QUIBBLES & BITS
My bud Rick Helms, Three-Time Shamus Award Nominee, wrote the following:
I recently had an idea about writing a 'traditional' mystery ( in the sense that Nero Wolfe and Ellery Queen were traditional mysteries ) set in Charleston. I've completed about 30k words on it, and thought "Hmmm... maybe this is something I should discuss with my agent."
We've written back and forth several times about this project, and what I've heard is very illuminating. I trust my agent. I think she does a terrific job, and she clearly understands what the industry currently wants to see (or - as I often like to refer to it - the exact opposite of what I'm writing right now).
The gist of these conversations is:
1: To succeed in the market, your protag must appeal to female readers. Why? Because apparently they are the only people buying books - at least from the publishers' perspectives.
2: To succeed in the market, just writing a good, solid mystery with compelling characters and scintillating dialogue won't get it. You also have to have something she calls a 'hook'. From what I can gather, this means that the book has to revolve around some arcane activity like nosehair weaving or nude skysurfing. I am definitely NOT slamming publishers here; they have to make a buck too. The idea, as I have gathered, though, is that the publishers want some kind of guaranteed market niche that will see the book and say, "Look, Mabel, a mystery about reupholstering ottomans! Why, that's what WE do!", and snap it off the shelf faster than you can say Mary Higgins Clark.
3: To succeed in the market, it helps if the ice-skating cat who is investigating your mystery is also psychic, a vampire, or a time-traveler. I am not joking about this.
Boy, was I frustrated. You see, I like to think that I write fiction for MEN. Big, burly men who drink beer and scratch themselves and appreciate a strong plot and witty dialogue and a decent supply of violence. I love football - from August to February it is virtually my religion. I have been known, in a fit of pique, to kick a plastic adirondack chair over my deck rail because my team (GO PANTHERS!) has done something monumentally stupid on the field. I have done this because I am a MAN. I have gallons of testosterone coursing through my veins, and I like to cook over fire and live in places made of wood and stone, and I LIKE yelling at the television screen during football games.
And, apparently, I am the last of my sex who actually buys and reads books, at least if the publishers are to be believed. I read people like Michael Connelly and Robert B. Parker and Dale Brown and Clive Cussler. I read the kind of stuff that would have been serialized in SAGA or ARGOSY twenty or thirty years ago. I like writing these stories, too. That's why the last twenty pages of my book CORDITE WINE read like a scene from THE WILD BUNCH.
I submitted a book featuring the chief of police in a three cop North Carolina town to my agent. She did her damnedest to sell it. The editors wrote glowing responses. One used words like 'marvelous' and 'wonderful' in her rejection letter.
The problem, according to my agent?
The cop wasn't also a part-time taxidermist or hairdresser or barbershop quartet singer, so there was no focus group to target with the title. My agent, whom I admire for talking straight with me, said that five or ten years ago the book would have gone hardcover. Now, though, the people to whom I clearly marketed it - MEN - don't buy books and read them. The publishers couldn't figure out just which niche they could market the title to, and as a result they just decided to take a pass.
All right, fine, I can dig it. I am now enlightened. I understand what the market wants. I'll try to adapt.
Then, my agent drops the bombshell.
Paraphrased, she said, "You shouldn't try to chase the market. You should write what you want to write, the best you can write it. Your integrity as a writer is important to you and to me."
Given my druthers, I'd write about private eyes, and mobsters, and cops solving real crimes without the aid of geriatric doily knitters (is that how you spell doily? How in hell would I know? I'm a MAN, dammit!) My audience would be guys like me who like action and sex and blood and guts and veins in my teeth... oops, started to channel Arlo there for a moment. In my ideal books I want my readers to desire a shower after reading the last page just to wash off the stink of cordite in their clothes.
So, WHERE ARE THE MEN? Where have they all gone? What are they reading, if not books? Are they reading at all? Hell, it can't be television that's keeping them away - on the other hand, it may not be a coincidence that the NASCAR season begins just at the NFL season ends.
Is there a market of men readers out there??
To which I respond:
While stats say that women buy more books than men, all the women I know, all 900 of them, prefer "hard boiled" to soft, or even medium.
I think maybe that's the first time I've heard "hook" used in place of "niche." To me, a hook is a great opening chapter (that hooks me into reading more), not subject matter like fishing gear, a pirate's hand, or the little thingy you use to...tat? As a matter of fact, I was thinking about writing a "tatting mystery" starring a pirate with a missing hand --- a serial killer who preys on prostitutes (or mermaids). Tentative title: TIT FOR TAT.
Except I can't tat, which probably wouldn't matter; all I'd have to do is include a pattern (and a cover blurb by Johnny Depp).
But first, I want to finish my mystery about the psychic figure-skating cat who travels back to 15th-Century England (oh, lord, did they have plagues or what?)
And for the record, I always have MEN in mind when I write my diet club mystery series, my witch series, and my Hitchcock the Dog series.
In fact, a highwayMAN is the co-star of THE LANDLORD'S BLACK-EYED DAUGHTER.
GO B.C. LIONS! GO BRONCOS!