Is the thriller in trouble?

 Normally I’m an optimistic person, but a recent conversation with a publishing professional worries me, and it has to do with the future of fiction sales in general, and of thrillers in particular.

 “In the U.S.,” she said, “thrillers are dying.”

 That startled me. I’ve long observed that thrillers dominate bestseller lists, far outselling mystery novels. (And I’ll let you provide your own definition of mystery vs. thriller.) Checking out the most recent New York Times hardcover bestseller list, I see that eight of the top fifteen slots are taken up by thrillers. So why on earth would this professional think the genre is in trouble, when thrillers so obviously rule the bestseller list?

 “Look at the names on that bestseller list,” she pointed out. “Do you see any new names? Any author you haven’t seen there many times before?”

 That’s where she had me. Among the names I see on the latest list are Patterson, Evanovich, Cussler, Deaver, Koontz… are you seeing the picture here? Hardly any new names are getting onto the list. The old reliables are there, month after month, year after year, but new authors are having a tougher time than ever.

 And that was her point. 

 Now, this may simply be a perennial complaint, and I’m sure that every generation of writers moans that there’s no room for new voices. But this woman has been in publishing for decades, and she feels this is the worst market for new writers that she’s seen. Editors find it harder than ever to launch massive sales campaigns for debut thriller writers because there’ve been so many recent flops. In the past few years, I can think of a dozen thrillers, written by either debut or previously mid-list authors, that were given huge pushes because of white-hot in-house enthusiasm and terrific pre-pub buzz. These efforts were expensive. They included author tours and ad campaigns and loads of review coverage. I had the chance to read the galleys of a number of them, and I believed that several of them were sure-fire hits. The books, for the most part, were well-reviewed and well-distributed. They got acres of display space at Barnes and Noble and Borders. Then the books got out into the marketplace.

 And they died. Or they had okay, but not stellar, sales.

 For the author, the aftermath can be painful. He simply has to suck it up, finish the next book, and hope that he’ll get one more chance at making the list in paperback, or with his next hardcover release. But too often, you only get one chance at the golden ring, and if you’ve had a well-advertised flop, your reputation as a failure – and your poor sales figures — could follow you to your grave.

 These recent flops have made publishers cautious about taking on new authors. Conversely, it’s increased the value of the old reliables, the authors who manage to hit the list with every book. Those big names may be expensive to keep in the stable, but after you’ve lost a bundle launching a few debut flops, a publisher re-appreciates the sure-fire names. 

 And there’s only a limited number of them.

 So what’s a struggling author to do? An author who isn’t yet a big name, and whose sales are only middling?

 Bestsellerdom is not forever out of your reach, because there’s an alternative way to be a hugely successful author, even if you never sell another book on U.S. soil. And that’s to sell like gangbusters everywhere else.

 A few months ago, in Publishers Weekly, there was a pie chart showing worldwide profits, over time, of Bertelsmann publishing. What leaped out at me was the fact U.S. sales are a dwindling percentage of their profits, while sales in other countries make up more and more of their profits. Foreign sales seem to be pretty healthy. American sales seem more and more anemic.

 When I travel to other countries, I see a vast array of bestselling books written by Americans, including names that are only midlist in the U.S. These authors may be considered unknowns at home, but overseas, they’re huge. And they’re making fine incomes – even better lately, since those sales in Euros translate to more and more dollars on your royalty statement. 

 The foreign markets, at least, seem to be doing fine. But in the U.S, we have a problem.

 Should thriller writers be worried about the current book market? Yes. As should novelists of any genre. We should all be worried that U.S. book sales are flat and that kids are staring at computers and TVs instead of books. We should be worried that the digital age may mean an end to effective copyright protection. We should be worried that we’re the equivalent of buggy whip manufacturers.

 But all we can do is keep writing.

19 thoughts on “Is the thriller in trouble?

  1. jon jordan

    In the last few years the sheer volume of books being published each year has been huge.More mysteries/thrillers are published per year than in all of the 1970s.If this scare means a few less books coming out each year I don’t see it as a horrible thing.In the last five weeks we’ve received over 200 different arcs to review. 200!

