Publishing Demographics

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 04 2008

I frequently hear writers complain that publishing professionals are out of touch with lifestyles outside of the East Coast, or more specifically, the New York area, and that a very high percentage of fiction is set in these areas. Obviously my view on this might be a little distorted because I am a publishing professional, and certainly in the life of my career I’ve been shocked by the publication of some books that I knew would never sell because they were just too regional. But is the industry as a whole too regional? I tend not to think so. In fact, without even thinking about it, I can certainly come up with a long list of authors who stay very far away from New York or even the East Coast.

Certainly chick-lit books were set primarily in the New York area or London, but that was sort of the nature of those books. They tended to be about young urban professionals living the dream, and the settings coincided with the lifestyle that was expected of the heroine. That and the fact that the first successful books were set in London, the UK version of NYC.

As a native Minnesotan I tend to seek out what might be popular in other parts of the country, and in fact, one of my recent sales was a Bunco mystery series, a game I know is incredibly popular in the South and the Midwest, but not that well known in the New York area. Believe me when I tell you that I sent that book around with some facts and figures about the popularity of Bunco.

But you tell me. Do you feel that we are too regional in what we publish, and if we are, what do you feel we’re lacking?


42 responses to “Publishing Demographics”

  1. Avatar Keri Ford says:

    Jessica, I’ve heard about this complaint before, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any books set in NYC.

    There’s some in Southern California. Lots in the Midwest and South. Florida. New Jersey. Maybe D.C. (but only for a portion of the book). Might be the genre’s I read or the authors I come across.

  2. Avatar robb says:

    i just read the story of edgar sawtelle, a blockbuster debut novel set in rural Wisconsin. a great read by the way, and the author seemed to break a lot of the “rules.” It had to be at least 180,000 words or more, I’m guessing. the major conflict doesn’t happen until page 150 or so, not in the first paragraph or first page. beautifully written in a strong literary style, yet it’s a compelling page turner with fully developed characters. okay, this wasn’t supposed to be a book review, but my original point is it wasn’t set in NYC or the east coast, but the heartland (or flyover country if you’re from the east coast).

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Books set in rural towns that feel rural. So many of them don’t ring true, because most of them have been written by authors who either live in bigger cities or have recently moved to a small town…and thus they revert to sterotype. It’s a little irritating.

  4. I don’t think so at all. I do think there are certain locations you see over and over in certain genres.

    Thrillers tend to be very urban, so they’re often set in New York City along with various international cities. I’ve also read a couple set in Chicago and LA. The less urban ones are often in remote locations, it seems–anywhere it’s hard to get help or phone service!

    As you said, Chick Lit stuff was often NYC or London.

    I see a lot of romances set in Texas. (Why? I have no idea, but I sure do see it.)

    Cozy mysteries seem to get set in small towns everywhere. I’ve read mystery series set all over the U.S. Ditto police procedurals.

    Like Keri, I hear this complaint a lot, though rarely on the many reader forums I belong to. I tend to hear it on writer forums, and I am not sure what that means.

  5. Avatar Amy Nathan says:

    I think many people believe big cities have a mystic and certain lure for readers. Maybe they’re right. It’s the same “take me away” feeling as a Regency novel, for fans of those. I think more of the pigeonhole demographic issue is that of women’s novel focusing on the alluring 20’s and 30’s. My 20’s and 30’s were not alluring. My 40’s are much more exciting — and I love finding books, and writing one, about that being a fabulous time of life. I’ve heard there is a trend toward women’s fiction and “chick lit” (I don’t like the term lady lit) with older characters. I hope that’s true.

  6. Avatar robb says:

    laura k — more romances are set in texas because, well, because us texans are just plain ol’ more romanticated.

  7. Avatar Suzan Harden says:

    I think the NY thing is a cop out, right up there with “paranormals have taken over the market.” If you look at numbers, paranormals comprise a very, VERY small percentage of the market, just like books set in New York. The last book I even read that was set in NYC was two years ago (The Devil Wears Prada, which proves Jessica’s point).

    A physical location can have a personality, and most writers use it to enhance/play off the main character. For example, Acheron Parthenopaeus, a cursed Atlantean god spends a heck of a lot in New Orleans, a sinking American city. If NYC works for the writer, it isn’t going to stop the writer from writing it or stop me from reading it.

