Here's a sobering fact. The Amazon Kindle was the first major piece of technology in history whose early adapters were fifty or older.
The traditional path of leading-edge tech, from the PC to Tumblr to Instagram, is that it's been sold to, and bought by, young people first. Until the Kindle, the phrase "early adapters" was almost completely synonymous with the demographic group comprising people in their teens and reasonably early twenties. The general techno-view of people much older than that was of doddering geezers and geezerettes in cardigans and sensible shoes fussing unproductively with the TV remote, trying to find Bob Barker.
But the Kindle sailed off the shelves and into the hands of people too old for new technology -- the people television doesn't even bother with because the TV industry has been persuaded--in what has to be the most flawed piece of research ever to dictate trillions of dollars' worth of commercial buys--that older people never change their favorite brands.
Nope. According to the research, people over 50 (in other words, above the treasured 18-to-49 TV demographic) place brand loyalty on a plane with religion. If you're in your fifties and you use Bounty towels, the research says, you'll go on using Bounty towels until you depart the census, even if a new towel comes along that does all the scrubbing itself. Even if all the paper-towel user has to do is say, "Over to the stove now," and "Scrub harder and then wring yourself out and hop into that wastebasket," people fifty and older would still be wondering why the folks at Bounty can't get the towels to tear on the perforation and whether superstring theory will somehow allow the Bounty towel manufacturers to impregnate the towels with even more lint.
(This explains practically everything, by the way, about television programming on the commercial networks. Shows like "Two and a Half Men" and "Jersey Shore" are designed not only to appeal to the young and poorly educated, but positively to repel those of us who will probably be buried with a wadded-up Bounty paper towel in our hands. They don't want us. We won't try anything new.)
Except the Kindle and the Nook. And, when it became apparent it would make a good e-reader, the iPad. And therein lies the melancholy aspect of all this. People over fifty are about the only people who read novels. And this is especially true of the genre produced by the writers on this site. No matter how young, hip, vital, and energetic our leading characters are, the people who read mysteries and thrillers are almost uniformly over fifty.
Any dues-dependent organization that suddenly realized that its membership is fifty or older would sit up quite straight and begin to fret. It doesn't take trigonometry or complex spreadsheets to realize that such an organization faces a rocky, and probably brief, future. (I'd talk about this in terms of the Republican Party, but I've been asked to keep a lid on American political discussion.) But the Kindle tells the tale, and recent studies bear it out: the novel-reading public is aging, and that's been the trend for some time.
Those of us in the biz drew hope from the sight of all those toddlers lugging around 700-page Harry Potter books and from the explosion of young adult lit, until recently a genre that existed primarily in the realm of wistful hope. But it hasn't happened. The toddlers closed the cover on Hogwarts, read a few more books about wizards, and then turned to creating haiku while texting, and the YA readers -- well, all anyone can say for sure about the YA readers is that they haven't moved on to Lee Child and Sue Grafton, much less Hilary Mantel and Richard Russo.
The thing that's so paradoxical about this to me is that we're in a golden age of crime fiction. I think there's more good writing being done right now, and over a broader spectrum of genres and sub-genres than at any time in the past. But somehow, it would seem, the people gathered for nourishment around this phenomenally bright fire are an aging tribe.
Everyone I know in publishing talks about this issue as a marketing problem--what's needed, they seem to feel, is some way of breaking through to this vast younger audience with decades and decades of book-buying in front of them. The idea ten years ago was that great younger writers would do it; but we have a lot of great younger writers now-- Megan Cabot comes to mind, Lou Berney, Sara Gran, Gregg Hurwitz, Stephen Jay Schwartz, to name just a few--and they're being read mainly by older people.
So it's a conundrum. I'm not saying the genre is going to vanish from the face of the earth; it's existed at least since "Oedipus Rex." But it does seem as though we should probably get used to the idea that we'll be sitting here by the fire for a while, sharing books we love, and growing old together.
Tim -- Sundays