Poisoned Pen Press: Bucking the Trend and Going Strong
I recall speaking to a publishing industry insider who once proclaimed that anyone venturing into the world of publishing was swimming in precarious water. “You can’t defy the odds,” he said. “Publishing is fraught with all sorts of pitfalls.” One of the few companies that has defied all odds, growing every year and earning the respect of publishers, authors, and other industry professionals, is Poisoned Pen Press.
Poisoned Pen Press was established in 1997. Founders Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters, the owner of the legendary Poisoned Pen Bookstore, didn’t aspire to create a publishing company that would rival the “big five.” Their goal was to publish works that were diverse and daring, that broke the cookie-cutter mold of traditional mysteries and thrillers. And they succeeded in doing that and more, publishing works ranging from an offbeat thriller set in Botswana titled Danger Woman by Frederick Ramsay to Jack The Lady Killer, a novel in verse by H.R.F. Keating.
That independent spirit has inspired loyalty to Poisoned Pen, from their employees who have worked there for a long time to their authors who have nothing but praise for the team. Author Warren Easley said, “Their support of me goes back to before I signed a contract with them. They turned down two of my manuscripts, but each time it was with a detailed critique of the book and encouragement to stay at it and query them again. I took their critiques to heart and the third manuscript I submitted led to a three-book deal.”
As editor-in-chief of Poisoned Pen Press and owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Barbara Peters wears many hats as she pulls off the fine balancing act of overseeing one of the most successful independent bookstores in Arizona while working on the publishing side of the fence. “She’s tough and uses her years of experience and savvy in the biz to help shape my novels,” says Easley. “When she’s happy, I’m tickled to death.”
At a time when major publishing companies have fewer and fewer resources to support their authors, Tammy Kaehler lauds Poisoned Pen for its publicity and marketing support. “They let me be me, whether that’s my unusual topic or unconventional marketing approaches—and they support me where and how they can.”
Poisoned Pen Press has succeeded in breaking out new authors but has also worked with well-known mystery writers who have worked with the publisher, thanks to its reputation for publishing their books well. In the past nineteen years, Poisoned Pen has published works by luminaries such as H.R.F. Keating, Martin Edwards, Edward Marston, Laurie R. King, and Robert Barnard. President and publisher Robert Rosenwald describes one of its biggest coups: “None of the major New York publishers wanted to publish a 30,000-word novel by my friend James Sallis and we ended up getting the publishing rights. When the New York 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.”
Highlight-reel-worthy moments are few and far between in the publishing industry but consistency is king. Poisoned Pen Press publishes 55-65 books a year that include YA books from the Poisoned Pencil imprint and British Library Crime Classics. Rosenwald says proudly, “Our authors always earn out and make good royalties,” but he hopes that in the future, he can offer higher advances closer to industry standards. Despite the successes over the years, growth came with predictable growing pains. “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 ’90s, we 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.”
Today, Poisoned Pen Press has eight employees and they’ve scored successes in recruiting talents from various industries: Michael Barson who worked for decades as a publicist in New York for Putnam; Raj Dayal, from the world of technology start-ups, who oversees promotional and advertising strategy; and editor Annette Rogers whose background is in the hectic culture of magazine journalism. Barson, who worked on publicity campaigns for Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Dave Barry, Robert Crais, C.J. Box, Philip Kerr, and Sara Paretsky, made the move to Poisoned Pen Press last December. “Having known Robert and Barbara since the Nineties,” said Barson, “it was a true pleasure to finally have the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis.”
The world of publishing can seem distant, austere, and corporate, but the “family concept” at Poisoned Pen Press resonated with Kaehler. “Really, it comes down to nurturing me as a writer and my career as an author. They do so with empathy and care—and with occasional tough love.”
For their contribution to the publishing genre, in 2010, Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald received the Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Putting aside awards, literary coups, and publishing success, Rosenwald lists a single moment in his career that stands head above shoulders over everything: “The day I got to tell one of our authors, whose husband had 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.”
—Bob Rivers and Eric Stevenson