    What’s surprised me while pitching is how many agents are anti-Los Angeles. I had two nearly foaming at the mouth while the question my sanity.

  8. Avatar spyscribbler says:

    I’ve never heard that complaint, but I’m fascinated by Bunco! I’ve never heard of it.

    Around here, Borders always seems to have a game or two of Mahjong in the cafe. But it’s only at two of the five or six closest Borders, so I’m guessing it’s not widespread.

  9. Avatar Jill Myles says:

    I’m from Texas and I actually really dislike most of the romances set in Texas. The vast majority of the population lives in Houston or the Metroplex (DFW). The lifestyle there is corporate, big city, and filled with daily fun such as commuting, traffic, Starbucks every block, etc.

    But if you pick up a book about ‘Texas’, you get nothing but cowboy hats and wide open ranges and drawls that would embarrass any native.

    And while that might happen if you head out to a small town in East Texas, the odds are, we’re just as ‘citified’ as everyone else and I’d love for a few books to show that. 🙂

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to rustle some steer before heading to work (I kid, I kid).

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Hmmm. This post speaks to me because I had a children’s historical fiction novel turned down recently. The editor had all kinds of wonderful things to say about the writing, she offered to see anything else I had ‘up my sleeve’, but she said it was too ‘regional’. It was set in 1890’s Alabama.

    I’m currently polishing up a YA murder mystery — set in Alabama– and hoping it won’t be too regional. (but hey! murder happens everywhere.)

  11. Avatar Susan says:

    I do wish I could find more novels with a strong sense of place, beyond being set in either Big City USA or Small Town USA. After while you feel like you’ve been watching different plays, that all used the same set and backdrops.

    Armchair travelling is one of the blessings that fiction can give; I’d like to see more places and really experience them.

    I’d like to see more of Appalachia, rural France, and Polynesia in novels: anything in the works set there?

  12. Avatar Jessica says:

    I have never heard this complaint and never thought books were set in only certain places. Seems like things are pretty diverse to me.

  13. When referring to romance novels, I agree that there are certain preferred settings out there. It seems like urban fantasy/paranormal type books tend to be set in a big city like New York. I think in this case, the setting adds mystery and dark suspense that would be missing in rural Wisconsin.

    I’ve also noticed some strong preferences of settings for historicals. I’ve been told several times that my Victorian set in New York city is very unusual. And I guess it’s true. In fact, at an RWA conference an editor at Avon mentioned they don’t accept Victorian historicals set in the United States. Which is interesting given the similarities in high society during that time between a city like New York and the more classic setting of London.

    One of my critique partners had one of her stories critiqued by a Harlequin editor and was told her location of an island in the Great Lakes was not exotic enough and should be change to a tropical environment.

    As a reader, I’m not too concerned by the setting, especially if the setting itself adds a quality to the story. As a writer, I’m compelled to write what makes sense for me, but can see why frustrations can occur when authors are told their settings are not acceptable.

  14. Avatar Kim says:

    I prefer regional books.
    They bring a whole new character to the book — the setting.
    I tend to find that most books set in the usual metropolitan areas lack flavor.

  15. Novels should be published based on story and writing quality (and marketability of course) . I believe that the locale is irrelevant when telling a really great story. There’s plenty of world out there to discover.

    If a novel is not based out of NY and not getting picked up, perhaps it’s just not a compelling enough story.

  16. Avatar sara says:

    Like people have said, I think it depends on genre, but I actually agree with the complaint, because I’ve gotten irritated with chick lit for this very reason.

    It isn’t because I dislike New York, or because I want to see a particular region highlighted more, but because I feel like a lot of writers have resorted to New York as the “default.” As in, they set their book in New York but the story doesn’t live in New York — it doesn’t feel, read, or breathe like the city itself.

    It’s the same New York I see in episodes of “Friends,” which is to say not New York at all. I’d rather read books that rang true, wherever they’re set.

  17. Avatar diane garner says:

    I don’t mind that a lot of books are set in NYC as long as the author explains settings that non-residents wouldn’t relate to. Referencing numbered avenues, for example, without further explanation, leaves me feeling lost and annoyed. Sue Grafton has joked about readers complaining when she takes literary license with locations in what everyone knows is Santa Barbara, even though she has renamed the town Santa Teresa. I use San Diego County as the main setting in my books for a few reasons. One, I live here. Two, I think it’s a place readers are interested in, but is not as well known as NYC or LA. And last, I write for a San Diego magazine, which I hope to use to eventually market my books. I look forward to introducing readers to my little corner of the world.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    There was an article in THE GUARDIAN (UK newspaper) yesterday about how people in the “heartland” are committed to what would have been considered blue collar values where I come from. They do not like New York or New Yorkers, or big city dwellers in general. They do not like intellectuals (which is why they voted for George W. Bush) and believe intellectuals sneer at them and consider them stupid. They do like guns, smokeless tobacco, etc.

