With publisheers going great guns, so to speak, with their mystery programs, we decided to ask retailers how the outpouring of series is affecting their business--and might this proliferation eventually choke the category? Also, is publishers' sales and marketing support for their books keeping pace with the title output?
Most concur with Kathi Kirby, purchasing and publisher relations manager at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., that "proliferation actually works to increase sales." Complaints were heard, however, about the lack of publisher support for both new series and those by veteran authors. As buyer Felice Farrell of Ariel Booksellers in New Paltz, N.Y., stresses, "Publishers need to get potential customers interested, before they arrive at our door or Web site." For some, like Barnes & Noble's mystery buyer Mark Levine, that means publishers have to place a greater emphasis on advertising, especially ads geared to commuters. Others wouldn't mind if publishers skipped the advertising, as long as they send out advance reading copies--"the best tool for whetting a bookseller's appetite," says Peter Mock at McIntyre's Fine Books & Bookends in Pittsboro, N.C.
With so many mysteries published each year, it's hard to keep up. Oline H. Cogdill, mystery columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., recalls that when she started reviewing mysteries eight years ago, "I got maybe eight to 10 books a week. Now, I'm carrying home some 30 to 100. It's staggering how many are being published." And the sheer numbers make bookseller recommendations even more important. Barbara Peters, founder/owner of the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Ariz., observes, "Many of our customers haven't picked out their own books since 1989 [when the store first opened]."
Benjamin Reese, editor, mysteries and thrillers
The proliferation of series hasn't hurt sales. It may, in fact, help, as readers get hooked on returning characters and look forward to their next adventures. However, a poor book in an otherwise good series can hurt the titles that follow if readers lose faith in the author's ability to keep the story line alive and believable.
I don't believe there are too many series at present. Both personally and professionally, I love to find a new series that draws me in, as it's a guarantee there are other titles to be found that are likely as good. Also, it's always a delight to find an unusual lead character, Jeffery Deaver's quadriplegic Lincoln Rhyme, for example, rather than the usual PI or detective.
Turning readers on to new series works best if there's a valid comparison that can be made to another series, whether it's the setting, character or style. If I were attempting to spotlight Owen Parry's excellent Abel Jones series, for example, I could point to Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series as another that's set in 19th-century America and deals largely with issues addressed in the Civil War.
When does a series become a series--after the second book? In general, it's a lot easier to promote a series that contains several volumes than one still in its infancy. The best way for publishers to promote new series is for them to create a link in readers' minds to an established author or series. This way, readers will have at least a relevant point of comparison and know what to expect with the new titles. In the online bookselling world, creating such connections is fairly easy because we can link from one title to another, allowing customers to click back and forth and better assimilate the comparison.
Tattered Cover, Denver
Brian Reese, fiction buyer
It's really not that difficult to turn customers on to new series. They've read this series and that series and want to know what you have that's similar. There's so much visual noise in the mystery section and customers still respect their booksellers--a lot just want you to put something in their hands. George Pelecanos has been a project of mine for a long time. If they say, I like Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane, I'll say, Pelecanos.
There's not a whole lot of publisher support for mysteries. Obviously we here at Tattered Cover are luckier than some independents as far as signings go. We do tend to be a place they look at; we do get promotional materials. I keep lists of series and the order in which they go. Bantam did a nice thing with science fiction and sent a laminated list of all the Star Wars books--it would be nice to have that for a lot of mystery authors. It's a pain for customers to look in the books to figure out which one comes next. Science fiction publishers do a good job of promotion, sending dumps and colorful pictures. Mystery detective series publishers don't seem to try so hard. They rely on name recognition. It's all right for an Elizabeth George or a Diane Mott Davidson, but not for John Dunning [Booked to Die, The Bookman's Wake, Pocket], a local writer whose series takes place in a bookstore. (www.tatteredcover.com)
Murder by the Book, Houston
David Thompson, publicity manager
As a genre store, we adore series. There's nothing more rewarding than to hand-sell an author about whom we feel very strongly, and having that customer coming back for more. It always helps when it's the first of a long-running series.
Depending on how open a customer is to trying new things, it's usually not that difficult at all [to turn them on to a new series]. When customers walk through the door demanding, for example, a new Patricia Cornwell novel, but she doesn't have one coming for months, we can safely say, "If you like Cornwell, you'll love Kathy Reichs, Sarah Lovett and Ridley Pearson." No Janet Evanovich for a while? "You must try Sparkle Hayter, Lauren Henderson and Katy Munger." Bookselling is such a passion with us, our enthusiasm works to guide customers to new and wonderful series.
