A stiletto and a cupcake on a pink jacket used to guarantee your novel would fly off the shelf.

But now publishers are asking if the chick lit genre is exhausted after a spectacular slump in sales.

Sales of the most recent novels by commercial women’s authors including Marian Keyes, Jodi Picoult, Veronica Henry, Catherine Alliott, Louise Mensch MP (née Bagshawe), Dorothy Koomson, Harriet Evans, Jill Mansell and Lesley Pearse are all down by more than 20 percent on their previous mass market publications over comparative sales periods, The Bookseller has found.

Victims include Keyes, whose latest novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky, has sold 260 000 copies since February, down 42 percent on her previous book.

Picoult’s Harvesting the Heart is down almost 50 percent on her previous novel, with 120 235 copies, and Henry’s The Birthday Party recorded a 71 percent slump to 16 479 copies.

The Bookseller found women’s commercial fiction was underperforming compared to the rest of the book market, with the top 20 commercial women’s fiction authors down 10 percent in like-for-like sales for their most recent mass market title against the previous novel. Overall, the fiction market has fallen by 8 percent.

The decline has been blamed on a squeeze on supermarket spending, with retailers drastically reducing the number of titles they order and a shift to digital books sales.

But literary experts believe readers are rejecting the identically jacketed “sex, shoes and shopping” tales pushed by publishers in favour of more complex, psychologically ambitious novels by women writers.

Kathy Lette, the author who claims to have invented the genre by penning “first person, funny, feminist fiction” 22 years ago, welcomed the apparent demise of chick lit.

She said: “Men who write first- person, social satire, such as Nick Hornby and David Nicholls and co, are compared to Chekhov, while women authors get pink covers and condescension.”

Lette argued that the market had been flooded with “a lot of second-rate writing”.

She said: “Many chick lit books are just Mills & Boon with Wonderbras, with the heroines waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining Armani.

“So, perhaps, in this economic downturn, a creative cull may ensure only literary lionesses prevail.”

Eithne Farry, the literary editor of Marie Claire, blamed patronising marketing campaigns.

She said: “Chick lit has become a derogatory term. I’m surprised when I see a lot of books are sold in covers with shoes and cupcakes because often the subject matter of the book inside isn’t frothy and frivolous.”

Farry believes Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, a dream-like story about competing 19th-century magicians, and Daughter Of Smoke and Bone, the first in a hotly tipped fantasy trilogy by Laini Taylor, will fill up space on women’s shelves.

Sheila Crowley, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, said: “The move to eBooks and the impact of austerity is having a massive impact on consumer behaviour.”

Tastes are evolving. Crowley said: “The culture of the Richard and Judy Book Club has encouraged the reader to be more aspirational and to ‘read up’. That’s benefited writers like Jojo Moyes and Santa Montefiore.”

The backlash against chick lit resulted in author Polly Courtney publicly dropping her publisher, HarperCollins, in protest at the “condescending and fluffy” sleeves they had chosen for her books.

“The implication with chick lit is that it’s about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams,” Courtney said.

Although acknowledging that her new novel, It’s A Man’s World, set in a lads’ mag, was “page-turning commercial fiction”, she said it should not be reduced to chick lit because it dealt with social issues.

Maeve Binchy challenged her inclusion in The Bookseller list of mass market female authors whose sales have fallen. A spokeswoman for Binchy said: “Maeve is by no means chick lit and we don’t think her sales are falling. Electronic books have, however, added another dimension.” – The Independent