Study: “The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age”

“Who’s your audience? How can you best communicate with that audience?” These are among the first key questions that I ask students to consider whenever I teach a composition class. I emphasize to them: You have to know your reader to reach your reader.

Sisters in Crime — an international organization dedicated to advancing and promoting the work of women crime writers — has recently taken that idea to a new level, collaborating with PubTrack, R.R. Bowker’s book sales analysis division, to produce the just-released report “The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age,” examining today’s book buying trends and habits in this genre.

Much of the report may prove unsurprising, supporting some perhaps common-sense assumptions about readers in general. Women buy more books than men, for example, and older readers outnumber younger ones, with percentages skewing perhaps even a little higher in each case for this genre. The survey posits, for example, that nearly 70% of mystery readers are women and that nearly 70% are over 45 years old. In fact, more than half of all mysteries purchased are bought by people over 55. In other not-so-new news: Name recognition helps sell books; people do indeed judge books by their covers; and e-book sales are increasing, representing 7% of book sales in 2010, up from  1.7% in 2009, at least among the data collected here.

But other statistics struck me as slightly more surprising and in some cases heartening.

  • The South leads the nation in mystery buying: 35% of all mysteries are bought in that region, followed by 26 percent purchased in the West, 20 percent in the Midwest and 19 percent in the Northeast. Being a Southerner myself as well as a mystery fan, I feel some small pride here….
  • Despite the threats posed by the ease of internet shopping, brick-and-mortar stores still rank as the most popular place to get mysteries, with 39% of these books bought there versus 17% purchased online. (Borrowing from the library is less popular than the former but more popular than the latter.)
  • Another surprise on this front: Books clubs still matter, accounting for 11% of sales.
  • Also still mattering: Book critics (and speaking as one, I’m glad to hear that too). Reviews either in traditional media or online are among the top-five influences on book purchasers. (And yet reviews still rank behind both word of mouth and that cover that we’re not supposed to judge by.)
  • For readers of mysteries — more so than for readers of “general fiction” — “liking” a character is important.
  • And speaking of the genre itself, younger readers (under 50) are less likely to have a strong sense of what distinguishes mysteries as a separate genre.

The full report is available in PDF format through the Sisters in Crime’s website, and other excerpts from and perspectives on the findings are available at SinC’s blog here. Art Taylor

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