The Sisters in Crime Publishers Summit team members Roberta Isleib, JudyClemens, Jim Huang, and Nancy Martin visited publishing professionals in NewYork on May 14 and 15. The report on the publishing summit will run all week. Your comments and discussion are encouraged. The summit team is available to field your questions.
Sisters in Crime Publishers Summit 2008, Part III
By Jim Huang
Barnes & Noble’s offices are at the corner of 5th Avenue and 18th Street, a location that’s full of nostalgia for me: it’s the location of the original B&N store that my family and I shopped in when I was growing up in New York and New Jersey, back when B&N was just an incredibly wonderful independent before transforming into the force it is today.
I was really looking forward to our visit, not just out of nostalgia, but for the opportunity to learn more about B&N, which accounts for about $5 billion in annual sales (in stores and on the web). We hear so much rumor and speculation about chain booksellers; we were grateful that mystery buyer Dan Mayer agreed to meet with us.
We told Dan about the message that we’d been hearing: thrillers are hot, mysteries are not. Dan introduced himself as a lover of mysteries, and more or less right away we got a very different, much more upbeat take on the mystery genre.
While not disagreeing that thrillers are hot, Dan said that cozies are not a hard sell for him, adding that agents and editors need to see the sales reports that he’s seeing. He agrees with everyone else we met that paranormal is huge right now, and said that historicals are also big. Craft cozies are still selling.
He believes that the genre will continue to grow before it shrinks, noting that readers are getting older, retiring and having more time to read and have fun. Minneapolis is his biggest market for mysteries, which are also strong in Naples, Florida, Texas and California. He does not believe that most writers sell only regionally. He wishes there were more mysteries for younger readers, saying that the demand is there.
Dan is committed to series, saying that it’s crucial to keep all the books in a series in print. If the continuity is broken, it’s hard to keep the series alive. He said that it’s especially hard to keep a series going if the author jumps houses. He is invested in keeping authors in print, and tries to carry a whole series, not just parts of it – which is difficult when there are two houses involved. He also noted that it takes a long time for an author to make it big, so the backlist needs to stay available.
He’s disappointed that the publishing world seems to think that a bestseller should be in fiction rather than being categorized in genre. We discussed an example of a writer whose first two books were packaged as thrillers and sold ok. The publisher re-did the packaging when the third book was published, identifying the book as “A XXXX Mystery.” The first and second books were also relabeled as “XXXX Mysteries,” and all three books were moved out of fiction into the mystery section. Sales went up.
The packaging of a book is crucial to him: it’s all in the cover. He’s tired of fuzzy, black and white, shadowy noir covers, saying that these are not original at all. A cover should make it clear what kind of book it is, and it needs to be professional – a problem for some small presses. He can suggest to a publisher that if it changes a cover, he’ll buy more copies, but he said that the perception of B&N’s power is overstated and that publishers often do not listen to him.
Times are hard for hardcovers. Trade paperbacks are doing well. In fact, he would prefer to see a trade paperback follow a hardcover, rather than a mass market paperback reprint, and he also spoken approvingly of the move to repackage select backlist mass market titles into trade paperback editions. He does not like to see titles go from hardcover to trade paperback to mass market, noting that if a title is selling well as a trade paperback, he prefers to keep selling it at that price point. He still thinks that authors can be successfully launched in paperback originals. He added that some format decisions are determined by Wal-Mart, which will dictate how it wants a book published.
He believes there’s a fine line between customers knowing what kind of book they like and originality. He notes that there are a lot of “table shoppers” in Barnes & Noble stores, folks who are browsing tables but not looking at the stacks. (Mass market paperbacks are not displayed on tables, but trade paperbacks are.) He says that mystery customers are voracious, echoing something we heard in more than one office about the loyalty and devotion of genre fans.
Barnes & Noble is often a scapegoat for practically anything that goes wrong in this business; Dan is aware of this and understands it. But over the course of our hour with him, it became clear how unfairly the chain is painted. We were impressed with his own devotion to the genre, and his earnest and thoughtful approach to his job.
After our meeting with Dan Mayer, we returned to the Princeton Club for drinks with Kate Stine and Brian Skupin of Mystery Scene. This was more of a casual get-together, in a setting that does not allow business to be conducted. Kate did offer an especially interesting and useful bit of advice for writers, saying that “sometimes PR is about what you can do for the other guy.” In other words, the author who does favors and makes an effort to stay in touch with people in the business is likely to be remembered and kept in the loop.
Don't miss the wrap-up tomorrow!