"I'm not giving away my secrets," warns one publisher, off the record. Elsewhere, an associate editor says, "Do you really think I'm going to tell you the successful things we do?" Well yes, we did think so, although such defensive responses provide clear evidence of a tough market for today's mysteries. The fundamental questions we recently put forward to publishers were: How do you launch new mystery writers in a crowded field? And considering how heavily populated the genre is, how do you maintain a prominent position for your mysteries in general?
Susanne Kirk, Scribner senior editor, addresses the first query: "My first instinct is to say 'with difficulty.' There are so many new writers competing for attention. When I'm acquiring a new author, I try to look for a hook. Is there something about this author that makes him or her promotable? Is she a D.A.? Does he have a relationship with his local NPR outlet? Does he have an amazing story to tell? Case in point is Haunted Ground by Erin Hart [May]. This is an atmospheric Irish thriller by a talented new American author. When her agent told me that Erin sings Irish folk music and that her husband is a well-known Irish accordion player, I had instant visions of wonderful author events."
Ballantine executive editor Joe Blades adds, "We're hoping for a clever hook, a digestible sound bite that can promote a mystery. We've also found that new writers can have an advantage over established writers who may rely too heavily on formula."
Judicious selectivity has become more and more the publishing tactic du jour. "You choose your shots," remarks Dan Harvey, publishing director for the Putnam Group. "You have to know what author you can get behind and build. But first of all, a book has to be really good, has to have something different. The author has to be promotable. It goes back to someone like Nevada Barr. We published many of her books, starting slowly, as she was weaving mysteries around national parks, a territory that hadn't been tapped before."
"We're incredibly selective," notes Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch. "We take on a mystery writer only if it's a book that works outside the genre, if it will sell more than the standard four figures. We take very few chances."
Aiming for Attention
When a publisher finally elects to take the plunge, the first step is to remove as much risk as possible. "Each book we publish gets individual attention and its own marketing campaign," states Lisa Gallagher, associate publisher at Morrow. "First you have to get everyone internally to read the book," says Atria Books publisher Judith Curr. "Then you try to get the booksellers excited about it, too."
John Cunningham, associate publisher of the Minotaur mystery imprint at St. Martin's, concurs. "If you make a book work in-house, it helps when you start going outside. So you walk around from office to office. You put the manuscript in people's hands and tell them they have to read it." This is a particular challenge at SMP because of its enormous commitment to the genre. "We publish around 145 Minotaur hardcovers a year," says Cunningham. "From 25 to 30 of those are first novels. We also publish about 50 mass market and trade paperback titles. They all give our list a great flexibility. Some mysteries appeal to booksellers regionally, and there's the taste factor. Some booksellers prefer cozies and others look for more serious, noirish titles, which are more in vogue today. The noirish books are easier to get reviewed, but they can be tough sells because the majority of mystery readers are women and these don't always appeal to women."
Bound galleys and ARCs are charged with doing a lot of initial selling outside the house. "A galley-driven campaign can make an author's name well-known long before publication," says Bantam Dell's Betsy Hulsebosch, director of creative marketing. In addition to supplying specialty stores and chains with galleys, publishers frequently send them to either part of or the entire BookSense community, which accounts for well over 1,000 copies.
Some booksellers say they receive so many galleys that not all get read. "So we try some clever packaging to draw booksellers in," says Libby McGuire, Random House associate publisher. "We may send along a q&a with the author to bring out the back story. For The Dante Club, we pointed out that Matthew Pearl is a Dante scholar and talked about the line where fact and fiction parted." At Little, Brown, says Pietsch, "When we prepared ARCs for George Pelecanos's Soul Circus, we did a double one with the Warner reprint of Hell to Pay back-to-back to make sure people knew that these two were in the same series."
It is a long-established practice to hook readers on a series and thereby encourage them to remain faithful to a particular sleuth or cop. "We use series to capitalize on market recognition of the authors," says Warren Phillips, Bridge Works co-publisher. "The goal is to watch a character develop," says Morrow editor Sarah Durand, "to see him or her resolve issues raised in a previous book. Then, after a series is established, it's important for the author to write a stand-alone that can break out in a bigger way and, at the same time, bring more readers to the series."
