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.