By Dawn Ius
In 2012, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the book on everyone’s mind—love it or hate it, it’s the novel that gave us unlikeable, unreliable narrators, and introduced readers to a thriller subgenre that up until then had lain somewhat dormant.
More than seven years later, Gone Girl is still the book on everyone’s mind, or at least a psychological suspense that embodies some of the same characteristics—and according to former editor-in-chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Neil Nyren, it’s a trend that isn’t likely to lose steam anytime soon.
“Those psychological thrillers? Still plenty big,” he says. “And the same goes for next year.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other subgenres to make their way into readers’ hearts and minds, though—Jennifer Hillier’s ITW award-winning thriller Jar of Hearts joins a rising complement of serial killer novels, for instance—but for authors still hesitant to jump on the psychological suspense bandwagon, it might not be too late.
With the understanding, of course, that the market is fiercely competitive—and only likely to get worse.
But as Nyren points out, that’s standard across the board. Now more than ever, authors need to “write a damn good book,” he says. “That’s no guarantee, of course, but if it isn’t a damn good book, then it will certainly be harder for people to notice you. And if you happen to know Reese Witherspoon…”
Certainly the actress has had an impact on book sales for a couple of ITW members, including the debut from Liv Constantine—the pen name for sisters Lynne and Val—who saw their debut The Last Mrs. Parrish vault to the top of several bestseller lists after Witherspoon gave it a solid recommendation in the book club that seems to have taken over the coveted place once occupied by Oprah.
But Nyren says that kind of explosive success isn’t common—and indeed, unless you are a big-name thriller writer with an established backlist and a legion of fans—you know, the ones that usually hit the New York Times bestseller list within hours of release—it’s tough to stand out in this ever expanding genre. Particularly if you write international suspense.
“Aside from some big-name authors, the international thriller isn’t doing as well as it used to,” Nyren says. “Wish it was!”
He’s not alone. As competitiveness within the psychological suspense market continues to tighten, publishers and editors have gone on record to suggest that authors may need to branch out and explore other subgenres, including unique stories that take readers on a globetrotting thrill ride.
Writers may want to give the political thriller a bit of a rest, though—many readers say they are tired of the real-life conflict of the current political landscape and in need of escape. But that doesn’t mean authors should avoid “ripped from the headlines” plots that deal with ongoing issues like gender equality, the #MeToo movement, immigration, and race. In fact, Nyren suggests that might be one place new writers could carve out a niche for themselves.
“Considering the impact this year from books such as Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, John Vercher’s Three-Fifths, Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton, non-genre books such as Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, and television shows such as When They See Us and the brilliant racial explorations of Watchmen, I think we’re going to have many more memorable deep dives in race.”
As noted in a recent Publishers Weekly article, climate change and economic inequality will also have an impact on the thrillers coming out in 2020, as well as the ongoing concern—and fascination—over technology advancements.
And though there appears to be a slower flow of true crime making its way into readers’ hands, the success of a few recent releases—Michelle McNamara’s chilling I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, for example, which was published in 2018 but continued to rack up strong sales last year—prove that with the right topic and the right voice, the truth can be more horrific and engaging than any work of fiction.
On the business end of things, the rise of self-publishing will continue to shift the marketplace, and the success of Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer imprint will continue to lure both new and established authors away from more traditional publishers. For example, Dean Koontz and Patricia Cornwell—two staples of the thriller world—announced their move to Amazon, citing a “wider distribution” and more creative flexibility as reasons for making the transition. Other big name authors have also found a home there.
How that will impact the popularity of individual subgenres is unclear—and in fact, Nyren says that he hasn’t really seen any signs that a new subgenre is ready to push psychological suspense out of its comfortable standing.
“Though I did read two first novels this year in which a woman slowly unravels after returning to live in a ‘murder house’ where terrible things happened when she was a child,” he says. “Does that count?”
Perhaps only time will tell.
What is Nyren looking forward to in the upcoming months?
“Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hid from Our Eyes (welcome back, Julia!); Laurie King, Riviera Gold; John Lawton, Hammer to Fall; Samantha Downing, He Started It (her first novel, My Lovely Wife, was such a hoot); and whatever Laura Lippman’s working on (I don’t need to know anything about it, I’m there),” he says.
Aspiring writers looking to see what’s trending in 2020 might want to join him “there.”