There's usually not [enough marketing support], unless it's an author they paid a trillion dollars for and are billing as the next Tom Clancy, the next John Grisham, the next whoever. There are wise publishers out there who've got it together. When promoting C.J. Box's Open Season-- the first in a series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, and a 2002 Edgar Award nominee--Putnam got a lot of great quotes and our sales rep contacted us by phone and e-mail to push this series debut. (www.murderbooks.com)
Powell's Books, Portland, Ore.
Kathi Kirby, purchasing and publisher relations manager
Proliferation works to increase sales. Mystery readers are voracious and after devouring all titles in a series they will move on to another, usually similar in nature, while waiting for the next addition to the series. Thus a large proportion will bounce around and continually add series. They've read all of Robert Parker and while waiting for the new one, discover Dennis Lehane, read those and now they're waiting for both Parker and Lehane and their local bookseller tells them about Earl Emerson. So, no, there can't be too many series.
Occasionally publishers will bind two books in a debut series together or will print a chapter of the coming book at the back of the first one. This seems to have little effect on creating a readership. I think the publishers would have more luck creating readership by launching a sample debut chapter in a similar established series. Of course, authors would hate that. Touring complementary groups of series authors could work in the same way, I think. (www.powells.com)
Barnes & Noble
Mark Levine, mystery buyer
As a mystery reader, I want to continue to read stories about my favorite characters--we don't want the stories to end. I wouldn't necessarily say that there are too many series. It just seems to be a focus for publishers, in that a successful debut could mean years of successful follow-up titles.
I would think it's even more difficult to break out a new series--to sell the public on numerous books--than to break out a stand-alone novel. Once an author and/or series is established, that's often when a publisher tries to move an author to increased heights, by having them write a stand-alone novel, such as Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.
Since I'm a commuter, traveling on subways and the Staten Island Ferry, I see many people reading books to and from work. I would emphasize more advertising signage, billboards, etc. for commuters on buses, trains, stations, etc., as well as more radio mentions during rush hours. Also, although I'm sure it's expensive, get more coverage during local newscasts--book features on newscasts, or increased advertising during the shows.
Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park, Ill.
Augie Aleksy, owner
In a series, the beginning books are usually great because they're fresh. But sometimes, after the fifth or sixth book, they become formulaic. For the most part, the brighter readers are looking for change. It's a smart move on many authors' part to have two or three characters to keep the series fresh. Judith A. Jance is making a neat move in Partner in Crime [Morrow, Aug.], where she has the two characters--Joanna Brady and J.P. Beaumont--coming together. P.D. James has Cordelia Gray and Adam Dalgleish, and P.C. Doherty has seven different pen names. Anne Perry is another author who has two different series, so people can go back and forth.
The best way to promote a series is to take the time to read the new books--either yourself or your staff or your customers. Sometimes my customer is my best salesperson. I have three or four customers who'll say to another customer, "If you like this author, then you'll like that author." We carry Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series because of a customer recommendation.
One thing publishers can do is get authors to come to the smaller stores, like Centuries & Sleuths. I can do a lot of handselling, but I can sell more if the author comes. It's really unfortunate that a lot of authors and publishers forget who sold these people at the beginning. We had Steve Thayer for his first book, Saint Mudd, and no one came, but we hand-sold a lot of books and enjoyed talking with him. That's why I was so appreciative recently when he told his publisher that he wanted to come to our store for The Wheat Field. (www.centuriesandsleuths.com)
McIntyre's Fine Books & Bookends, Pittsboro, N.C.
Peter Mock, assistant manager
"Mysteries are my television. When everyone I know is home watching the Simpsons, I'm losing myself in the latest Michael Connelly or rooting through a pile of books looking for something new and exciting. For me this means there will never be too many series, because who knows when I'll discover a diamond in the rough or an author whose previous work I passed over but who I now consider the next big thing. Unfortunately, proliferation means that most series get ignored. Some because they're too regional, others for being too derivative and--worst of the worst--because they have no backing except a small spot in some catalogue that gets lost in the shuffle.
So, in that respect, yes, there are too many series being published. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. From a selling standpoint, though, it's tough when there's so much to choose from. But that's when bookselling skills come into play. If I do my job well, I've hooked a customer for the long term. Sometimes, though, nothing will pique a customer's interest. For years I've hyped Ian Rankin and his character John Rebus, but it wasn't until NPR did a piece on him that we started having the sales he deserved and I could wag my finger and say "I told you so."