    If that is true, there is a market segment out there which is very regional and anti-NY. That does not mean they are the whole market, and because of their anti-intellectual bias one would expect them to read only certain kinds of books, probably very light fiction including romance novels in which the characters live in rural settings.

  19. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I read a lot of books, and haven’t seen one in the recent past that was set in NY or on the East coast, but it may be the genre I choose to read, which is mostly paranormal. As far as my own, the series is set in San Francisco, the Rocky Mtns. of Montana near Kalispell, rural Maine and occasionally in Tampa, FL. Why those places? I’m familiar with San Francisco, have always wanted to go to Montana (and will be, in two weeks–yea research!) and Maine, and my characters insisted on Tampa for some ungodly reason. I imagine setting is often dependent upon genre. I did learn, the hard way, that Hawaii is a hard sell! No one was interested in my heavily researched Hawaiian paranormal. 🙂 Damn…and those Hawaiian gods made such wonderful heroes!

  20. Avatar Kristi says:

    I have noticed the issue with a bunch of Chick Lit books that I’ve read. Interesting stories, but they are also full of what seem like “inside jokes” about NYC. And some of the cultural references….I’d never heard of Jimmy Choo as a shoe brand before a book a couple of years ago. I don’t think they sell those around here (without going to the one hoity-toity mall in town and forking over a mortgage payment–something that is completely outside the frame of reference for a character in her 20’s that doesn’t have a trust fund).

    I’m writing books set in locations around the Midwest–places I know (cities like KC, STL, Chicago, Iowa). Unfortunately, the topic’s just another reason to feel nervous and self-defeatest about my stories, because I keep wondering how an editor in NYC will relate to this part of the world without my attempting to make them kitchy-sounding or “quaint”. Which I won’t do.

    There’s more than corn in Indiana…

  21. Avatar Kristi says:

    Note to Kate Douglas…as a reader, I think the idea of a Hawaiian paranormal sounds very cool. I would be totally intrigued at the concept and would seriously consider buying it if it doesn’t end up sounding cheesy. I’d rewrite and resubmit or find another story line set there….It would be a lovely refreshing change from vampires and warewolves.

  22. Avatar Kristi says:

    And another note, for anonymous about the “heartlanders” who prefer guns and tobacco and Dubya….I live in a metropolitan area in the midwest. Every year at election time, there are big stores about the vast difference between how the metro areas vote and how the rural areas vote within our state–complete night and day differences. Metro=more Democratic, more gun control, etc. Rural = more like what you describe (Republican, shotgun-toting conservatives).

    Just depends on who you’re writing your stories for–the 2million city dwellers or the 500,000 farmers….There are cities in the “heartland” as well, you know…

  23. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Kristi–Jessica is my agent and she shopped the proposal all over the place. There was zero interest. Nada, and believe me, I was really surprised because I thought the premise had a lot of potential, especially with the popularity of the TV show LOST. I’m not willing to take it to a small press, and with none of the big ones interested, I’ve set the idea aside. I’m willing to wait in case the setting does become popular at some point, but for now I’ll look for something more “sellable.” I’ve got experience waiting–I was writing erotic romance for a small press/epub when NY wouldn’t even look at such a thing, yet that’s what got me my first NY contract–when the time was right. One thing I’ve learned in this business is that everything goes in cycles–just a few years ago, historicals were out. Now they’re getting hot again. For awhile, chic lit was all that seemed to sell, but it’s on the skids. The advice I used to get that never made sense was to write “your own book.” That means your find your own voice and write the book that calls to you. Hone your skills and don’t give up, because if NY isn’t buying what you’re writing this year, they just might be desperate for it next year. It’s a strange business, but I absolutely love it!

  24. They do not like intellectuals (which is why they voted for George W. Bush) and believe intellectuals sneer at them and consider them stupid. They do like guns, smokeless tobacco, etc.

