That said, it seems like the general market is a pretty good barometer for the state of chick lit/women's fiction, which is to say: flat or a little down, but since the market as a whole is flat or a little down (down chiefly in hardcover), it's not really that bad. This genre still comprises a sizable component of all adult fiction sold in the United States, so if you're writing it, you're probably in decent shape.
Reasons and theories, you ask? Why, certainly:
Most book readers are women. In one sense or another, most books published in this country are marketed toward and sold to women (especially fiction). For this reason, whatever the overall fiction market is doing is a decent proxy for how women's fiction is doing.
Most general fiction débuts in hardcover. While this is changing somewhat (trade paper originals are becoming more commonplace), the fact that most fiction (and most women's fiction) starts out in the hardcover $20-ish price range means that, in this economic climate, initial orders are smaller, gross sales are smaller, and the amount of cash flowing back to the publisher is—you guessed it—smaller.
That said, the market is large—and growing. If you're writing fiction for women, you're already writing for the largest reading demographic in the country. General women's fiction has broad appeal, relatively high breakout potential, and offers a very wide range of subject matter in which to find one's niche. While there's no guarantee of bestsellerdom (there never is), you're more likely to achieve it writing women's fiction than, say, science fiction or literary fiction.
Finally, as the e-book market continues to grow and e-reader prices continue to come down, look out for sustained major growth in electronic sales for mainstream genres like this.
Therefore, mes auteurs, in mainstream, commercial Bullet-O-Vision™:
• Women's fiction/chick lit sales are flat or down, but only because the overall market is flat or down.
• The market is a large one, so while it will be harder to get your individual voice heard or to really break out in a major way, it won't be as hard as with other genres to establish yourself as a midlist presence.
• As e-books go more and more mainstream, expect electronic sales of women's fiction to go right along with the overall market. Again, my guess is that e-books will comprise 50% of the market by late 2013 or 2014.
Tomorrow—last, but certainly not least—romance!