The end of the mystery

And the value of liking something

I’ve spent the past year or so trying to track down and read as many of the winners of the Mystery Writers of America’s ‘Best First Novel’ category as possible. This has been a self-imposed reading challenge and a very silly one, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I wound up reading 56 of a possible 76, which isn’t too shabby.

There were some lessons along the way, such as exploring identity, remembering what ‘good’ looks like, and learning that the digital market is just plain weird. I’ll admit that I was hoping for a Greater Theory of Crime Fiction, but, alas, no such luck. If pressed, I could probably pull together some lesser theories (boy, the 1980s were creepy), but, instead, I’d like to use this as a teachable moment at my own expense.

This involves ranking and attitudes and behaviours and a tiny bit of math. There is a spreadsheet, but it is full of books, so hopefully that’s not too horrible.

This is also quite long, so pour yourself a coffee.


As an intermittent reviewer and full-time over-thinker, one of the aspects of reviewing that has always intrigued me is the attitude/behaviour gap.

My ‘taste’ in books is, to some degree, a matter of public record, and, if needed, someone could easily scrounge up a decade or more of my strident opinions. There are thousands (millions?) of words explaining how and why I liked a book.

But those words aren’t the full story. I’ve written many a review about the best debut ever, and then not bought the author’s second book. I’ve also not written reviews of many books, but hunted down and devoured the entire series. I’ve shamelessly slagged off books, and then purchased signed copies. I’ve praised books… and then dumped them into charity bins.

My attitude towards a book - my first emotional reaction, what I feel and say about it - simply doesn’t always match my behaviour. Does that make me a rare hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being. Attitudes are immediate; behaviour takes time and effort to play out. There’s a lot that can (or doesn’t) happen in-between. You can ‘like’ a brand and still use the competitor. You can ‘engage’ with an ad and never buy the product. You can ‘see people like you’ in the powerful video content, but still litter, smoke, and not wear a mask.

Beyond that, behaviour is a pain in the ass to measure. We like to measure attitudes because they’re measurable. They’re useful outtakes and they show people ‘got us’, but theories of change are still theories. We’re waiting for the data to come through until we know what worked.

Let’s get back to the mysteries. Here are the books I think I ‘liked’ the most:

  • Fredric Brown - The Fabulous Clip-joint (1948)

  • John Ball - The Heat of the Night (1966)

  • Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)

  • R.H. Shimer - Squaw Point (1973)

  • Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • David Liss - A Conspiracy of Paper (2001)

First reactions:

  • There’s only one police procedural - Virgil Tibbs in The Heat of the Night) - but, these do all have ‘detective’ protagonists, in some form or another.

  • But also nothing particularly radical or literary in here. Some are funny, some are espionage-y, and there’s one historical… but they’re all pretty much ‘core’ mysteries.

  • And they’re fairly well spaced out across time.

To be completely honest, if a stranger came to me with that list and asked for a recommendation for their next read, I’m not sure what I’d say. There’s not much of a pattern there, except, of course, my own taste. And even that could change.

Here’s where it gets fun (and/or deeply narcissistic).

I’ve gone through and captured my behavioural relationship with every book.

The metrics I chose, in rough order of ‘effort required’:

  • Read (56 books)

  • Liked (28, one attitude, for curiosity. I’m amused it is exactly 50%.)

  • Gave 5* on Goodreads (9. For those not aware of my broken system, I rate something 5* for ‘interesting', or not at all. 1*-4* is too much of a hassle for me.)

  • Recommended to my mom (9. She’s the most voracious reader I know, so I always try to find good books she hasn’t read yet)

  • Wrote about in this newsletter (8)

  • Kept (13. 56 books entered… and 43 left. This includes ebooks - some I read on ebook and didn’t consign to digital oblivion. But, for most, I did.)

  • Bought again in a nicer edition (8. I like pretty copies.)

  • Bought another book by the same author (5)

  • Bought in other media (1)

That gives a simple 9 point system, ranging from the books I never read to the books I became - clearly - obsessed with.

Here are the top results:

  • 8 - John Ball - In the Heat of the Night (1966)

  • 7 - Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • 6 - Rebecca Pawel - The Death of a Nationalist (2004)
    William DeAndrea - Killed in the Ratings (1979)
    Mary McMullen - Strangle Hold (1952)

  • 5 - Harry Kemelman - Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1965)
    Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)
    Robert L Fish - The Fugitive (1963)

That progression continues pleasingly - there are 5 x 4s, 6 x 3s, 14 x 2s, 23 x 1s.

This tells us a lot more:

  • I’m sorry I didn’t capture more data points about these books, but, even for the one I did - publication date - we suddenly have a meaningful pattern. Unlike my attitudinal list, which was all over the shop, now we’ve got an interesting concentration in the mid-Sixties. (1964 was Florentine Finish, which still earned a respectable 3).

  • Three books set in the media world, which makes sense. I’m such a nerd.

  • Three female authors in the top five of this list, two of whom were left off the attitudinal list. That’s implicit bias. It is nice that, in practice, I liked them. But it is not ok that I didn’t think of them at first. Perhaps more than any other point to land, this is why behavioural analysis is so important. It reveals, and accounts for, bias.

All of a sudden, I have the capacity to make meaningful recommendations for future reading. And not because of what I thought I liked, but because of what I actually liked.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between what a publisher knows about you and what Amazon knows about you. Scared yet?


Now, imagine you’re a publisher.

