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Genre Spotlight 2008
Mystery: The Sound of Crime Fiction
Mystery finds new homes in audio and large print; foreign thrillers, breakout authors still make a splash

Wilda W. Williams
April 15, 2008

Library Journal

This June, mystery authors and fans will flock to England for CRIMEFEST, a new biennial international convention where the first winner of the Audible Sounds of Crime Award for best crime audiobook, sponsored by Audible U.K., will be announced. In recent years, audiobooks have developed into a growth market for publishers, but this new prize, along with the nomination of the serial audio thriller The Chopin Manuscript for the Audiobook Publishers Association's prestigious Audiobook of the Year award, reflects the explosive popularity of mystery and suspense in the format.

“There's something about the genre that lends itself particularly well to audio,” says Macmillan Audio publisher Mary Beth Roche, noting that pacing and mood, so important to mystery, are elements that can be conveyed well in audio. Teresa Jacobsen of the Solano County Public Library, Fairfield, CA, agrees. “What really hops out the door are thrillers and mysteries on audio CD,” she says. “I work with a lot of commuters, and they all want action-packed reading.”

“Mysteries are our bestselling audiobooks, whether as audio CDs or digital downloads,” comments Cheryl Herman, marketing director for Random House's Books on Tape (BOT) and Listening Library divisions. In 2007, nine of the house's top 15 adult digital sellers were mystery and suspense titles, including two James Patterson thrillers (The Quickie, You've Been Warned), Tami Hoag's The Alibi Man, and Patricia Cornwell's Book of the Dead. And Michele Cobb, library marketing director at BBC Audiobooks America (BBC-AA), which also publishes heavily in the mystery genre, says it is one of BBC-AA's top library circulatiors.

Breaking the sound barrier

Even small mystery publishers are getting into the audio act. Last year, Poisoned Pen Press struck a deal with Blackstone Audio to do audiobooks of its frontlist mysteries for which Poisoned Pen owned the audio rights. While it's too early to report on the program's success, company president Robert Rosenwald says his authors like it. “We see audio as an additional way to get our authors exposure.” And Severn House is seeing increasing numbers of its mystery titles being acquired by audio publishers; in turn, the British house is actively investigating downloadable audio.

While the hardcover market is very frontlist-driven, explains BOT's Herman, audio is an example of the “long tail” at work. Mystery fans are willing to go deeper into a category and try new authors. Random House's audio divisions, which release about 300 titles a year (on CD and cassette and as digital downloads), buy 60 percent of their titles out of house. “We cherry-pick all the big titles, but we go for a balanced list,” says Herman. “It's not just the blockbuster; we also look for titles that librarians say their patrons want.”

Thus, BOT's upcoming summer and fall lists include not only the simultaneous audio releases of new print mysteries and thrillers with advance buzz like Elizabeth George's Careless in Red (May), Tom Robb Smith's Child 44 (May), and Lee Child's Nothing To Lose (Jun.) but also releases of older midlist titles such as I.J. Parker's historical series set in 11th-century Japan, Island of Exiles (Sept.) and Hell Screen (Oct.).

Listening to Miss Marple

For BBC-AA, which also produces the library editions of Macmillan Audio trade titles (on CD and MP3-CD and as digital downloads through Overdrive), the hot summer simultaneous releases will include I Shall Not Want (Jun.), the sixth book in Julia Spencer-Fleming's popular Claire Ferguson/Russ van Alystyne series, Janet Evanovich's new Stephanie Plum adventure, Fearless Fourteen (Jun.), and George Pelecanos's The Turnaround (Aug.).

In May, the company launches an Agatha Christie Standing Order series for libraries. Starting with Murder at the Vicarage and The Mysterious Mr. Quin, BBC-AA will release two unabridged library edition CDs each month. “We are working with the Christie estate to ensure cover art and branding meet expectations,” explains marketing director Cobb. “We are releasing the entire collection—as close to publication order of the original print books as possible.”

