Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem. Oh, my!

Commentary by cherie jung

(April, 1997)

Is the mystery genre dying?

Some say, yes.

Rumors regarding well known (and not so well known) authors being dropped by their publishers and unable to sign with new publishers continue to circulate. Sales at two mystery bookstores I contacted are down 50% over last year's sales. Commuters on public transportation are reading fewer mysteries and more romance, horror, and science fiction (from an informal survey done while riding the local buses).

What's going on?

Is the mystery genre doomed? Are loyal mystery fans deserting the ranks?

I think the answer lies somewhere between yes and no. Genre fiction tends to be cyclical in nature. Remember back in the late 60s and early 70s when science fiction was all the rage? But this time around, I think the mystery market shot itself in the foot, so to speak, and while not a life-threatening injury, considerable blood loss is to be expected.

I think authors and publishers share a large portion of the blame. When the Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky immitators were jumping on the bandwagon, the publishers did little to ensure high quality books (plots, characterization, etc.). They were too eager to sell more books. The result? Same as happened with the romance genre a few years earlier. Nearly every publisher expanded with new imprints, more titles, new authors and many encouraged their established authors to write more quickly, to get more books out. Authors began attending more and more mystery conventions, more and more book signings. The schedules seemed grueling. When did they have time to write?

Within a relatively short time, the market was not only saturated, but nearly drowning in mediocre mysteries. Many readers tried to keep up with the massive flow. It has been estimated that in recent years, somewhere between 1600 and 2600 mysteries per year were being published. Even the most ardent reader would have trouble keeping up, even if the books were completely entertaining.

Combined with the sheer number of books being published, printing costs have risen. Naturally, these increased costs have been passed on to the consumer. At the bookstore today, you can expect to pay $5.99 - $6.99 (plus tax) for a paperback. Some hardcovers cost over $25. I don't know about you, but at those prices, I hesitate to buy a book written by someone I'm not already familiar with or that hasn't been recommended to me by a friend.

As one mystery store owner put it recently, "The second Golden Age of Mysteries is over. Now we just have to struggle along and hope that there will be a new Golden Age somewhere down the line."

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