Who are you talking to?

Zoë Sharp

This week for the first time I came across mention of a guy called Theodore Levitt. And having done so I’m ashamed that I had not heard of him before. He was a German-born American economist and editor of the Harvard Business Review. Among his other achievements Mr Levitt wrote an article called Marketing Myopia in which he raises some fascinating points about business—particularly big business—and why it fails.

Mr Levitt points out that “the history of every dead and dying ‘growth’ industry shows a self-deceiving cycle of bountiful expansion and undetected decay.” At some point every industry can be said to be booming but then it dies away. Usually this is because markets change and the industry fails to adapt, or because they become so fixated on mass-producing and selling their existing product that they no longer concentrate on the wants or needs of those buying that product.

Henry Ford is credited with inventing the first mass-production line for his cars. In fact, his real genius was looking at what his customers—or potential customers—wanted and realising that if he could sell a car for $500 he could sell millions of them. The production line grew out of that need to cut costs in order to sell at such a low price, but the marketing strategy came first.

Mr Levitt examines the railroad industry in the States, which he suggests fell into decline because it saw itself firmly as being in the railroad business instead of in the transportation business. It thought about what it was producing, not what its customers wanted, which was simply to get themselves and their goods from A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Likewise, the petroleum industry is really in the energy business, whether that incorporates gas, nuclear, solar or geothermal energy. To cling to the past will ensure that new giants emerge and eventually kick the old giants to the kerb.

The long and the short of it is if you think of yourself as producing a product rather than satisfying a customer you are eventually doomed to failure.

But the most remarkable thing about all this is that Theodore Levitt wrote Marketing Myopia in 1960. It seems very little has been learned since then.

Three years ago a website called Digital Marketing summarized Mr Levitt’s original piece with the additional comparison of Hollywood and the TV industry. Those Hollywood studios who saw themselves as producing movies and nothing else have floundered. Those who moved into other areas of the entertainment industry seem to have, on the whole, thrived. (And I realise there will always be exceptions to this rule.)

That brings me to authors and books. To me I am not a producer of books I am a teller of stories. How people absorb those stories is almost immaterial—it could be via hardcover, paperback, car stereo, MP3 player, iPod, Kindle, tablet, PC, smartphone or cortical implant—and I can see that happening in my lifetime, I can tell you. At the end of the day it’s the story that matters, not the delivery system.

So, are publishers providers of stories to people who want to read them, or are they producers of books? And are the markets led by what the publishers want to sell to that reading public, or what the reading public wants to buy?

In bookstores in the States I am always amazed by the number of categories and genres into which books are divided up. In the UK it tends to be Crime & Thriller and True Crime. In the USA there are far more to go at, from Cosy to Hardboiled to Noir to PI, Police Procedural to Amateur Sleuth, Woman-in-Jeopardy, Serial Killer, Bodyguard, Vigilante, Investigative Reporter, Slasher/Shocker … the list is endless.

And now of course we have far more crossover with vampire detectives, werewolf private eyes, ghosts, zombies, witches, wizards and otherworldly beings who delve into the life (or undeath) of crime. Your main protagonist is just as likely to be keeping the peace on a distant space station as at a California Hellmouth, or use magic rather than deductive reasoning.

This all leaves me with some interesting questions. Who is leading the market now? With such a wealth and breadth of cross-genres and sub-genres out there, are readers finding more of exactly what they want (even if previously it fell between the cracks of established categories) or less?

Do you feel mainstream crime books are tending to crowd into a mould of what has been previously successful, or are we seeing more imaginative themes being explored? Has the indie/self-publishing revolution given you more choice? Or is it simply harder to find what you’re looking for because of sheer volume?

What do YOU, as a reader, want to read?

This week’s Word of the Week is hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian, meaning pertaining to extremely long words.


17 thoughts on “Who are you talking to?

  1. Richard Maguire

    Hi Zoe. A really fascinating post. I enjoyed it very much. I've been reading crime fiction since my teens when I devoured "The Saint" books and Sherlock Holmes.

    Now, it seems, the market is overcrowded. It's not just impossible to keep up with all the crime fiction out there, but IMO there are too many authors trying the same thing. Is this because the big publishing houses, driven by their marketing teams, demand it?

    I like legal thrillers. But if you look on the Kindle you'll find so many you'd have to believe that every lawyer in the States has written one. And maybe they have. Which might explain why a lot of them are badly written. But not titles by J.D. RHOADES. I highly recommend them. Especially, LAWYERS, GUNS, and MONEY. I hope he's selling as many books as Grisham.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great topic and questions, Z, I'll be interested to hear what people have to say.

    I think the uniqueness of crime novels and all their subgenres comes from where it always has – a particular author's thematic take on crime and how s/he uses subgenre to express it. It's always about the author to me. Once I find one book I like, I'm likely to read everything else that author has written in one extended binge.

