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‘Murder, She Read!’ Taking A Deep Dive Into Mystery With Nielsen

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iStockphoto / KrivosheevV
iStockphoto / KrivosheevV

Do We Have A Clue What’s Happening In Mystery/Crime Reading?

Their safe and secure lives rocked by a shocking revelation!
Their routines turned upside down!
Their world wracked by fear of the unknown now stalking them all!

No, not the characters in a Dorothy Sayers mystery.

I’m talking about the publishers.

As I wrote in my executive summary of Murder, She Read…Understanding The Mystery/Crime Buyer — a special “deep dive” study made by Nielsen Market Research of American Mystery/Crime readers — the publishing industry today can seem as terrorized by the twists and turns of the digital dynamic as the genre’s’ typical sweet, small town menaced by a dark threat. (On Nielsen’s UK site, the same report is here.)

I was as curious as the folks at Nielsen were about what would come up when the research team began its own special brand of sleuthing. Not only is Mystery/Crime one of the most visible fiction genres in the US, of course, but it’s thought by many to surpass even romance for popularity in the UK. And yet — as would be borne out by Nielsen’s findings — it’s not a genre that seems, so far, to be as attractive to younger readers as to older ones.

By the way, let’s be sure we’re on the same page of that page-turner: When we say “Mystery/Crime” for purposes of Nielsen’s study, this is the working definition we used:

Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction — in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.

Nielsen went to work. My good colleagues Jo Henry and Carl Kulo and I worked out an extensive line of questioning. Poirot would be proud of us. We used 75 questions to uncover a detective’s notebook of data in terms of who is buying and reading Mystery/Crime in the States today. Our goal was to be sure that the results would generate actionable insights for publishers, who face a mounting challenge from the electronic media, of course, not just from the allures of other genres in the books world.

  • We looked at the demographics of the genre: exactly who is reading this work?
  • We looked at the reading patterns of those consumers.
  • We studied how readers acquire their books — this proved to be one of the most fruitful parts of the inquiry.
  • We asked for readers’ preferred authors in the field, for their favorite types of mystery…what turns them on, basically, to a type of entertainment that almost routinely involves human death? (I mean, when you stop to think about it…you don’t want to stop to think about it, right?)
  • We also looked to update our understanding of the field: how is Mystery/Crime “going social”? — are its readers engaged with each other and with their authors as avidly as other genre readerships are? How is e-reading going down with Col. Mustard with a Twitter handle in the drawing room?
  • What’s more, we wanted to find out what was going on in Mystery/Crime in terms of serials, subscription services, and self-publishing.
  • And — here comes the “d” word: discoverability. We wanted to know how new authors and titles are discovered in the Mystery/Crime world. Howdunnit, if you will?

I know, if curiosity killed the cat, it’s a damned good thing we’re not feline. We had a lot of questions.

Sample Demographics from Nielsen's "Murder, She Read...Understanding  The Mystery/Crime Buyer.
Sample Demographics from Nielsen’s “Understanding the Mystery/Crime Reader.”

Grilling The Suspects

Nielsen’s team put together a study universe of 6,000 US book buyers representing some 180,000 book purchases per year. The respondents were drawn from a nationally representative pool using criteria of age, gender, location.

And what we found out was revealing in several areas.

While the details are in the survey that publishers now are using to evaluate their approach to this market, one of the top-line discoveries of this study is that many habitual readers of Mystery/Crime in the States aren’t buying their books. They’re getting them free. As that might suggest, pricing turns out to be a major factor for this readership.

A total 47 percent of the Mystery/Crime readership is 55 or older. Twenty-eight percent is 65 or older.

Another thing: More than two-thirds of the Mystery/Crime readership, based on this study, are women. A large number of them, though, told us that their perception of the genre is that these novels are enjoyed by both men and women. And we found some intriguing hints about what men like in Mystery/Crime that’s different from women’s preferences — there may be ways to expand this genre’s appeal to men.

But perhaps the biggest factor is age. It turns out that the largest sector of the Mystery/Crime readership — 28 percent, as developed by Nielsen’s team — is over the age of 65. The next largest group is the 55- to 64-year-old set: 19 percent. Think about that — a total 47 percent of this readership is 55 or older. Add the 45- to 54-year-old delegation, and you have 63 percent of the Mystery/Crime readership.

We found that only 14 percent of the Mystery/Crime readership is between the ages of 18 and 29. If we add in the 13- to -17-year-olds, we get 4 percent more:

Less than 20 percent of Mystery/Crime is being read by people under 30 years of age.

