In our midst are people who, in plain sight, frequently commit serial acts involving robbery, murder and worse. However, if editors didn't keep publishing mystery series and if booksellers didn't continue to press their thrills into customers' hands, a muscular arm of this genre would be lopped off.
A wide variety of these folks recently described to us the business of mystery series and the reasons they remain so hale and hearty. One needn't delve too deeply to observe that this is the case. This month Allison & Busby publishes Monsieur Pamplemousse on Vacation by Michael Bond, the 13th in this venerable series. Next January, Carroll & Graf releases Spook by Bill Pronzini, the 28th Nameless Detective tale. Even this number pales when lined up against Fat Ollie's Book by Ed McBain (Simon & Schuster, Dec.), the 50th entry in the 87th Precinct series.
While some series stumble off into the shadows, others reappear and thrive. After an absence of six years, Easy Rawlins is back in a new novel, Bad Boy Brawly Brown by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown, July). In September, Penguin reissues individual editions of Casino Royale, Dr. No and Goldfinger by Ian Fleming a half-century after Bond, James Bond, began his martini-soaked career. Meanwhile, Putnam continues the Agent 007 saga in The Man with the Red Tattoo (June) by Raymond Benson, Benson's sixth brand-new Bond caper.
"Series have been popular for a long time and they continue to be popular," remarks Susanne Kirk, senior editor at Scribner. "I think it's still easier to sell series, whether the books be big or small. It's great when you have a series character that becomes almost as well known as his/her author."
Who knows? Maybe that's in store for the heroine of Sharpshooter: A Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley Mystery by Nadia Gordon or the hero of Knockout Mouse: A Bill Damen Silicon Valley Mystery by James Calder, two July series initiating the Chronicle Crime imprint from Chronicle Books. "I wanted to find a way to tap into the in-house enthusiasm [for mysteries]," says Jay Schaefer, Chronicle's editorial director, literature. "I decided to set the mysteries in locations where there were no other series" and to feature protagonists "who were ordinary people who initially get sucked into solving a mystery, the way many of Alfred Hitchcock's characters had the mystery and adventure thrust on them."
We invited 10 editors of mysteries to discuss the immense popularity of series and the challenges in launching new ones. Also, might there be a series saturation point lurking in the future?
Publisher, Atria Books
We have three true mystery series, each with an ongoing character and each in a specific setting. When readers grow attached to those two things, a series will build. Nancy Pickard's Truth Hurts [July] is the third book in a series about Mary Lightfoot, a true-crime writer in south Florida. The lead character in James Swain's second series book, Funny Money [June], is Tony Valentine, an expert in gambling; the books are set in the casino worlds of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. William Kent Krueger's last book, Purgatory Ridge, is just being reprinted in paper by Pocket Books. His character, Curt O'Connor, is half Native American and half Irish, and his books are set in the Minnesota wilderness. All these series let readers learn something new--that's the kind of thing that keeps series popular. In addition, all three of the characters are people you would like to have looking out for you.
Of course, the challenge in establishing any new series is getting people to read it, and that's everywhere along the line--from salespeople to booksellers to reviewers. I think it does help to launch a series in hardcover. There's that whole collectible thing, and there's the chance for more review attention. When we published James Swain's first book [Grift Sense] in paperback, we were able to put a good New York Times quote on the cover; if we'd published it as a paperback original, we couldn't have.
There is certainly a lot of competition in the series field, which is why we're doing just three. Once upon a time, we might have done eight. But you cut back in number and focus on quality. That's why I don't think saturation will ever be the case. One new series will always break out, and it may be yours.
Executive editor, Ballantine Books
When it comes to recurring characters, familiarity breeds content. Stories about a beloved ongoing protagonist mean that, in terms of emotional investment, it becomes easier for a reader to go down familiar streets. Some people posit that mysteries are a solid and orderly form in what is for us a very disorderly time. You know what to expect in a series, and a known character will probably produce no wild surprises.
