Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press sit down with Mystery Scene
Poisoned 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.
How important are the so-called genre conventions to the selection of books you publish? In other words, do your "cozy" characters ever have sex or see blood; do your PI's ever get married?
Rosenwald: Of no importance whatsoever. We publish books we like, based on excellence in writing, voice, originality, setting, characters, dialogue, plotting. We tend to eschew serial killer books or any book that is more action-driven than puzzle-driven. We also avoid derivative and formulaic books.
Peters: I couldn't care less about genres or conventions. We are trying to publish mysteries rather than thrillers, which knocks out some submissions, and I have an infamous prejudice against serial killer books though we have published them. But basically I just look for voice while keeping in mind we have to have a balanced list, not 20 books of similar scope.
In an ideal world, what would you like to see the publishing industry do?
Rosenwald: I'd love to see publishing once again run by people who love books rather than money.
Peters: Lower prices. Be less interested in the star system, that is, in who the author is or what marketing hook the author supplies than in what the author has written and how good it is. As a small press editor, I find the continuing consolidations in big publishing and its Hollywoodization merely opens the road for good books produced at a smaller level, so I don't rant over developments in New York.
What do you want unpublished crime novelists to know about getting successfully published?
Rosenwald: Write the best story you can. Be patient. If it takes us a long time to reject something it's because we are still actively considering it. And don't fall into the trap of believing that you can publish it yourself and thus prove to us that the book is saleable/marketable. A book that has already been published in any form whatsoever is much less appealing to us than an unpublished book. From a marketing perspective, an author can only have one debut novel. And it matters enormously because the media will give much more latitude to a debut than to a second or third effort.
Peters: Master the tools of writing. I am put off by sloppy grammar, bad spelling, poor word choice, repetition, and wandering verb tenses. The more I have to correct on a first reading, the less I focus on the story and the more I think I don't want to invest my time in giving lessons on basic writing. A strong story structure is essential for a crime novel. So are interesting and sympathetic characters who make some kind of journey during the course of the novel. And the book should have an end as good as its beginning.
After a book is published, what do you think the author can do to help guarantee its success?
Rosenwald: Nothing. There are no guarantees to a book's success. However, authors can help enormously by doing whatever self-promotion they can. We have authors who travel heavily to promote their books. We have authors who never leave their homes, but work the web. An author can schmooze and generate interest on the part of others. Books don't sell themselves. People sell books, and an author who can promote him- or herself to booksellers will do a lot better than an author who thinks that a good review is all he or she needs.
Peters: Learn to promote on the internet as well as in person. Travel to promote as much as he or she is able. Summon up past connections, personal and organizational, and market to them. Set up a website and keep it current. Above all, sit down and write another knockout book. Mystery Scene: Describe the novel that you, as an editor/publisher, would most like to have show up on your desk from an unknown, previously unpublished writer.
Rosenwald: Barbara would probably choose one of Jane Austen's books. I'd probably go for Catch-22, Cat's Cradle or Trout Fishing in America. But if we are going strictly with mystery I might pick Mystic River, The Last Coyote, or, if you'll let me call it a mystery, Chinaman's Chance.
Peters: One with a killer voice and set in a landscape I will enjoy, which could be anything. Geographically, politically, historically. There is no right answer to this question.
Mark Terry is a freelance writer and editor living in Oxford, Michigan.