So let’s say you’re a mystery writer. Let’s say you’re still in your 20s, 30s, 40s. You’re building a great career, you’re making a name for yourself, you’re getting out there, gaining readers, growing, expanding…and your audience is your grandmother. How’s that going to work out for you in the long run?

There’s not thing wrong with mature readers, by the way, don’t get me wrong. We want every single one of them.

But a healthy genre needs, as is said in these books, some new victims.

If you’d like to see Nielsen’s informational PDF about the study, here’s a link.

What I’m going to do here is introduce you to one of the smartest mystery writers I know. And I’ll tell you what she’s doing about that aging-audience issue.

Self-Categorization as Readers from Nielsen's "Murder, She Read...Understanding  The Mystery/Crime Buyer.
Respondents’ Self-Categorization as Readers from Nielsen’s “Understanding the Mystery/Crime Reader.”

Getting Cozy With Elizabeth Spann Craig

Elizabeth Spann Craig
Elizabeth Spann Craig

Cozy mysteries are the specialty of one of my favorite people in the author corps, Elizabeth Spann Craig.

She writes the Memphis BBQ series for Penguin Books’ Berkley imprint under the pen name Riley Adams. And she produces the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin Books’ NAL (New American Library). Her Myrtle Clover series is published by Midnight Ink and by Craig, herself, as an independent — and highly entrepreneurial — writer.

Craig is one of the  most generous authors we have. She puts together the weekly “Twitterific” roundup of links to articles and blog posts for authors. And with Hiveword’s Mike Fleming, she manages the Writer’s Knowledge Base, a great way to find author resources.

Her blog has one of my favorite titles — and one that fits the sub-genre “cozy” in its wink over the magnifying glass: Mystery Writing Is Murder.

You know what cozies are, right? A cozy mystery is very Miss Marple-ish. It normally takes place in a small, tightly knit community. Sex and violence are not in the lead here. Often there’s a lot of humor involved and the sleuth may be an amateur — perhaps that kindly but canny grandmother down the lane whom everybody assumes is just shopping for zucchini when, in fact, she’s filling up her shopping cart with clues nobody else caught.

Craig, an incredibly busy mom, is — in the best sense — not unlike those cozy sleuths. She’ll surprise you over and over. Maybe she’s in the bleachers one afternoon with the other parents watching junior-high football practice … but she’s also jotting down chapter titles for a new novel about the body nobody else has noticed lying under the stadium scoreboard.

And the reason I’ve been talking with Craig as this Nielsen study came together is that she’s among our most informative transitional authors. She has moved from being entirely traditionally published to publishing her own work extensively. Along the way, Craig has proved to be one of the best scouts you could find, great about getting out ahead of the pack a bit. Nothing too crazy, she hasn’t said “transmedia parlor murder” to me yet. But she tends to try things and report back to the rest of us in a useful, clear, thorough way, a perfect example of the useful info-sharing you find so frequently among independent authors today.

And as the Nielsen researchers and I were studying the demographic data coming in on Mystery/Crime, Elizabeth Craig was, not surprisingly, a step ahead of us:

My main concern was that my audience, in general, were mature readers. As usual, data is hard to come by in publishing, but reading my emails and Amazon customer reviews, it was clear that many of my readers are seniors. I started wondering last spring how I could introduce my books to a younger demographic and potentially hook them on cozy mysteries.

So where did Craig the Clever turn? Wattpad.

In 2013, I’d been on an online panel for the Get Read conference with Head of Content for Wattpad, Ashleigh Gardner. She introduced me to the platform. Wattpad boasted many millions of readers…young readers who used their mobile phones as e-readers. It also had a strong international reader base. However, I knew these readers were much younger than the thirty-somethings I was hoping to hook. Then I considered my own experience. I loved watching Murder, She Wrote on Sunday evenings when I was a teen and Agatha Christie mysteries were my favorite reads. Maybe it could work, after all.

Did Craig say “many millions of readers?” Wattpad currently claims 35 million members. That’s a larger population than that of Canada. 75% of the 9 billion (yes, billion) minutes spent on Wattpad each month are accessed on mobile devices of one kind or another. There are some 75 million stories there. In case you’ve run out of things to read.

