Questions on Mysteries

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 08 2010

An author whose mystery I considered received an offer from a smaller press and had some questions for me before accepting the offer . . .

What are your thoughts on my pursuing this route? Is it worth doing in hopes of landing a big-time agent and/or publisher? Is it better to keep editing and approaching big-time agents? On average, what is a fair advance for a first-time mystery/suspense author w/a large publisher (what’s too low?) and how many hardcover units do most first-time authors sell?

Of course the answer to these questions are going to vary widely, but I’ll see what I can do.

Whether or not you go with a small publisher depends greatly on your goals for your book. I’ve often said the same about those who choose to self-publish. Is your goal simply to get published or is your goal to be published with a big house? Certainly there are plenty of stories of authors who started out with smaller presses and moved on to big success with agents and larger houses. One thing that I think I’ve failed to address when this issue comes up, however, is not just how few and far between those successes are, but the time in which those successes happened. Sure, many of you will point to a bestselling author today and remind me that she did it that way, but did any of you consider that she launched her career 20 years ago? Publishing has changed dramatically in the past year, which means it’s difficult to look at something that happened 3, 4 or especially 5 to 10 years ago and use that as your guide.

A small press, heck a large press, does not give you an easy in to landing an agent or publisher. In fact, most often I see it hurting the author. An unpublished author only has to overcome the market and her own writing, a published author has to overcome the sales numbers of any previously published book. Those sales numbers, if low, are going to be a much higher hurdle to jump than any market shifts or agent subjectivity. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Bookstores place orders based on sales numbers of previously published books. If your last book only sold 5,000 copies in paperback, they are only going to order 5,000 copies of your book in paperback, and even fewer in hardcover (not that you would likely get a hardcover deal if your numbers were that low). Again, there are always exceptions, but this is the norm and this is what agents and editors will need to consider with any new project. And by the way, 5,000 copies is not enough to please a publisher.

How fair is an advance? There’s not a clear-cut answer to that because it depends on what you’re writing. Since you said mystery/suspense my question would be is it mystery or suspense? In all honesty, there aren’t that many publishers actively looking for new mystery authors. There are more looking for new suspense authors, but they are only looking for a few. Unlike romance, you don’t see many mystery/suspense-only editors these days. It’s a tough market. And how low is too low? Whatever the market supports. A lot of mysteries are published first in paperback; those that are published in hardcover receive higher advances. As to how many copies most first-time authors sell? That number could range from 1,000 to 100,000. The crazy thing about this business is that the extremes are great and so are the variables. A cozy mystery differs greatly from a thriller, etc.

So there’s essentially a list of non-answers for you, but maybe some of my published mystery/suspense readers would be willing to share their experiences, advances, sales numbers. Anonymously, of course.


24 responses to “Questions on Mysteries”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Considering how challenging it is to achieve paying (any kind of pay) publication *at all,* I am not even remotely concerned with this issue.

    I'll be querying everyone, editors and agents, big press, small press, and epubs too, all at once, and taking the best deal I'm offered, if I'm offered at all. I certainly won't turn one down because it won't lead directly to New York.

  2. Wow, this really sheds light on a recent event which unfolded for me recently.

    I accepted a publishing agreement from a small Inde publisher because it was an offer to get published.

    It was only after the fact (before I signed a contract) in which I did the math and realized I would only be making 1.60$ a book, with no advance. Yes, I consider that very low.

    But I could have lived with that, it was the demand of putting the publisher's very large, very tacky unprofessional looking logo across the top cover of my book that broke the deal.

    My cover art didn't allow room for it and he refused to budge.

    So, I'm back to the drawing board with querying.

    I think all aspiring authors should research many things before breaking into print.

    Thanks for your insight.

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I have several romantic suspense novels published with small presses. My true love, however, is traditional mystery, and I just finished writing one. I've begun the query process, but this post certainly opened my eyes to the reality of what's likely to happen.

    Too bad, because I, for one, much prefer mystery over suspense and wish publishers would offer a wider variety of genre choices.

