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Okay–a reminder before I start.  If the site won’t let you post comments, e-mail us and we’ll get you in manually.

That’s just in case.

But–back to cases.

I didn’t mean to imply, yesterday, that the problem that has arisen with the lack of an actual label for the kind of thing I do is something that effects only–or even chiefly–me.

Nor do I blame cozy readers for being angry when they pick up a Gregor and don’t get what they’re looking for.  If you bought a cookbook and got it home to find out that what was actually inside was a history of the War of 1812, you’d be upset, too.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is no longer any name by which we consistantly call what used to be the traditional mystery–for what I do, and for what better writers than I do (like P.D. James and Elizabeth George). 

Sometimes publishers like to call these “literary” mysteries, but that’s a two edged sword.  What the publishers mean is “real books, well written, not mind candy fluff.”  What too many readers hear is “dull, boring, nothing happens and the characters are all upper middle class and annoying.”

But it’s difficult to understand what anybody is supposed to do with the situation as it presently exists. And I do think some excellent writers have gone down in flames because there’s no way to label the books properly, so that people who are looking for that kind of thing can find it and people who are not can leave it alone.

I’m fairly sure that is why neither of Margaret Kielstrop’s series found an audience–she did one series as M.K. Lorens and the other (historical mysteries set around the time of the American revolutionary war) as Margaret Lawrence.  (CAVEAT:  there is also a Canadian writer named Margaret Lawrence, who is not the same person.)

I also think that’s why Fidelis Morgan’s eighteenth century series didn’t fly as well as it could have.

We make a lot of jokes here and elsewhere that  publishers have no idea how to sell books, but in this case I think it’s literally true. 

Every once in a while I think of that exchange we had hear a while back with Steve’s blog, and the absolute astonishment some of the commenters there had that there had ever existed mysteries that were focused on the suspects and not the detectives–and yet that is Agatha Christie all over.  

It was, in fact, for decades, the most common and most popular form of the mystery.

And there are still plenty of them out there.  You’re just never going to find that out by reading jacket copy, or even reviews.

And I don’t know how to fix this. 

I actually have no idea why mystery readers decide to try new series or new authors.  I’m a bad person to ask, because I don’t read mysteries for the same reason most fans do, and I don’t pay for most of the ones I do read.

In terms of deciding what I want to have a whack at of the little pile that shows up at my doorstep every month or so, I tend to go by a) setting, b) topic, and c) whether or not I can read past the first five pages without wincing.

It’s harder to find books in that last category than you’d think.

In all my life, only one review of a book of fiction has ever made me go out and buy the book, and that was for perverse reasons.  It was in the early Eighties, I was just married and only newly published, and the Times produced a review of this poor guy’s book that was so over-the-top negative that it left me breathless.

I had to buy the book, in protest.

Unfortunately, the reviewer was absolutely right.

That said, I haven’t found reviewers much use in this particular areas. Even the good ones–like Jon Breen, who used to (and maybe still does) review for Ellery Queen–don’t really give this kind of information.

And I’m not even entirely sure how they could.  What, exactly, do you say about things like this?

The result, for me, is that I almost never find new mystery writers I want to read, and at least some very good mystery writers out there are crashing and burning without ever finding their audience.

Because I’m convinced there is an audience–I don’t think I’m the only one out here trying to find this sort of thing.   If I was, James and George would not be on all the best seller lists.

I once had an editor tell me that “at least [your] books deserve to be published.  A lot of the ones out there don’t.” 

I remember thinking to myself at the time that that was the single most bizarre thing anyone had ever said to me.  It also made me very worried.

Publishers are in business to make money, and nobody would get published at all if they didn’t do that.

But I think it’s very odd that some of these people seem to have an easier time selling what they don’t like than selling what they do.  It violates some basic law of salesmanship I’m sure I read about somewhere.

And, I have to admit, in spite of this mess, I haven’t done badly.  Considering what’s happened to a lot of the people whose work I’ve admired, I shouldn’t bitch.

It’s just that I can’t help thinking that there’s something enormously wrong with this picture. 

Readers like me are out here, and we want to buy books.  Where are the books?  And why is it that there has yet to be a web site, a magazine, anything, that will make the kind of distinctions I need?

Robert says he thinks fantasy and science fiction fans go by covers, but covers are no use to me, and jacket copy is even worse.   It’s also often inaccurate, and sometimes full of spoilers.

So, here I am.  I’ve given you a problem with no solution, and we can all go off and be glum together.

But I am not feeling particularly glum today.

I may not be able to find anybody new to read, but I’m still winding my way through Dame Agatha, and teaching doesn’t start until next week.

Maybe I should put on some Bach.

Written by janeh

January 10th, 2011 at 9:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Vocabulary'

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  1. Slight hedge. What I meant to say is that publishers believe fantasy and SF fans are more influenced by covers. I think it’s probably true, but I only have a smattering of evidence for reader preference, and a LOT of evidence that publishers of those genres think covers are important.

    If you go back 50 years, they didn’t. Berkely Medallions were all the same series of abstract shapes for a bit. Often the publishers bought covers by job lot at conventions, and there were instances of the same cover being used for different titles in the US and the UK. (Gothics were done the same way. I used to keep around a gothic which tok place in a sheep rance in Australia. The cover STILL had a woman in a nightgown and a tower with a single lighted window.)

    But when the Lancer “Conan” books with Frank Frazetta covers took off in the mid-sixties, the F&SF publishers started paying for competent painters for paperback covers. With very few exceptions they didn’t and still don’t for book club editions, so I conclude the publishers believe the cover, if it won’t sell the book, at least helps to get the reader to pick the book up–but if the reader is buying the book over the Net, any cover will do.

    Paperback mystery covers are generally cheap by F&SF standards, and romance covers look as though they were still being bought in job lots, so I conclude that whatever causes paperbacks in those fields to be picked up, the publishers don’t think a cover painted from a careful reading of the story would pay for itself in increased sales.

    Picking up the book is the big mystery. Jane, does every book in the TBR pile get examined each time? I would guess probably not. Certainly I don’t look through every unfamiliar mystery, fantasy or science fiction novel every time I browse a big box bookstore. I know what I do once I pick a book up–cover, blurb, sample of writing. If there is no plot description, that’s probably the end. If the dialogue is leaden, that’s certainly the end. But I couldn’t tell you myself why I pick up one book and not the one next to it. Shelf height certainly is a factor, but it’s not the only one.

    If I knew exactly what caused potential buyers to pick up one book and not the one next to it–I could be living in a much smaller apartment in a city I never wanted to live in. Need to think this through.

    As for the vocabulary problem–I don’t know. I too, would avoid any book I saw described as “literary.” The best I have going for me right now is Amazon’s “People who bought X often buy Y” system. There are worse ones, but it won’t give us a word.

    “Old School detective novel?”


    10 Jan 11 at 5:10 pm

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