And of course every series has to start somewhere. Duke University Press reaches back to the 19th century to rediscover books by some of the very first women mystery writers. The first two trade paperbacks in this undertaking, due this fall, each contain two novels—That Affair Next Door and Lost Man's Lane are by Anna Katherine Green and The Dead Letter and The Figure Eight are by Metta Fuller Victor. "These are founding mothers of detective fiction," says publicist Laura Sell. "Even a cursory glance at their books shows the debt that more well-known writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers owe to them." That is the line Duke will stress to capture mystery readers.
In a more contemporary vein, NAL editor Genny Ostertag says, "From the publisher's standpoint, one way to gain attention is to look at crossover markets to expand on the traditional audience. NAL is launching two new series that will appeal not only to mystery fans, but also to readers of chick lit and women's fiction." In May, Shop Till You Drop by Elaine Viets launches a comic mystery series about a woman stuck in a succession of dead-end jobs. August brings on the Crimes of Fashion series with Killer Hair by Ellen Byerrum, which features a fashion columnist who, among other things, advises how to dress for a funeral.
With his wife Jennie Jacobson, Jim Huang opened The Mystery Company bookstore in Carmel, Ind., last month, having operated Deadly Passions in Kalamazoo, Mich., from 1992 to 1999. Huang has also begun publishing mysteries with his Crum Creek Press, the first entry returning to print Chosen for Death by Kate Flora (part of the Thea Kozak series, first published in 1994). "We're looking for ongoing series whose first books are unavailable," says Huang. "Readers always want to go back and read the first ones, and if they can't get book number one, they are less inclined to jump in at number six. Also, if the first books are still in print, they'll help later books sell. I've often thought that New York publishers who aren't good at keeping books in print should contract out the backlist. I know there are sales numbers below which publishers don't want to go, so why not find someone who will help keep the books in print?" Huang says Baker & Taylor handles his releases, and he also sells them himself directly to fellow mystery booksellers.
One of the most ambitious series approaches is at Berkley Prime Crime. "In this calendar year, we're doing 10 brand-new series," says senior executive editor Natalee Rosenstein, "primarily mass market originals, and in 2004, we're planning even more. We know that mysteries are a word-of-mouth genre, so in order to generate an audience, you need three or four or more books out there. When we sign an author, we sign a three-book contract and often follow that up with a couple more." After the writer builds a fan base, Rosenstein can move the series into hardcover, as she has done with those by Monica Ferris, Margaret Frazer and Lynn Hamilton. "The primary benefit for a hardcover is the chance for a review, which sells books," she explains. "We used to get the occasional review of mass market books, but with newspapers cutting back on space, that doesn't happen. With hardcovers, it's also easier to get into the library market. A book can get multiple readings there, and my philosophy is: the more exposure the better. It doesn't matter to me if friends pass a book around or if it's circulated in a library. The author becomes better known, and potential sales grow for the next book."
Targeting Assorted Markets
"Librarians love a good read," says Karen Torres, director of marketing at the AOL Time Warner Book Group, "and we try to figure out what it takes to get librarians behind a mystery. We sponsor a special lunch in conjunction with Library Journal at the ALA convention where we bring a headliner author and introduce one or two new mystery writers. It's a very targeted audience and we make sure the libraries get advance copies. We did this with David Rosenfelt last year, the author of Open and Shut, and we had good success with that. Now he's nominated for an Edgar for best first novel. His second, First Degree, is coming out in May, and I'm busy reminding people that he came out swinging with Open and Shut."
Public appearances, of course, have been a traditional ploy for increasing sales. "Some of our accounts have mystery festivals," says Random's McGuire. "We send authors out even if they don't have a new book. We want them to continue building a strong base." Regional trade shows and conventions of mystery lovers like Bouchercon offer additional schmoozing sites, and publishers encourage writers to stop by. When an author is not hitting the road, it is not unusual for publishers to offer booksellers autographed books, even making them available in a prepack for those readers who collect signed copies and signed first editions in particular.
Author appearances take wing when Bantam Dell embarks with Continental Airlines to showcase Dean Koontz (The Face, Bantam, June), Lee Child (Persuader, Delacorte, May) and Christopher Reich (The Devil's Banker, Delacorte, Sept.) in five-minute feature interviews on in-flight programming. Some 1.4 million flyers are expected to watch each of the pieces that run for a month. "We actually have 45 minutes of the interviews in the can," says Bantam Dell's Hulsebosch, "which we'll use in other venues."
