Sunday, February 26, 2006

Death of the PI Novel

As Sarah Weinman notes in a recent posting, there’s a renewed debate on Rara-Avis (and elsewhere) about whether the private eye novel will survive.

Sarah takes an empirical approach and catalogs all the PI novels she’s aware of that are scheduled for publication in 2006/7—and the list isn’t any too long, especially compared to the publication calendar for the other crime subgenres like thrillers, cozies, etc. (She does neglect an important one: the prequel to that granddaddy of all PI novels, The Maltese Falcon, which, as I posted earlier, is being written by Joe Gores for delivery in 2007.)

I personally think that popularity of the PI novel has been in a decline since the early 90s. What I’m not entirely sure about is whether: 1) readers are less interested in reading them, 2) writers are less interested in writing them, or 3) publishers are less interested in publishing them.

If the system were working perfectly, of course, a decline in readership would cause a decline in publication, which would ultimately result in a decline in the number of writers who were trying to fob the things off on publishers and readers. However, I’m convinced that the buying behavior of editors is very similar to the buying behavior of movie studios and—an area I have even more experience in—the “buying” or funding behaviors of venture capitalists (VCs).

And the interesting thing I’ve learned about the funding behavior of VCs is there is a definite “herd instinct” in selecting investments: once one venture capital firm has a big success funding a company in a particular technology area, they all look for investments in the same area. For example, Netscape’s success in the mid-90s fueled the Internet bust of 2000/1 as everyone sought to put their money in companies with similar business models.

This makes the system less than “perfect.” Good ideas in other areas—such as ones having to do with plain old enterprise software—are ignored and more money than is ideally appropriate is put into companies developing Internet technology.

The analog in the mystery/crime book-buying world is probably the rise of the standalone thriller, based on the success of thrillers by Lehane, Coben and Crais, or the historical thriller based on the success of—you guessed it—The Da Vinci Code. Another piece of evidence that supports the notion of the hegemony of thrillers in the crime fiction world is the recent formation of The International Thriller Writers organization, complete with their own “Thrillerfest.”

This “over-training” on thrillers may be crowding out books in other crime subgenres, particularly subgenres that are perceived to be the oldest and least fashionable: to wit, the PI novel and, one might argue, the “genius” amateur detective novel with protagonists like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Perot and Nero Wolfe.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Bleak House Books is bringing out a trade paperback reprint of my PI novel The Immortal Game in March. I’m going to write a lot more about the process of selling my new novel, Candy from Strangers, in later postings, but I think a digression on the experience of shopping Immortal in the late 90s for its first publication would be instructive as a case-in-point.

The first review the book received when it came out in early 2000 was a very nice one from the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ll forever be in debt to its author—a working PI named Ellen McGarrahan—because it fueled much of the book’s later success, but I had to smile at the irony of her opening and closing sentences:

The appearance of an excellent book by an unknown author from a tiny press is a treasured publishing dream that every so often happens … It's difficult to imagine why this book wasn't snatched up by a larger house, but perhaps that's a fate that awaits the delicious Mr. Riordan next time. One can only hope.
The “dream” very nearly did not happen. After taking time off from my career in software engineering to work on the novel full time, I completed it in a little under a year’s time. I signed with a reputable and well-respected agent in 1997, and we began the process of shopping it to major houses. Here are some excerpts from the rejection letters we received.

From a very successful senior editor who recently paid in excess of two million for a historical thriller:

I like the setting and all the computer details, and I think the narrator’s voice is very entertaining. If I’d read this a few years ago, I probably would have tried to buy it. But the mystery market has become so crowded that I’ve really had to cut back, and I’ve also learned from hard experience that my personal affection for this sort of Chandler-esque novel is apparently not shared by many other mystery buyers.
From an award-winning editor in an executive position in at very large house:

This has a hip setting and a very appealing hero. But I’m afraid that we would have a tough time in today’s competitive market. So, with regret, I’m going to have to step aside.
From another senior editor:

This is a near-miss. I like Mr. Coggins’ writing, and the book is clearly publishable—ten years ago, I’m sure this would have been published without a problem in a mid-list program. Unfortunately, with the market being what it is today, and [publisher name] being overbooked in mysteries in general, I can’t take this on right now. If [it] is still available nine months from now, please feel free to submit it again—maybe things will have loosened up a bit.
It must be said, too, that there were editors who simply did not like the book, including two from the UK who felt it was too raw.

So what do these letters show? I think they back the notion that the PI novel has declined in popularity—that it’s harder to publish one than it was “a few years” or “ten years ago.” But it’s hard to say whether they support my “herd mentality” idea. In the first letter, at least, the editor notes that s/he likes PI novels more than the buying public, which suggests that s/he is buying to satisfy demand, rather than buying to adhere to a trend.

But they also mention the market being “crowded” and “overbooked,” which could just be a polite way of saying no thanks to a book they felt wasn’t quite up to snuff, or might be reflective of the momentum the other subgenres have in the market and the pressure they feel to buy in that pattern.

In any case, I don’t intend all this to be a harangue on New York publishers or an exercise in sour grapes. I’m very happy to have been given the opportunity to write the kind of books I like to write and to have found an audience of readers who share an interest in them.

And lest all this hand-wringing about the private eye novel go too far, it’s very instructive to note that at the moment of this writing there are two, count them, two, private eye novels on the top 15 of the New York Times hardcover fiction list, including a first time effort by an author who is one of the founding sponsors of the International Thriller Writers—John Lescroart!


At 7:58 AM, Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Found your blog thru Sarah's and enjoying it. (went back and read early entries.) Your take on the slow death of the PI novel seems right-on to me and what I am sniffing in the industry wind of late. My series guy was a cop who got booted out of his job and became a PI. But my publisher has been steering me toward "suspense" for several books now, I suspect in response to the thriller trend. I also have several friends who write established series whose publishers have asked them to go the standalone route and to up the "thriller" quotient. They aren't "thrilled" about it but are doing what they must to survive.

I don't know if this is an honest-to-god trend but publishing is cyclical and this shift away from PIs AND procedurals and toward the standalone thriller might be just that -- a cycle. Just like a couple years ago, romance shifted to romantic-suspense.

I'm betting it will cycle back at some point. But there's no point in trying to shape yourself to hit what is hot because it takes 18 months from conception to birth and by then, the trend is spiraling down. The "trick" in this biz is catching the wave at the right moment.


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