Mark Terry

Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press sit down with Mystery Scene

poisonedpen_rob_barbPoisoned Pen Press came into being in 1996 partly in response to the shrinking mid-list in mystery publishing. For Barbara Peters, owner of the Scottsdale, Arizona bookstore The Poisoned Pen, too many fine authors were losing their publishers to downsizing. Her husband, Arizona businessman Robert Rosenwald, decided to form an independent mystery publisher to address the problem. Robert is the president and publisher; Barbara is the editor.

Poisoned Pen Press now publishes 36 books per year, according to Robert. "Typically two hardcovers and one paperback per month." They have a "first-look" deal with an independent film producer and their foreign sales are handled by Danny Baror of Baror International.

Mystery Scene: What is PPP's strength? Your weakness? What do you offer that other publishers may not?

Rosenwald: Our biggest strength is Barbara. She has extraordinary taste and is Catholic enough in her tastes to consider most anything. After Barbara, our greatest strength is our passion for what we are doing and our ability to inculcate that passion in other people. They regularly volunteer to help for no compensation, other than being a part of what we are doing. Our biggest weakness is a lack of capital. We actually read and edit the books we publish. That is not a joke because we know for a fact that there are large publishers that take an author's submission, typeset it, spell-check it, and go to press. We also are willing to look at manuscripts that come in over the transom. About 80% of what we have published has been unagented, though we will look at agented submissions with no preference for one over the other.

Peters: Our strengths include the quality of the books we've selected and the input we gather from advance readers in both selection and reviewing our galleys. My weakness is lack of time to do the job I'd like to do for each author and title. What we offer is a sterling reputation (or so I think), as careful editing as possible (not as what would be ideal), and the good luck of excellent review coverage plus quality books. The design and production of our books and the jacket art earns Rob my applause and that of readers.

I was told about two years ago by Jeff Gerecke at JCA (a literary agency) that the mystery market had "cratered." Do you agreed? Has it improved?

Rosenwald: We have published a number of Jeff's books (mostly reprints). I suspect Jeff means that there are fewer "big books" being sold to the large houses, but I have watched our sales increase dramatically every year. Part of that is certainly because people are just discovering what we do and we haven't come close to saturating our market yet. I think there is a very strong market for what we are doing. I'm not interested in selling 50,000 copies of some book if we could sell 5,000 copies of every book we do I'd be ecstatic. So, no, I don't agree.

Peters: I think that, like all genre fiction, mystery swings up and down. It crested in the early '90s and is still down, while thrillers and big box books are up, largely because big publishers need immense numbers. I think readers are becoming bored with big books with high stakes and are willing to return to the smaller mystery. Romance and history work well. So does the regional book, with its deep sense of place. I have expanded my definition of mystery to include the crime novel, and I think there are enough readers to keep us going at the bookstore, which survived 2002 intact, and at the press.