    I think what it means is that there will be some authors who still work day jobs and publish with smaller companies. Places that can publish 5000 copies of a book and sell through of that number is a good thing.

    We just got the latest arc for Iris Johansson, the back says the print run is going to be 650,000 copies. While I think they may be skying the number a bit I think we all know a lot of these books are going to be remaindered.It’s also true that a publisher would rather deal with just five titles selling over 100,000 each instead of 50 selling 10,000 each.

    I don’t even know if people are buying that many less books, but with so many choices for their money to be spent on it is going to dilute the market.

  2. JDRhoades

    The publishing model your friend describes is a big part of the problem: “Okay, this person no one’s ever heard of is going to be the Next Big Thing overnight, if only we fly her all over the country and spend a jillion dollars on advertising,” followed by “Oh, she didn’t hit the list first time out, so we didn’t just lose money, we lost TONS of money. Must be her fault. Dump ‘er and…oooh! Shiny! Let’s do the same thing again with this one!”

    This, as opposed to building a writer’s career slowly through word of mouth.

    Look at Laura Lippman. Her last book was the first, IIRC, to hit the NYT list. She built up a following, book by excellent book, each one doing better than the last, until she got there (and well-deserved, too). It’s a process most of us are willing to endure, if the publishers would take the long view, too. But sometimes it’s not just as if the publishers have no business sense, it’s as if they have no damn COMMON sense.

  3. neil nyren

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with this pessimistic assessment, Tess. Sure, it’s hard for new writers to break through onto the bestseller list when there are so many brand names, but that’s true across the board for all genres, as you mention. Doesn’t mean the genres are dying! There’s always a next generation coming along. I’m enormously heartened when I see writers like Tom Rob Smith and Alex Berenson and Laura Lippman break through to the list, and all you have to do is look at who’s bubbling right under the list to see who’s getting ready to push their way on. I quickly scanned the top slots of the extended list for just this year, and saw Tim Dorsey, Matthew Reilly, CJ Box, T. Jefferson Parker, Peter Robinson, Alan Furst — a great cross-section of excellent writers. (The same is true for non-genre writers such as Charles Bock, Garth Stein and David Wroblewski, all of whom popped onto the list this year)

    So here’s one publishing professional who is still optimistic!!

  4. Miri

    Wasn’t it last August or so (convention season, at any rate) that chick lit was dead? And we’re still seeing a lot of it. My guess is that genres just cycle in and out naturally (though frankly I haven’t been alive long enough to say firsthand if this is true). Last year it was chick lit, this year it’s thrillers, hopefully next year it’ll be vampire YA. (Personal preference, Twilight was good but the rest of it just annoys me.)

    All this foreign market stuff is great for me, though. Not only is it helping American midlisters, but I’m tossing around the idea of going into literary translation.

  5. Jude Hardin

    Especially for those of us still trying to break in, it’s optimistic pros like Neil Nyren who keep us going. Thank you, Neil!

  6. Tammy Cravit

    I think the phenomenon JD described is a big cause of the problem, and I think it’s a generalized problem in American business right now that comes from consolidation and the rise of the mega-corporation. When you’re a publicly traded company, after all, you can rarely afford to take the long view on anything financial. Big corporations, ever chasing the next quarter’s profitability numbers for Wall Street, tend to do what’s expeditious in the short term even when it kills them in the long haul.

    Just look at the sub-prime mortgage collapse.

    So, do I think that thrillers (and books) are dead? Far from it. The market is changing in some interesting ways — I predict growth in foreign sales, ebooks, movies/TV scripts, and multimedia sorts of things (anyone want to write mystery plots for video game companies?)

    The publishers who continue to bet on the old faithfuls, though, are slitting their own throats. After all, sooner or later, those folks are going to retire (or die). If the publishers don’t start building a stable of replacement writers now, they’ll die right along with their golden geese.

    One more thought – it seems we live in a world where everyone wants the big payoff without doing the work to get it. It used to be that publishing a thousand mid-list authors with okay but not stellar sales was the price publishers paid for finding, developing and keeping the superstars. Now, driven by Wall Street, the publishers want to short-circuit that process and get ONLY the superstars, without having to deal with that pesky midlist. And thus will they learn the TANSTAAFL principle: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

  7. louise ure

    You’ve raised an interesting cautionary point here, Tess, but I think its warning is even more significant for mid-list writers than it is for newcomers. They’re facing even more skepticism from many publishers.

