The evidence shows that major publishers know how to churn out mystery blockbusters. Currently topping PW's fiction bestseller list is James Patterson's latest, Mary, Mary, from Little, Brown—his fourth #1 bestseller this year—while Patricia Cornwell's newest Kay Scarpetta mystery, Putnam's Predator, is marking week #5 on the list. But according to mystery booksellers who themselves have become publishers, the big houses often overlook clues about reader demand for books beyond bestsellers.
These retailers/publishers say that their experience in the bookstore has made them more sensitive to reader interest in certain subcategories of mystery writing, to the need to build the careers of solid but not blockbuster writers and about collectors' passion for the book as object.
This might sound like Miss Marple pulling out a magnifying glass at a crime scene where the resources of CSI are already at work. But just as that feisty lady owed much of her success to knowing the community in which she worked, these bookseller/publishers know their markets. "We are aware of reader demand," says Kate Mattes of Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass. "We are on the front line." Mattes created her imprint, Kate's Mystery Books, at Justin & Charles Publishers of Boston, in order to publish first books in series and some English imports that had not yet been published in the U.S. Now she publishes new fiction, too.
"It's the greatest market research you can do, to sit in your store and hear what people love," says Otto Penzler, who is the owner of New York's Mysterious Bookshop and has also headed his own imprints at three major houses. "After all, your customers are the ones who bought Alexander McCall Smith when he was still being distributed by Columbia University Press."
Some retailers say they got into publishing in the first place because they faced so many requests for books that big publishers had either dropped, failed to bring out in American editions or would not publish because potential sales were considered too small. "We saw the publishing industry moving away from traditional mystery to concentrate at one end on bestseller thrillers of the slice-and-dice variety geared to a mass audience and at the other end on light gimmick mysteries," says Tom Schantz of Rue Morgue Press in Lyons, Colo. Schantz and his wife, Enid, have been selling mysteries since 1970 at Rue Morgue Bookstore and launched their publishing venture in 1997 to help fill a gap they feared was threatening booksellers. "A lot of heavy mystery readers have abandoned bookstores because they can't find traditional mysteries there," he says.
The Schantzes are reprinting titles from the Golden Age of detective fiction—which they see as stretching from about 1913 to 1953—including works in the strong-female-sleuth tradition by Elizabeth Dean, Gladys Mitchell and Juanita Sheridan. They have also brought back into print the work of Dorothy Bowers, an English mystery writer who was compared favorably to Dorothy L. Sayers before Bowers's life was cut short by tuberculosis in 1948. Rue Morgue Press's top seller is Murder at Shots Hall by another Sayers contemporary, Maureen Sarsfeld.
David Thompson, an employee of Houston's Murder by the Book, cites "major publishers' lack of interest in classic mysteries" as his main reason for launching Busted Flush Press last year. "Sure, they do Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Highsmith and Christie. But the success of Rue Morgue Press should show that Golden Age writers are in demand." Thompson was unhappy when Bantam dropped Carolyn Haines, whose Sara Booth Delaney books are among Murder by the Book's bestselling titles. Fortunately, Haines is now a Kensington author, but Thompson notes that that kind of second chance is not often the case for other writers. At Busted Flush Press, he's looking forward to publishing early work by the likes of Ken Bruen, Mitchell Smith, David Handler and Randy Wayne White (writing under the pen name Randy Striker).
Jim Huang of the Mystery Company bookstore in Carmel, Ind., also worries about big publishers' effect on the genre's future. He founded Crum Creek Press in 1989 to produce reference annuals based on work that had appeared in The Drood Review, which he edits. More recently, though, Huang began publishing first books in series—"because that's where readers want to start"—and traditional mysteries. Mystery readers, he says, are more likely to buy any particular book in a series if all the titles are available. "If only numbers two, five and nine are available, then that reader is unlikely to grab number 10 off the new titles table when we point it out. That means that not only is the new title much harder to sell, but those three backlist titles are a hard sell, too." This category, he adds, "is about restoring order—that's one of the classic bases for the appeal of the mystery story. Given that, is it surprising that fans of the genre want to put books in order?"
Huang says passionate mystery fans like to see publication of hardcovers and paperbacks timed so that all books in the series are available at once. They also demand that publishers clearly indicate the correct order of all books in the series (not just the ones from that publishing company).
