Elizabeth George's slow, steady rise to prominence as a writer of mystery novels - culminating this month in her first appearance on the New York Times hard-cover bestseller list - proves several theories about publishing in the viciously competitive mystery world, says her editor, Kate Miciak of Bantam Books.
First, Miciak said, mystery writers should be cultivated book by book, not forced to do too much too soon. "You have to position them so that they show significant growth from book to book, but never overposition them so that you sour the market," she said, referring to the risk of printing up too many copies that are returned, unsold, to the publisher.Similarly, publishers have to try to be patient (and publishers aren't known for their patience) while the author is building an audience, even if it takes years.
"In a market this crowded, while you might believe in an author and your accounts might believe in her, it's really hard to hit it big overnight," Miciak said. "For people like Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman and Sara Paretsky," she added, naming some top mystery writers, "the breakout book is usually book No. 6 or 7."
Whatever Bantam's strategy, it has certainly paid off for George, whose first mystery, "A Great Deliverance," was published in 1988 and whose sales have risen steadily ever since. The current book, "Playing for the Ashes," which involves the murder of a cricket star who led a very complicated life, is indeed her breakout novel.
George's novels are really two stories in one: mysteries, and the evolving history of her aristocratic protagonist, Detective Inspector Thomas Linley, and his small group of friends, lovers and colleagues. "I was interested in writing about the continuous lives of characters instead of freezing them in time and circumstance," said George in a telephone interview.