The Page Turner Sara Paretsky
Photograph by Jeff Sciortino

The Page Turner

Pioneering, best-selling author—and local literary hero—Sara Paretsky tells the story of social change, of Chicago, of character, and of the mystery of the business of fiction.

When she walks into 57th Street Books, Sara Paretsky, AM ’69, MBA ’77, PhD ’77,  is welcomed as an old friend and coconspirator—both of which are true to her legacy in Chicago and in the Hyde Park literary haunt. The best-selling mystery writer, who has just published her 21st book and greets everyone behind the counter by name, is clearly at home here. The city has inspired Paretsky since she arrived by bus at age 19 from Kansas to support the civil rights movement.

Since that time—in 1966, what Paretsky calls “the touchstone summer of my life”—Chicago, and largely Hyde Park, has been her second-most-important protagonist. She went on to earn a PhD in history at the university and then an MBA from Booth. All the while she was concocting a unique alchemy of research and storytelling, fact and fiction, analytics and activism, that somehow makes the idea of a mystery writer with a business degree make perfect sense.

“I thought business could be a place to put some of my important personal goals for social justice,” Paretsky said about an education and career path that others might see as less than direct.

“The idea was to affect people, maybe in a broader way than just demonstrating on the streets.”

Her novels, which have been published in more than 30 countries, affect people—as well as the larger publishing industry—in powerful ways. And her inimitable detective, V. I. Warshawski, is a demonstration in herself. The private eye, whom Paretsky first introduced to readers in 1982 in Indemnity Only, was a new kind of female lead for the genre: “I am a woman,” she says, “and I can look out for myself. . . . If things get heavy, I’ll figure out a way to handle them—or go down trying.” V. I. is street smart and independent, armed with a University of Chicago law degree and a penchant for high-stakes mysteries. The fiercely self-reliant, unmarried, and unapologetic Ms. Warshawski arguably led us from Miss Marple into the era of Lisbeth Salander and Tess Monaghan.

A Maverick In Mystery

“Right from the beginning, Sara had her voice as an author with V. I. Warshawski,” said Dominick Abel, Paretsky’s literary agent for more than 30 years.

In a time when mystery novels by and about women were rarely earning reviews in top publications, V. I. was an impressive evolutionary leap of a character. She was and is—like her creator—an agent for social change.

It’s a role Paretsky is passionately committed to today, particularly by applying her business sense and industry influence as an advocate for women mystery writers at all stages of their careers. “When I started out, publishers were willing to let writers grow,” Paretsky said. “My first book sold 3,500 copies. You’d never get a second with that now. Today, I would have to self-publish.” According to Paretsky, “If you sold 15,000 copies then, the publisher would make a profit. But the floor now is probably twice that in hardcover.”

Paretsky is the rare author who is supremely equipped to live at the intersection of business and publishing, at a time when the business of publishing needs precisely such expertise. Writers are expected not just to write, but to manage the entire enterprise around their books, essentially serving as CEOs of every title, from finding them an audience to social media strategy. From both the creative and the financial perspectives, Paretsky is an author’s author, an infiltrator of sorts into big-house publishing.

Still, however, it says a lot about the demands on the first-time novelist today to hear it from Paretsky, an MBA-armed fiction powerhouse who’s beyond proven her value to her publisher. “I always present a marketing plan,” she said, including as recently as around Brush Back, which the Washington Post named one of the five best mystery books of 2015. She added, laughing, “And then they ignore it or take pieces of it.”

The element that writers cannot afford to ignore these days is rooted in Paretsky’s experience at Booth: Be they first-time novelists or accomplished best sellers, authors more and more have to rely on the business behind their literary endeavors. To Paretsky, that has meant asking the crucial questions, a decidedly Chicago Approach. “You’ve got to think this through,” she said adamantly.

“Who is the audience for this book? How can you reach this audience? Very few writers do that, and it is essential."

Even though the money for most writers isn’t there like it was five, 10, or 15 years ago, the word persists. You can’t kill that desire. I think that people continue to want stories, and people will continue to want to tell stories.

Sara Paretsky

The Author As Advocate 

Paretsky’s circuitous route to life as a celebrated author began nearly 50 years ago, when she arrived in Chicago as a student volunteer, supporting grassroots efforts to help quell racial unrest.

“I was placed in a white neighborhood near Back of the Yards,” she said. “It turned out to be the epicenter of the race riots, as Dr. King and others marched for open housing.” It was Paretsky’s first glimpse at the chaos of the divided city and her chance to participate in a movement that held the promise of social change. 
The youthful Paretsky was optimistic. “In some ways, you might think, ‘Oh, it was such a violent summer,’” she said. “‘Why would that make you fall in love with the city?’ But you just felt enormous possibility for change, and good change.”

She went back to the University of Kansas that fall to finish her degree, then returned to Chicago to earn a PhD in history. That was when Paretsky’s belief in the potential impact and responsibility of business led her to Booth to pursue an MBA. 

The competition and classwork at Booth, as well as influential faculty, helped her define her leadership style and multidisciplinary career to come. “John E. Jeuck was the most inspiring person and a joy to work with,” Paretsky said of Jeuck, MBA ’37, ’AB 37, and former Booth dean (1952–55). “He just had this tremendous vitality. He had a great love of the business world and how it operated. He was so engaged. You just wanted to get out of it what he got out of it.”

To Booth, Paretsky brought her unique perspective to the community at a time when very few women were earning MBAs. “Sara was insightful with a wonderful sense of humor,” said classmate Mary Lou Gorno, ’76, (see “Booth by the Book") managing director of Chicago-based executive search firm Ingenuity International and member of the University of Chicago Board of Trustees. “She would identify and focus on complex issues like education, social justice, and poverty, where there were no easy answers. She was always challenging herself and others to think about these things.”

