Interview with Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters: History of Poisoned Pen Press

Who were the very first authors you signed for Poisoned Pen Press? Do any of them still remain with you, nineteen years later?

The first original mystery we published was ONE FOR SORROW by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. We have since published ten more John, the Lord Chamberlin mysteries set in 6th century Byzantium. In January we will be publishing THE GUARDIAN STONES, a new work set in 1941.

The first title you published was a collection of essays about mystery writers in Arizona, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical. What percentage of nonfiction has comprised the PP Press list over the years? And has that proportion changed dramatically since 1997?

AZ MURDER GOES CLASSIC was actually a compilation of the papers presented at a crime conference in Scottsdale at which a number of contemporary international crime writers discussed past masters with the theme, What makes a mystery a classic? Presenters were Justin Scott (Robert Louis Stevenson), Laurie King (Arthur Conan Doyle), Joe Gores (Dashiell Hammett), Michael Connelly (Raymond Chandler), Val McDermid (Hard-Boiled Detectives), Edward Marston (John Dickson Carr), H.R.F. Keating (Dorothy L. Sayers), Miriam Grace Monfredo (Daphne DuMaurier), Steven Saylor (Stuart Palmer), Robin Smiley (Erle Stanley Gardner), Peter Lewis (Eric Ambler), Susan Moody (Crispin, Innes, and Blake), Margaret Lewis (Ellis Peters), Janet Laurence (Publishing in the Golden Age), and Catherine Aird playing devil’s advocate.

What was the first major obstacle you had to overcome when Poisoned Pen Press debuted, from the business side of things?

Most of the independent bookstores, and especially the mystery booksellers thought that Poisoned Pen Press was an extension of The Poisoned Pen bookstore which my wife, Barbara Peters, and I opened in 1989 and they were loathe to support “the enemy.” In fact the bookstore and press are two completely separate companies and as far as the Press is concerned, the Poisoned Pen bookstore is just another customer no different from any other retail account—same discounts, same terms.

How have you had to modify your goals for Poisoned Pen Press from the first plans you conceived?

When we started up I had this vision of all Poisoned Pen Press titles having the same generic cover—a white background with blood drops—like the Penguin Crime Line’s banded green and white covers. You didn’t need to know the author or series, you just knew that if you bought a Penguin Crime Line mystery you’d get a great read. I forgot to realize that Penguin had earned that consumer mind-space, and we had a long way to go to get there. Big mistake…

Looking ahead, what would you say your primary goal for the Press will be over the next few years?

To start earning enough so that we can increase our advances. Our authors always earn out and make good royalties, but our advances are on the low side and I’d like to get them closer to industry standards.

Could you identify one special triumph for each of the decades the Press has been in existence?

When we published MUTE WITNESS by Charles O’Brien the starred review from Publishers Weekly began: “The bar for historical mysteries has just been raised, thanks to this masterly debut novel.” It was one of our first starred reviews and resulted in our first rights sale.

Another favorite accomplishment: Because none of the major NY publishers wanted to publish a 30,000 word novel by my friend James Sallis we ended up getting the publishing rights. When the NY Times review came out it began: “At 158 pages DRIVE (Poisoned Pen, $19.95) is the most compact novel I’ve read in some time, so I’ll make this brief: James Sallis has written a perfect piece of noir fiction.” It became the award winning eponymous movie starring Ryan Gosling.

What has been your biggest surprise since launching Poisoned Pen Press–something that you never saw coming when drawing up the game plan?

I expected that the independent bookstores, and especially the independent mystery booksellers would aggressively  embrace what we were doing with our publishing program because we were publishing excellent mysteries that were extremely well reviewed, giving them a product that would not be typically offered in the chains. I was surprised that most accounts paid little attention to our titles, instead continuing to attempt to compete with the chains by selling the same bestsellers the chains were using as loss-leaders.

The challenges facing Poisoned Pen Press can’t be remotely the same today as when it launched… What has been the most dramatic shift for the imprint since the late nineties?

The biggest shift has been adapting to working with a National Distributor. From inception until 2009 we distributed our own books. Then in 2009 we signed up with Ingram Publisher Services (IPS). I once was proud of the fact that in the late 90’s we once got a book typeset, published, into print and for sale in less than a month, and normally had a book available for sale within four or five months These days we need to schedule books about a year ahead so that our sales reps at IPS can present the books six to seven months before publication to the national accounts. Adapting to the timing continues to be difficult, though it’s improving every year.

What has been the single most satisfying day you’ve enjoyed thus far as publisher?

The day I got to tell one of our authors who had a husband with congestive heart failure that we had sold the rights to her debut mystery for $250,000 and heard her sobs of disbelief and pure joy.

Is there one decision you made about the the Press you wish you could take back, given the luxury of 20/20 hindsight?

I don’t think there is any one decision I made that I wish I could take back. There are a couple of authors that we reprinted who ultimately dealt less than fairly with us. I have made a few bad hiring decisions over the years though none that were disastrous. And of course there are the titles that I significantly over-estimated on print runs. But for the most part I feel things have gone remarkably well.

If you had the power, what trend would you like to implement in publishing–specifically, Mystery publishing–over the next five years?

If I had the power– How about fining publishers 1¢ for every copy of every book published in which there exist blatant editorial errors, whether they be in grammar, spelling, or whatever. I’d also charge 5¢ for every time the comparative of “unique” is employed, and maybe a little less for each incorrect usage of “lay” and “lie”.

And in that vein, which trend would you most like to reverse?

The dumbing down of English.