Though Poisoned Pen Press shares a name with its sister bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., “we are entirely separate businesses,” explained press president and founder Rob Rosenwald. “Barbara [Peters] is my wife and editor-in-chief of the press, but she also runs the bookstore. When she’s at the publishing house she works for me, and when I am in the bookstore, doing handyman things, I work for her.”
Peters added: “If we could do it again, there is no chance that we would give the publishing house the same name as the bookstore. It was a terrible idea and creates too much confusion with the authorities, financial and otherwise.”
The publishing operation was launched in 1997, initially to bring out-of-print mystery authors back into publication. “The bookstore opened in 1989, and we saw there were gaps in some long-running series,” Rosenwald said. “We knew that mystery readers wanted complete collections, so we thought we could make a business out of that.”
Rosenwald saw an opportunity to take advantage of still-developing print-on-demand technology to do paperback originals, which was unorthodox at the time. But the publisher quickly shifted into producing original titles. “We started with four books, that first year, and are now doing 60 a year,” he said. “It has gotten a little out of hand.” The press’s backlist is now more than 700 titles.
With Peters selecting the titles, the focus has been on books likely to be overlooked by New York publishers. “These are often first novels, books that are too small to attract major attention at the outset,” she said.
Sales are consistent, Rosenwald said, and titles that sell 3,000–5,000 copies are considered big sellers. Some have even become hits. When Rosenwald’s friend James Sallis couldn’t convince a New York publisher to take a chance on his short novel Drive, Poisoned Pen acquired it. The book went on to sell 3,500 hardcovers, with paperback rights going to Harcourt; Drive later was turned into a film starring Ryan Gosling. The publisher’s top-selling book series is Australian author Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s-era Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries, which got a boost when Netflix started broadcasting the Australian television adaptations in the U.S. in 2013.
Peters and Rosenwald trade credit for the ongoing success of Poisoned Pen Press. “Rob did the deals for our bestselling books,” Peters said. “Miss Fischer came to us complete, so I can’t claim any responsibility for that. And James [Sallis] always writes a clean novel, without any extra words, so my work was very limited there as well.”
Rosenwald, on the other hand, praises his wife’s breadth of knowledge: “She reads very, very fast—an average book or manuscript takes her two hours—so we always have the advantage that she knows absolutely everything that is out there on the market, knows what works and doesn’t, and why.”
But this doesn’t mean the publisher is apt to chase trends—“because if we did that, we’d always be late,” Peters said. Instead, speed reading has helped her refine her taste. “We always publish books we like,” Peters said.
Rosenwald puts it another way: “We actually publish books that we like and books Barbara’s mother would have liked. She was the perfect reader for us, smart and demanding.”
Recently, the publishing operation moved its offices into a space above the bookstore, but Peters, now 77, still often works from home, corresponding with the store and with the press’s other editor, Annette Rogers, who has been with the publisher for a dozen years. Poisoned Pen Press has a total staff of 11, and its latest hire is longtime Putnam executive Michael Barson, who is director of publicity.
Looking back, Rosenwald believes the publishing house has been stable because of its relationship with its writers. “One of the guiding principles was that we would not adhere to a star system of treating authors so radically different, of giving massive advances, or just subsistence advances,” he said. “We felt that caused a lot of infighting. All our authors are treated the same, effectively.”
Authors benefit, as well, from a tight-knit community. The company has an active private listserv, where first-time authors can ask advice from veterans and everyone shares ideas.
In recent years, Poisoned Pen Press expanded into publishing the British Library Crime Classics series in the U.S. and added a young adult fiction line. The latest addition is audiobooks, which Rosenwald said “has a lot of potential.”
For her part, Peters said she’s always looking ahead to the next books to come out, to the next list to produce. “I’m very excited this year by Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill,” she said. “It’s a contemporary novel from Australia that I think is just great.”
“It’s amazing to think about it,” Peters added. “I began editing books when I was almost 60. And here we are today, 20 years later. Publishing is, to a great degree, all about unverified stuff and building an industry out of artistic endeavors. It’s fascinating.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Michael Barson as director of marketing. His title is director of publicity.