The challenge of launching a series is twofold. In hardcover, will readers plunk down $20 or more for an untried novelist? The paperback original front has historically been a testing ground, almost an audition, for new authors. But in the world of publishing now, can paperback originals ever be seen? With more and more limited distribution for midlist writers, that's increasingly difficult.
Rochelle Krich is already established as a writer, and we're going to introduce Blues in the Night, her initial book in a new hardcover series, in October. She has an L.A. heroine who is a true-crime book writer, a crime columnist for an L.A. tabloid and an Orthodox Jew. That component seemed to give us a nice marketing lure, which we've already begun to use. For example, we're in contact with Jewish book fairs and Jewish community centers.
I don't foresee any series saturation. I think that the situation is no worse than it's ever been. Over 15 years ago, when I was starting in this business, writers might do two books or five books in a series and then vanish from sight. Or readers can get tired of a series very early on, and it will die because of limited performance at the box office. But there are always new kids on the block. Some will be around for a short time and some for a long time.
Executive editor, Bantam Dell Publishing Group
For an editor, there is always a wonderful sense, when receiving the newest manuscript in a series, of coming home to old friends. As a reader, I think the feeling is exactly the same. If a mystery is all about disrupting order and then reinstating it, a series mystery is about how the characters who shape the plot not only bring order to their world, but also about how they change and grow because of what has just happened.
In packaging and marketing a new mystery series, you need to be both editorially judicious and marketing judicious. It's critical to target what makes each series different and to underscore that in every possible way. (Mystery readers may be loyal, but they're also insatiably curious--they find it impossible to resist the invitation to enter a new world and learn more about it.) This year we're launching two series we are enormously excited about. With The Edge of Justice [Delacorte, June] by Clinton McKinzie, we have an edgy series that presents two fascinating milieus: that of the courtroom drama and of extreme sports. Cristina Sumners's Crooked Heart [Bantam Hardcover, Nov.] begins a series written by an Episcopalian priest which features an Episcopalian priest who, along with a local police chief, investigates mysteries both temporal and spiritual--a kind of Jan Karon mystery series, if you will.
One of the tools we use with great effectiveness in launching a new series is to make use of the mystery community itself. We seek advance quotes from established writers to signal from the onset what kind of reader will embrace this new reading experience. What is wonderful about mystery writers is how generous and insightful they are in their praise. There is always, always room for another great mystery--as mystery writers will be the first to tell you!
Senior executive editor, Berkley Publishing Group
Mysteries today are, by and large, character driven. As such, series give the author the greatest opportunity to develop a cast of characters over time. Our most successful Berkley Prime Crime series all revolve around wonderful characters--Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles mysteries, Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper mysteries and Margaret Coel's Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden mysteries. The fans of these books--and many of our other series--are waiting to see what happens next in these characters' lives as much as what the next crime/mystery will be. And, it is not just interest about the main characters but the secondary characters as well. The best case in point for this are Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... mysteries. Over the course of 24 novels, she has developed an entire town's worth of characters--including, of course, two wonderful cats.
Launching anything new today is a challenge and a new mystery series is no exception. Recently, however, we have had a number of very successful series launches in Prime Crime. All of them have been in the "cozy" vein, featuring tea shops, cooking, bird-watching and the like. One in particular that has been quite successful is a series of needlecraft mysteries by Monica Ferris. The first was Crewel World and the newest is Murderous Yarn, which we published in March. These books seem to have struck a chord with readers and are backlisting phenomenally well. In addition to the catchy titles (there is nothing I love more than a play on words), they feature charming covers and needlecraft tips. To promote this crossover appeal, we have run ads in magazines such as Crazy for Cross Stitch and Quick and Easy Quilting.
Rather than a saturation point what you get is a weeding-out process. There will always be series that are successful and can keep going forever and others that really don't ever catch on. The challenge is to have more of the former than the latter.
