Risky Reading

Rob Kitchin’s post about the publishing industry looking for minor variations on a theme rather than new and interesting works has prompted this particular ramble. I can sense Rob’s frustration as an author trying to get something ‘different’ published and I thought I’d share that readers (or this reader anyway) are equally frustrated. Sadly I don’t have any great insight into getting publishers to acknowledge this.

Over the past 2-3 years I have changed my reading habits considerably. I used to read loads of the ‘well done but already done’ books that the publishing industry loves. I relied almost exclusively on what was on offer at local chain stores which was usually the massively popular authors (James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter etc). If that’s not all the chains stock it’s pretty much all they promote and they usually offer them cheaper than the quirky or the translated or the oddball books and price is a big factor in book buying in Australia. I was actually starting to read far less than I’d ever done because I was bored to tears by most of it but didn’t know where to go to find stuff that might interest me.

Sometime during early 2008 I stumbled across the Aust Crime Fiction website and was simply astonished. There were Australian crime writers? Who knew? I’m being a little facetious there (I’d read books by Jennifer Rowe, Gabrielle Lord, Shane Maloney and one or two others) but I had no idea there were dozens of Australian crime writers. I had soon tracked down a few new titles and was enjoying the pleasure of reading something different. After that one website I got a bit more deliberate in my searching and discovered even more brilliant resources, like Euro Crime, and started following a few book bloggers who seemed to be enjoying their reading more than I had been.

And so a monster was born (a monster being defined as a 150+ item TBR pile).

In 2009 I finished 126 books and 74 of them were by new to me authors. So far this year 41 of the 79 books I have finished have been by new to me authors. Over the past 18 months I’ve read 28 books that weren’t first written in English which doesn’t sound like a terribly high number until you consider that in the 40 years prior to that I’d probably read about 3 translated books in total (and one of those was The Little Prince when I was in primary school). In short, I have been taking risks as a reader and have been on what I called a few weeks ago a discovery kick.

Of course I haven’t loved all the books but I am enjoying the experience as a whole. I am reading more books more eagerly than ever because each new book, each reading risk, offers the potential for something wonderful. And along with the comfort reads (there’ll always be a place in my heart for a jolly good English police procedural and ‘my’ American private detectives) there are books that aren’t easily categorised. The books that Rob calls well done but not already done.  My favourite books of the last two years (2008 and 2009) are a world away from what my lists of the previous years would have been (if I’d kept lists then) (which I didn’t).

But on the increasingly rare occasions I venture back into a local bookstore I don’t notice much change from what I call the dark days. Because I know what to look for now I can fossick out the lone copy of the odd translated book but it’s still the Pattersons et al that are promoted on most of the shelf space. Sure this week all the stores have displays featuring Truth by Peter Temple but it wasn’t nearly as prominent when it was published back in December (I found a single copy on the bottom shelf of a local store only a few days after the book’s publication).

Do publishers believe we all want to read the same thing over and over again because it’s true? Or do they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by commissioning few alternatives? Why are they looking for the next Stieg Larsson (I must have read two dozen articles on this theme in the past 10 days)? Surely they can grasp that at least part of the reason the Millennium trilogy has been so successful is that it is quite different from what’s already on people’s shelves. Readers have enjoyed those differences. Embraced them even. Wouldn’t it be great if the publishers were looking for the next batch of new authors with something different again to offer?

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10 Responses to Risky Reading

  1. Bernadette – Thanks so much for your perspective on this. I agree completely with you about what bookstores offer; trust me, that makes it a real challenge to get them to open up to including even a few copies of books by a lesser-known author. I understand the financial aspect of this; no-one wants to lose a lot of money. But it is frustrating for a lot of people: people who might love a new author but find it hard to locate one; writers who want to get exposure, and avid readers like yourself who want high-quality books, whether or not they’re bestsellers. I wish I had a magic wand or something to solve this problem. I will say, though, that that’s why I so like the Internet. There are a lot of ways to learn about new books, new authors, new series and so on. There are also many ways (and I like your choice of websites to recommend) to find out more about books and series before deciding whether to buy. I wonder how long it will be before publishers see that there is a healthy market out there for books of all sorts that aren’t “Good but done before.”

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  2. Maxine says:

    Your journey is pretty much mirrored by me, Bernadette. First off I discovered amazon and was shown “similar books”, some of which were by authors I’d never heard of as not in bookstores. Then I started blogging and after a while, discovered crime fiction blogs! Initially Sarah Weinman but then It’s a Mystery and Euro Crime and others….and have not looked back. Like you I now read many authors new to me, and have travelled the world in a way I never did when I was stuck to what the bookshops or libraries had in stock. I still have my old favourites (Michael Connelly for example) but my reading average enjoyment is much higher since online reading discussion and online book ordering!