In an interesting move, BBC-AA is debuting in July—as an Audio Exclusive Original—Martin Misunderstood by rising suspense star Karin Slaughter (her new Delacorte hardcover, Fractured, publishes in August). “We jumped at a chance to do this novella, which makes it a great match for audio,” explains Cobb. It also examplifies new ways of reaching new “readers.”

Over at Macmillan Audio (formerly Audio Renaissance), the focus is on the frontlist. Publisher Roche will go to the early launch meetings at Macmillan hardcover imprints and talk to the editors about their upcoming lists. “Which titles are getting a lot of support from the hardcover publishers,” says Roche. “Then it's like any acquisition process: you read the manuscript and make sure the story moves along, that the pacing is right, and that we agree it is going to be a big book, and add it to the list.”

Among the audio titles Roche is touting for summer 2008: Peter Leonard's crime fiction debut, Quiver (Jun.), which will feature a conversation between Leonard and his father, Elmore; Chelsea Cain's Sweetheart (Sept.), the follow-up to her debut thriller, Heartsick; and The Lemur (Jul.), Benjamin Black's third crime novel. Currently serialized in the New York Times Magazine, the novel will be published simultaneously as an original trade paperback by Picador.

A vision thing

If mystery audiobooks are taking a bigger piece of the pie, what about that tried-and-true standby of the library collection, the humble and homely large-print book? Since 2003, Poisoned Pen has published Large Type editions of all its new hardcovers. Company president Rosenwald originally saw this as a minor market that he entered for altruistic reasons. Now, he says “it's starting to look like it will be a moneymaking market.”

The Arizona-based publisher last year made a deal for Center Point Large Print to distribute its titles in a two-book-per-month Standing Order Plan. The program launched in January 2008 with Kerry Greenwood's Death Before Wicket and Richard A. Thompson's Fiddle Game. “Poisoned Pen publishes high-quality mystery titles, but they weren't hitting the library market as strongly as they wanted,” says Center Point's marketing manager Chris Bitely, “[so]… we joined forces.”

Center Point has grown rapidly in the past several years, releasing some 240 large-print titles a year. About 30 percent of its list is some form of mystery/suspense/thriller, and two distinct Standing Order Plans allow libraries to choose between high-end thrillers, like Lisa Jackson's Lost Souls (May), and cozies and gentle reads, like Nancy Martin's Murder Melts in Your Mouth (May).

“People with vision problems once made up most of our readership,” says Bitely, “but now I think more people are reading large print because they prefer the format.”

A sow's ear into a silk purse

Adding to large print's growing appeal is the transformation of that once bulky and unattractive format. In 2006, HarperCollins relaunched its large-print line as HarperLuxe. Changes included print at a sharp 14-point size, wider margins, a trade paperback format, and simultaneous publication, all at the same price as newly released hardcovers.

HarperLuxe books are technically not large print, according to the minimum 16-point standard set by the National Association for the Visually Handicapped (NAVH). “We call ourselves larger print,” clarifies publisher Liate Stehlik, who notes that HarperLuxe targets middle-aged baby boomers.

In the past two years, the imprint has increased its title count, deepening the inventory with more midlist authors and more mysteries and thrillers. “Obviously, our biggest sellers are the biggest sellers in the traditional marketplace: J.A. Jance, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Lowell,” says Stehlik. “But last year we did Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know in a simultaneous Luxe edition because there was so much in-house buzz. It became a huge hardcover best seller and was the book that broke her out.”

HarperLuxe is also using the backlist to expand the availability of older titles in the larger print format. This June, it will release Peter Robinson's 2004 mystery Playing with Fire.

What's old-fashioned print doing?