  4. Great points! I also would point to an article in the recent Romance Writers Report about "author mills" — small presses who publish very low print runs of each book and spend most of their efforts begging authors to buy extra copies of their own books to distribute for sale, along with making authors do all the work when it comes to marketing the book…and bookstores refusing to carry the book. Before I signed with any publisher with whom I was unfamiliar, I'd first make sure the local bookstores will carry books by those publishers.

    Author mills

  5. Avatar Steph Damore says:

    Thanks for this post, and to those who have commented thus far–lots of good information.

    Personally, my goal isn't only to be published, but to build a writing career. I am slightly nervous at your comment, Jessica, that "there aren’t that many publishers actively looking for new mystery authors" as my heart is into writing cozy mysteries. But, if I follow Ms. Stanely's advice from yesterday, I should also stay true to my voice. I know it's a risk, but I'm going to take my chances (for now) with my cozy mystery and hope for the best.

    Thanks again.

  6. Avatar Heidi Willis says:

    I just had my debut novel published with a small press, which was no small decision for me. It's been an excellent process, though, and while I'm doing lots of marketing myself, it's no less than I'd expect to do with a larger publisher, especially if I wasn't one of their top tier writers.

    My questions for you, Jessica, is this: You mentioned that agents and publishers look for how many books have sold, but what happens if I'm ready to query a new novel with an agent within six months of publishing the first? If my first book hasn't sold 5,000 copies in the first few months, is that a drawback, or do agents accept that a book from a small publisher might take a little more time to gain momentum?

  7. Avatar Jason Black says:

    Jessica's core comment, "it depends on what your goals are," pretty much nails it.

    That said (and I have to admit to being incredibly biased, here, as someone who happens to own a small press), I say go with the small press. Why? A few reasons:

    * The small press is much more likely to care about you as a person, and to actually like your book themselves. That's not the same as money, but there's something to be said for working with people who can actually give you the time of day.

    * The small press is much more likely to engage you and respect your feelings about matters such as cover art.

    * Average per-title sales across the entire industry are probably a lot lower than you think. Selling 5000 copies is WAY above average, and a committed small press ought to be able to do that.

    * If your book does amazingly well, the smallness of the press isn't going to matter. If the book does well enough to interest a big house, the small press will probably say yes to a buy-out offer for your book; in effect, the small press just agented the book to the large press for you. On the other hand, if the book does super-amazingly well, then the small press isn't going to be so small anymore. Problem solved!

    * Speaking of agents, much as they perform a valuable service in the industry, with a small press you're much more likely to get a deal without an agent, and keep that agent's commission for yourself.

    * Either way, at the end of the day a lot of authors just want to be able to say that they're published, in a for-real, not on kind of way. Sure, it's a big deal if Tor picks up your new epic fantasy novel or whatever. That's major street cred. But it's a big deal if a small press agrees to put their name, reputation, and often quite limited marketing budget behind your book. All presses are choosy, but small presses are choosy in a way that bigger presses aren't necessarily forced to be. A big press can absorb a few duds, but the small press has to be sure they can at least break even on everything. So for a small press to back your book, that's no small testament to how the people at that press feel about your book's overall quality. It's different from major publisher acceptance, but it's something to be genuinely proud of just the same.

    If you have the incredible luxury of choosing between offers from a large press and a small press, obviously you'd be a fool not to choose the large press. But your odds of getting an offer from a small press are higher to begin with (being as there are so many more small presses to choose from), and those presses have their own good points that are worth considering, too.

    Happy publishing!

  8. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I don't write mystery, but I did start with an small epublisher in 1998 before anyone knew what ebooks were. Sales were abysmal, but at the same time, I was learning more about my craft. My first NY sale came from a series that was selling online through a small epublisher, and I know of many other authors who've made the leap from epublishing to print: MaryJanice Davidson, Dakota Cassidy, Michele Bardsley, Shiloh Walker, Lora Leigh–but all of those, myself included, write erotic paranormal romance, and all of us happened to hit the market when that genre was hot. In a perfect world, an author writes a book, finds an agent and gets a contract. The world is far from perfect and competition is growing stronger each year.

    There's a lot to be said for learning more about publishing through working with a small press, but to really take a career to that next step, I can't imagine doing it without a good agent and a big publishing house as my ultimate goal.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I just checked the NYT bestseller list and I'd say almost HALF of the top novels are MYSTERIES! So why aren't pubs looking for unique mysteries from debut authors?