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  3. Maxine says:

    (I meant It’s a Crime not It’s a Mystery, sorry. Crime Fiction Reader’s blog – which I discovered via her comments on some other non-crime blogs I was following when I first started blogging. Via her, I found others eg Euro Crime, Material Witness, Crime Scraps…….)

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  4. Patty says:

    I agree with everyone…I love finding first novels and under published works by amazing authors…and I love my favorites, too…and so far they have never disappointed…

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  5. Mack says:

    I used to eagerly await my Borders discount coupons but I don’t remember the last time I used one. Now days I find out about books from blogs and Book Depository and Amazon get my orders. I am looking forward to a trip to New York City where there are two! specialty mystery book stores.

    Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man and Day of the Jack Russell provide a wonderful, snarky, cynical look at the crime fiction market – authors, publishers, readers, and trying to run a specialty book store.

    From Mystery Man
    “… the shop door opened and a man came in and asked if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said, yes, if you are a moron.”

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  6. Barbara says:

    Mack, come to Minneapolis; we have two mystery bookstores as well, and one is attached to the oldest science fiction store in (??) the country, I think.

    I think publishers have absolutely no idea what’s likely to work, so they figure what has worked before is their best bet. And while the majority of book sales are made by avid readers who read a lot and want variety, a lot of people read very few books, and don’t want to experiment. Like going to McDonald’s because it may not be great, but you know what you’re getting. Every time.

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  7. kathy durkin says:

    This is such a good topic and blog. I give credit to the Internet and the wonderful blogs I’ve read over the years to open up my reading to new authors and adventures. Who knew about the Scandinavians or about Fred Vargas or so many more? I’d read mostly U.S. authors, women, whom I liked and still like–Sara Paretsky, etc. I’d discovered Denise Mina’s Garnethill series from a friend and Tana French. But then I began reading blogs and reviews, like Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and then found Euro Crime, and then, recently, Petrona and this blog, which are terrific. (And lots more, don’t mean to slight anyone.) And I also do give credit to Marilyn Stasio’s NYTBR as she has written terrific reviews and I have read many books she has recommended.
    Finding the Canadian Crime Writers website gave me L.R. Wright, a delightful writer of suspense, and Barbara Fister’s Scandinavian blog and website list of authors, has been a great find.
    Every day is an adventure to go to the blogs and read the reviews and comments.
    Now I know of more Spanish, French, Italian (and, of course, more Scandinavian), South American, Asian, Australian, African–even Antartic–authors and books which I’d never known of. The TBO (To Be Ordered) and TBR pile is growing, not as big as Bernadette’s, but daunting, nevertheless.
    And following the debates and discussions on the Millenium Trilogy, etc., all over the blogosphere has been great fun.
    It’s all good. And so glad I found this blog recently. Now I have books listed from Australasia and more. And the opinions are great to read.
    Read on! Write on! (pun intended)

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  8. Kerrie says:

    Bernadette, today I was browsing our local Mary Martin’s looking for new-to-me crime fiction authors and was really staggered to find that they were pretty scarce. I really don’t think it is that they don’t exist, it is just that they were not on the MM shelves. There were a lot of the tried and true ones, many that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole because they are simply another “episode in the life of..”
    Thank goodness for challenges like the 2010 Global Reading Challenge that sends us off looking.

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  9. Thanks all for your thoughts on this issue, it’s strangely comforting to know that others have had similar experiences. I can remember feeling really silly when I first started to realise how much good stuff was being published that I hadn’t known about before but at least I wasn’t alone in having to stumble around in the dark for a while.

    I am so jealous of those of you with access to specialist stores. We have one in the entire country but it’s not in my state and it only sells second hand books. I don’t have anything against SH books but you don’t get the same kind of author support being generated and really they only have for sale what others have already bought and finished with.

    Mack thanks for the tip about the Colin Bateman book – this is exactly the kind of thing I love about my new reading life…My library has it and I’m second in the queue to read it 🙂

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  10. kathy durkin says:

    Check out the Book Depository which ships around the world. There are no shipping fees! No, I’m not working for them. I just ordered “Hypothermia,” which won’t be available in the U.S. until September, and it showed up less than a week later, the UK paperbook. You may be able to get a lot of international fiction there. I have found most of what I have been looking for, which I heard of at Petrona.

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