Schantz explains that this is important because "in the 1930s and '40s, writers wrote series in such a way that it wasn't necessary to read them in order." In contrast, he says, today's series "follow the lives of the central characters week by week in a steady progression," just as most television programs, with the result that "the reader almost has to read a series in order in order to fully understand what's going on. Once you take those earlier titles out of print, interest in the series among new readers is bound to fall off."
Maggie Topkis of New York City's Partners & Crime bookstore says requests from customers led her to found Felony & Mayhem Press last June. "Over the 12 years that our store has been in business, I had become increasingly frustrated by the number of good books that had gone out of print." She decided to reprint Stuart Kaminsky's Edgar Award—winning Inspector Rostnikov series, about a cop in Soviet-era Moscow, "because a couple of customers were looking at the reissues of Stuart's other series, and asked plaintively whether anyone was planning on bringing back the Rostnikovs. We're doing a fair number of vintage titles—for example, we're reissuing all of Edmund Crispin and Elizabeth Daly—because I have so many customers who love old-school puzzle mysteries, with elaborate clues and locked doors and impossible-to-solve crimes. I know from experience that there is an audience that craves them."
Huang says there's also an underserved market for traditional hard-boiled private eye fiction. "The basic PI story that starts out with the detective being hired to investigate a case that takes a full book's worth of investigation to resolve is surprisingly rare. Instead, today's PIs are too wrapped up with their own demons to care much about their clients." Huang publishes four titles a year, with fiction produced under The Mystery Company imprint and reference volumes labeled Crum Creek Press/Drood Review Books.
Historical mysteries, especially those set in medieval times, and British fiction also may be getting short shrift from major publishers. Schantz says that's why Rue Morgue Press loaded its list with traditional British mysteries. "I can't entirely blame U.S. publishers for the lack of good traditional British mysteries," he says. "First, the market in Britain, as in the U.S., seems to be leaning toward slice and dice, laced with a lot of angst, so there is less of the modern traditional mystery being published in Britain in the first place. Second, American bookstores are being run by younger people who don't recall the time when the traditional mystery ruled the bookshelf, so they stock what they're used to."
These indie bookseller/publishers may also be less likely to chase after fads, says Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Poisoned Pen Press in Scottsdale, Ariz., and of Poisoned Pen Central bookstore in Phoenix. "I look at a display table and it's heavy at the moment with paranormal mystery/ romance, sex-and-the-city mystery and Da Vinci Code clones," she says. "Readers are quick to grow bored. It didn't take long to make the serial-killer thriller passé." Peters doesn't look at bestseller lists to figure out what will interest readers. "A good book is a good book, you feel it in your gut and you convince others to follow your lead," she says. Poisoned Pen Press focuses on mysteries, avoiding the thrillers that would put it in more direct competition with major houses. It counts among its successes David Fulmer's Shamus Award—winning Chasing the Devil's Tailand Charles Benoit's Relative Danger. The company just secured a Canadian distributor and plans to launch Poisoned Pen Press U.K. in January.
Meanwhile, Busted Flush Press debuted with two titles this year—an original short story written by Edgar nominee Ken Bruen in honor of Murder by the Book's 25th anniversary and a limited edition of New York Times bestseller Randy Wayne White's first Doc Ford novel, Sanibel Flats, originally released in 1990. This 300-copy edition, quarter-leather—bound and autographed, calls to mind Otto Penzler's original respect-the-genre approach to publishing.
Recalling his days as the independent publisher of the Mysterious Press (before it became a Warner operation) and of Otto Penzler Books (formerly an imprint at Simon & Schuster and at Carroll & Graf, and now a Harcourt imprint), Penzler, too, celebrates the freedom of the independent publisher. "You can choose what you like. Nobody can tell you 'No.' And that's a glorious thing."
Penzler says he now accepts the fact that major publishers look at risk differently than do independents. "They're still willing to take a risk but they want to hit a home run," he says. Still, he sees two big advantages in working with a major house. "It's their money, not yours. And distribution is taken care of for you."
For her part, Peters acknowledges that it's easy to criticize "the big guys" and points out the pressures that acquisitions editors face at large publishing houses. "With big overheads and advances to pay, it's unrealistic to think a big publisher isn't forced to play the marketplace and the media," she says. "That's why I think the small press has such a bright future; they offer independent bookstores inventory perfect for the kind of reader who shops in one."