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 in Britain.

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

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

Jodi Picoult's Harvesting the Heart is down almost 50 per cent on her previous novel, with 120,235 copies sold, and Veronica Henry's The Birthday Party recorded a 71 per cent slump to 16,479 copies.

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The Bookseller found that women's commercial fiction was underperforming compared to the rest of the book market.

Overall, the fiction market has fallen by 8 per cent.

But the top-20 commercial women's fiction authors were down 10 per cent in sales for their most recent mass-market title against the previous novel.

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

But literary experts believe that 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 told the Independent: "Men who write first-person social satire, like Nick Hornby and David Nicholls and co, are compared to Chekov, while women authors get pink covers and condescension."

Lette, who would like to rename the genre "clit lit", says "the market has been flooded with a lot of second-rate writing".

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

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

"Chick lit has become a derogatory term," she said.

"I'm surprised when I see that 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 find places 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."

As well, tastes were evolving.

She said celebrity book clubs had encouraged readers 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 the author Polly Courtney publicly dropping her publisher, HarperCollins, in protest at the "condescending and fluffy" sleeves it chose for her books.

"The implication with chick lit is that it's about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams," she 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."

- INDEPENDENT