RARA-AVIS: Re: The Vanishing PI

From: jimdohertyjr ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 21 Feb 2006


Re your response to my comments below:

>> The traditional PI novel isn't dead. It's not even slumbering.
>> certainly much more ubiquitous and much more healthy now than it
>> in the early '80's when Bob Randisi founded PWA primarily to get
>> PI novel noticed again. At that time, virtually no one was
>> hardcovers published except Pronzini, Block, and Michael Collins.
>> Suffice it to say that there are a lot more now.>>
>> (NOTE: I should have said, Pronzini, Block, PARKER, and Collins)

"I'd be the first to agree that the genre isn't dead. On the other hand, my assertion stands. At this point in American publishing, it is damned difficult to get a new, traditional, male PI series sold to one of the major publishers. I applaud what the folks at Five Star are doing. I've corresponded with them on several occasions and have found them to be top shelf folks, but at best Five Star has to be considered a large small press, perhaps on the order of Poisoned Pen."

I'd say it's more correct to call Five Star a small large press rather than a large small press, though I guess that's a rather fine distinction. But after all, it's a subsidiary of Gale, which also owns Thorndike, which is one of the biggest large-print publishers. That's what gives them their "in" with library sales. That's hardly the same as Poisoned Pen which grew out of a specialty book store
"I'm also very happy to see John Connolly's success with the Charlie Parker series. Well deserved, as is that of Ken Bruen. On the other hand, I've also seen some damned fine PI authors dropped by major houses, including Shamus winners Daniel Judson and Andy Straka, and Edgar nominee Ken Wishnia."

Yeah, but all KINDS of mystery writers, hell all kinds of GENRE writers, are getting dropped by their major houses, not just writers of traditional, male PI stories. This strikes me as less a function of the market for hard-boiled PI fiction than a function of how the publishing business has changed, and not for the better, with all the corporate conglomeration that has gone on in recent years, and the growing tendency to swing for the stands with every published work instead of going for a base hit.

It was precisely because of this tendency that Doubleday, for example, dropped successful, but not best-selling, lines like "Crime Club" and "Double D." Not because the market for genre fiction in hardcover, a market largely dependant on library sales, had dried up
(as Five Star's success proves), but because Doubleday's new masters decided they wanted to hit a home run with every novel they published, and modest but profitable genre lines weren't part of that picture.
"As for St. Martin's, I was a judge for the Best First PI Novel contest they sponsor with PWA. I'm the one who sent Michael Kronenwetter's book up the line to eventually win. I also know they didn't award the prize the next year. Having slogged through dozens of manuscripts to find FIRST KILL, I don't think for a second that this had anything to do with St. Martin's commitment to the genre, but rather that it was probably just an 'off' year for manuscripts. On the other hand, how many "traditional" mystery series and standalones did they launch that year compared to "traditional" PI series?"

Well, there you DO have a point. But, if you talk to book SELLERS, as opposed to writers, particularly those who specialize in mysteries, you'll probably be told that traditional mysteries generally sell better. Jim Huang of The Mystery Company certainly maintains that "cozies" sell better than hard-boiled.

As for stand-alones, well, who's to say? I know it's difficult, but not impossible, to take an established series from one publisher to another, so a lot of writers switch to stand-alones to avoid the issue altogether.

Anyway, we can't KNOW that a book's a stand-alone until the author dies without having written a sequel. There were 40 years or more between Geoffrey Household's classic ROGUE MALE and its sequel ROGUE JUSTICE, but the publication of the second rendered the first a non- stand-alone. There are all kinds of books that were sequels to novels that the authors said they had no plans to write sequels to. Larry McMurtry said he had no plans to write a sequel to LONESOME DOVE, and wound up writing one sequel and two prequels.
"What I reported came from the mouths and keyboards of people buried deep in the business. The message was very clear. When it comes to traditional, hardboiled, knuckles-and-know-how PI stories, the market is largely supported by voices that have been in the biz for ten years or more. The glass basement ceiling for shiny new PI writers is a little thicker than it is for other genres. I think this trend will continue until there's a change in the reading culture, which will probably result from a change in the general culture, or the emergence of an exciting new twist in PI storytelling. In the interim, the niche markets are going to have to continue to pick up the slack."
  Maybe the glass basement ceiling's thicker now than it was four or five years ago, but it's a hell of a lot thinner than it was 20 or so years ago.

Look at the Shamus awards over that period. For the first few years there wasn't even a "First Novel" category. Now there are always enough first-timers to insure four or five top-notch nominees in the category.

I'm not, I admit, "deep in the business." I don't live or die by my contemporary PI fiction. In fact, I've only got two PI short stories in my resume (and one of them's actually a western about a frontier Pinkerton man), so I don't have the same perspective as a full-time pro who's trying to make a living on his private eye novels, but, as a reader, it seems to me that any slowdown that may be going on is probably nothing more than a temporary bump on the road.


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