Welcome to Small Press Spotlight! We're delighted to welcome Robert Rosenwald, President of Poisoned Pen Press, and Robert Skinner, Poisoned Pen author whose book Daddy's Gone a-Hunting is now available. Welcome, Robert and Robert!
Interview with Robert Rosenwald, President of Poisoned Pen Press
Tell us how and why your press got started.
There were 2 main events that contributed to the creation of Poisoned Pen
Press. The first was that The Poisoned Pen had hosted a crime conference in
Scottsdale in February of 1996, AZ Murder Goes...Classic, that had been
extremely well-received. A number of attendees asked us if we planned on
publishing the papers from the conference, and if not, whether we would
consider doing so. The second was that my wife, Barbara Peters, and I started
bemoaning the shrinking midlist. Barbara kept seeing more and more books
dropping out of print long before "their time". Consolidations in the
publishing industry were causing a significant loss of authors and works. We
also recognized that it is the backlist that is the lifeblood of and
independent mystery bookstore. So, we decided to start a publishing company.
Initially we focused on getting the conference papers printed and reprinting
out-of-print mysteries. Last year we printed the first US edition of Val
McDermid's The Wire in the Blood. This year we did the first US edition of Ruth
Dudley Edward's Publish and Be Murdered and will soon be releasing 3 previously
The biggest advantage that readers get from our books is that we select our
titles based on merit, not bottom-line results or mass-market appeal. This is
not meant to be a knock on Grisham or any other author or publisher, but the
fact is that the big publishers today basically won't print a book unless they
feel they can sell 25,000 plus copies in an 18 month timespan. We have done
several with a goal of selling 1000 and basically feel that if it has merit
we are willing to publish a book if we can break even in 2 years. Some books
that we do, we may never break even on. This fall, for example, we are
publishing a mystery in verse by H.R.F. Keating. Though a wonderful work, we
doubt we'll ever break even, but we feel this work should be published. It's
just a different agenda. Don't think, however, that we aren't profit oriented.
We are. We intend to make a profit--just not as much nor as quickly and
not on every book and it isn't our raison d'etre.
Did you have a mission in mind when you began producing books?
Very much so. We hated what we saw happening at the large houses. So many of
the authors that Barbara really liked were losing their publishers and their
books were not staying in print. Basically we set our mission to make available
mysteries, whether reprints or originals, for today's mystery readers.
How are your books published?
So far we we have done both conventional ink on paper and docutech books. We
are looking at doing e-books, but as a VERY small company, I just haven't had
the time to create them. I am sure that before the end of 1999 we will have
some of our titles available as e-books, but I believe that the biggest demand
will still be for conventional books.
Do you do print-on-demand books? How does that work for you?
Most of our Missing Mystery line is done as print-on-demand. The basic rule of
thumb that I am using right now is that if I feel I can't sell 700 to 800 books
per year, it is a candidate for POD. If I can sell 1000 plus I will almost
certainly go to ink. I'm not sure that this is the right choice, but it is the
one that I have made so far. The reason is fairly simple. With
ink, I can't print fewer than 2000 books economically. If I have to warehouse books for more
than 2 years I have considerable (for us) money tied up in inventory that is
sitting in a warehouse that costs money every month. I try to minimize those
costs and make what funds we have available to publish more books.
How are your books distributed? Do you get help from Ingrams or B and T,
or are you on your own?
Let me make a distinction between distributors, wholesalers and fulfillment
houses. Ingram and Baker &Taylor are wholesalers. They buy books from a
Distributor or publisher and they take orders from Bookstores and Libraries
(primarily) and fill the orders. They do not actively sell our titles.
Independent Publisher Group and Publishers Group West, for example, are
Distributors. They have a commissioned sales force that goes out and promotes
publisher's books to various accounts, including Ingram and B&T and of course
the large chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. A fulfillment house packs and
ships orders. They may actually receive the orders directly, but basically they
are like a large shared warehouse. Currently Independent Publishers Group
distributes one of our titles, Ngaio Marsh: A Life, and we are evaluating
whether we want to have all of our titles be distributed. Most of our books we
sell either directly to bookstores or libraries or to Ingram and B&T. We don't
get "help" from Ingram or B&T except to the extent that they have various
advertising media that they publish that we are starting to use.
Tell us how you advertise. Where do the dollars go, primarily?
Most of what we have done has been in cooperation with Publishers Marketing
Association which is an association of independent publishers. We have
participated in direct mail to libraries and bookstores. We have displayed
titles in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal in the PMA section. We have
bought occasional space ads in Booklist and Firsts. We have gone to several
trade shows and displayed our titles there and we have used Combined Book
Exhibit at trade shows to display some of our titles. Most of the money,
however, has been spent in the PMA advertising programs that we have been
Who are some of the authors you've contracted with? What releases do you
have out or soon out?
Val McDermid, Susan Moody, Bill Tapply, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Robert Rosenberg,
Nora Kelly, P.C. Doherty are some of the authors. We have about 20 different
books out right now and another dozen coming this year. Our most recent new
books include The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson and Robert
Barnard's A Scandal in Belgravia. The forthcoming books we are most excited
about include Robert Skinner's Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, Wendell McCall's
Concerto in Dead Flat, and a new historical mystery set in 6th century
Byzantium, One for Sorrow, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. This will be Mary and
Eric's debut novel and features John the Eunuch, Lord Chancellor to Emperor
Justinian, and involves Christianity and Mithraism among a number of other
What is the price range for your releases?
Most of our books range from $11.95 to $24.95. We have done a couple of limited
editions that were considerably more pricey and we did several mass market
sized paperbacks in the $7.95-$8.95 price range.
