Why killing off crime writers spells big profits for publishers

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The world of crime writing is being stalked by fear. One by one, authors are being killed off by their publishers despite the enduring appeal of the genre.

A new survey of crime fiction reveals that fewer and fewer authors are dominating the market. So far this year a mere 10 authors, led by John Grisham, Ian Rankin and Kathy Reichs, have accounted for about half of all sales.

This is an even bigger concentration of power than last year when 15 authors were responsible for 50 per cent of the genre's sales, a survey by Nielsen BookScan for The Bookseller magazine shows.

Publishers, including giants such as HarperCollins and Macmillan, have cut their output of new crime and mystery books. But this hard-nosed business tactic, in which less-popular writers are dropped, appears to be working, because revenues from crime and mystery books rose 4 per cent for the six months to July compared with the same period last year.

Danuta Kean, of The Bookseller, said: "In the past 10 years an axe has been taken to the crime lists of all the biggest publishers. Shorn of medium to low sellers, star names and future hopes have been repackaged and marketed with greater gusto than ever before."

Ian Rankin, ranked second for sales so far this year after topping the chart for 2002, said the public was certainly interested in the genre. "I think in Britain there's a real buzz about the place about crime [novels]. People are writing better and better books and younger writers are being attracted to [the genre] as a way of discussing the contemporary world."

Only the judges of the Booker prize had failed to notice how good crime writing could be, according to Rankin, whose new novel, A Question of Blood, was published last week.

"People like Ruth Rendell and P D James could write the best books ever written but wouldn't get on the Booker prize list. There is still a bit of elitism in Britain about crime writing," he added.

Hilary Bonner, author of dark crime novels set in the West Country and chairwoman of the Crime Writers' Association, said publishers used to nurture younger writers more than they were either willing or able to do now. She said that had only increased the pressure on new authors.

Some who have been sidelined by the bigger houses have fought back by founding internet groups, such as the Unusual Suspects or Murder Squad, which promote their books through events and after-dinner speeches.

But Bonner said: "I think in some ways we're probably luckier than some other genres. The public interest in crime writers is as great as ever. Look beyond books to television and films and it's just extraordinary. Everybody likes a crime story."

More than 450,000 hardback crime and mystery titles were sold last year worth £5.3m, the Neilsen BookScan figures show. The public bought more than 3 million crime and mystery paperbacks, costing more than £40m, placing the genre second only to general fiction.

But how much advertising and promotions are responsible for hits is debatable. Scott Pack, the buying manager of Waterstone's, said word of mouth was unquestionably the biggest factor in selling crime novels.