RARA-AVIS: The vanishing PI

From: Racerick75@aol.com
Date: 20 Feb 2006

 Tim Wohlforth wrote:
<<But there is a problem with new PI fiction. Certain established writers are doing just fine with the sub-genre: Crais, Pelecanos, Grafton come to mind. I once pointed this out to a top NYC agent. His response was that while some PI novels hit the best seller lists it was almost impossible to sell a PI novel to a major publishing house. Go figure!

I have a PI series published by a small press, Quiet Storm. Jim Winter also shares this publisher. One novel, NO TIME TO MOURN, was published in 2004 while the second in the series RUNNING OUT OF TIME is due out in a month or so. It has been tough sledding. I have had some successful book talks (including 3 just this last week or so). However, it is extremely difficult to get books into mystery bookstores and independents, not to mention the chains. Not impossible, but close to it. And reviews in major outlets, critical to sales, forgetaboutit.>>
  I found an agent a couple of years ago for the first book in my Eamon Gold PI series, GRASS SANDAL. She worked her butt off trying to find a home for it at one of the major publishers, without success. I have all the rejection letters, which she sent me after we decided (very amicably) to part ways.
  Most of them said the same basic thing: "Love the book, can't sell it." Because this series is based on the traditional PI formula, the editors saw it as a throw-back. Several mentioned that it was reminiscent of Crais' THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT, or some of Spillane's work. All of them said that it would be very difficult to sell it in today's "competitive market". One agent rejected it, saying that he absolutely loved it, but had no idea who in New York would buy it. He thought that he might have been able to sell it to Otto Penzler, but then Penzler dropped out of the publishing biz, leaving the agent with no viable options for selling a new traditional male PI series.
  The authors that Jim mentioned (Pelecanos, Crais, Grafton), are not new to the business. They've been around for a pretty respectable period of time. I have a hard time thinking of a single new PI writer over the last five years who has hit the ground running and scored a major hit. For better or for worse, name recognition sells books, and there simply aren't any new "name" PI writers. Because of this, the major publishers are gunshy about taking on a new series in what they see as a vanishing genre.
  Fortunately, there is a publishing niche for PI writers at places like Quiet Storm, UglyTown, and Back Alley. If you are devoted to the genre, and really want to write it, there are places to get published. You just have to be willing to give up niceties like large advances, widespread distribution, and print runs in the tens of thousands. You should also probably forget about making a significant amount of money. Writing the PI series these days is very much a labor of love.
  I have a new agent now, but she's working to sell a different kind of series. The Bigs seem much more amenable to police procedurals and thrillers, so I've headed off in that direction. I'll still pound out the occasional Pat Gallegher or Eamon Gold story, and the thriller I wrote last year included a female PI as a major player, but for the time being the handwriting is on the wall.
  The good news is that what goes around comes around. In time the PI genre will regain its mass appeal. I'd suspect, though, that as a genre it will look substantially different in form and style than what we grew accustomed to reading in the twentieth century. The twenty-first century PI has to embrace technology in the real world, and I have a feeling that this will be just as important in the fictional one as well. That's one of the reasons I kind of liked the series EYES last year, with Tim Daly. While it was a one-joke show, I do think it was a portent of things to come. R
  Richard Helms Two-Time Shamus Award Nominee Look for CORDITE WINE (0-9710159-6-1), the second Eamon Gold PI novel, from Back Alley Books! website: http://hometown.aol.com/murdvoocarre
"Cordite Wine is tough, funny, exciting, and very good!" -Robert B. Parker

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