Here We Go Again!

Commentary by Cherie Jung

7 October, 1999

A few years ago I wrote a commentary about whether or not the mystery genre was dead, or dying, or what. It seems that these "themes" tend to recycle themselves. Here we are, still asking ourselves, "is the mystery genre in trouble?" And, "what happened to the good old days?"

In the passing years, several of my favorite small, independent mystery bookstores have closed their doors. Several publications devoted to mysteries have gone out of business. Lots of mid-list authors lost their publishing contracts. It looked like mysteries were in trouble.

Many readers tried to blame the big chain bookstores for the demise of the smaller, independent bookstores but the cause for the demise of the independents is more complex than that, I think. Yes, the big chains can sell books at a lower price and they can have more stock on the shelves. But I'm not convinced that the bookstore even comes into the picture for many mystery readers. I suspect that part of the problem lies in the reality that people pass books around, just like they do software. Yes, it's wrong. You shouldn't do it, but when your best friend asks to borrow the book you're reading, you are more likely to say, "I'll give it to you as soon as I finish," than you are to say, "go buy your own copy." Although to be fair, I do know a couple of readers who wouldn't think of lending one of their books, but they gladly pick up a new copy for that friend the next time they visit the bookstore.

Another source of mysteries that is popular for readers is the public library. At the price of a hardcover these days, I don't blame a reader for not wanting to take a chance on a new author or a book they haven't read, but it does mean that you are getting your books outside of the bookstore arena. (Unless you read a library book, decide you must have it and buy a copy of your own.) And if you write reviews, as I do, you get lots of books for free. However, I always feel guilty if I read a review copy of a book, really like it and don't go out and buy a copy. So, my friends tend to get books that I buy for them out of this guilt.

As for the decline or disappearance in mystery publications, that's an easy one. I can tell you the main cause right now. It costs a lot of money to start up a magazine. (Anything less than $20,000 in your pocket to spend on the publication is suicide!) Magazines are like the proverbial hole to throw money into that you sometimes hear sailboat owners talking about. Except you can't sail around on a nice sunny day on a magazine issue.

Paper costs have skyrocketed. Printing costs, too. (This applies to book publishing as well as magazines, of course.) Postal costs have risen as well. Most publishers of mystery magazines pour their own money into the project and never break even. No salary. No profit. Just lots of hard work and higher and higher publishing costs.

I don't think high printing and distribution costs are the only reason mystery magazines have trouble staying in print, although, when you factor in where the money comes from to print the magazine, you can see that cost alone is enough to shut down a publication rather quickly. I still like to believe that there are plenty of people out there who would like to read us, it's just that we haven't reached them yet. If economic times were tighter, I'd say that they couldn't afford us, but that isn't really the case right now. Most magazines are reasonably priced. Now we just have to find a way to get you to buy a copy along with or instead of that double latte.

And what about the mid-list authors who were dropped when the publishing houses decided to only go with the best-selling authors and the newbies? Well, I'm happy to say that many of the really good authors who got dumped have found (or were found by) other publishers, including some very nice smaller, independent publishers. Perseverance Press comes to mind and Write Way, Orloff Press, Crippen & Landru. Just to name a few.

So, where do we go from here?

I think big chain bookstores are here to stay. So are the major publishing houses. That's not to say that some might not go out of business or be gobbled up by somebody bigger...but in general, that side of the business is going to be around for a long while. Not much we can do about it except buy the good books and don't buy the bad ones. On the other hand, I think we will be seeing a growth of small, independent publishers who will fill the niche abandoned by the big guys. And with the availability of shopping over the Internet, readers can support their favorite small bookstores, or small presses, or even magazines without leaving the comfort of their homes, or offices if that's where they "surf" the web. Most companies, regardless of size, have (or will have) a website. Access is now international. It's just a matter of time. Word will get around about a good mystery and readers will look for it.

So, in answer to the question, "is the mystery genre dead or dying?" I think I'd have to answer, "no." I think it is in a period of transition. A transition that may take several more years. I also think we may never see the same kind of "glory days" that the mystery experienced a few years ago, but that's okay with me as long as my favorite authors keep writing and new favorite authors come along once in awhile to replenish the writing pool. And I'm still hoping that trade paperback size books catch on with the rest of the readership. Now that I'm getting older, I like the larger print in the trade paperback size. They are easier to hold than the small, traditional paperback size, lighter and less bulky than the hardcover. But that's another editorial, isn't it?

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