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'Women's fiction'

5 September 2011

Following an appeal by two female customers from Tonbridge in the English county of Kent, the bookseller W H Smith has agreed to remove all references to 'women's fiction' in its shops from October. The two women, Clare Leigh and Julia Gillick, complained that the women's fiction section was 'very light, with lots of pink fluffiness' and there were no classic authors.

This sounds like a description of chick-lit, which is usually packaged in this manner, and is certainly intended for a female readership. But is it demeaning to have the label 'women's fiction' to guide book-buyers, as indeed the covers and titles do, or is it an essential piece of marketing? Perhaps it depends on how seriously you take your reading?

The publishers' sales departments would certainly argue in favour of the women's fiction label, which helps them to position books intended for the women's market. A great deal of work is done inside publishing houses to make the books in this and other genres recognisable. The cover department has an important role in making sure that each book will attract the right market. Promotion is also directed at the intended market, whether it's (scarce) advertising, point of sale for use in shops or pr, which in this case would be aimed solidly at the women's magazine market - another market which is clear about who it's aiming at.

Authors of course want everyone to read their books, but the more realistic and perhaps those with a more developed audience recognise that finding the right market is absolutely key to their sales. So why not 'men's fiction'? The curious fact is that men don't read books written by women, although the reverse is not true. So there's the fiction category known as women's fiction, but men are expected to range more widely. Thrillers are traditionally seen as appealing to male readers and crime too, although these days it's thought to have a strong female market as well.

And let's not forget that women make up somewhere between 70% and 80% of fiction readers too - a big market which is very well worth pursuing.