Hard to believe I've been doing this blog for years now. Looking back over some earlier posts, I realize that it has been my tradition to wrap up the year with some thoughts on the industry and so forth. It's a good time to reflect; stops me from having to think about or make New Year's resolutions.
So, what of the state of mystery/crime fiction publishing in 2012; and what comes our way in 2013?
I wish I had easy answers to these questions. I mean, I'm sort of paid to know the answers, or to at least be able to guess at them with some accuracy. But I don't think any of us, really, know what to make of just about anything. For every trend I observe, I then see evidence of a diametrically opposed countertrend.
Example: We're all more "connected" via Facebook and other social networks. Yet more and more people are giving up their Facebook accounts, not liking what's become of their linked, harried lives. I think only a fool would say that Facebook is not the present, but is it the future? The IPO was a disaster, and mounting evidence shows that it's downright awful as a promotional/marketing tool. Oh, we (at the company I work for) have had our experiments with social media, of course; but they've been full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but taking up a heck of a lot of really good time and brain power that could have been used more productively.
So, does this make me a Facebook "denier"? Ugh, who knows? I don't think of myself as a Luddite, but I'm skeptical of all of this ego-based marketing and always have been. It's all worth watching in 2013 and beyond.
As for the state of reading - Weighing the evidence, I feel somewhat bullish, somewhat cautiously optimistic. I see people reading everywhere I go, and that does my heart good. There are still plenty of printed books, but of course there are more iPads and other reading devices. I'm happy about that, too; anything that makes the written word more accessible, more convenient, is something I can celebrate.
And, if I had to wager on this, I'd bet that we have more young readers than we had a decade ago. There has always been a large number of kids/teenagers who don't read; I'm not sure that has changed all that much. But the young readers are still out there, flying under the radar somewhat.
One thing that does my heart good is what I see as a burgeoning readers' revolt. Of course, I may be imagining this - or projecting my own thoughts onto the book-buying public - but I've listened to or eavesdropped on a lot of conversations lately about how bad so many books are. I recently talked to a group of people at an airport bookstore (and got a good manuscript out of it! - but that's another story) and listened as all of them carped about the books on display. Comments were along the lines of, "Do publishers think we're stupid?" "I'm so tired of seeing the same books everywhere" and "Airport bookstores are only for desperate people who've run out of good reading materials."
So, I think the world is ready for the next generation of writers. Everyone I talk to tells me they enjoy crime fiction - except for those people who adamantly tell me that they don't ready any fiction, implying that it's a waste of time. From those people I generally extract a promise that they will read a book I recommend to them (based on their tastes) and then email me their thoughts. Most of them don't, of course; but many of them do, and almost all of them have enjoyed the book and thanked me. So, I continue to not only publish books, but sell them one at a time.
This just gave me a brainstorm for 2013: How about we create an online inventory of questions that people can answer, and then have the engine return a list of recommended books? We could use an algorithm like Amazon's and turn the Internet into a personal shopper for reading materials. Now THAT would be a fabulous use of the Internet! Until, of course, someone tries to make money off it.
Of course, our industry is slow as molasses, and somewhat thick-headed being ruled by so many colossal egos, so I'm not sure we will respond to market trends as quickly as we should. In the meantime, I see a lot of opportunity for small presses to continue doing some good and brave publishing. Because I think that's what we have to be in 2013 and beyond: Brave. If we're going to publish the same old, same old, we're never going to be able to compete with the Big Boys, who have a lot more market power than we do. We have to continue to offer amazing alternatives. If we build it, they will come.
But I have my concerns, of course. One of my biggest is the absolute indifference books get in the media engines. 2012 was without a doubt the most difficult year of my career publicity-wise. I published fabulous books and struggled to get people interested in them. You used to be able to count on things like the author's home-town newspaper and alumni magazine; most of them didn't return calls or emails this year. Why is this? Has self-publishing devalued publishing as whole, by making a published book much less of an accomplishment worth writing about? Or is it that readers don't want to read about books? No - I don't believe that.
But it is SO discouraging to see so much media being about celebrities all the time. As we close 2012, I feel as if we are experiencing a cultural crisis. I've never been much of a TV watcher (I'm not a snob about it; I just prefer to do other things) but this year I stopped watching completely. I just can't stand looking at the freakishly deformed faces of people (many of them quite young) who have had so much plastic surgery that they don't even look human any more. And I look at the "top searches" on search engines and see the top queries as "justin bieber's girlfriend" and "kim kardashian baby" and I just want to throw up my hands in despair.
There's another side to all of this, of course. Like the fact that Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL sold about a billion copies. The success of that book tells me that readers are a heck of a lot more open to innovative works that turn expectations on their head, than most publishers give the public credit for. Now if we could only get some PUBLICITY and some MEDIA COVERAGE for more of the wonderful books that are published each year. And not just, you know, Martin Amis's and Zadie Smith's and Michael Chabon's latest books.
I had some nice moments in 2012, including several starred reviews in PW, Kirkus, LJ. Those reviews still tickle me like you can't believe. I had a moment of vindication, too, when one of my 2011 books suddenly went berzerk. Such a strange sequence of events. Loved it when I read the manuscript; contracted for it very quickly. Then the reviews came: OK in PW, so-so in LJ, not so nice in Kirkus. Ach! Was I losing my touch, I asked myself; because none of those reviewers seemed to understand at all what the author was doing - and yet it was so clear to me, and to everyone else here. Then, miraculously, an opinion leader in a particular community picked up the book; started talking it up; and before you know it, we had to do another printing of it. Is it really that easy? I asked - telling myself that I now had THE ANSWER: Simply get the book to the correct opinion leader, and then watch your Amazon ranking getting better and better and better. But no: What made it all work was how organic everything was. Nobody targeted this wonderful Opinion Leader, whose name none of us had ever heard before; nobody paid him to talk the book up in all the right places (which right places we had been completely unaware of). Mr. O.L. chose the book on his own - loved it - knew exactly what the author was doing and appreciated how well he did it - and the rest is history. And the best part: I get to sit back in a smug and self-satisfied way and say to myself, "Agatho, you are not crazy! You are not losing your touch!"
In terms of the year's reading, it was the usual mixed bag. I was disappointed in many of the series books I read, many of which had that phoned-in feeling that the people at the airport bookstore were complaining about. Some of the books caused me to scratch my head in wonder: How, exactly, had these books made it into print in hardcover? Because usually I can tell the target audience for a particular book; but so many of them this year just seemed to be really bad judgment calls on the editors' part. Who exactly did you think would like, and buy, this? I wanted to ask the editors (and since I know a bunch of them, I could have asked, but that would have been rude). This was the year I enjoyed some old favorites, from Celia Fremlin through Rex Stout and Earl Stanley Gardner, and was delighted to see how well they stand the test of time. And some longtime favorites gave me many moments of pleasure this year: Laura Lippman, Jeffery Deaver, Cara Black, Dana Stabenow, Karin Fossum.
So, I close 2012 on an optimistic note of continuing to be thankful for having a career doing what I love doing - and bringing the work of really talented writers to the public's attention. Thank you to all who have written to me this year, and in years past. I read and consider everything you say; and I have learned from you.