Of course we tend to do better with the books we've actually read, but there's always something that slips past us. This is when I depend on the customer to educate me. A customer told me about James Lee Burke when I was first starting to read mysteries, and he's still one of my favorites. I thank customers whenever this happens, but as a bookseller I want to beat them to the punch. This is where publishers can help with the only promotional material that matters--readers copies. Forget posters or bookmarks or anything that has worthless blurbs on it. Give me the real thing--give me a book. It was with a reader's copy that I discovered John Connolly and his troubled ex-cop Charlie Parker. In less than a year we've sold close to 80 hardcover copies of Dark Hollow, which is fantastic. Another reader's copy discovery was Mo Hayder and Birdman. I enjoyed this so much I couldn't wait for the next in the series. The Treatment definitely lived up to its promise by being easily the most intense mystery I've read in years. (www.fearringtonvillage.com)
Jane Dentinger, senior editor
While the Mystery Guild has members in all 50 states, the five states with the most mystery readers are California, New York, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Are there too many series? Not for our tastes. Mystery Guild members love a good series and are terrifically loyal to those authors. It's interesting that you report series as being so hot. I see many established series authors being pressured by publishers to write stand-alones as a way to break them out. This has worked with some writers, but our members are happier with continuing characters.
I think [sellling new writers] is easier with mystery fans than any other reader. They're voracious and always looking for "fresh meat." Our members are fairly open-minded; they'll give a new series a try. But if the first book doesn't catch their fancy--that's it. No second chances.
I think publishers could buck conventional wisdom a little more. Sometimes they fall into what I call "Hollywood thinking": if one serial-killer book was a big success, 20 more are sure to be just as huge. Not so. Mystery is a genre with a long history, so there's bound to be a lot of repetition. But if you can find a fresh hook--something that hasn't been (excuse the expression) done to death--and execute it well, you'll get the fans' attention.
Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt.
Louise Jones, bookseller/former mass market buyer
I don't think there are too many series, but the quality varies considerably. The series format allows the writer to develop characters and move them through time, as Sue Grafton does, even though the 20-plus years of her books only cover a few years of Kinsey's life. But then Ruth Rendell, both as herself and as Barbara Vine, is such a good writer than her stand-alone novels contain as much depth of character and psychology as one often gets in five books by a less talented writer. It's also fun for us to match the customer with the book. Many readers are very specific about what they want to read--police procedurals, only American private eyes, only British, only female detectives, only tough men, only cats, only dogs, never any animals, and it goes on. In this case the series format gives us a lot to work with, and often ensures future sales when a series clicks with a reader.
We turn our customers on to new series--and separate novels--by talking with them and using shelf-talkers. If members of our staff like a book, customers will take a try on an unknown writer. I recently discovered Mike Stewart (only three books so far). We ordered his first two, and they've been selling very well with a shelf-talker praising them. The same with Deborah Crombie a few years ago. (www.northshire.com)
The Poisoned Pen: A Mystery Bookstore, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Barbara Peters, founder/owner
Series are a good way to build up an author until the name becomes a brand, after which what the author writes becomes less important than that the author writes. Clear recent examples include Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane, who have actually increased their audiences with nonseries books. It refreshes them and, apparently, readers.
One approach then is that sales can build over a series and then boom with a break from the series. Without huge hype, it's difficult for a stand-alone novel to gain market share early in an author's career, although exceptions occur--like Minette Walters. If a first novel succeeds, readers tend to clamor for a follow-up, so publishers and booksellers push the author to repeat. It's very tricky to decide when the series could/should be interrupted to lift the author's total sales.
In general, printed materials such as publisher newsletter handouts, bookmarks or letters to me are ineffective; review copies are the single best way to get us enthused over a book. Publishers cannot apply the same levels of support to each title; many are simply published and left to fare for themselves. It's a sad truth that the more famous the author, the higher the level of support (often a matter of contract), which means it's up to reviewers and booksellers to highlight the rest. And that's where the independent bookstores play our key role as handsellers. Chains shelve books, meaning titles need a big publisher push to get them known. Indies sell books. (www.poisonedpen.com)
San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, San Francisco
Diane Kudisch, owner
Series are very important to booksellers. People read them religiously. Many customers, when starting a new series, prefer to start with the first title, which can be difficult because often the older books are out of print. We specialize in hard-to-find books, so we try our best to keep a series intact. Also, very often a customer is disappointed to discover that an author has decided to give his/her series character a hiatus and chooses instead to write a stand-alone. That's when we occasionally have to coax the customer into reading the stand-alone and waiting for the next in the series. Customers are very vocal about what happens in the series, complaining about killing off characters, lack of love-life, etc.
As far as publishers providing enough marketing support, it always depends upon the publisher--and also the author. We have found that getting marketing support for certain authors is difficult, if not impossible. We try to promote both new and established authors but when the publishers don't provide marketing tools for a signing, or to promote a new book, we have to do it ourselves. Sometimes, it seems to me that the publishers need to spend time and money promoting newer authors and their series, who really need the exposure as opposed to the more established authors whose name, in many cases, does the selling for them. (www.sfmysterybooks.com)