    The number of mystery readers aren't going down–in fact, they seem to be more loyal to the mystery genre and an author than a fickle teen who likes YA. What will she read in a few years?

    I think pubs who don't actively seek mystery/suspense are missing a big chunk of the market. Their loss–and ours!

  10. Avatar Mira says:

    Not only the post, but the comments are interesting.

    I see alot of benefit to small press or e-book publishing, but I think people are wise to really thoroughly research what they are getting into.

    I also want to say there's a third option, which is to wait for the market.

    If mysteries aren't selling now, they may be selling later.

    I guess this depends upon your goals, but it does seem like so many people are in such a rush. Why not wait abit and see if the market changes?

    Of course, it's hard to know sometimes what the market is, but you can also guess. In economic hard times, people will want things that are fun and/or comforting to read. If you write horror, this may not be the time to try to get published, for example. Of course, I could be completely wrong – maybe horror is jumping off the charts, but that would be my guess.

    Good luck to the author on finding a home, whatever they choose!

  11. Avatar Terry Odell says:

    To Anonymous speaking of the NYT list. Bookshelves lump mysteries, suspense and thrillers together. Ms. Faust was drawing a line between mystery and suspense, which are two sub-sets under the larger mystery umbrella.

    In romance, the genre is all lumped together as 'romantic suspense' although it's suppose to cover the gamut from cozy to thriller. However, having given in the 'suspense' moniker, readers assume the books will be suspense. But there are differences.

  12. Anonymous #1 said:
    I'll be querying everyone, editors and agents, big press, small press, and epubs too, all at once, and taking the best deal I'm offered, if I'm offered at all.

    I suggest you rethink that approach. If you are unknown, and you query "everyone" simultaneously, you've already got a strike or two against you.

    A query is a request that you be invited to go into business with the agent or publisher. You are offering your book, and asking them to back it with their reputation and financial resources. If you have not already built a reputation to bring to the deal, it is unlikely that the publishing industry will beat the path to your door. Your best chance is to understand where your book fits in the current market (and current market trends), and query the agent or publisher that is the best match for your work. Sending blanket queries to "everyone", without regard for the suitability of your manuscript to their interests (and current needs) will build you a reputation – but not one you'd care to have.

    There are several literary agent blogs running; read 6 months of a couple of those, and you've got a better chance to avoid self sabotage.

  13. Avatar Mira says:

    Jonathan, I agree that reading agent blogs prior to querying is an excellent idea. However, I might be wrong, but I don't think multiple queries will build you a reputation. Agents get so many queries. I doubt they share info about who queries them….?

  14. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    Interesting answers. I'm hoping if I self-publish in one genre and keep submitting to publishers in another, maybe the self-pubbed bit won't hurt too much. Not that anyone, big or small, has ever said yes. If they did, I'd find it extremely hard to say no.

  15. Avatar Jana Oliver says:

    I've not run into the problem of small press publication causing issues with obtaining a NY publisher. I signed with a big press this spring after three years at an indy Canadian press. The awards I won while at that press helped me sign with my agent and I'd like to think they might have helped with the NY contract.

    My time at the small press paired me with an incredible editor who helped me hone my skills. I don't believe I would be writing for St. Martin's now if I hadn't spent the time at Dragon Moon Press.

    One disclaimer, however. I switched genres (SF&F/historical mystery to Y.A.) so that does give my new publisher's sales reps more leeway when it comes to those dreaded numbers

  16. Avatar writergrrrl says:

    Thank you, Jana, for weighing in. Your experience is very encouraging. It's good to know that starting with a reputable small press can lead to bigger things.

    Congratulations on your St. Martin's deal!

  17. Just a perspective from an indi-publisher’s point of view: when XYSTUM Publishing begins taking manuscripts the deal will basically be something like this:

    A $500 advance.

    A 50/50 split of net e-book revenues.

    Quality original cover art.

    Editing, line-editing, and probably the best e-book formatting in the industry.

    Placement on every e-reader platform in existence.

    And we will sell it as hard as we can. Because we want to make money off it–I'll bet even more than the writer does.

