I was looking through publishers marketplace to see which agents are selling what, and it was shocking to see the difference in deals between thrillers and mysteries. Mystery sales were mostly "nice" deals (0-$49,999K) while there were many thriller sales in the "major" and "significant" category (big money). What this is telling me is that publishers see little money in mysteries, and quite a bit for thrillers.

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well, PM simply publishes whatever announcements agents send in. Some agents don't send in the $1000 or less deals, some do, but almost every agent is going to send in the more standard deals. But IJ--you're right--the point about thrillers receiving the noteworthy advances (while for the most part mysteries aren't) is exactly the point I was trying to make.
The 'thriller' label is a slippery one. I suspect that it currently has more to do with marketing than a clear distinction between crime fiction (or mystery) and thrillers. I'd be really interested to see how editors/agents/publishers define a thriller. Truthfully, I've seen a number of books being touted as thrillers that I wouldn't necessarily attach that label to . What that actually means in terms of book deals...I have no idea. Still, something to bear in mind.
I'm taking a really fun course at Rice University from Dean James, who's written a dozen or so mysteries, and his take on the difference between a thriller and another type of mystery was that in a thriller the "What's going to happen next?" aspect overpowers the "What happened?" aspect of the book. At least that's what I remember him saying. I'd had wine.
A rough-and-ready distinction I use is this: mystery=crime detection, thriller=crime prevention. In the former, a crime has been committed and we're following the investigation to find out who's responsible. In the latter, a crime may have been committed already, but generally we're expecting more to follow (often escalating), and we're not so much interested in who's responsible (we may already know) as we are in stopping them.

I suspect the terms are used inconsistently on Publishers Marketplace, since agents and editors tend to have their own definitions.
Al, your definition is genuinely correct, but doesn't quite fit the big blockbuster thriller deals. In these the actions, consequences, characters tend to be way over the top--a Jack Baur-type racing against the clock to stop a deadly terrorist act, a biological agent or virus is about to be unwittingly unleashed onto the free world, powerful people are being held hostage for nefarious reasons, serial killers who make Hannibal Lector look like a choir boy, etc.. Right now I'm reading one of these--"When She Was Bad" by Jonathan Nasaw (very good, btw. excellent writing), and what you've got is a rift on Natural Born Killers, except Mickey and Mallory are replaced by two deeply disturbed multiple personality patients (whose bad personalities are very bad). These are characters who would never appear in a book labeled as mystery--nor would the acts that they commit ever show up in a mystery.

Taking these big commercial thrillers out of the picture, in a lot of cases the line's blurred between what's a mystery and what's a thriller. In the past these books would've simply been called crime novels, but for marketing sake they're more likely now to be labeled thrillers. Are Crais's Elvis Cole novels mysteries or thrillers? I would say they're more mysteries, but they're marketed more as thrillers (or mystery thrillers). Just one of many examples of this blurring.
I subscribe to the definitions given above (by Dean and Al). This over-the-top business has mass appeal, but is so far from believable that I neither read nor write such scenarios. Our problem is, as always, how far we want to bend to please the more dubious tastes of society and make the big bucks.


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