Crime (and thrills) pay in the UK book market

More than half a billion crime, thriller & adventure books were bought across formats in the ten years from 2013 to 2022 in the UK, equating to approximately 100 purchases a minute, with £2.5bn spent by consumers in those years, according to results from our Books & Consumers survey. The genre consistently ranks as the largest area of the book market, and in 2022, crime & thriller made up 12% of print book purchases, rising to nearly a fifth of audiobooks and more than a third of e-books. Beyond the purchases, 40% of UK book buyers say that they read crime & thriller books, at least 10% ahead of any other genre in the list.

What these stats point to is a reliably strong genre with widespread popularity, popularity that has been helped by the numerous subgenres, trends and longstanding series that have built up over the years. From police procedurals to historical mysteries to psychological thrillers to the latest wave of cosy crime, the crime & thriller market spans many interests and audiences, and it’s important to know how to reach those different corners of the consumer base.

Let’s start by examining the age breakdown for crime & thriller buyers and various subgenres within that. Overall, the crime & thriller buyer skews older, with 45% aged 55+ in 2021/22, and that rises to more than two-thirds of ‘dark countryside’ buyers (which covers books by Ann Cleeves, L.J. Ross, etc). Other subgenres that have buyers aged 55+ accounting for at least half of their consumer base include action/adventure, espionage/spy thrillers, historical mysteries, police procedurals and political/legal thrillers. On the other hand, psychological thrillers diverge from the pattern the most, with buyers under 45 adding up to 55%. 25-34s take their highest share for psychological thrillers, while 35-44s are most significant for ‘gangland’ books (i.e. Martina Cole, Kimberley Chambers) and 13-24s for classic crime & mystery.

Those age differences ripple across other demographics, media usage, leisure activities and buying behaviours, impacting the best methods to reach new and existing readers for each type of book. Another important factor is the format breakdown, with digital being quite dominant for crime & thriller as a whole but especially for certain types. The most digital-driven subgenres are dark countryside, gangland (both stemming from high e-book shares) and classic crime fiction, which has a quarter bought as audiobooks. Cosy mysteries and espionage/spy thrillers also over-perform in audiobooks, although the former has the highest print share as well, with one in five cosy mysteries (which includes The Thursday Murder Club) bought in hardback, and 55% bought in print formats overall.

We can see those factors reflected in things like purchase influences, with classic crime books benefiting from the narrator driving interest, as well as where consumers remember seeing book ads/coverage. Dark countryside buyers are most likely to say they remember seeing books featured in emails from retailers, presumably in many cases attached to e-books and deals, followed by bookseller websites, with emails from publishers higher on the list for them as well. Gangland buyers, with that higher share of 35-44s, are more likely to be Facebook users, and tend to remember seeing books advertised on that site ahead of other sources. Shifting younger, buyers of psychological thrillers are the most engaged across various media, particularly online, and are relatively more likely to remember seeing ads on social media and video sites. So social posts about psychological thrillers have more potential of reaching their key audience, while featuring a dark countryside book on Instagram isn’t necessarily going to have the return on investment you might want – but those buyers are paying attention to emails.

They may be looking at those emails, but the data suggests that dark countryside buyers need minimal urging when it comes to books: two-thirds are daily readers (which tends to be more common among older buying groups), and across the subgenres, they’re the most likely to say they read for pleasure/relaxation and are passionate about reading, and the least likely to wish they had more time for reading, don’t read as much as they used to and prefer other things to reading. Countering that, cosy mysteries and psychological thrillers appeal to occasional readers, as is typical with high-profile and trend-driven books. They might not be reading and buying as much as dark countryside buyers, but psychological thriller buyers like to recommend and be the first to read new books, while cosy mystery buyers are the least attached to authors they know they’ll like; that potential for word of mouth for the former and openness to new names for the latter has certainly helped the crime & thriller market expand and evolve in recent years. Now just a question of what’s next!

For more insights, contact to enquire about our UK Crime & Thriller Book Consumer report, published in 2023; you can view a preview here.