Ultimately, the most important behaviours to Shoebill House (aside: do you know how hard it is to find a bird that doesn’t already have a publisher named after it?) are those that lead to further purchases. A reader leaving a review is a good behaviour. A reader pre-ordering the next book is a very good one.

Here’s the list again, now weighted by ‘% likelihood to lead to a sale’:

  • Read (100%. If I read it, that’s because I bought it.)

  • Liked (0%. My emotional reaction has no direct sales value.)

  • Gave 5* on Goodreads (.01%. I think this should be about the lowest non-zero value possible. This assumes I am nudging the star value up in a fractional way that might someday influence an algorithm or future browser or something. Arguably this is more significant for lesser-known books, as my 5* will have more of an impact, but those books are also less-likely to be searched/browsed, so it all comes out in the wash.)

  • Recommended to my mom (75%. She’s very diligent about reading my recommendations - the missing 25% is the chance I’ve recommended her something she’s already read. Moms are great.)

  • Talked about in this newsletter (5%. The click-through rates are pretty high when I recommend a specific title. This seems a fair assumption for the value of a positive recommendation in long-form, opt-in content.)

  • Kept (2%. This is literally the chance that, by having the book on my shelf, I might someday think ‘I should see what the sequel is like…’. Given my impulse control, this might be low.)

  • Bought again in a nicer edition (100%. Literally a purchase.)

  • Bought another book by the author (100%. See above.)

  • Bought in other media (100%. See above.)

Some of these behaviours could lead to multiple purchases (newsletter review, another book by the author), but there are also arguments against that, so, we’ll leave that alone for now.

For those counting along at home, that gives a maximum weighted value of 482%. In that, my behaviours could, conceivably, add up to almost five purchases for each book. I warned you there’d be a spreadsheet.

Here are the all the titles at 2 or above, meaning they resulted in at least one additional purchase.

  • 3.82 - John Ball - In the Heat of the Night (1966)

  • 3.80 - Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • 3.02 - William DeAndrea - Killed in the Ratings (1979)
    Harry Kemelman - Friday The Rabbit Slept Late (1965)
    Ira Levin - A Kiss Before Dying (1954)

  • 2.77 - Rebecca Pawel - The Death of a Nationalist (2004)
    Mary McMullen - Strangle Hold (1952)
    Robert L. Fish - The Fugitive (1963)

  • 2.02 - Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)

The .0001 from GR is rounded down to the obscurity it deserves.

This exercise separates the wheat from the chaff in a way that the unweighted hierarchy didn’t. If ‘meaningful’ is ‘makes purchases happen’, we start to see which behaviours could actually count for Shoebill House’s bottom line.

I bought 56 books. 28 (50%) of them I liked. Yet only 9 (16%) of my purchases led to further sales. That is terrible retention! Especially given the circumstances of my reading challenge! I opted-in! I am a hoarder! Also, how are there 19 books that I liked that didn’t lead to further sales? Each and every one of them is a lost opportunity.

(Let’s hop genres for a moment. I love romance books. They’re often in series (and often in mega-series that hop between series) and there are a lot of them and they all kind of look alike and it can get really confusing. But romance publishers are ruthlessly efficient. Whenever I finish a romance on my Kindle, a pop-up appears to buy the next book. Early series books are deeply discounted (but rarely free), encouraging commitment and feeling like good value. Series are properly tagged and linked on Amazon and Goodreads. It is made as seamless as possible for a reader who liked one book to keep moving, continuously, into further purchases. This is why romance is the best-selling genre of fiction. The readers are relentless, and the user journey is almost entirely frictionless. Meanwhile, back in mystery…)

Despite the fact that virtually all of of these mysteries were the first books in a series, none offered any immediate follow-on sale. Nor was there any encouragement to find another book by the same author, and, honestly, the metadata was often a mess. If I need to Google an esoteric third-party crime blog to find the title of Book 2, Shoebill House has lost the sale. Similarly, noted in an earlier newsletter, even the digital pricing was wonky. In conclusion: How can marketers make behaviour easier?

Not all behaviours are created equal. Giving five stars on Goodreads is easy, and, ultimately, kind of worthless. Writing a review for my newsletter harder, and yet… still pretty meaningless in the absolute scheme of things. Telling my mom that I liked a book? That’s low effort and high reward. Yet there are books I liked - and sometimes even reviewed! - that I never recommended to her. (Sorry, Mom!) Those are all lost sales for Shoebill House. How can marketers facilitate the most meaningful behaviours?

Incremental behaviours work, but only in volume. If I wrote 15 newsletters recommending a book, that’s about the same as telling my mom. Or, more usefully, if 15 different Jareds wrote one newsletter each. Shoebill House needs to use their own resources wisely - not to be chasing individual Jareds, but encouraging an army of Jareds to participate. How can marketers scale less-meaningful behaviours in a cost-efficient way?

A small number of high-trust relationships are worth more than a large number of low-trust ones. I think we’d have to crank the math up to prove this, but, ultimately, a few Moms are worth more to Shoebill House than a hundred newsletters. How do we build high-trust relationships directly with consumers - or help advocates build them on our behalf?

Everyone should read In the Heat of the Night. And The Last Billable Hour.

And with that, I’m officially moving on to Westerns. See you on the other side, pardner.


Some links:


And, finally - I’m hosting Cynthia Miller-Idriss on July 15th. We’ll be discussing her new book, Hate in the Homeland, and how far right extremism can take place in surprising spaces - from clothing stores to YouTube cooking shows.

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