship romances” – novels that delved into the romances of existing couples. After all, we all know of couples – and may be part of one ourselves – that went through rocky times yet came out the other side equally or more strongly committed than before. Just as we all know, either from personal experience or talk among friends, that many boomer-age couples are as happy – or happier – sexually than they used to be. So wouldn’t it be nice to be able to read about – in addition to heroes and heroines in their twenties just starting out on a lifelong HEA – heroes and heroines who are well along that journey but were forced to stop along the way and must find a way to continue?

All of this makes an interesting next step in our examination of age and romance. In July Robin Uncapher considered the emotional reasons why romance publishers, authors and romance readers may discount the importance of female readers who are over forty. In her column Karyn puts aside emotion and makes a logical case for romance publishers focusing on the historically lucrative baby boomer market.

It is with theory in mind that I suggested that Karyn write her guest ATBF. I hope you enjoyed it as well as I did.

Link to Karyn Witmer/Elizabeth Grayson at AAR

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