Crime in translation and foreign mysteries continue to wash up on our shores. In June, the Milan-based publisher Baldini Castoldi Editore enters the U.S. market for the first time with Giorgio Faletti's I Kill, a psychological thriller set in Monte Carlo—a huge best seller in Italy. Also passing through customs is the first Arabic detective novel published in English. Set in Casablanca, The Final Bet (American Univ. in Cairo Pr., May) by Abdelilah Hamdouchi is the dark tale of a handsome young Moroccan accused of killing his much older wife.

The Scandinavian crime wave features Johan Theorin's Echoes of the Dead, winner of Sweden's Best First Crime Novel (Delacorte, Dec. 2008). Other exotic settings to be highlighted include Taiwan (Francie Lin's The Foreigner, Picador, Jun.), Slovakia (Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters, Soho Crime, Jul.), and Mongolia (Michael Walters's The Shadow Walker, Berkley Prime Crime, Aug.).

The British invasion this summer and fall has a strong Scottish flavor, with two novels set in the Shetland Islands, Anne Cleeves's White Nights (Minotaur, Sept.) and S.J. Bolton's debut, Sacrifice (Minotaur, May). St. Martin's Minotaur executive editor Kelley Ragland describes Sacrifice as “a totally gripping read with an atmospheric setting and a modern-day story inspired by an ancient legend.”

Set in Aberdeen is award-winning Stuart MacBride's fourth DS Logan McRae procedural, Flesh House (Minotaur, Oct.). “This might possibly be his most violent book, but he's just so good and slightly ignored in the States,” raves Macmillan library marketing director Talia Ross. And September marks the arrival of Ian Rankin's highly anticipated final John Rebus mystery, Exit Music (Little, Brown).

Stand-alones and breakout stars

Every publishing season sees the advent of stand-alone crime novels from popular series authors. Joining the stand-alone crowd is Denise Hamilton with The Last Embrace (Scribner, Jul.), a noir mystery set in 1949 Los Angeles; Ken Bruen with Once Were Cops (Minotaur, Nov.), a most unusual cop thriller set in New York City; Linwood Barclay with a second stand-alone, Too Close to Home (Delacorte, Oct.); and David Rosenfelt with Don't Tell a Soul (Minotaur, Jul., see review). “Rosenfelt is my pick for breaking out,” says Ragland. “The reviews for his Andy Carpenter series have been stellar; his fans are very dedicated, and now he's found a more commercial thriller idea.”

For Dutton senior editor Ben Sevier, “breakout” is a loaded word, but he expects two of his authors who have sold extremely well in Europe finally to find American audiences this summer. Previously only published in Britain, Meg Gardiner makes her U.S. debut with new series heroine Jo Beckett in The Dirty Secrets Club (see review). Starting with China Lake (Jun.), Penguin's Obsidian Mysteries imprint will republish Gardiner's Evan Delaney series as mass market paperbacks.

Jeff Abbott, says Sevier, is the best thriller writer that the American reading public has yet to discover. “Jeff is a mega–best seller in Britain and France, and we're expecting Collision to be the book that connects him with a large audience in his home country.”

Roman noir, anyone?

As the owner of a mystery bookstore and editor of a small press, Poisoned Pen's Barbara Peters has seen trends in the genre come and go. “I think the paranormal craze will die down as all Next New Thing hot-buzz lit does.” Instead, she sees historical mysteries, along with the “hot, hot, hot” historical novels grabbing market share. At the same time, Peters predicts a resurgence of the traditional PI and classic crime fiction.

Reflecting these dual trends is a July debut Roman historical from Gale's Five Star imprint, Nox Dormienda (A Long Night for Sleeping). Its author, Kelli Stanley, is a published classics scholar who has taught Latin and Greek. “Nox combines Kelli's love of ancient history [and]… classic noir writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in a new hybrid genre she's calling Roman Noir,” says Five Star acquisitions editor Tiffany Schofield. With advance blurbs from Gayle Lynds, James Rollins, and Ken Bruen, perhaps this unusual debut will make a splash in other formats as well. Are the audio and large print publishers listening?