Gardner and Wattpad’s creator Allen Lau, like to stress to us that Wattpad isn’t a “publishing platform” so much as a social one. Reading there — and posting material with which readers will interact — is a social activity, in the contemporary media sense of the term. Publishers have not failed to noticed, though. Dominique Raccah’s Sourcebooks is among the first to strike a deal with Wattpad for material that can be published.

Three Craig BooksSo, Craig tells me, “In May, I took a closer look at the site and saw, at the time, only one cozy mystery listed there—and only a partial story, at that. I certainly had no competition and really nothing to lose. After all, this was a reader base that I wasn’t reaching anyway.

“I felt a few twinges of anxiety about the reception the book and my octogenarian sleuth might receive on the platform,” she says. “Tweens and teens aren’t always kind. But in the end, I pushed aside my concerns. In the hopes of introducing cozy mysteries, mine in particular, to a new and younger demographic, I started posting a chapter a week.”

A good omen:

Immediately I heard from a reader who qualifies as a true fan (and not one of my older ones) saying that she was delighted to see me at Wattpad and hoped that soon there would be other cozy mysteries represented there.

A “content specialist” soon contacted Craig, asking if she’d like to have her book’s chapters appear on the Wattpad “Featured List.”

“The only condition,” Craig says, “was that I keep the book up on Wattpad for six months after it was fully uploaded. Featured stories get exposure on the front couple of pages for one to two weeks before joining the rest of the works on the main list.”

And this is particularly interesting — Craig says: “At first I thought that the reason I was being chosen for the Featured List was the fact that I was also a traditionally published author. But it soon became obvious to me during our email exchange that he [the content specialist] had no idea that I had ever published anything or, actually, had even finished the book that I was currently uploading.”

Craig had worked her way right into the catbird seat on one of the biggest platform-phenoms of the online writing-reading world. She tells me:

The effect was amazing.  The increased visibility for the title on Wattpad translated into thousands of reads.  The book ​now has nearly 49,000 reads.

Craig, in fact, has begun posting a second book at Wattpad, sure to be popular, especially if it, too, gets the added assist of “Featured List” treatment.

The really good news here, for publishers and others using Nielsen’s Mystery/Crime study? Young readers are all over Craig’s work.

They’ve asked questions, they’ve been engaged, and they’ve been supportive. I’ve not encountered any trolls and my elderly protagonist hasn’t been bullied. It’s been a very positive experience. The reader engagement has been extremely rewarding…they’ve picked up on clues and red herrings and hazarded guesses as to the murderer. I’ve felt as if I were really connecting with them. They’ve never written spoilers into the comments and seem careful with their questions. I’m careful with my answers, for sure.

Another observation, as surprising, I think, to Craig, as to me, is that “Older readers also use Wattpad,” she tells me. “One reader said that she loved Wattpad because she was in assisted living on a fixed income and relied on ​the site to feed her appetite for books.  But, mainly, the readers who’ve connected with me ​there have been young people” — the readers Craig needs most to woo.

How about “conversion” in business terms? Can these Wattpad readers be converted into buyers? Craig is optimistic:

There have been readers who said they purchased or were going to purchase copies of other books in the series.  I’m taking their word for it, since there’s no way to track that.  I did see an uptick in sales over the summer months, when the book was getting so many views. A carefully written call to ​action at the bottom of each uploaded chapter can help send readers to online retailers and our other books.

How much does the anecdotal experience of Craig mean to a large part of the industry facing a graying audience? That’s debatable, of course. Other factors here involve the level of visibility that Craig was gifted with when she had the luck to be spotted and positioned on the Featured List.

What’s more, Craig is good. Read her blog posts carefully — they’re easily as much about the craft of writing mystery as about the ways and means of selling it. You’ll realize that you’re in the hands of a highly conscious, deliberate author juggling several book projects at once and getting stronger in her technique with each of them.

“The increased visibility for the title on Wattpad translated into thousands of reads. The book ​now has nearly 49,000 reads.”
Elizabeth Spann Craig

But there’s hope here. What Nielsen’s experts came back with in Understanding The Mystery/Crime Buyer is no red herring. Craig’s sense is right. We have proof of the aging of this readership. In the larger context of reading in general challenged by the shiny attractions of digital entertainment, the problem of holding and widening the buyers for mystery is deadly serious.

Craig’s experience vouches for a potentially keen audience that publishers reading our study are eager to reach. As she puts it:

Most important to me is the fact that I’ve hopefully gotten a toehold with a younger demographic.

Somewhere, I think Agatha Christie just smiled. TC mark

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