There are appearances, though, and then there are what you might call visions. "We've got charismatic authors who can really hold an audience," says Dutton editorial director Brian Tart. "When we were going to publish Bubbles Unbound by Sarah Strohmeyer, she came into the office to meet everybody—dressed as her Bubbles character with a leopard-skin top, tight hot pants and a blond wig that went almost to the floor. She also shows up as Bubbles for her book signings. She's amazing. You've got to respect someone who'll go that extra mile, and you go the extra mile for her." Next up for this beautician/sleuth is Bubbles Ablaze (June).
In fact, publishers depend upon mystery writers to go that extra mile and even farther. When Atria brought John Connolly (The White Road, Mar.) over from Ireland to tour, the house sent him to 16 cities, and he then hired a publicist to set up nine more. Natalee Rosenstein notes that fledgling authors usually can't gather much of a turnout for book-signings individually, so it is advantageous when two or three tour together in a more crowd-pulling package. One example of this "two for the road" approach is Little, Brown's recent West Coast pairing of George Pelecanos and U.K. megastar Ian Rankin.
The South Will Rise Again
Anne Waters, sales and marketing v-p at John F. Blair, reports that three cousins—Nancy Pate, Meg Herndon and Gail Greer—will tour the South on behalf of Fiddle Dee Death (June), by the pseudonymous Caroline Cousins. "Nancy, who has many friends in the industry because she's book critic for the Orlando Sentinel, will be at BEA, and then we'll tour all three in June and July for a solid two weeks," says Waters. "We've already got great blurbs from people like Fannie Flagg and Lee Smith. The fact that mysteries are a crowded field doesn't intimidate us because Fiddle Dee Death is a mystery/comedy of manners set in South Carolina's Low Country, and the South is a strong market for us."
The South also provided inspirational and promotional territory for Sally Wright, author of Out of the Ruins (Multnomah, Jan.). "She traveled throughout the region before she even began writing the book," says Carol Fass of Carol Fass Publicity & Public Relations. "Her next logical step was to plan a series of events in the cities she had visited. Working with Multnomah and us, she coordinated a tour that lasted about 20 days and involved her visiting 14 different cities. At each stop, Wright linked up with an organization, such as a library, local museum or historical society that would help her coordinate a speaking event." Wright sold, says Fass, more than 500 books on the tour.
New York City-based Rugged Land is also heading south to promote one of their May titles—in this case, Texas. "All the Beautiful Sinners," reports publisher Shawn Coyne, "totally rocked the pop crime novel for me." He adds that author Stephen Graham Jones, an assistant English professor at Texas Tech University (and 2002 NEA Fellow), "has a core Texas following, and Texas Monthly has fallen as hard for this book as we have and they've made it a pick of their book club. So Stephen will tour the panhandle and press the flesh. It doesn't hurt that he's 6' 4'' with movie-star looks." Rugged Land will also do local and national publicity to announce their author's arrival to the literary world—"more McSweeney's than the New Yorker," Coyne quips.
"We've been successful with regional guides, so publishing a regional mystery makes sense to us," says Globe Pequot market director Shana Capozza. She's referring to Chasing a Blond Moon: A Woods Cop Mystery by Joseph Heywood, due from Lyons Press in September. Set in Michigan's upper peninsula, this is the third entry in the series about a conservation officer battling crime in the boonies.
Faraway places also entice adventurous readers. "The books we publish in Soho Crime are set overseas or in some sufficiently exotic locale," says associate publisher Laura Hruska. "We have Janwillem van de Wetering's mysteries set in the Netherlands, Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series in England, Patricia Carlon in Australia." Rebecca Pawel's Death of a Nationalist is set in post—Civil War Spain. "We focus on international authors," says Stuart Schnee, director of sales and marketing at Toby Press, "writers from Belgium, Israel, Germany, Holland. One of the most interesting mysteries for what's happening in the world today is Morituri by Yasmina Khadra, which is set in Algeria [coming this fall]. Khadra is a pseudonym for Mohammed Moulessehoul, an exile who writes about fundamentalist killers terrorizing his country."
If geographical niches create reader appeal, so do niches catering to special interests. Insomniac Press, located in Toronto and distributed in the U.S. by NBN, last month published Lost Sanity by Brad Kelln. "We concentrate on areas within the genre itself," says publisher Mike O'Connor. When Kelln, a forensic psychologist, attended a recent conference for mental health professionals in Miami, it was a ready-made arena in which to promote his book. Other opportunities abound. Ballantine/One World has Paula L. Woods, whose Dirty Laundry (July) features African-American LAPD detective Charlotte Justice. Ballantine reaches Jewish interests with Dream House by Rochelle Krich (Oct.). Bridge Works attracts golf hackers with Deadly Divots by Gene Breaznell (Sept.).
