How I stopped reading Agency books without even noticing

by Sunita

This week, Sarah at Monkey Bear Reviews had a great post titled “A Year of Digital Reading.” Sarah got an e-book reader a year ago, and despite all the rights restrictions she faced living in Switzerland, she loves her BeBook reader and reads more e than print genre fiction now. Most of the readers who commented on her post had the same experience.

Reading Sarah’s post made me realize my reading has changed as radically as hers over the last couple of years, but in a different way. Whereas the bulk of my reading used to be single-title romance, mystery, SFF, and mainstream fiction, I now read almost no romance or mystery from the Agency 6 7 publishers. In the past six months, I think I’ve read four books from them; two were ARCs for review at Dear Author (so I didn’t pay to read them) and two I purchased. Of the latter two, one came highly recommended by reader-friends I trust, and the other was by a favorite author.

This shift in my buying habits wasn’t made consciously. I’m terrible at sticking to boycotts even when I’m committed to the cause, and in this case I am ambivalent about how to respond to Agency pricing because while I’m angry at the publishers, I don’t want to punish authors for decisions over which they have no individual control. But it turns out that not only am I not buying agency books, I’m not even reading them. I don’t try to get them from the library (where the waitlist is usually long), and I don’t request ARCs unless I plan to review them, and agency ARCs are at the bottom of my list.

When the debate over Agency pricing began, I listened but didn’t really feel invested. I am fortunate enough to be able to buy the books I want to read without having to ration myself that much. So when people talked about not being able to afford the higher prices, or stating they would refrain from buying them on principle, I felt sympathetic to their concerns but I didn’t think I would be affected. Nevertheless, I gradually stopped buying books from those publishers.

One reason is that there are fewer books published there that I want to read. In historicals, Westerns are almost extinct in the single-title format. And so many of the European historicals are history-lite or flat-out wallpaper that unless I get a slew of over-the-top recommendations, I’m not going to buy those anyway.

But the other reason I don’t buy them is definitely price-related. Yes, I can afford them, but when I read a interesting synopsis or a sample chapter and then see the “buy” button, I usually don’t click on it. Why? I think because I subconsciously ask myself whether the book is going to be more to my immediate liking than something I have in the (mountainous) TBR or that I would buy from a publisher (e or print) who discounts. And most of the time the answer is No. So the book really has to grab me to get me to click through and purchase it.

In her short-lived blog, Stephanie Laurens made some observations on the ties readers develop to authors, but one phrase stuck with me: “Authors are not interchangeable.”

I’ve seen that sentiment expressed a number of times in the blogosphere and elsewhere, and I agree that one author’s work cannot be replaced by another without the reader noticing a change. Even in the case of authors we cherish as autobuys, each appeals to us individually. But a lack of interchangeability does not necessarily imply a lack of substitutability. When goods are substitutable, it means that they provide you with equal value. My old microeconomics textbook used “hamburgers” and “books” to illustrate the concept. Obviously hamburgers and books aren’t the same thing, but if you get equal utility out of some specified amount of each, then they are substitutable.

I read genre fiction for pleasure. At the end of a book, I want to feel happy about the time spent and the reading experience. Not all types of satisfaction are the same, and authors can be unique in the specific type of happiness reading one of their books provides me. In category romance, I will probably always miss Mary Burchell, and no matter how many great authors I discover, they won’t replace the singular feeling of pleasure she gave me. I I fell the same about Elsie Lee’s novels. But many books and authors are substitutable. And it’s a good thing, because authors come and go, for a variety of reasons beyond a reader’s control.

My Agency-author reading has been replaced by additional lines within category romance (hello Kimani, Harlequin Intrigue, and Presents), as well as by gay romance fiction, specifically m/m. I read across the different subgenres in m/m, going wherever I find terrific writers. I’m especially thrilled to have discovered m/m mysteries, both modern and historical, because I’ve been reading mystery novels since I was a teenager, but they’ve also gone Agency in their pricing. In the past year or more, m/m mysteries have slid into the place straight mysteries used to occupy, almost without my noticing.

I began reading books in unfamiliar lines and genres because I was getting burnt out in my usual ones, finding fewer and fewer that worked for me. So I started reading them just to find something new, but the more I read, the more I enjoyed them. As a result, I became increasingly willing to take chances in these new lines, especially given the risk came at a systematically lower price. Once I read a few dozen books in m/m and discovered specific authors and styles I liked, I was willing to pay higher prices for them, even higher-than-Agency prices on occasion.

I’m still getting all the happiness I used to from my genre reading, and now I have the added pleasure that comes with finding new voices and new contexts.

My story is only one data point. But I doubt I’m the only person with this kind of experience. I didn’t consciously decide to stop reading Agency books, but at this point they’ve lost a reliable customer in me.

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