  3. Lisa Alber

    Wow, Zoe, nice post. I'm sitting here racking my brain, trying to come up with answers to your questions. The truth is, when I think about all the crime/mystery/thriller books out there, I get overwhelmed. Maybe that's my answer.

    One thing I do believe: Readers are far more adventurous than traditional publishers like to think. The traditional publishers like their niches and their known quantities. (How many 50 SHADES rip-offs are we going to start seeing?) I have a friend who couldn't sell her cozy-style mystery because it was also a treasure-hunt adventure. Crap to that. She self-published, and she'd doing very well.

  4. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    I don't think the subgenres have much to do with the bookstore categorizations. I think bookstore categorization has to do with helping customers find what they're looking for, or they will leave the store without a book. Coveted end displays catch the non-browsers attention. Browsing on the internet has become much easier, and with more to see, than walking aimlessly in a bookstore, despite the fact that many of us find it makes for a fun day.

    I feel much like Alex regarding authors. When I find a writer I like I read all their books, and I tried to read them all at once, and in order.


  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard
    Thank you. I’ve been a big fan both of Sherlock Holmes and The Saint for years too. In fact I’m talking about The Saint creator Leslie Charteris at this year’s CrimeFest as part of the Forgotten Authors panel.

    I’m fascinated by what’s driving the market―is it being pushed or led? Yes, as soon as Grisham hit big, we saw a lot of legal thrillers suddenly arriving, and I would agree that Dusty Rhoades is a fine writer who should be at least as well known as Grisham :))

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    Crime novels do encompass an amazingly wide range of different sub genres, partly I think because there are elements of mystery in so many of the classic tales―Shakespeare and Dickens anyone?

    As you write across several genre boundaries I’d be interested to know if you were ever discouraged from writing an idea because it didn’t fit into an easily perceived pigeonhole at the time? And have you since found the freedom to write that book?

    I mentioned an idea to my editor some years ago that was in effect a very-near-future police procedural and was instantly knocked back because it might be seen as ‘sci-fi’. Now, though, the idea is starting to nag at me again …

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    I think you’re right and that readers when given individual choice ARE more adventurous than they’re given credit for, but packaging and selling a book further up the chain is more difficult if it can’t be clearly labeled. I wonder if that has any bearing?

    We’re already seeing 50 Shades clones everywhere, sadly. But is that because lots of writers are going “Me too!” or because other publishers are actively searching for their own version?

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    A day spent at a bookstore is always a delight, but in some ways I’d rather accidentally come across a book that’s slightly outside my usual reading material. I did this at an airport with a sci-fi writer called Peter F Hamilton and loved his stuff. He wrote a futuristic technology-enhanced private eye trilogy, one of which was his take on the classic isolated country house murder. Great fun.

    And the best bookstores I’ve been to in the States have staff who approach customers, find out what kind of stuff they like and then make recommendations rather than leaving the poor shopper to wander aimlessly―unless that’s precisely why they’ve come, of course :))

    Hope all’s well with you, btw?

  9. Karen, NZ

    Weird sense of deju vu reading your post … I think I actually have a printed copy of the article from many, many years ago – the cartoons are cool, though I kept it for the message. Lovely to revisit, thank you Zoë.

    Regarding finding new authors it's mainly what catches my eye in the library, guest posts on murderati (especially if the library happens to have the books), goodreads, and library bookchats/newsletters.

    I like to read for character and challenges, and to me some of the more imaginative genres allow for out of the ordinary situations. I like particular authors because of the tone of their writing, so if they do something different I generally give it a go. Like Reine I will grab a series and read in order. Occasionally there's a standout in the series, I will persevere because there's just something about the character and story I am curious about. I recall picking up one of Catherine Azaro's Skolian Empire series, and being intrigued by it, and reading the rest at times ploughing through it (fortunately I'm finding series where there are several already written, I don't do well having to wait for the next instalment….) the vampire/50 shades/zombie deluge to me just doesn't address elements at the same level. Depends what readers read for I guess. There's got to be something that intrigues me or appeals to me.

    I don't think I'm a traditional crime reader as such, I really dislike gory, or overly scary stories… probably why I lean towards the fantasy/sci fci genres.

    I like something different, out of the ordinary, I primarily relate to character rather than story.
    I haven't spent a lot of time looking at 'who else writes like' because the few times I have I've been disappointed. There's lots of very popular movies I haven't seen, and in some ways I am like that with books …..

  10. Sarah W

    First, please write that sci-fi-esque police procedural, Zoë! I want to read it.

    Second, I completely agree that the story trumps the delivery system. While I have easy, free access to traditionally published hard copy and e-formatted books every day, I read far more self-published eBooks than I thought I would even two years ago, and also a lot of stories that are posted for online for mutual enjoyment and readership rather than profit.