Otto Penzler Books, Carroll & Graf
I believe that we all have a sense of extended family in our lives--this includes our friends, the colleagues we work with, all of the people we look forward to seeing on a regular basis. That sense of family applies to mystery characters as well. When writers create characters that we really enjoy being with, we're happy to go back and visit them again and again in a series. This is especially true when there is a coterie of others surrounding that character. They become family too. It's like visiting Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street or Nero Wolfe in his New York apartment. The challenge in creating a series, then, is this: you have to grab the reader quickly. You've got one book, maybe two at the most, and then if a reader doesn't like your character, you're dead in the water.
There are only so many books that anybody can read. The better books will, in an ideal world, drive out the lesser ones--at least that's what we expect. I think I read that there were 1,400 new mysteries published in 2000. That's saturation, but there are still established series characters that continue to be popular. I think my next Toby Peters mystery [To Catch a Spy, July] by Stuart Kaminsky is the 20th book in the series. [At other publishers] there are Robert Parker's Spenser, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Patsy Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books are, if anything, increasing in popularity.
Senior editor, Dutton
There are so many authors writing so many different books today that it can be hard for readers to find the book they want. When they meet a character they like, it's like a shining light. But there is no standard format. A popular series character may be someone the reader can identify with or it may be someone who's quite difficult, even nasty. Max Freeman, the protagonist in Jonathon King's The Blue Edge of Midnight, the first book in a series that we published in April, does not come across all warm and fuzzy. He's an ex-cop from Philadelphia who unfortunately shot a 12-year-old in self-defense during a robbery. When he stumbles on the corpse of another child, he becomes a suspect in the case, and so he has to investigate the crime out of necessity--he's distrusted on both sides of the law.
To get the series started, we've sent out a lot of galleys. We got quotes from Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben and Randy Wayne White. When you publish a book like this in hardcover, you have to be very clear about the reading experience with the cover, with the copy on the flaps, everything. We've gotten a tremendous response. Otto Penzler chose it as a Penzler Pick on Amazon, and it got a starred review in PW. Jonathon and Michael Connelly are doing several joint appearances around the country. To send out a first author like this is incredibly rare these days, but it speaks to our support. We expect to publish the next book around the same time next year because when you're trying to establish a series writer, it's important to stay on schedule.
Executive editor, HarperCollins
Although readers fall in love with the characters in mystery series, the characters don't have to be entirely admirable. A lot of people in Tim Dorsey's Florida series [Orange Crush, Morrow] are, shall we say, on the other side of the law. With a writer like Tony Hillerman, the setting is always strong, and that brings people back.
A new series has to work on all levels: a really wonderful protagonist, a good setting and a plot that delivers thrills and chills, or the things that cozy readers love. The challenge is to find something new under the sun, and that's not so easy. David Cole has a series of paperback originals from Avon with a character named Laura Winslow, who can do anything and everything with a computer. [Coming in October is Scorpion Rain.] You also have to publish book to book to reach critical mass in an author's series. It's important to play to an author's strength. We have Mary Kay Andrews, whose latest is Savannah Blues, a southern novel with murder in it. The author has been great at driving around, talking to booksellers. She lives in Atlanta, but she's driven to Savannah, down to Florida, as far out as Ohio. That's a stand-alone, but the author has been getting a lot of reader mail asking her to bring her character back.
Publisher, Little, Brown
[It's] the same thing that draws viewers to The Sopranos or The West Wing week after week: readers care intensely about the characters and how their worlds change over time. I just read Lawrence Block's Hope to Die (on my Palm Pilot!) and loved seeing Matthew Scudder in semicomfortable middle age after going through the hell of alcoholic blackout and recovery with him in novels such as When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.
With eight books under his belt, George Pelecanos embarked on a new series with Right as Rain. The decision to create a series has transformed George's career. With the second in the series, Hell to Pay [March], sales are finally commensurate with the stellar reviews George typically receives. Already in its third printing, Pelecanos's latest has become a national bestseller.
