Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoughts On Mysteries Versus Thrillers

January 31, 2007
I decided to wade into a sometimes touchy subject--mysteries versus thrillers. Although sometimes the definitions remind me of the definition of "obscenity", ie., we know it when we see it, I've used this definition: a mystery is about solving a crime after it happens and a thriller is about preventing a crime from happening.

I've also described my thrillers as "solving a mystery on the run." And certainly some mysteries, especially the serial killer novels, are both, because the first killing occurs, or a body is discovered, and it's the opening salvo in an escalating series of killings.

One reason this gets so fuzzy is because of marketing. For a while there thrillers were kind of out and mysteries were kind of in and as a result, publishers, editors, agents and marketing folk were always calling thrillers mysteries. There's also, from a marketing perspective, a desire to refer to most crime fiction as thrillers or suspense because those two categories (or subcategories, or sub-subcategories) sell better outside genre fans. I think the trend has shifted again, for a number of reasons that I won't go into today, and mysteries are kind of out and thrillers are kind of in. (Sort of like chick-lit, which is so yesterday until, well, it's hot again, which it probably will be again, and everybody in publishing can jump back on that bandwagon all over again).

I just want to point out that I've always been a little puzzled when books by Jonathan Kellerman and Sue Grafton are dubbed thrillers or suspense by their publishers, because to me, both are pretty solidly in the "mystery" category, especially Grafton. So I guess we're back in the breakfast food aisle looking for the healthy grown-up cereals (you know the ones, made out of bran fiber, but having plenty of honey, molasses, raisins and dates in them) instead of the Cap'n Crunch (sugar).

I love a good mystery. I spent years writing them--unsuccessfully. Dirty Deeds, my first novel published by anybody else, is pretty much a thriller. The Devil's Pitchfork and all the following Derek Stillwater novels are thrillers and I don't have any ambivalence about that definition. Were my unpublished mysteries poorly written or poorly constructed? Well, my writing and story construction is a lot better now than it was, but I suspect most of these were publishable, and some of them clearly were. But they were mysteries, and mysteries have some problems that thrillers don't necessarily have.

I read an interview a few years ago with authors Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. Child, I believe, was an editor with St. Martin's Press and Preston was working as a writer at the New York Museum of Natural History. Preston, if I have my history correct, had written a nonfiction book about the museum called, "Dinosaurs in the Attic." One night he took Lincoln Child on a tour of the museum (I myself am deeply jealous). At some point Preston said, "Wouldn't this be a great setting for a mystery novel?"

Child apparently sighed and said, "Mysteries are a dime a dozen and they're really, really hard to pull off. Maybe a thriller."

And then the two gents collaborated on a technothriller called "Relic" which went on to become a bestseller and a successful though largely forgettable film that took place in the museum and launched a career that is pretty spectacular for both men, who continue to co-write thrillers as well as write their own individual thriller novels.

I've pondered the "dime a dozen" statement and the "hard to pull off" statement for a long time. And I've come to the conclusion that Child was probably right. I suspect mysteries are overpublished. My impression is that there are tons of mysteries published with the notion that they will only sell a few thousand copies. (A St. Martin's Press specialty--the fling the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks business model--publish a lot of books in low numbers). I hesitate to say it for fear of really pissing people off, but I've read a TON of mysteries and this is a genre--especially the so-called cozy mystery--that seems to produce a lot of half-baked books. Yet they get published. They get read. Careers are made.

One of my problems with cozies--and no, I don't agree with Otto Penzler's rants on this subject--is how often they seem to be written without much to go on. It's the caterer, dog walker, suburban housewife, insurance rep, retired nurse, freelance writer (I love these--the reason the characters make so little money is they're out running around solving mysteries instead of sitting in their chair at home working), retiree, widow, widower, marine biologist, scubas diver, rock climber, lawyer, paralegal, skydiver, blah, blah, blah, who stumbles onto a dead body than solves the mystery ... again and again and again. The books are character-driven, fine, but they're also weirdly artificial and their own internal logic doesn't work.

Well, anyway, there's a big discussion there. Let's look at something slightly more concrete.

I mentioned a week ago that I had lunch with an editor from Tor/Forge and Toby Buckell. One of the things we talked about was "returns" and "reserves against returns."

Probably most of you, even unpublished, have heard of returns. What this means is that bookstores order copies of your book from the distributor or the publisher, and if they don't sell them in a certain amount of time, they return them to the distributor and/or publisher and get either money back or credit toward their next order.

So what are "reserves against returns"? This lovely little phrase refers to what your publisher does to YOU, the writer, on your royalty statement. Let's say your publisher has had orders of 1000 copies of your book. You should get a royalty (let's assume this is AFTER you've earned back your advance somehow) of, say, $1 (I'm trying to keep the math simple here) per copy, so, you can expect a royalty check of $1000, right?


First, your agent will get that $1000 check anda take 15%, so the check would only be $850 anyway. But that's not the point.

Second, your publisher has the right to reserve a percentage of that money in case some of those books get returned to them. That is to say, instead of sending your agent a check for $1000, they have reserved 10% or 15% or 20% (or more, I'll get to that) against reserves. So your agent, instead of receiving that royalty check for $1000, receives a check for $800 with something in the statement indicating a 20% reserve against returns. (Then your agent takes 15% of the $800 and sends you a check for $680, and you promptly save $200 to pay your taxes and the remaining $480 goes onto your Visa bill, which has a balance of $5000, mostly from money you spent promoting the novel--website, mailings, gas for store visits, hiring a publicist, going to a conference... having fun yet?)

