Small Press Spotlight
by Cathy Sova
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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we did the first US edition of Ruth Dudley Edward's Publish and Be Murdered and will soon be releasing 3 previously unpublished mysteries.

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 involved in.

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 fascinating storylines.

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?

www.poisonedpenpress.com

Interview with Robert Skinner, Poisoned Pen Author

What led you to a small press? Were you previously published by a mainstream house?

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 over it.

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 tell).

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


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