In the midst of a rant about the decline of women's fiction on the AAR Potpourri Board (link to post above), a reader wrote the following: "I DO resent the editors and publishers who have converted romantic fiction into a commodity, barely distinguishable from pork bellies or scrap iron."
Catchily put. But romance fiction IS a commodity, and publishers are, surprisingly enough, in the publishing business to make money. This doesn't mean that they should produce an endless stream of Navy SEAL books or secret baby books, since a publisher that focuses too much on one narrow segment of the market will eventually find its sales lagging. But publishers produce books in order to make money, and authors write books for the same reason. Therefore, an author who wants to sell well needs to study the market and observe what's out there right now. This does NOT mean cynically turning out Navy SEAL books if you loathe them. It does mean picking a popular subgenre that appeals to you and putting your own personal spin on it.
E-publishing is slightly different because the publisher expects a smaller audience. I read in an interview with one of Ellora's Cave's editors that some of their titles sell a thousand copies in a week. That's a big number for e-publishing, and certainly one I'd like to approach *g*, but by mass market standards it really isn't a lot. So e-pubs can accept books that are less mainstream. Even so, an e-published author that wants to make a mark needs to study the small press market, pick a popular subgenre that appeals to her, and put her own personal spin on it (does this sound familiar?). There is simply not a lot of point in spending the time to write and market a 100,000-word novel if you're only going to sell twenty-five copies.
So yes, romantic fiction IS a commodity, and one that has made a great deal of money for the publishing industry over the past couple of decades. Authors of popular fiction aren't in writing for art's sake, although instilling art into a commercial genre is certainly a desirable thing (and can sometimes sell quite well... witness Laura Kinsale). It's all about reaching as many readers as possible, and in order to do that, studying the market and writing a commercially saleable piece of work is important.
Any thoughts from the rest of you?