How can readers purchase your books?
We'd like to see most people buy directly from their favorite independent
bookstore. Even if they are not in stock, any bookstore can get our titles
either directly from us or from Ingram or B&T. All of our titles can be ordered
directly from us at 6962 E. First Ave. #103, Scottsdale, AZ 85251, or they can
buy them from Amazon.com, or the any of the other online booksellers or chains.
My wife's bookstore, The Poisoned Pen, A Mystery Bookstore in Scottsdale (not
surprisingly) stocks all our titles.
Do you have a website with more information?
Interview with Robert Skinner, Poisoned Pen Author
What led you to a small press? Were you previously published by a
In 1995 I was offered a contract to write three books for Kensington
Books, a smaller New York house that is primarily known for romance
series, although they had a small stable of mystery writers. My
original editor had built a reputation as a good romance editor, but she
wanted to do mysteries, and I think the baroque romanticism of a
tortured character of mixed race living a secret life in a repressive
environment must have appealed to her. She was a decent editor, but for
some reason she chose to leave the house just as the second book in the
series was about to come out. I was initially nervous about losing my
advocate, but I was handed off to one of the two executive editors at
the house, and we quickly established a rapport after she expressed
support and interest in what we were doing. I handed the third book to
her, more on less on schedule, and she expressed considerable delight
We realized we were in trouble when this editor went to the editorial
board with a proposal for a fourth book, and the board shot her down
without any warning, or any sufficient reason for doing so. Since
critical support and public enthusiasm for the series had been
reasonably high given the lack of marketing support Kensington had given
to it, she was dumbfounded by this turn of events.
My agent began shopping the fourth book around New York, and found to
her dismay that the prevailing attitude in many houses was that they'd
prefer a writer to begin a new series, rather than pick up a series in
progress. We went everywhere, and got no offers. This was in spite of
the fact that the first book in my series had been nominated for a Best
First Novel award by Bouchercon.
Just before I went to Bouchercon, Kensington delivered their final
blow. With no prior discussion with my editor, and after issuing dust
jackets and uncorrected proofs for review (it got a glowing review in PW
and in a few other places), they cut my third book from production on
the grounds that the number of pre-publication orders had been
insufficient to continue with it.
As you can imagine, I went to Bouchercon with something of a heavy
heart, although the outpouring of sympathy from the mystery writing and
selling community was immense. There was so much rancor about it on the
Internet that the publisher eventually emerged on the 'Net to offer a
justification for his actions (which nobody bought, so far as I can
I was browsing in the book room at the 'Con when I happened upon
Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen Bookshop/Press, and she offered to
publish the book on the spot. I knew she had been building steam for a
while, and had even rescued other authors who had been dropped by New
York houses, and I was really touched by the offer. There was the usual
back and forth between Barbara and my agent, and the upshot was that
early this year we signed a contract, and a release date of summer,
1999 was chosen.
What's it like writing for a small press?
I found that they gave me a lot of special attention, and that the
editorial was a bit more intense. They found questions and small
problems that Kensington missed, so the book went to press a lot cleaner
than it did at Kensington. I think because they're smaller, they're
more committed to getting the book noticed than Kensington was. I was
never offered support for a signing tour by Kensington, nor did they
even offer to pay my way to Bouchercon. I spent most of my advances
traveling around the country promoting the book for a house that
ultimately treated me with a fair amount of contempt. Barbara has
already begun a marketing campaign in her bookshop newsletter, and is
doing a clever job of using the shabby treatment I got in New York to
cast an aura of mystery around me and my series (I may be the mystery
world's next cult figure ;-)). They've also, at their own expense,
planned to fly me to Scottsdale the week of the release to do a signing,
reading, and some other publicity they've lined up. They've also done a
wonderful job of book design, and I think, from a physical standpoint,
the book will be a very pleasing thing to look at and hold.
Do you receive advances and royalties?
I believe that a small advance will be paid upon publication, which I
considered a pretty nice thing, considering PPP's small size. Barbara
has shown a lot of enthusiasm for me and my series, and just about has
me talked into writing a fourth for her house. Given all she's done for
me already, I probably owe her that fourth book.
Tell us about your experiences promoting a small-press release.
I've really been on the sidelines while Barbara has built me up and tantalized my fans in her
newsletter. She also got Mystery Bookline to write a piece about me and
the fact of her picking me up in their collectors' newsletter. For some
reason, I've always been popular among the hard-core mystery collecting
community. Some of the collector bookshops have been offering signed
copies of my early books at prices that have astounded and even
embarrassed me a little--but pleased me, too.
I know that Barbara is a tough competitor, so I know that there'll be
some marketing and that I'll be involved in some way. Rest assured that I'll do what I can to accomodate them and help
sell the book.
I've been publishing for over twenty years, and much of my previous
book publishing experience has been with university presses, which in
itself is similar to small press publishing. In a way, that experience
kept me from getting a big head or unreal expectations about how
publishers treat writers. I've been in academic life for most of my
adult life, so much of what I've done has garnered no more than a few
thousand dollars and accolades from a few academics who share my
interests. I already knew from the experience of writing about other
writers that the New York publishing world was tough, brutal, and
without much sentiment. I can't say I'm surprised by the way Kensington
handled me--in the terms of the marketplace, they may feel that they
treated me exceedingly well. However, it was nice to be thrown a life
preserver by somebody who had seen my work and had an appreciation for
what I was trying to do. In that way, small press publishing is a good
deal kinder and gentler than the New York kind.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us! Readers, we have a review of Daddy's Gone a-Hunting for you.
September 22, 1999