Otto Penzler: Mystery Goes Mainstream by Nicole R. Klungle

Otto Penzler knows mysteries. You may recognize him as the founder of the Mysterious Press, or as the man who for seventeen years has published The Armchair Detective, an Edgar-winning quarterly devoted to the study of mystery and suspense fiction. Penzler is also the founder of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, and the man who brings you recommendations and reviews for eight mysteries every month in his “Penzler’s Picks” feature on The trends he has noticed in mystery publishing are perfectly clear: Mystery is more popular than ever, but changes in the way books are marketed are making it more difficult to get your mystery published.

If you want proof that mysteries have gone mainstream, Penzler says, “check the New York Times bestseller list. Most weeks, anywhere from five to eight are mystery/crime/suspense novels, which proves mysteries are not only being published in large numbers but sold in large numbers.” The number of mysteries among bestselling novels has increased in the last few years, and Penzler sees no reason for this to change (“unless every spot on the list is taken up by a Harry Potter book,” he says grudgingly).

Mystery novels — Penzler defines a mystery as “any story in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the plot or theme” — are appealing to an ever widening audience, as are mystery short stories. According to Penzler, about 1,400 new mystery novels were published in 1999. “That’s a lot of books in a relatively modest-sized genre,” he advises. A mystery bestseller used to sell around 100,000 copies in hardcover. Now the initial print runs of new mysteries by well-known authors, such as John Grisham and Tom Clancy, can reach three million copies. The popularity of mysteries means that readers and reviewers are now less likely to pigeonhole mysteries as category fiction. “For years, Publishers Weekly reviewed Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker in their mystery section. Once they made the bestseller list, they were reviewed in the fiction section. They were writing the same books; they didn’t change. It was the public’s perception that changed.”

Between 800 and 1,000 original short mysteries are published every year, a number which has increased each year since the mid-1990s. Mystery short-story writers can seek publication in markets as various as literary magazines, original mystery anthologies, mystery magazines (notably the long-published Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine) and in mainstream magazines such as GQ, Esquire and The New Yorker. Literary magazines pay a nominal amount, and moderately successful mystery magazines pay more. The best-paying markets for mystery short stories are large-circulation, mainstream magazines, which may pay between $5,000 and $10,000 for an original story. This is also the market getting the most exposure. Penzler notes, “If you are good enough to be published regularly anywhere with a large circulation, you will become known.” (“One story won’t do it,” he warns.)

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