  8. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tess,What Louise brings up is definitely what I’m seeing in places like Novelists, Inc. Here we have a group of multipublished authors — all pretty much in genre — and some have had a bear of a time finding publishers/agents for their latest works even though they’ve proven themselves time and again through respectable (but not blockbuster) sales.

    The bias, I think, is for that NEXT BEST THING and often that comes in the form of someone new rather than someone tested.

    The whole blockbuster mentality fascinates me; it correlates, IMHO, with the celebrity mentality we so promote in this country. Hence, you can write a piece of crappola if you’re famous and get it published and sell a boatload of copies simply because people already know your name.

    And yet, I remain optimistic, hopeful in fact, that I — and all of my friends — will achieve their professional goals.

  9. cj lyons

    Actually, I wonder if this is an opportunity for newcomers like myself to create a niche in non-hardcover formats.

    After all, with the economy going the way it is, how many publishers are going to spend money and take a chance with launching a new hardcover author? And if they do, will they be limiting the print run to try to keep costs down?

  10. philip hawley, jr

    Tess, I find myself completely at odds with your publisher-friend.

    Candidly, I find it difficult to take seriously worries about dying genres, or bestseller lists with no room for new talent. No doubt–publishers have reason to worry about the long-term downward trend in unit book sales in the U.S., especially when adjusted for population growth and the graying of America (both of which should have steadily lifted unit sales over the past 20 years).

    But that’s not an author’s worry, or shouldn’t be. There will always be room on bestseller lists for talented authors with a great story to tell. Sure, some uber-talented writers never make it onto the bestseller lists, and some lesser writers repeatedly make it onto bestseller lists. But I think writers too often talk about these anecdotes as if they were the rule, when they’re clearly not.

    To me, it’s far more plausible to believe that book buyers and readers will take notice of writers with prodigious talent–that is, those who deserve a place on the NYT list. It’s difficult for me to take seriously an argument suggesting that there’s no room for new, highly talented thriller writers.

    After all, professional baseball fans don’t say, “Geez, there’s only an occasional rookie on the field. Most of these guys have been playing for years. We need to make room for more farm team players!” The fact is, the farm team players need to earn a place in the big leagues, and most won’t. That’s just a fact of life.

    In explaining the lack of new thriller-writers on the NYT list, why isn’t it more reasonable to assume that there’s a mild drought in talent–part of the natural ebb and flow seen in all human endeavors. Or, perhaps, some of the most talented new writers are responding to changing social moods and trends, and choosing to write in other genres.

    There’s little doubt that midlist thriller-writers have a difficult road ahead, in part because there are many more published authors chasing a steadily shrinking number of readers in this country. I think most writers would agree that too many books are published today, that the threshold for what constitutes a publishable manuscript (by NY houses) is probably too low. But I also suspect that few writers would step forward to claim that they’re among those who have benefited from this lower threshold. (in this way, writers are similar to physicians: some are blessed with remarkable talent, but far fewer than think so…;))

    Until someone presents convincing evidence to the contrary, I’ll continue to believe that writers with NY-Times-type talent will eventually find their place on The List.

  11. Jake Nantz

    While this sounds pretty scary for someone looking to break into the biz, I think the perspective has to be, for “new” writers like me, to write the best book we can. Then, when (if) it is going to be published, we have to turn that advance around and spend it helping to promote our book and therefore our career. I’m willing to put in the time cultivating my career (I have a pretty good day job that allows me the summer to do so, after all). Shouldn’t each new writer be?

    Now, does that mean all my work will bear fruit? Far from it. But I can’t make people buy my book (not even my students…damn). But I have a better chance of being PERSUASIVE in encouraging them to give it a shot if I’m out there working rather than sitting at home going, “That’s the Publisher’s responsibility!”

    And if it doesn’t work, well I’ve been working on the next one at the same time, and maybe that’ll be the one. And while it’s going through the printing process, I’m working on the next. And so on, and so on, and so on, and so on…..