    But we are a small indi-publisher; there won't be any TV trailers or that sort of thing. The author may not get all that a big publisher could give them, but I'll bet we give all that a big publisher will give them. We are a legitimate North American publisher, our ISBN is 9802475. If a writer comes with us as we start up, then they have to realize it’s a start up company—but we came to play. And indi-publishers, just like us, are going to dominate the publishing world in the next few years.

    On top of that, we’re completely transparent in our dealings. In fact, I'll tell you right now, our motive is simple: we want a massive slush pile of gothic manuscripts and we want to go panning for gold. We're small, we're start up, but we believe in gothic literary art, we will accept nothing less, and we believe one day we'll discover the next Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Bronte. We’re small, but we’re passionate. Our first title is coming out in March (No doubt it will be late and come out in June, but what can you do?).

    I resent that “small publishing” and “self-publishing” were mention in the same sentence-breath in the OP. I think that’s unfair, but hey, that’s life.

    What role will agents have in an indi-publishing environment? Probably none. We won’t deal with agented manuscripts—we can’t afford to. Let the big dogs have the agents. Because the next Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker will come from an indi-press, you watch.

  18. Avatar Jana Oliver says:

    Thanks, writergrrrl. It's been one heckuva ride.

    Gordon – I didn't mind the fact that self-pub and small press are mentioned in the same breath. They're just different points on the publishing continuum and I didn't sense the intent to tar small with self-pub "cooties". The takeaway message is that each writer has to decide how they're going to tackle their career, then live with the consequences.

  19. Avatar Layne says:

    Jana Oliver wrote: "I switched genres SF&F/historical mystery to Y.A."

    Why the switch from mysteries? Over time, it seems easier to have/build a larger, more loyal fan base with a mystery versus YA.

  20. Avatar Jana Oliver says:

    Actually, I think the potential is greater in YA than in straight mystery if your books appeal to both teens and adults (as in Stephenie Meyer, P.C. Cast, etc). Teen sales numbers are amazing. Often Y.A. advances are higher and foreign rights are purchased a bit quicker. (At least they were in my case).

    Since I wrote genre-blended mysteries the switch to urban fantasy wasn't difficult. I had intended to write an adult U.F., but a friend persuaded me to consider writing a Y.A. protagonist given the success of her novels. To my delight the story actually worked. Of course, at the heart of the series is a mystery (grin).

    So there was a conscious financial component to my decision, but it was tempered by the demands of the story. If that hadn't worked I wouldn't have moved forward with the project. Extra money is always welcome but not if the book sucks. That's way hard to walk back.

  21. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sold a "mystery" (although I billed it as a thriller, as does the publisher but it's technically a whodunnit style mystery) to a small press for a $5,000 advance, without an agent, last year, for a MMPB release. Asked me to write another one but wouldn't contract for book #2 until seeing it (or perhaps until seeing how #1 sells?).

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "I'll be querying everyone, editors and agents, big press, small press, and epubs too, all at once, and taking the best deal I'm offered, if I'm offered at all. I certainly won't turn one down because it won't lead directly to New York."

    I generally agree with this strategy with the following caveat: the larger players (i.e. agent-NYC house route) take longer to respond than do the smaller players. So I recommend giving the big players a 3-month head start before you approach the smaller ones.

  23. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I don't think anyone should be discouraged by the thought that this or that isn't selling right now.

    A good book is a good book is a good book. Cream rises to the top. Etc., etc., etc.

    If an author chooses to go with a smaller press, the important thing is to research, research! Preditors and Editors is a good start. Do they pay an advance? Money should only be flowing in to you, never out. Period. Have someone go over the contract. Check references. Check with booksellers. Type in "(name of publisher) + complaints" or the word "scam" or any other combination you can think of into Google and see what comes up.

    And you may even want to play it safe and reserve you true name for when you hit it big and publish under a pseudonym. That will preserve your sales records and reputation, should you err into a contract with a publisher that isn't what you thought it would be. (And if you do make it, you keep the pseudonym.)

    The biggest mistake I see is writers trying to publish before they are ready. Be patient. Put that book to bed once you've sent out queries and move on to the next project. It took me several books and several years before I made it with a big NY house. It was well worth the wait.