 
As soon as Paretsky graduated from Booth, she landed on the marketing team at Chicago-based insurance company CNA, where she stayed and thrived for more than a decade. “It was hard to leave,” she said about the corporate world, remembering when she was debating her exit. “There’s such a camaraderie of being involved in a common mission. You’re all speaking the same language. I knew I was going to miss that.”
But, like so many writers, she was struggling to somehow find time to focus on her fiction around her day job. Unlike so many writers, she managed to complete and publish three novels while employed full time. (She also managed to tutor neighborhood kids, sing in a local choir, and raise three stepsons with her husband, now-retired University of Chicago physicist Courtenay Wright.)

“I only quit because I was really running out of energy,” she said about the growing demands of her life as an author on her life as a marketer.

While she never resembled the introverted writer in a garret—Paretsky was actively energized and excited by her daily interactions in the business world—eventually she felt compelled to commit full time to fiction writing. “I thought I had the chance to really develop my gift.” At the same time, she said, “I was getting promoted and traveling two weeks a month. So when I jumped off the high dive, I thought, if I am going to do this I need to be disciplined.”

She found that even coming from a place of discipline, employment, confidence, and success, she was not immune to the self-doubt that tends to come with the career choice—sometimes swerve—of writer. “My writing had actually been a small private space in me. Having it just be on the side meant that I wasn’t putting too much weight on it,” she said. “When it became how I had to make a living, then I started second guessing myself. I was always asking, ‘Am I doing it right?’”
 

Working the Case for Women Writers

The success of V. I. answered that question, for Paretsky and for the world. 

Before Paretsky put V. I. on the case, female characters in the genre were largely portrayed as damsels in distress, gold diggers, or other stereotypes. To change that, Paretsky, with a small group of women, helped launch Sisters in Crime, in 1987. The advocacy group was designed to provide female mystery authors with networking opportunities, advice, and support. It was a direct response to the unique challenges for women writers and the disparities within the industry that Paretsky—who would publish her fourth novel that year—had experienced.

“We found that a mystery by a man was seven times more likely to be reviewed than a mystery by a woman,” Paretsky said. “If you’re not getting reviewed, they don’t buy your book. So women were dropping out of publishing in huge numbers.” 

Using that insight, Paretsky was able to present a clear case to reviewers and booksellers for greater consideration of women-authored work. Ultimately her efforts helped to expand the market and broaden the genre, which cultivated new audiences. Today, Sisters in Crime has 3,600 members in 50 chapters worldwide. “I personally believe the reason mysteries continue to be such a successful part of publishing today is because of Sisters,” Paretsky said. “We grew the market. We brought women back as writers and readers.”
 

Future Storylines

Paretsky’s advocacy for the disenfranchised has remained a through line for her, and one that has evolved greatly with technology and a sea change in her industry. 

“I think everybody who reads regularly reads in a hybrid mode today,” she said about print and digital delivery options. “There is still a tremendous attachment to the book as physical object, and I prefer print. But I read on my device, too.”

Such cross-platform sampling—and what exactly it means—remains one of the biggest questions in publishing. Amazon has recently opened a brick-and-mortar store. At the tail end of 2015, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-reader ownership is down to 19 percent, from 32 percent in 2014. On the other hand, Library Journal recently found that 94 percent of public libraries surveyed offer e-books to visitors, and that 80 percent saw demand increase for adult e-books over the past year. The demand for young adult e-books has increased 65 percent, and for children’s 52 percent. According to a study published by Digital Book World and consumer research group PlayCollective earlier this year, children under the age of 13 read e-books once a week. 

In other words, predicting the preferences of the future reader—even the present reader—is a complicated business. Paretsky has found some certainty within the industry, however. For example, as much as she enjoys traveling and meeting her readers, she recognizes that the book tour is a fairly outdated concept in terms of return on investment for any author. “Going on the road to sell a book is just not a smart thing to do anymore,” she said. “Though connecting with live readers is good, it’s very expensive.” She thinks the better money is in internet advertising, and she keeps fans close through her Twitter feed.

What’s next for publishing is a mystery—even for someone as adept at imagining and solving those as Paretsky. It’s anyone’s guess. But she remains hopeful and as passionate as ever about the power of the human narrative and the potential for positive change. 

“Even though the money for most writers isn’t there like it was five, 10 or 15 years ago, the word persists,” she said. “You can’t kill that desire. I think that people continue to want stories, and people will continue to want to tell stories.” Then, added the best-selling author with an MBA, “No matter how much you analyze it or commodify it, there’s just always going to be a need for a great story.” 

—By Eva Yusa

The Next Chapters

The publishing industry continues to evolve, keeping the major players guessing.

1987

Barnes & Noble acquires the B. Dalton chain, then the nation's second-largest book retailer. An era of superstores follows, but online retailers would later shake the giants to their cores.

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1994

Amazon launches its website with a focus on selling books. The online competition poses a challenge to traditional retailers. The company goes public in 1997.

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1999

The Open eBook format allows publishers and authors to digitally share works; e-books skyrocket in popularity thanks to compressed audio formats and portable media players.

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2007

Amazon introduces the Kindle, which joins a new generation of digital reading devices. The company's e-book sales will surpass its paperback sales by early 2011.

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2012

A federal antitrust case, United States v. Apple Inc., accuses the company and five publishing houses of e-book price fixing. Some consumers see refunds after a settlement in 2013.

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2015

One million books are now released yearly; almost half are self-published. Amazon opens its first brick- and-mortar store, utilizing reviews and ratings from the vast trove of data on its website.

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