    There's a certain type of creativity and style and experimenting in the latter two that appeals to a lot of readers.

    Things are changing . . . and readers will always go to where the good stories are being told.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen
    Thank you for that. It seems that most readers―once they find a writer whose voice they enjoy―will follow that writer into other series or genres. I’ve done that with several authors but not managed it with others. There are a couple of authors where I love one particular series they write, but another leaves me cold, so for me it must be a combination of the voice and the characters. Or, more particularly, the main character.

    I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, but that was as much for the witty interaction between the players as for the supernatural themes, I think. And the fact that the heroine kicked some serious bottom did no harm either. But other vampire-type series―either books or TV shows―have passed me by.

    I seem to have missed a lot of movies that I quite fancied seeing, too, and too much hype about a new author or book is more likely to put me off than attract me.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    LOL. OK, if/when I DO give that sci-fi-esque police procedural a go, you’ll be the first to know :))

    Interesting points you raise. I was wondering if the increase in ‘digital originals’ had brought about a noticeable change for readers, and it sounds like for you that’s worked.

    “Readers will always go where the good stories are being told.” Let’s hope so :))

  13. PD Martin

    Hi Zoe,
    I think the ebook self-publishing thing is certainly giving authors more freedom to cross genres and/or subvert genres. However, I also agree that there is almost too much stuff out there, especially when you're browsing on your Kindle.

    In terms of the near-future police proedural…go for it! And if I'm not mistaken, JD Robb's (Nora Roberts) books are just that and they have a good market.

    BTW, I love Buffy, too!

  14. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    That's my kind of bookstore, too. I love the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. Vromans in Pasadena–love that store most. There are a couple of indies here in Tucson, but they are hard to get to via paratransit. Not that getting over to Pasadena or up to Scottsdale is easy, but we do get up there once in awhile, because that's where Power Paws Assistance Dogs is located. Some of my favorites are no longer… a mystery bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. and another around the corner. The bookstore up in Sutton, Québec looks cozy and inviting. Someday I'd like to get up there. I always go to Blackwells when I'm in Oxford–always very nice there… I pick out my books, and they ship them to arrive when I get home. I got most of my Harry Potters that way. The versions were somewhat different from the ones my friends got in the states.

    So– I hope I didn't give the impression that I don't like wandering aimlessly in bookstores. I do. I do it all the time, too. Kendall loves it. And we always do what Kendall loves. I download a lot of audiobooks these days, but I haven't stopped buying hardbound books. I can't, because not everything I want to read is recorded. It's much slower going, but sometimes it's just a very fun thing to do, so I work at making it work.

    Things are a bit better here now. We are cautiously optimistic. Thank you for asking. I won't make it to the book festival this weekend, because I have to be at home and take care of things here. Thanks for a thoughtful blog today — great comments, too.


  15. Reine

    Now that I've read Phillipa's comment I want to add that I've been badly stung on kindle books that sounded good and appeared professional in their descriptions, but were very poorly written. I don't mean they were ho-hum stories. I mean they were poorly written. I welcome change, but I am getting very careful with ebooks, especially since every time one of my favorite app updates, I have to reload all the books. I don't buy any from them anymore, and I'm hoping I don't lose them altogether. Now that I realize that we don't own the books we download… well that makes a huge difference in my willingness to buy. It used to be, and still is on the free sites I use, you downloaded a book to your computer and it stayed there. I still have one that I got when I was in grad school… 1996? It goes with all my docs to my new computers.

    Steve and I love Buffy!

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PD
    Thank you―I’m a fan of the JD Robb IN DEATH series, although that’s set quite some way into the future. I wasn’t intending to have any flying cars or droid servants in mine!

    There is a lot of choice, which is why I think as soon as something surfaces, for whatever reason, people latch onto it. You just have to hope you’re one of the writers whose work has one of those lucky head-above-the-parapet moments :))

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    I’m glad to hear things are cautiously optimistic for you. I’ll keep my fingers firmly crossed.

    Good bookstores are always a delight, although sadly I’ve had as many poor experiences as good ones. Bricks and mortar stores have a unique advantage over on-line stores and that’s the personal touch provided by knowledgeable friendly staff. If they chose not to interact with the customers, then they’re letting that big advantage slip through their fingers.

    I always read the sample of an ebook, even if it’s available free, because usually that’s enough to tell me if I’m going to like the sound of that writer’s voice or not. And if I don’t I’m not going to download it. My reading time is my pleasure but it’s also limited so I want to spend it in the company of a book that really delights and excites me. Otherwise it’s like being stuck next to a charmless bore at a dinner party :))

    (Sorry, that’s not very charitable of me, is it? I know Desiderata says, “listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.” But it also says, “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit.”)

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