Every Book Its Reader
MAKING THE MOST OF MIDLIST MYSTERIES
NEIL HOLLANDS is an adult services librarian, specializing in readers’ advisory, at Williamsburg Regional Library (VA).
“In an age where readers browse less, buying or placing holds at a
distance, the role of librarians and booksellers in breaking out new or
underappreciated authors is invaluable. We’re uniquely positioned to
help these authors find an audience and thus make enough money to
continue to indulge the creative life.”
The materials selection philosophy called “Give ’em what hey want” was first advanced by the Baltimore County Public Library in the 1970s and has now been embraced
by most public libraries throughout the country. It remains a good
approach to collection development. Few public libraries have the
budget or space to give priority to books that don’t circulate. When
hard decisions have to be made, preference should go to books that
are used. In readers’ advisory, this populist mantra helps to guide
encounters with inexperienced readers. By all means, introduce
genre newbies to Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich, to M. C.
Beaton and Robert B. Parker and P. D. James. These authors move
dozens of titles off shelves year after year because they reward readers. But they’re the low hangers of readers’ advisory, and that part
of the tree can suffer if overpicked. Try pointing out the untouched
fruits dangling higher in the branches.
Switching metaphors, if the only club in your readers’-advisory
bag is “Give ’em what they want,” you’re going to spend a lot of
time in the rough. A larger variety of clubs will help you find the
range and get on the green. Experienced readers need less obvious
picks, and even neophytes get savvy quickly. If you only spotlight
authors who are already illuminated by their prominent placement
in bookstores and advertisements, then you endanger ongoing
interest in your service. Focusing on high-volume titles can also exacerbate systemic frustrations of always-checked-out books or long
hold lists. Check with readers to make sure they have already discovered the Sandfords and Graftons, but be prepared to go deeper.
Our ability to introduce backlist and midlist authors enhances
our value to readers. We take them beyond what they can do
themselves by reading a best-seller list or eyeballing an author’s
acreage on the shelf. Knowing which of
the authors with “only” five or six books
on the shelf has a special fit for a reader
or discerning which choices are most
likely to put them in the vanguard of
readers looking for a new writer with
staying power—these are the skills that
make us a special resource.
Midlist and backlist promotion makes
us indispensable to authors and publishers (and the wiser ones
know it). In an age where readers browse less, buying or placing
holds at a distance, the role of librarians and booksellers in breaking out new or underappreciated authors is invaluable. We’re
uniquely positioned to help these authors find an audience and
thus make enough money to continue to indulge the creative
life. It’s satisfying when worthies like Louise Penny, William Kent
Krueger, Cara Black, and Donna Leon rise from the midlist to
high circulation and readership after reviewers and advisors have
helped promote them for years.
It’s equally gratifying to keep quality backlist titles in circula-
tion through RA. Minette Walters’ mysteries are stand-alones, and
she has written less in recent years, two strikes against sustained
readership, but her strong social-justice story lines and her use of
disregarded women as central characters make her easy to promote
to certain audiences. Diane Mott Davidson, whose Goldy Bear
culinary mysteries once found strong readership, faced waning cir-
culation and weeding in my libraries until we encouraged new cozy
readers in her direction. (Refurbished copies also do wonders.)
Midlist authors often have the kind of appeal that doesn’t
encourage broad readership but makes them ideal for particular reader groups. Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paboum mysteries
(start with The Coroner’s Lunch) are set in exotic Laos, feature a
charmingly sarcastic elderly bureaucrat, and include paranormal
elements. This might make him a tough sell to the generic mystery
fan, but they are three appeal factors that I have used to bring his
funny, engaging books to three different kinds of readers.
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy mysteries are published in paperback with somewhat generic covers. They use Tom Waits lyrics
for titles, which is great if you’re a Waits fan but doesn’t help
earn other readers. Still, he’s working out of the midlist in my
library, thanks to his sympathetic lead detective, his atmospheric
1970s and ’80s Northern Ireland setting, and the wonderful
accents of audiobook reader Gerard Doyle, all of which can be
used to promote him.
Authors who write stand-alones or do several series can be slow
to escape midlist status. The hook that propels many readers
forward—the desire to know what happens to a favorite character soon—isn’t there to drive popularity. In my libraries, Tana
French, John Hart, and Don Winslow were slow to move well
despite consistently excellent books, but now they’ve found their
stride. Look for other candidates like them to promote. Duane
Swierczynski and Charlie Huston are consistent purveyors of
pulpy goodness, but readers still need help to find them. Lou
Berney only has three titles in five years, but his most recent, The
Long and Faraway Gone, is a mystery classic in the making. S. J.
Bolton found a midlist audience with her Lacey Flint series,
but recent stand-alones, like Little Black Lies, with its superb
Falkland Island setting, and Daisy in Chains, with a triangle of
equally suspicious lead characters, make her a must-read author.
I’m out of space before I could get to Timothy Hallinan or Gary
Corby or Suzanne Chazin or . . . Well, you get the idea. Keep
trolling resources like this Mystery Showcase issue of Booklist to
keep your own midlist stocked with deserving authors. It’s a central skill to keep advisory work fresh over a long, rewarding career.