Mysteries can be a lucrative genre—especially for publishers whose author rosters include names like Grafton, Patterson, Robb, or any of a number of bestselling stalwarts who publish with the Big Five. Independent publishers, however, have to work harder, or at least differently, to get their books into the hands of readers. Like the details of a well-plotted mystery, the strategies these publishers deploy offer clues as to how they overcome the challenges of their trade.

When author Ed Aymar looks back, he sees a mystery landscape littered with dead publishers. “There was a rise in small publishing in the 2000–2012 period,” says Aymar, who edited the anthology The Night of the Flood (Down & Out, Mar. 2018) and who is managing editor of the International Thriller Writers website The Thrill Begins. “A lot of that came from frustrated writers who saw a way to create their own publishing house.”

Without experience, though, many went under. “It wasn’t uncommon to see a house go in a year,” Aymar says. “They didn’t have the business savvy.” Today he sees a healthier setup: there are more publishers with editorial or business-side experience, and they prioritize author advocacy in areas that matter to writers, readers, and the bottom line.

Support Systems

Jason Pinter is one of those publishers. He founded Polis Books in 2013 after stints in marketing, publicity, and editorial at Warner, Crown, St. Martin’s, and Grove Atlantic. Advocacy has been central to his efforts, from the moment he starts courting an author to sign with the press.

Pinter can’t pay writers sizable advances. He offers enough, he says, “to convince them that, even if they’re not going to be able to buy a new yacht up front, it’s going to pay the rent for a couple of months.” The problem, he says, is that without a big advance, authors are tempted to bypass him altogether and self-publish.

Advocacy is the way he persuades them, explaining the benefits of working with a small publisher. “If you decide to self-publish you’re not just a writer anymore,” he says. “You’re running a business, which cuts your writing time in half. To a lot of authors that’s not appealing.”

David Abolafia, marketing and publicity director at Oceanview Publishing, says that his authors appreciate the publicity and marketing support his small press offers, which includes digital marketing and reviewer and bookseller outreach. “We make a big deal about launches,” he notes. “We make sure that it’s something to celebrate, and that’s one of the reasons why authors stay with us.”

In August, Oceanview published a crime novel about human trafficking, The Last Girl, by Danny Lopez, pen name of literary fiction author Phillippe Diederich. The publisher supported the book with digital and print marketing, and strategically discounted the e-book edition. Oceanview also hosted a launch event at an independent bookstore. Thanks to Oceanview’s efforts, the bookstore sold out of the title.

For Catherine Treadgold, publisher at Coffeetown Press, too, readings are a way to boost authors’ engagement and support. “Seeing the authors live still matters,” she says, and the events result in sales. While traditional advertising is sometimes out of reach for a small press like Coffeetown, Treadgold says, launches and readings present an opportunity to foster a sense of community among her authors. A recent reading in southern Oregon, for example, drew several Coffeetown authors who live in the area as well as local mystery enthusiasts.

Katharine Carroll, U.S. publicity director for the U.K.’s Titan Books, says that one benefit of being small is having the flexibility to test new marketing ideas quickly, without being slowed by a labyrinthine organizational structure. In April 2018, for instance, Titan will publish Alice Blanchard’s A Breath After Drowning. “She’s a successful author,” Carroll says, but it’s also her first book since 2005’s Life Sentences. “That was a while ago, and not everybody will remember her.”

Instead of seeing the gap between books as an impediment, Carroll sees it as an opportunity for Titan to try something new in order to reintroduce Blanchard to readers. The publisher will develop a primarily digital campaign, using targeted social media, newsletters, and other digital outreach to attract the attention of major media, a tactic Titan has not yet tried with an author.

For Martin Shepard, whose Permanent Press is coming up on four decades in business, clarity and equality among his authors is the most important form of advocacy. He uses the same contract he’s used for years. “We pay everybody a $1,000 advance,” he says. “We spell these things out, and we don’t have many people cursing us for not doing better.”

Mining the Backlist

As publishers across genres know, there’s money to be had in a strong backlist. This is especially true in a category like mysteries, where multibook series reign. Without a backlist, Jason Pinter says, “you’re basically pushing a freight train starting at a standstill.”

Pinter seeks out authors from whom he can acquire rights to older titles along with a new manuscript, reissuing former out-of-print works as discounted e-books, with marketing for the new title embedded in the e-pub files.

In addition to driving sales, he says, the attention that he pays backlist titles is what persuades some writers to sign with Polis. For instance, the publisher acquired eight Kent Harrington titles, whose rights had reverted to the author, along with a new manuscript, Last Ferry Home, which it will release in March 2018.

Matt Martz, publisher at Crooked Lane, says he looks to the Big Five as a source for authors who can bring a backlist along with a new title. “There are some very good writers with good readership who may not be getting good attention” at the bigger houses, he says.

