How much is a writer’s work worth?

I’ve been thinking about that as I consider purchasing the second book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series.

I’ve read the first book in the series, Still Life, and am torn. On one hand, there is so much to love about Penny’s work in terms of descriptive writing, character development and insights and perspectives. This is where Penny excels. I found myself marvelling at her choice of words at times, holding on to them, savouring them like a fine wine. 

Still Life also has a lot of atmosphere, as reviewer Kate Mosse says on the cover: “An atmospheric, detective series.” And what makes the atmosphere even more special for me is that the book is practically set in my back yard: the Eastern Townships of Quebec. She mentions landmarks I know well. Along with the politics here and other local news. Even the very newspaper I work for.

It took me a while to get used to her third person omniscient narrative, though I’m sure I will come to appreciate it as/if I read more of the series. But she is so thorough at conveying the emotions, feelings and thoughts of most characters that I couldn’t say with certainty that Inspector Gamache was the main character.

Everything above is reason enough to keep reading — and paying, yes?

Except there is a “but.” In terms of mystery stories, Still Life was quite good at creating all the aforementioned atmosphere and beautiful, insightful writing from, ironically (and maybe intentionally), a painting of stick figures. That may be the genius of the story.

But in terms of mystery alone, well, it’s a cosy murder mystery. Think Midsomer Murders, set in Quebec. Or Murder She Wrote. Or Three Pines — the current series on Amazon Prime that is based on Penny’s Inspector Gamache series (and which has been panned by some critics I know).

I do enjoy cosy mystery stories — books, TV shows and movies. There are a zilllion of them out there. That Louise Penny has been able to stand out from the pack is quite an accomplishment. But I’ve read cosy mysteries by other writers that were more suspenseful — and cost less. While some of those writers might not have the same character depth that Penny brings to her stories — though, none of them use the third person omniscient approach — they still tell a pretty good mystery story and create enough atmosphere to make it real.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be asking how much a writer’s work is worth, but how much I am willing to pay. There are 18 books in Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, varying in price from $6.99 to $12.99, before almost 16% sales tax in Quebec. The latest book in her series, No. 18, is selling for $15.99.

So, that is quite the investment for a reader who gets hooked, eh?

As for the real worth of books like Still Life and the others in Penny’s series: consider the amount of time she spent thinking about and writing each book. That’s where she gets her first reward for her endeavours, and if she never sold a copy, she still has the joy that comes with writing — much like the artist who paints. But Penny is selling a lot of copies, and that success seems to be cause to put a premium on the price readers pay as opposed to giving them a discount.

So, maybe the price-conscious reader should seek out good writers who haven’t been fortunate enough to get major recognition yet? There are plenty of them out there . . .

— Jillian