We never start off launching a series. The first novel in a series is simply that--a great novel with an intriguing character. The second novel is where it gets complicated. You have to try to draw back readers who enjoyed the first encounter without alienating readers who missed the first outing and don't want to start midseries. Usually we count on jacket packaging to have similarities that attract the eye of past buyers, while in flap copy, advertising and other promotion we emphasize the novel's or author's particular strengths.
We are thrilled to be publishing Ian Rankin, the U.K.'s top-selling crime writer, [who's] best known for his long-established series character, Inspector Rebus. Our plan is to tour him extensively at publication to increase recognition with American booksellers and readers. Resurrection Men [Feb. 2003] is one of our BEA features, with ARC giveaway and other promotions. It is deep into the Rebus series--this is the 13th--so our goal is to make use of the vast body of praise the novels have accumulated to make readers feel that this is something they can't miss out on any longer.
Sara Ann Freed
Editor-in-chief, Mysterious Press
People love mysteries series because they want to be entertained, to solve puzzles, to learn something new--and to escape with interesting and witty old friends. Who wouldn't want to go on vacation with books by Marcia Muller, Margaret Maron, Reginald Hill, Nevada Barr, Donald E. Westlake, Robert B. Parker, just to name a few of my favorites. I know their characters better than my relatives--and they're much better traveling companions, too.
But as an editor, I find it challenging to launch a successful new series. A few years back, many series were launched as mass market originals. Readers bought new books by the armsful and discovered new favorites. Now most series are launched in hardcover and price point can be an issue, both for the publisher and the consumer. It makes us all the more selective.
We're publishing Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt this May. His series character is Andy Carpenter, an unconventional wisecracking defense lawyer in New Jersey. We all loved David's original voice and brilliantly conceived character and that became the starting point for our launch. We got the sales department and the house to support our enthusiasm. Our sub rights department sold rights abroad. We sent galleys out for quotes and to big-mouth lists and booksellers. The response was so enthusiastic that we added a tour. The author will continue to promote the series at mystery fan conventions, such as Bouchercon. (Woe unto the author who neglects mystery fans and collectors and doesn't show up at these yearly gatherings.)
The best mystery series succeed when there is a main character we really want to know more about, and if that character has an assortment of friends/families/opponents who reappear, so much the better. We like finding out what makes that character tick, what makes him or her (I'll just say him from now on) pleased, what gets his goat, what kinds of strategies he'll try in different situations, how far he'll go when pressed. We like to see him grow and change--or sometimes just stay the same. Travis McGee--we knew exactly what he would do every time, and we loved him for it. Lucas Davenport, on the other hand, in John Sandford's Prey series--he's evolved over the years, and we love him for that, too.
You have three main targets for a launch: the readers, the reviewers and the booksellers, especially the mystery booksellers. The mystery reviewers are all mystery fans, and they like a new discovery as much as the rest of us. The same is true for the mystery bookseller. And if you can get both the reviewers and the booksellers on your side, the readers will follow. For C.J. Box's debut novel about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, Open Season, last year, we made sure the reviewers knew we thought we had something special. That was helped by its editor obtaining a lot of very enthusiastic advance quotes and by PW's starred review. For the mystery booksellers, we made sure they had early bound galleys (with the quotes in it, of course), so that they could start the word-of-mouth. And then when the book came out, the author got in his car and drove around to stores in several states, signing books, talking with the booksellers and customers, generally making his presence known. It all came together. We ended up doing several additional printings, and Box's second Joe Pickett novel, Savage Run, comes out this summer.
Does it always work? Not hardly. Sometimes a series can break your heart. You do all the right things--and nothing happens. So you just push on, looking for the next one. Mystery fans read a lot, and they're always looking for someone to fall in love with. And, sooner or later, that someone comes along. Would that real life was as certain!