Ten years ago, Andrew Martin, three years into his now-13-year stint as publisher of Minotaur Books, declared that change would come to the St. Martin’s Press mystery imprint. Strong, small-run backlist genre mysteries would remain its backbone, but Minotaur would also shift its focus toward acquiring “big, noisy blockbusters.”
With plenty of those blockbusters under its belt—think C.J. Box and Louise Penny—Minotaur has turned 20. And Martin and company have made even more changes at the imprint, which has slashed its yearly catalogue in half but roughly tripled its profits over the past decade—all while taking more chances on books outside of the clear-cut mystery and thriller categories.
The Minotaur executive team is made up of Martin, who is also a senior v-p; v-p, associate publisher and editorial director Kelley Ragland; executive editor Catherine Richards; v-p of marketing for St. Martin’s Publishing Group Paul Hochman; associate director of publicity Hector DeJean; and assistant director of publicity Sarah Melnyk.
Gone are the days of yearly lists flooded with 140–150 titles. Martin has brought that number down to a tight 70–75 per year. Roughly 75% of the list, he said, remains series authors, but the other 25% is where Minotaur has been taking more risks.
Some of those riskier titles, such as Daniel Stashower’s 2014 Edgar Award–winning The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War, are works of nonfiction—specifically, Martin clarifies, on “great crimes at an important turning point in American history.” Others, such as Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers, which was an instant bestseller in the U.K. upon its publication last year and hit shelves in the U.S. on June 18, are sweeping historical dramas. One thing hasn’t changed, though: all of these titles, as Richards put it, are “books that make your heart race.”
The imprint has diversified its list—a tactic other genre publishers have also employed over the past decade—and that diversification is savvy business, Ragland said. “Many books are no longer bought standing in sections in bookstores, and therefore, the lines are blurrier overall between crime and mystery and suspense and fiction and historical fiction,” she noted. “It’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as it used to be.”
That doesn’t mean Minotaur is shifting its focus away from suiting bricks-and-mortar outlets. Far from it. In 2017, the imprint launched its Signature Editions program, which takes “gateway” titles to series by some of Minotaur’s biggest names—Penny, Linda Castillo, and Paul Doiron among them—and packages them in trade paperbacks priced at $9.99. The titles are filled with extra materials such as q&as and essays. There are about 20 titles in the program now, Ragland said, and sales for titles in the first few seasons are up more than 100% over their previous editions’ sales.
“Now we’re doing—this is so old-school—a beautiful display, and indies and Books-a-Million and others are taking them,” Martin said. “It’s worked! And we fill it every season with at least one or two titles.”
The publisher has also put its money where the industry’s mouth is, in terms of publishers’ oft-declared commitment to independent booksellers, by bringing on McKenna Jordan, owner of Houston’s mystery bookstore Murder by the Book, as a consultant—“a master in the field,” as Martin put it.
Ragland said she views Jordan as someone “in the trenches” who can answer such queries as, “Do ARCs really matter? Do we spend our money doing this? ‘Oh, no—you need to get people’s attention this way,’ she’ll say, or, ‘Don’t worry about this, people don’t care.’ It’s really wonderful to have the ear of somebody who is on the other end. It’s invaluable advice.”
On the digital end, Minotaur’s publisher-agnostic website, Criminal Element, which is celebrating its own 10th anniversary this year, is up to 175,000 unique visitors per month and 130,000 newsletter subscribers, Hochman said. And newcomers, such as Literary Hub’s Crime Reads, haven’t slowed down traffic. “We’ve worked closely with them,” Hochman said. “We give them material, they’ll give us some material.”
“A lot of times we’ll have authors write two different essays: one for Crime Reads and one for Criminal Element,” DeJean said. “In fact, we’ve done some cross-promos where we’ve done a series of pieces that start on Crime Reads, but to continue reading, you have to go to Criminal Element.”
Mosse provides Minotaur with an interesting challenge. Berkley Books had a hit stateside in 2006 with her book Labyrinth, which has sold over 284,000 units total in hardcover, trade paperback, and physical audio to date, according to NPD BookScan. Sales numbers dropped dramatically
for subsequent titles in the series, but with The Burning Chambers, Minotaur is confident it’ll be able to break her out anew, even though it plans to start small, with an initial print run of 18,000, Martin said.
Richards called Mosse “the female Ken Follett” (she edited Follett while at Macmillan UK) and also compared The Burning Chambers to the work of Madeline Miller and Hilary Mantel. “Kate does what I think the best historical fiction novelists do. I always think of the Game of Thrones intro—her books remind me of that. You have the big revolving landscape, and then you have to focus on these patches of people. Her story is a love story and also a big epic drama about war and religion.”
The Burning Chambers is set in 16th-century France during the Protestant Reformation, focusing on the plight of a young couple that finds itself at the center of the conflict between Catholics and Huguenots. The book is the first in a series following the Huguenot diaspora throughout history, Richards said, adding that subsequent installments will be set across 300 years in a number of different locations, including the U.S. The Burning Chambers is the first title to be released in a three-book deal for Mosse and Minotaur, with the subsequent volume due next spring. Bookseller feedback—from Jordan, of course, and a handful of other sellers, as well—came early, and it has been positive.
“When Kate Mosse came in, you wouldn’t think of her as being at a genre thriller, mystery, crime fiction imprint,” Martin said. “But,” he added, driving the point home, “that book makes your heart race.”