The Hard/Soft Question
"We publish very few mysteries in hardcover because it's so difficult to break out new writers," says Crown publisher Steve Ross. "We focus on targeted readerships and try to connect with specific demographics. Younger readers are more receptive to trade paperbacks, and for years we debated: Can we do originals in paper? Now, in addition to publishing Ruth Rendell in Crown hardcover [The Babes in the Wood: A Chief Inspector Wexford Mystery, Oct.], we're publishing two trade paper mysteries this spring: Hex by Maggie Estep [Three Rivers, Mar.] and Naked Brunch by Sparkle Hayter [Three Rivers, May]."
Prior to publishing Jodi Picoult's Second Glance as a hardcover this month, Atria reprinted her Perfect Match as a trade paperback in February. "Jodi deals with moral dilemmas a reader can identify with," says Curr. "That makes her a good person for book clubs, which is why we do her in trade paper. We're also repackaging her backlist with a more upscale look, focusing on her name."
Covers loom large in making a book stand out in the market. "When we go to mystery booksellers and ask them what they think of our list," says Soho's Hruska, "they are uniformly positive about our packaging. Each of our authors gets a different band of color on the cover."
"Michael McGarrity's mysteries are set in the Southwest," says Dutton's Tart, "Tony Hillerman country, but with Everyone Dies [Aug.], we're giving the cover a new look. The other books had a regional, landscape look, and now we want to break him out of the Southwest. This is a bigger book, more of a crime thriller, so we're going with big strong type and a single image of a gun." At Berkley Prime Crime, even hardcovers come in for an overhaul when they are bumped up in size from 5¼"×8¼" to 6"×9" to give them a more substantial look and feel.
In addition to all of the above, time-honored sales promotions for mysteries include giveaways, such as the White Road T-shirts Atria ran up for John Connolly to hand out on last fall's tour. And Michael Connelly, evidently recalling that "music hath charms...," came up with a fresh idea for Little, Brown. "It was Michael's idea to produce a CD of Harry Bosch's favorite music," says Michael Pietsch. Bosch is, of course, Connelly's protagonist, currently starring in this month's Lost Light. "Michael bought the rights to songs by Bill Evans, Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and others," says Pietsch, "and we did 10,000 copies of the CD, which we sent out to stores to give customers. Barnes & Noble got some to send out to the first people who pre-ordered the book." Connelly, incidentally, makes his presence known in yet another guise when he serves as guest editor for The Best American Mystery Stories 2003 (Houghton Mifflin, Oct.), of which Otto Penzler is the series editor.
Strategies for strengthening backlist sales include the special cozy dump for Berkley Prime Crime titles and the Mystery Most Wanted plan created by Trafalgar Square to offer retailers additional discounts on backlist titles. "Since they're all British mysteries, there's a ready hook for a promotion," says Deborah Sloan, director of marketing and promotion, who also cites Trafalgar's mystery e-newsletters sent to booksellers as a primary vehicle. "Simple information sharing is one of the most effective tools," she adds.
Indeed, we haven't even touched on all the Internet opportunities with authors' Web sites linked to their publishers' sites and vice versa. "We started our Mystery on the Internet newsletter in 1994," says Ballantine's Blades. "We've got over 10,000 subscribers." Durand at Morrow says, "On our Web site we've got an Author Tracker. Mystery fans can be notified when an author's book is coming out or where an author is appearing on tour."
Despite the benefits of tours, T-shirts, et al., "The whole process starts with reading," insists SMP's Cunningham. "It starts with the manuscript, then the hardcover, the paperback, the backlist. You have to get and keep people reading." One of the many veteran scribes who's managed that task with exemplary skill is Mary Higgins Clark, whose first bestselling mystery was published in 1975 and whose latest from Simon & Schuster is The Second Time Around (Apr.). Clark has a reported 70 million copies of her books in print in this country alone.
It's clear that creativity and persistence are crucial in reaching beyond the basic core readership for mysteries. "I started small with Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich," says Kirk at Scribner, "so I never give up hope that an author who begins with a modest advance and a modest printing can end up big. Their examples should give hope to all."