Well, 2009 is for all intents and purposes over. And I have just two words about that: Thank God.
It was a rough year for a lot of people. Tempers ran short, bankbooks ran on empty, job security seemed to be at an all-time low. Publishers large and small laid people off, consolidated operations and production groups. Remaining staff felt overworked and underappreciated, more so than usual. Book sales were down, because books are a discretionary purchase. As I write this, things are looking up, fortunately - and I hope they continue to do so, because I don't think our collective national psyche can handle another year like 2008-2009.
I did see a number of trends this year; whether or not they become permanent is of course the question.
1. More agents are getting out of fiction markets. This is a direct result of publishers' increasing unwillingness to pay large advances to unknowns. More than 85% of writers don't earn out their advances, and publishers are frankly tired of it. The economy allowed us to push back; and because agents follow the money (who can blame them? - they need to earn a living too), more and more of them stopped taking on new writers. On the positive side, this will mean more opportunities for independent presses. On the negative side, writers of fiction now more than ever need to reconcile themselves to the vast certainty that writing novels won't pay the bills.
2. More commissioning is being done. We've always commissioned books with authors we liked, but in 2009 I saw more of it being done than ever. We call up an agent or author we like with our idea for a series and say, "Can you write me a mystery with this type of hobby and this type of heroine?" We'll be seeing lots of pseudonyms in upcoming years as those lucky enough to have established themselves, or to have well-connected agents, find themselves writing commissioned work that they may or may not believe in. Frankly this disturbs me a bit, as this could lead to a sort of Disneyfication of our industry, where corporate types make the decisions and the artists really don't matter much, as long as they look good and put out a saleable product. But we shall see.
3. More reviewing is being done on the Web. We did have the news of Kirkus closing down; and I think most of us viewed the decision with mixed feelings. Very few of us haven't been burned by Kirkus reviews, which were infamous for being nasty. Yet the journal was a reliable source of reviews, and getting a starred review there meant something. The reviewers there were also professionals; and there is no substitute for a professional reviewer who understands the craft of reviewing. The Web-based reviews are putting reviewing in the hands of the people, and while I have long been a fan of Amazon's willingness to allow readers to comment on books, I'm not sure that the closing of a reputable review engine is a good thing.
4. Careers have stalled. This has been a major bummer for me and many colleagues. Several of us had authors we felt were about to take off, people whose third or fourth book was poised to "hit." And yet they didn't, as people fell back on the old reliables, the big names who can be counted on to provide a formulaic read that satisfies the itch more reliably than someone new or emerging. We actually had a discussion in our office about releasing no new books in 2009, but we felt this would not be fair to authors or to our bottom line, since some sales are better than none. Now we shall see if the writers can put their noses to the grindstone again, and do another book, and hope that 2010 sees the return to a more adventurous buying style.
We did see some highlights in 2009, so herewith my Cheers and Jeers for the year.
CHEERS to the Kindle. This technology is helping to sell books while also giving people with limited space an option to buy and keep as many books as they want. We're having some adjustment issues here, but in the long run the much lower unit cost of a Kindle book is going to be good for publishers and authors. I do have reservations about Amazon's market power, and how they are using it to squeeze more out of publishers, but we have to accept the reality of the marketplace, and many of us are finally coming to religion on this issue.
CHEERS to HarperCollins. A large player, HarperCollins is launching a new imprint that pays no advances, allows no returns, and offers authors a cut of profit rather than a typical royalty structure. Some authors (and, I'm sure, MWA) are up in arms about this; but the fact is that nobody forces anyone to sign a publishing contract, and those writers who think they can do better elsewhere have every right to go to another house to get their book published. If publishing is to survive in our money-centric 21st century, we have to continue our emphasis on the bottom line. And let's not forget how many people this industry employs--designers, artists, printers, warehouse folk, and so forth. We have a responsibility to pay our bills on time; and with the work we do, we deserve to make a profit for our labors. HC's new imprint seeks to fix the terrible inequities that we all know exist but which the current system perpetuates. I will be watching this one closely.
