Tuesday, April 13, 2004

To gripe or not to gripe, that is the question 

Since this blog tends to focus on the world of mystery and crime fiction, I hang around on a lot of different message boards, mailing lists, and one newsgroup (rec.arts.mystery) in various lurking and posting modes, to keep abreast of what readers and fans are talking about at the moment. Every so often, a writer is brought up who either is a current or former favorite, has achieved some sort of bestselling success, but the fans are upset? Why? Because they aren't doing what they used to, or have moved up in the world and left people behind.

Five years ago, when I became a crime fiction fan in earnest, I was looking for new writers to try. By the end of the year, I had four writers that were at the very top of my list: Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Dennis Lehane. At that point in each of their careers, they were what I call "upper echelon midlist". That is, all were still writing their series novels, but none had become the super-bestselling or super-acclaimed writers that they are now. Back then, they were commonly listed as the creme de la creme, the writers a mystery fan had to read. Simple as that. The booksellers loved hosting them at bookshops, and had eagerly handsold their books to even more eager customers. Happy endings, right?

Fast forward a few years, and things sure look different now. And the sound of griping that you hear has gotten just a little bit louder.

I've already blogged about Crais's issues before, but I'll make the point again that for whatever reason--the publication delays, the change in focus, perhaps some contentious issues with his publisher--fans are starting to turn off. Lehane's fans are polarized in a myriad of directions, from loving the fact that he's branching out into literary waters to whining about how he's "lost it" and the Kenzie/Gennaro novels are so much better. While I wish people would just stop with that line of argument already, the fact is that they exist, for whatever reason.

Michael Connelly's probably the most unscathed of the quartet, as he still gets critical acclaim, meets his publisher's deadlines, and for the most part, has improved his writing, or at least has made a concerted effort to do so. But the current griping is from those in the bookselling or reviewing business, wondering why his upcoming book, THE NARROWS, is only being issued to folks in finished copy format. I've explained the rationale behind this as well, but the griping has returned on the Deadly Pleasures Bulletin Board (registration required) where I explain what I think is the rationale behind the marketing campaign in a little more detail. Basically, the problem here is habituation--every book to date has had an advance copy, so why not keep going to satisfy people's collections? Except that's not why galleys are given out--it's to enhance an author profile and get those who are in a position to sell copies to sell more copies. But again, Connelly's a huge bestseller here, and that makes him a target for people's gripes.

Which brings me to Harlan Coben, who with each successive standalone, increases his sell-through rate and name recognition but is starting to reach some sort of nadir. On one mailing list I'm subscribed to, a well-known amateur reviewer complained that his latest newsletter had been reduced to a few lines about his latest book--what happened to the personable, funny newsletters of a few years before? You know, just like his funny, relatively personable Myron Bolitar series novels? Others concurred, especially as the advance reaction to his new novel, JUST ONE LOOK, is lukewarm at best. Coben, to his credit, found a way to break out of midlist by writing thrillers about family fears--missing loved ones, kidnappings, suburban settings--and they have sold big, allowing him to switch publishers for a high seven-figure deal. But the lament has been that each time out, he writes the same book. I wouldn't go so far, but I'll say this much: I thought the first standalone, the Edgar-nominated TELL NO ONE, was fine. I thought the next, GONE FOR GOOD, was even better. But with NO SECOND CHANCE, the cracks were showing through. The same tricks, the same "formula"--yeah, it worked, but to what end? And from what I gather about the new one from reactions I've read and have heard personally, it affirms my lack of enthusiasm for reading the book. Unless he tries something substantially different, or at least makes an attempt to stretch himself creatively, I'm not going to reach for his books in the future.

But that's my choice. Which brings me to the ultimate point of this post, long-winded intro that this is:

Writers write and readers read. Sometimes the two match up, and enthusiastically at that. But sometimes writers go in a different direction than readers would like them to. Are we entitled to like that or force them to do what they were doing before? Not a chance. That helps no one. Are we entitled to like the fact that marketing campaigns may change and we may not read books as early as we want them to? Nope. And similarly, are we entitled to a book from our favorites every calendar year? I don't think so (though that's another rant for another day.) People change, and tastes change. Booksellers may get upset when a writer they like was doing the mystery circuit and then doesn't anymore. That may be the writer's fault, or it's (usually) due to the publisher's notions that said writer is more literary than genre and tour appearances should reflect that. C'est la vie. Doesn't necessarily mean the writer is "too good for the likes of us," just that well, things change based on new data. Fans may get upset when writers switch directions, whether by choice or by publishing directive. These things happen. Don't like it? Don't buy the author's books anymore. Vote with your pocketbooks.

And ultimately, a lot of folks like to gripe. And hey, I do it too--it can be fun to blow off steam. But it's a lot more important to actually address what is happening and why. In other words, don't bitch without backing it up. That's all a girl can ask.

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