One such author is Eva Gates, whose three Lighthouse Library mysteries, published with Berkley, sold about 39,000 print copies in mass market, according to NPD BookScan. Crooked Lane acquired the existing titles and a new book in the series, The Spook in the Stacks, which it will release in hardcover in June 2018.

Pricing the backlist e-book titles appropriately, Martz says, is an art: “We move the price up and down pretty regularly. Crime readers might pick up book three or four in a series and then go back for book one. We’re looking for ways to hook them.”

Publishers typically sell discounted backlist series titles through Amazon’s Kindle store, Bookbub, and other e-book discount sites, and, while prices rise and fall, they typically remain below those of new titles. Martz says this creates new opportunities to draw readers. “You get multiple shots to build authors’ careers,” he notes. “Every time you publish an author’s new book, the sales of the previous book go up, too.”

Give ’em What They Want

Another way indies boost sales is by responding rapidly to trends in the genre. Kensington Publishing and Pegasus Crime, two established independents, are both looking to cozies as a way to bolster sales.

Kensington is stepping up its publication of this subgenre, which emphasizes community and whodunit storytelling over violence and graphic description, to four titles a month, and supporting those books with new promotional heft, including a book club event program with independent bookstores launching in 2018.

In January, the publisher will release Better Dead by debut novelist Pamela Kopfler, a book that started out as a romance. Esi Sogah, senior editor at Kensington, says that a number of cozy authors began as romance writers. “It’s not something you would have naturally thought of,” she says, “but romance writers tap into the relationship building” that’s a hallmark of cozies.

At Pegasus Crime, deputy editor Jessica Case notes that cozies do well in the hardcover market, and get plenty of library support. Capitalizing quickly on trends like the current taste for cozies, she says, is something an independent press has the flexibility to do. “The perk of being an indie is being nimble,” she says. Chasing the flavor of the month can be a gamble, but “if something seems to be working we can do more; if it isn’t, we can do less.”

Risk Management

Getting books to the right markets in the right format remains the biggest factor determining whether most mystery publishers are financially sound. It’s also a tricky landscape to navigate, Martz says. “Sales and distribution in and of itself is the giant monster.”

One way publishers meet the challenge is by reducing overstock and limiting print runs. For Shepard, that has meant cleaning out his warehouse of unnecessary overstock—a recent purge eliminated hundreds of backlist titles that had accumulated over the years. Eric Campbell, publisher at eight-year-old Down & Out Books, avoids warehousing altogether, by having nonreturnable accounts and using Ingram print-on-demand.

“Indie publishers in general can’t accept the risk of selling a hundred books to a bookstore only to see 90 of them returned later,” Campbell says. He makes the majority of his sales via traditionally nonreturnable accounts such as libraries, and through direct sales at conferences and his website. Even though he loses retail accounts, he sees that as a reasonable cost for limiting his risk. He has begun, however, to explore shifting his distribution model and the marketing that goes with it, including issuing a catalog for the first time and accepting some returns from specific accounts.

Oceanview’s new distributor, Ingram, encouraged the publisher to try simultaneous releases of hardcovers and trade paperbacks, based on feedback from indie booksellers. Its first two simultaneous release titles are with series authors Matt Coyle and David Putnam. Preorders for Coyle’s Blood Truth (Dec.) and Putnam’s The Innocents (Feb. 2018) indicate that “paperbacks are selling about on par” with trade paperback releases that pub a year after the hardcovers, David Abolafia says, and “it has not affected the hardcover presales at all.”

Partners in Crime Fiction

Among his cohort of publishers, Shepard reads as the most dour. “Everybody loses money on books,” he says. “Even the big houses.” Yet, despite the challenges, he continues to publish for many of the same reasons he did when Permanent Press opened its doors decades ago.

There’s a community of authors who understand the aims of his press, he says: to support authors who publish good works by setting reasonable financial and sales expectations—which are very modest—with them from the outset. “We tell our authors exactly what to expect and what not to expect,” he says, which means that the press has “a very loyal group of writers who buy into the same concept.”

Pinter agrees: “I wanted to be able to say, ‘You’re going to have a partner all along.’ I wanted to add a more personal touch than these authors were used to.” Four years later, Pinter says, “Any success we’ve had is in large part due to goodwill from our authors.”

The genesis for that community comes down to manuscripts, and Shepherd says there are plenty of them—5,000 to be specific—coming through the door each year for his consideration. Then there are the one or two that he selects to bring into print, and that’s enough to override even Shepard’s skepticism.

“It’s always exciting,” he says, “to publish a book and see what’s going to happen with it.”

Below, more on the subject of mysteries and thrillers.

Mysteries Without Borders: Mysteries and Thrillers 2017–2018
Indie publishers see continued opportunities in acquiring international titles, and in turn, penetrating overseas markets.

Double Identities: Mysteries and Thrillers 2017–2018
Bookseller-publishers Otto Penzler and Barbara Peters launched their specialist bookshops a decade apart, and that’s just the start of their differences.