CHEERS to Dan Brown. The Lost Symbol did light up bookbuyers' eyes in 2009, though it did not seem quite as ineluctable as The DaVinci Code, which has reportedly sold more than 25 million copies to date. I do find it quite interesting that the publishing phenomena these days belong to the children's and young adult market, what with Harry Potter and the Twilight series. This is good news in that it shows us that young people are reading, and actively looking forward to books. It's a bit sad, though, that those of us in adult trade haven't been able to galvanize the population with something really stellar. Maybe we need more children's and YA editors moving into adult editorial.
JEERS to Al Roker. I am a man of strong opinions, and I make no secret of the fact that I detest celebrity mystery novels. Who knows whether Roker even wrote The Morning Show Murders? Most likely not; the credit is probably due to Dick Lochte, who is credited as "co-author." Many fine books will have been rejected so that Roker could get his large advance, and many a mystery reader will have been pulled in by celebrity to purchase this thing. Yes, such books are good for the genre, and good for the publisher, and certainly good for the poor publicist, who can't get Joe Schmo a media appearance anywhere, ever, but will have CNBC and the New York Times banging down the door to get some of Roker's time. And, of course, I would not be saying any of this if we were Roker's publisher--not that we could afford it.
JEERS to the Amazon Vine program. It seemed like a good idea to some: Get in touch with the most active reviewers/readers on Amazon and offer them ARCs of coming books, to help them spread the word about new titles. But the reviewers clearly were not vetted closely or at all, and the result is a system that gets the wrong books into the wrong hands on a regular basis, which flies in the face of all our publicists' wisdom that the key to a successful review program is making sure the right reviewers get the book, and the wrong ones don't. I can't paint all the Vine reviewers with the same brush, as many do take the job seriously and do a fine job of pointing out the pros and cons of any particular title. But there's also a rather large subset that has gone mad with power, that uses Vine as a platform on which to project their bitterness, anger, and "erudition." There is clearly a glee they are taking in trashing books, now that their egos have been swollen. Our publicist said she would quit if we took part in this program, and I am quite glad we made the decision we did.
JEERS to Reviewing the Evidence. Strangely enough, I have complimented this online review of crime fiction in the past. And I do stand by the fact that the reviewing on RTE is of consistently high quality. However, it came to my attention this year that RTE follows a policy of reviewing only the books published by those on MWA's "approved" publishers list. MWA makes no secret of its commitment to writers; and I likewise make no secret of my support for the rights of publishers. Any review engine that discriminates against independent presses and the authors published by them does not have my support. Frankly, I'm a bit embarrassed that I didn't realize RTE's policy until very recently, when our publicist said to me, "Oh, didn't you know? MWA is the master, and RTE is its bitch."
JEERS to DorothyL's moderator. This has been the source of quite a lot of fun gossip in the office. Our assistant forwards us emails of interest, and this year we saw a long line of nasty, high-handed postings by the moderator, who, it seems, plays favorites and likes to toss those who have annoyed him off the list. This is a far cry from the early days of DangerMouse, who ran the list with a lighter touch in the days before it became a marketing tool. I'm always amazed at the mail I get expressing frustration with DorothyL, at the number of people who say they read it more out of habit than for any other reason, and that they tend to blip past most of the entries as the equivalent of spam. There is nothing to be done about this, and our publicist argues that DL has been invaluable for the writers who have made their presence known on it. But it no longer seems like the hospitable place it was, and certainly the moderator plays a large role in that. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
On a more personal note, in December of this year, Mysterious Matters had its 100,000th hit. Thank you to all who take the time to read my longwinded postings and occasional diatribes; and thank you as well to those who take the time to write. I may not always write back - partially because I do need to stay focused on my work, and partially because I need to maintain perspective - but I always read everything you send, and many of your emails have formed the basis for my musings and postings.
In 2010, my goal is to make Mysterious Matters a bit more interactive, to try to start more forums in which lovers of crime fiction can exchange ideas and "talk back" to publishers. I have some ideas for doing this, which I hope to get off the ground in January or February. In the meantime, all the best for a Happy New Year and a successful, stress-free (or at least reduced-stress) 2010.