Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Mystery of the Mystery Genre

Romance may be the number one genre in fiction, but it's mystery that keeps us on the edge of our seats.  ♦ 
I’ve always been an avid consumer of mystery books, gobbling up as many Agatha Christie novels I could get my hands on. I used to believe that every young teen loved the suspense and intrigue that mysteries had, but while I busied myself in bloody tales and shocking endings, my friends were reading the easy romances prominent in Sarah Dessen and John Green novels. I realized my old soul had chosen an even older genre to love, diving into the timeless works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. To me, a mystery novel is something to enjoy, to savor, to indulge in. Read by lamplight in a cozy armchair (preferably on a rainy evening), mysteries hold something different than any other genre, which is why I was most worried about the literary push to ereaders. The atmosphere and ambiance a mystery novel demands don’t exactly fit well with the bluish glow of a backlit screen. I thought the extinction of the genre was certain to be at the hands of Kindle users, so why is the mystery genre one of the most popular among ebook readership?
    This was a case for Hercule Poirot. As shown in past years, mystery novels tend to lag behind other categories in sales and profits. However, in recent studies, those numbers are growing exponentially among ebook’s publishers and sellers. As confirmed by BookBub, an ebook recommendation and seller site, the most desired fiction is now mystery thrillers, having the highest subscriptions out of any ebook genre. Traditionally, romance has dominated the highest sales, but BookBub ranks the mystery/thriller genre higher than their romance category, with almost a 90,000 readership lead. Several ‘big publishing’ houses are also joining the movement and are beginning to publish digital only imprints of mystery novels; Random House published the mystery line Alibi, while Harper Collins created the digital mystery imprint Witness.
    It’s not only ebooks either. Examining recent New York Times bestseller lists confirm that mystery genre novels continue to dominate. “Of the top ten books on the hardcover fiction list last week, five were mysteries. And last week’s Nielsen’s BookScan reports that for bestsellers in all categories or formats [ebooks], eight of the top ten were mysteries." According to Bookstr, mystery and thriller novels come in second (to romance) at $728.2 million in revenue, a large increase from previous years, but why the sudden revival? We may have Indie publishing to thank for this.
    Classic mystery novels are becoming more and more popular, yet most of the sales are coming from new titles and authors just starting to make a name for themselves. Could this be due to the ease of ebook self-publishing? Indi publishing, otherwise known as self-publishing, allows new authors to independently publish their own novels and avoid the time consuming and strenuous process that comes with the ‘big five’ publishing companies. Amazon and other ebook publishers are creating a platform for new writers to reveal their work in excess, causing more and more of the genre to flood the market, hence leading to higher revenue and sales. “Like romance—a genre that famously sees some of its self-published authors make millions—crime fiction lends itself well to self-publishing, in part because authors can pump out a ton of books in a relatively short time while building and engaging with an active audience online.”
    Indie publishing also encourages authors to employ new marketing strategies for potential readers, while still maintaining engagement with current readers. Unlike traditional publishing, Amazon reviews, email subscribers, free or discounted download offers, and Facebook/news site advertising are all ways independent publishers gain popularity with titles,. For example, Bookbub’s mystery subscribers (over 360,000) receive email notifications weekly with new suggestions for titles to read, recommendations of mystery titles for book clubs, and all sorts of coupons and deals for buying mystery genre ebooks. Still, all these marketing ploys are aimed at technologically savvy individuals (traditionally the younger generation). If the demographic of mystery readers is weighted so heavily towards retirement age, why is the mystery genre one of the fastest growing, selling, and publishing in the technology-reliant, ereading stratosphere? Has there been a reversal of readership? Have I been wrong all along about my ‘antique’ love for mysteries? (If curiosity really did kill the cat, it’s a good thing I’m not feline).
    Following the steps of any great detective, I needed to examine the true demographics of mystery readers before jumping to conclusions. I hoped to find some clarity by examining the genres most popular among age groups, yet my findings introduced even more skepticism. Mysteries, as no shock to anyone, are typically more attractive to the older generations and not so to the younger, but how large is the gap? It turns out, from a study developed by Nielsen Market Research, the largest percentage of mystery readers- a solid 28 percent- is over the age of 65. The second largest readership is the 55 to 64 age group, weighing in at 19 percent. To put into perspective, that’s a total of 47 percent of the readership being 55 or older. If we include the next age grouping, 45 to 54, we have 63 percent of all mystery readers. Therefore, the majority of mystery readers get discounts at grocery stores and specialized parking. I was very skeptical that these individuals were the main supporters of Amazon’s trend-setting ebook empire.
    After hitting a wall at every turn, I took a tip from almost all mystery novels and took a step back and looked at the bigger picture. If the genre is becoming more and more popular on ereaders, who is the main consumers of the mystery ebooks? I looked into the overall demographics of one of the leading ereaders; the Amazon Kindle. Like any good mystery, plot twists are crucial to the story, and this one came at the perfect time. As it turns out, the percentage of Kindle readers in the 50 to 69 age group is actually greater than in the 30 to 49 age group (39.5 percent compared to 34.8). Surprisingly, the older generations hold their own in Kindle ownership with just over 47 percent over the age of 50. This is a much greater percent of ebook users than expected, which can partially answer our question about the mystery genres growth, but why is Amazon’s Kindle becoming popular among older generations? Could it be that ebooks are actually more beneficial to older consumers? Respondents to the study sited medical issues like arthritis and “a variety of other impairments, from weakening eyes and carpal-tunnel-like syndromes to more exotic disabilities” as reasons why ebooks make reading easier, not even mentioning the enlarged print options. It makes perfect sense that the mystery genre is expanding in the ebook realm if the main demographic for readers are now moving towards ereading.
    No matter what age or the underlying reasons for mystery’s revival, it continues to grow in popularity, increasing daily. Despite the larger classification of the mystery genre to be meant for the elderly, I’m thrilled to see an increase among the younger generations as well. But hey, if your grandma ever wants to start a book club, count me in!
  • About the Author
    Claire Podges is a sophomore Professional Writing major at Miami University. She enjoys hiking, skiing, writing, and reading every mystery novel she can get her hands on. When not in school, you can typically find her by the water of her family’s lake house in Traverse City, MI, reading one of her favorite Agatha Christie novels.

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    1. Yes indeed... E-readers do in fact make reading easier for my over-45yo eyes. I also have some mobility issues, and as much as I love a trip to the local bookstore (there's nothing better than the smell of new books!), I find it a lot less problematic to buy ebooks vs buying paper. You also have the issue of "I already have too much crap in this house I need to dust and find shelf space for," and the concerns people over 55 have for going out to stores during Covid. Ebooks have a lot of positives for the over-55 crowd. Thanks for this article! It was very well written.