    I guess there is absolutely no way to escape politics in writing blogs anymore.

    For those interested in actual facts instead of urban legends, compare the IQ and educations before just tossing out the bs half of Americans are ignorant and therefore wanted a yokel president to feel superior. Lord knows if you are from the country and even worse, from Texas, you must be on the verge of mentally challenged.

    Yokel Ignorant Texan with Mensa Membership

  25. As for regional slants. I don’t really care where they are set although big city party life isn’t very interesting to me.

    I just wish people who choose to write about westerners or cowboys would either take the time to get familiar, very familiar, with the people or find a different subject matter.

    Most rodeo cowboys are college educated. Yes, there is a definite wild side to the life, but they aren’t all ex-con outlaws who run around saying, “Why, howdy thar, little lady.” Very little fencing is done shirtless with sweaty, rippling muscles gleaming in the hot sun. And most raging black stallions aren’t instantly tamed by kind word from a woman with an even wilder mane than the horse’s.

    A good book set in any region that truly captures the flavor of the place is a joy.

    Fried Green Tomatoes was wonderful.

  26. Avatar Anonymous says:

    “…London, the UK version of NYC.”

    Um, Newsflash: it’s the other way around. London existed thousands of years before NYC was even founded.

    This statement is insensitive in addition to being ignorant. Typical American to think the whole world revolves around them and NYC. SHows you’re so wrapped up in your job that you have no world perspective any longer. Pity. Is it worth it for the pop-culture drivel you help to put out?

  27. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I know for a fact most people enjoy reading books about areas other than where they live. Although, the author had better have their facts straight. I get so tired of hearing agent excuses. Silly things like where the book takes place should never be a factor in whether or not they represent a book. If you like an authors style, you’d better grab them, and don’t tell them to change things like that. It messes with the author’s confidence and charm maybe lost.

  28. Avatar Liza Knight says:

    I don’t mind when a story is set in New York City, because I find the area interesting.

    However, the only offending aspect about novels set in the NYC area is when a writer perpetuates silly ideas about Texans. Apparently everyone in Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas have heavy accents and we’re all cowboys riding off into the sunset. One chick lit book I read, described Houstonians as having come from a swamp and lacking the class that true New Yorkers have.

    Books set in the East Coast or NYC area are fun to read, but if the writer needs to establish that these areas are pinnacles of culture and class compared to those strange Texans, that becomes annoying. It’s obvious that those writers have never visited major Texas cities!

  29. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Yeah Jen, perfect, couldn’t have said it better. A cop out!

  30. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Kristi I’m with you. Now I’m worried about my midwest YA, i’m preparing to send out. Small towns intrigue me, I hate the thought of someone being prejudice about it, because of where it is set.

  31. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Jennifer Crusie has become a NYT best selling author and I don’t think she’s ever set a story in NYC. She usually writes about characters in small towns in Ohio.

    I agree with those who commented that the strength of the story, the characters, the author’s voice, are more important than setting. However, when I first joined RWA I went to an agent panel where everyone advocated do not set your story in the fly-over states. I had to have that explained to me. If it wasn’t NYC or L.A. forget it.

    I was pitching a book set in Australia (where I grew up)with an Aussie hero. I was told Aussie guys don’t make strong romantic heroes. Had they never heard of Hugh? Or Russell? *grin*

  32. Avatar Jen-GreenInkEdits says:

    I admit, I have a love of solid Southern lit. That said, I don’t really think the setting of a novel matters at all as long as the novel is GOOD. I think a setting can enhance a good novel and make it better, but the setting itself doesn’t make it good or bad or marketable or not marketable…that’s a cop-out. And if, as a writer, you feel cheated somehow by the fact that lots of novels are published set in NYC, then write a really good book set somewhere else. If it’s good, it’s going to sell no matter the setting.

  33. Avatar AstonWest says:

    There need to be more books set in outer space. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I don’t imagine publishers or agents seek out books set in particular locations, as long as the story is interesting and realistic. You’re not going to be able to sell a lot of urban fantasy set in the middle of Kansas, for example.