  12. JT Ellison

    I was actually incredibly heartened by the outpouring of talent at Thrillerfest this past weekend. From the writers there to pitch themselves to agents to the debut authors to last year’s debuts to the established authors, the breadth and depth of the authors represented was astounding.

    It may take us a few years to get there, but I have absolutely no doubt that I’ll see the vast majority of the names on the lists. Tomorrow? Maybe not. But soon.

    There is a crowd of incredible authors on their way up the totem pole. Overnight sensations are all well and good, but the rest are willing to work hard and hopefully reap the rewards down the road.

  13. James T. Simpson

    Tess, I think you made some good points. I don’t think the genre is dying. I do believe it is tough for new writers as it has always been. Speaking as a reader, I think a big problem is book price. Hardcovers go for over eighteen dollars, and thats at Walmart. For independent bookstores its often 24.95. For that price, many people stick to their old favorites instead of trying new writers. Speaking as an old, new writer, now submitting to agents, I’m thinking I’d rather my series get published in paperback, even if I make less, because more readers would be willing to lay out six or seven dollars for a new writer than the higher price for hardcovers. Enjoy the blog.

  14. Elaine Flinn

    The mix of perspectives here this morning is quite fascinating – whether you’re optimistic, or pesimistic – just keep in mind – the pie is only so big. And, as we all know -it’s up to the baker to decide what size it wants to make it…

  15. J.D. Rhoades

    James, your post illustrates what I mean about no common sense. How does it make sense to introduce a new writer who no one’s ever heard of in the most expensive format?

  16. JT Ellison

    Maybe format is the big difference maker? I know it’s a heck of a lot easier for me to sell a paperback, and as such I’m thrilled to be in mmpb to get my career started. Maybe if I was in hardcover I’d feel differently.

  17. Dana King

    A good, thought-provoking post. There’s always one piece of information missing from these gloom and doom discussions: what did the landscape look like ten years ago? Twenty? Fifty? Were the best-seller lists dominated by the same names year after year, with slow turnover?

    I like Phillip’s baseball analogy. A seamhead myself, I read a study years ago that researched a common lament that players don’t stay on the same teams like they used to. Bill James–the God of Baseball Research–checked and found that turnover in rosters when looked at over a period of a few years had changed very little in the past fifty years. (This is now an old study; I don’t know for sure if this is still true, but I suspect it is.) The same may be true of publishing, but we don’t have the comparisons.

    Hmmm, sounds like a way to spend some of the upcoming winter months…

  18. neil nyren

    I can save you the research, Dana. The answer is yes. The bestseller lists have featured the big repeating authors for a very long time — the names are just different (twenty years ago today, for instance, the #1 book was the yearly James Michener opus). The main difference for today is that a number of authors now write more than one book a year, thus taking up slots with more frequency.

  19. Becky LeJeune

    I hope the thriller is not in trouble!

    Actually, this is an issue that is very close to my heart. It’s an across the board issue for books and I blame it on BN and Borders. It has been my experience of late that big box stores no longer care if their employees actually read. There is no incentive for long-term staff to stay and they seem to be hiring people who know nothing about the books they are selling. They don’t know what’s out and they have no product knowledge outside of pointing to the bestseller wall. This means that they can’t possibly make knowledgeable recs to customers.

    This industry, more so than any other in my opinion, lends itself very well to “up-selling.” Someone who knows their books can easily make great recommendations to a customer based on their likes and dislikes. Booksellers have the chance to really get behind a new book and sell the heck out of it – if they know what they’re talking about. Most readers really don’t have a problem trying a new paperback. It’s not very expensive and they may find a new author that they love. With so much to choose from, though, this is where the bookseller should come in. I think the chains have really dropped the ball in this and I honestly think that it’s hurting the industry.

    It’s sad that the big stores have that much of an influence. But it’s the case, for now anyway. Instead of people who are passionate about the product, changes in store policies and company practices seem to be encouraging the hiring of warm bodies simply to run registers.

    Sure, people are learning about books in different ways, but that personal touch still makes a difference and it’s gone flat lately.


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