The Changing Publishing Scene

Writers—and some readers, too—are worried about the massive shifts in the publishing industry, including whether it will be possible to make a living as a serious writer for very much longer, not that it was ever very easy, and what making authorhood impossible means for the diversity of ideas in the cultural marketplace.

My professional organization, Sisters in Crime (it’s worth joining just to be able to say that!), recently released a new report on the state of publishing, based on expert interviews with 15 individuals involved, in various ways, in the industry. They asked about books in general and mysteries/suspense/thrillers in particular. The experts they talked to echoed the rather gloomy predictions heard for the last couple of years regarding the challenges the industry faces.

Given the difficulty new writers have being published, many are advised to go-it-alone. But “understand the risks,” one prominent agent said. Yes, it’s easy to self-publish with today’s technology, but publishing does not necessarily lead to sales and income for the writer. Because about 300,000 print titles and an almost uncountable number of ebooks are published each year—think of it as a thousand new books a day—the necessity for and burden of promotion and marketing are enormous. Accomplishing this shifts the emphasis entirely onto the self in self-publishing.

The few self-published books that have achieved financial success have encouraged many more writers to try to follow in those footsteps, creating such a rising level of background noise level, even excellent books go unnoticed.

The implications of the rise of e-books has yet to sort itself out. And, because of a number of economic pressures on publishers, the bar for new authors is constantly being raised. Worse, publishers aren’t interested in mid-list authors—“they want bestsellers.” Authors want to write bestsellers, too, but most won’t. The Great Gatsby sold poorly when it was first published in 1925, but now it is one of the most highly-ranked English-language novels of the 20th century (second-highest in the Modern Library’s list after Ulysses.) As of today it ranks #10 in Amazon’s bestsellers’ list, 4th among novels. For authors whose publishers aren’t banking on returns 88 years into the future, the emphasis on bestsellers is a problem.

The one bright spot for writers of mysteries is that the genre retains its popularity in this fast-changing environment. Mysteries account for 24 percent of ebook sales, though only 15 percent of the dollars, which means their prices are discounted compared to other books. Mysteries are 21 percent of library ebook collections and 24 percent of their print collections. And “cozy mysteries,” that less-sex-and-gore subgenre perfected by Agatha Christie and still practiced by many authors today are actually increasing in popularity.

Exploring Further:

“The Slow Death of the American Author” – Scott Turow’s recent, widely circulated lamentation in the New York Times

Sisters in Crime – membership organization promoting the professional development and advancement of women crime writers

The Modern Library’s lists of 100 best novels; one list selected by its board and one by readers

Cozy Mysteries Unlimited – website for cozy fans