  34. I live in Australia, so when an American city is mentioned I don’t think too much about it because I have no point of reference to exactly where in America these places are (since I’m not a walking map) I know the basics of course, NYC, Washing D.C, LA, etc, but knowing where in the country they’re situated doesn’t make much difference. Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of one I’ve read that was set in NYC.
    Recently there was a discussion within RWAus about whether or not books set in Australian cities could be sold to an American audience. Keri Arthur proved it could be done with her NY Times Bestselling paranormal series set in Melbourne.
    So, my long-winded opinion is that if you’ve written a damn good book, then I don’t think it will really matter where it’s set. Sure, I’m certain some locations prove more popular than others, but I like that Keri Arthur not only did something totally diferent for us Aussies, she did it really successfully.

  35. Avatar 49Luddite says:

    It’s not so much that too many books are set in NYC, but there is a quirk I have noticed about books that are set there, whether fiction or nonfiction. They refer to specific streets, intersections, or neighborhoods that nobody except a New Yorker would know. You never see a glancing reference to, say, 16th and Vine in a book set in Wasilla, Alaska. If you did that, you’d be expected to describe just what makes 16th and Vine so special as to warrant a reference. For instance, perhaps it’s near Caribou Barbie’s house, who has just been nominated for VP. But in NYC books, apparently these quick (and to most of us, meaningless) references are perfectly okay. And no, there is not really a 16th and Vine in Wasilla.

  36. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Same with Washington D.C.–lots of books set there, and the street names are mentioned as if the reader already knows them. Pseudo-annoying.

  37. Avatar Kristin says:

    I actually had a phone conversation with an agent about a book I was working on. As I was describing the premise, she asked me, “Where is it set?”

    Sounds to me like an interesting, unique setting…something outside the ‘norm’…is what publishers are looking for. So I think this NYC ‘prejudice’ is nonsense.

    To Kate: I think a paranormal set in Hawaii *does* sound very intriguing. I wish those editors would talk to readers sometime!

  38. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Dear Julie Weathers,

    Sorry you’re from Texas, but nobody is perfect. It is strange to be damned for commenting on demographics, when that was the point of Jessica’s original blog post. I checked the site where I read the original article and was surprised that it is still up. Here is the link:

    You can leave a comment beneath her article if you wish and tell the author her comments are b.s. All I am saying is, that if she is right, the demographics she cites could have some bearing on the market for certain types of writing.

    Say hello to Dubya the next time you buy some smokeless tobacco and a box of ammo.

  39. Anonymouse,

    “As a native Minnesotan I tend to seek out what might be popular in other parts of the country, and in fact, one of my recent sales was a Bunco mystery series, a game I know is incredibly popular in the South and the Midwest, but not that well known in the New York area. Believe me when I tell you that I sent that book around with some facts and figures about the popularity of Bunco.

    But you tell me. Do you feel that we are too regional in what we publish, and if we are, what do you feel we’re lacking?”

    Was part of the original post.

    I’m sorry I can’t find a way to correlate that to someone in Britain claiming people in the heartland, “do not like intellectuals (which is why they voted for George W. Bush) and believe intellectuals sneer at them and consider them stupid. They do like guns, smokeless tobacco, etc.”

    I’m sure Jessica is gratified to know she is afraid of intellectuals.

    Jessica, pass me the Skoal. I’m fresh out.

  40. Okay, Julie, but I did work with a guy from Texas who said to me (and not tongue-in-cheek), “That’s a mighty purty purse ya got thar little lady.”

    It was a black leather purse shaped kinda like a feed bag.

    That was in Brooklyn, but maybe he was from east Texas.

  41. “Okay, Julie, but I did work with a guy from Texas who said to me (and not tongue-in-cheek), “That’s a mighty purty purse ya got thar little lady.”

    Oh, I have no doubt someone might say that. However, slipping into stereotypes and assuming everyone from a particular area speaks a certain way tends to be narrow-minded. I don’t think everyone from the east speaks like Edith Bunker.

    Having said that, I have some characters who are very distinctive and their speech patterns are part of them.

  42. Avatar Kate says:

    I'm getting in on this conversation a little late but I had to chime in. I love, love, love novels with strong sense of place. Landscape and setting bring so much to a narrative–for me.

    I love novels set in Texas because it's my home state and I miss it. However, I like to see a picture of contemporary life in Texas. And tension between modern sensibilities and traditional values is a source of constant conflict, even within one individual. Not to mention between families and people.

    LA and NYC have become neutral settings for me. I know that's terrible because there is so much history and culture in both spots. These days, unless a book or movie draws out some fresh element, NYC and LA feel like blank backdrops.

    White Oleander made me appreciate LA in a new way, for example.