Here's the thing about reserves against returns: 10 to 20% is probably typical and industry standard (go back into my archives for that phrase to pop up), but for some books and some publishers, this reserve against returns can go really, really, really high, into the 75% or higher range. (Or so the rumor goes).

Anyway, what does this have to do with mysteries? Jim, the Tor/Forge editor, sighed and said, "Mysteries are a hard-sell within the industry because they have amazingly high returns. You can find a mystery you really love and have problems selling it to the publisher simply because mysteries have such a high return rate."

Well, some food for thought here, anyway, and I thought you might find a slightly different perspective on this issue interesting.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

Lots of information in this post! Thank you! So ... what's the difference between thriller and suspense novels?

8:19 AM  
Blogger Rashenbo said...

Yes, definitely lots of information here. I hadn't thought about reserves against returns and it makes sense. It is something to think about. Thanks for sharing this.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Spyscribbler--I have absolutely no idea what the difference is. I personally think they're interchangable. And for that matter, many so-called mysteries are also suspense or thrillers. A lot of these definitions, and perceptions, has a lot to do with how publishers and bookstores categorize books.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Fascinating...if depressing for a mystery oriented writer. I think you may be right about the glut of mysteries, at least insofar as St Martin's releasing too many. Our first novel came close to being picked up by St Martin's and at the time I was disappointed. In retrospect I'm happy that didn't happen because we almost certainly would have ended up with maybe two paperbacks out, which (chances are) wouldn't have sold any more than the average -- ie not enough to keep us there -- and which would've been long out of print. With Poisoned Pen Press we've had the chance to keep writing and all out books are still available.

I don't know whether I could write thrillers, even though that might seem a good idea in today's climate.

Of course, you realize there's a little bit of Yogi Berra's "No one goes to that restaurant because it's too crowded" in here. I mean -- mysteries are hard sell to publishers because too many are returned because publishers publish too many?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well, it's a complicated subject and when I thought about it, I thought I'd just bring in this slightly different perspective on it.

I think one reason so many cozies are published specifically and mysteries in general is because so many people read them.

Now, in terms of "breaking out" to a bigger readership, I suspect mysteries are a hard sell within publishing houses. PPP focuses on mysteries and although perhaps only Barbara and Robert know, they seem to have a business model that is built on the library and collector's markets, low advances and modest print runs, and they probably hope somebody will break out. On the other hand, they seem to be quite loyal to their writers (as far as I can tell). This may be because of their business model. I'm not sure that the typical large publisher is necessarily pleased with publishing a lot of books at lower print runs because it seems, at least on the surface, that their business models are built on blockbusters--saves on warehousing, promotion, printing, etc. So if you're a big publisher building your business around the big hit, then you may very well publish a lot of books in hopes a few will take off, and after 2 or 3 tries with authors, dropping those that don't take off. From a publisher's point of view there doesn't seem to be a shortage of suppliers (writers).

Or, I'm feeling a little cynical about the business aspects of publishing today.

Do you remember when you thought the only thing an editor had to think about when deciding whether or not to publish you was whether or not they liked your manuscript?

I wonder if it was every that simple.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Yeah. It's daunting enough thinking about whether ou can write something an editor might like and then you realize even that isn't enough!

You are absolutely correct about PPPs business model, as I understand it. That's why I've come to realize from the point of view of having had a chance just to write books we were better off landing with them. True, with a bigger publisher we might've had a breakout, but let's be honest, the odds aren't good. Of course PPP authors in some cases "break out" by moving to a larger publisher so PPP doesn't reap any big rewards for it -- unless someone turned into Dan Brown and PPP had the right to six other books by him which would be bestsellers when reissued.

Of course if thrillers are hot now that has to mean more people writing them and more competition to sell them so there's never any easy way.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

And let's be clear: I'm not really suggesting if your heart's set on writing a mystery that you should abandon that and write a thriller.

Ultimately I think we have to write what we most want to write--at least until we're published and do things according to the market.

Having at least some sense of the market is probably a good thing--I wouldn't want to try to break into novel writing by writing a western, for god sakes, but maybe that industry just needs another "Lonesome Dove," I don't know.

Still, whether we want it to or not, the industry has perceptions, and just by saying in your query letter, I have written a mystery, then certain elements begin to come into play in the minds of agents, editors and publishers.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Morgan St. James said...

Wow, Mark. You are a fountain of information. I am bookmarking your site and will check back.

I write several things including a cozy mystery series with my sister, Silver Sisters Mysteries, short stories like one I have in Chicken Soup for the Shopper's Soul, working on a darker kidnapping, murder mystery on my own and in my spare time resurrecting a children's picture book I wrote several years ago.

Loved the discussion on the royalties math. Sad but true. Our first book in the Silver Sisters series, A CORPSE IN THE SOUP, is just about to go to audio and I spoke with the publisher today about the fact that the return policies can really turn black to red. Blood red...?

Maybe when I combine royalties from CORPSE in paperback, e-book and audio, if I add a little to it I can go shopping at the 99 cent store.



8:21 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Yeah, Morgan, there are times when you can feel like you're really caught in some sort of con job, doesn't it?

I sometimes think the publishing industry has taken a lesson or two from the movie industry with their "creative accounting."

4:49 AM  
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