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It’s a Bookstore, It’s a Publishing House: The Poisoned Pen Success Story

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It’s a Bookstore, It’s a Publishing House: The Poisoned Pen Success Story

by Linda Carlson

Mystery is a fascinating genre, and the business of publishing mysteries has more twists and turns than even the most carefully plotted thriller. Who would have assumed, for example, that public libraries would be a major market for mysteries? And that mystery fans skew old, so large print is an important format? Or that because many mystery titles have steady but small backlist sales, they are a perfect match for digital printing and even print-on-demand?

I may have been clueless about what it takes to be successful publishing mysteries when I telephoned Jessica Tribble, associate publisher at the well-established and well-respected Poisoned Pen Press. But an hour later, I had discovered why this IBPA member can now produce and promote at least three books a month, support a backlist of some 450 titles, and garner industry accolades.

Speaking of accolades, next month Poisoned Pen founders Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald will receive the 2010 Ellery Queen award from the Mystery Writers of America for “their generous and wide-ranging support of the genre.” The husband and wife, who founded the press in 1996, were also honored in 2008 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Bouchercon Crime and Mystery conference.

Poisoned Pen Press grew out of Peters’s Poisoned Pen mystery bookstore, which one Arizona television station recently described as “a landmark.” Opened in 1989, the store, in the historic center of sunny Scottsdale, attracted both hometown readers and tourists. When the snowbirds went home and couldn’t find the mysteries they wanted, they had the Poisoned Pen booksellers ship their orders, and today the bookstore’s business is 80 percent mail order.

Going into publishing was an unusual step for a bookseller 14 years ago, when Peters and Rosenwald grew discouraged watching quality mysteries quickly go out of print. As Rosenwald told KPNX-TV, the Phoenix NBC affiliate station, “There were a number of midlist authors, not bestselling, not bad, that larger publishers were dropping.”

To meet market demand for these titles, Rosenwald set up shop as a publisher across the street from the bookstore. Soon the press was publishing new material, often debut novels, as well as longtime favorites. Today its authors, once established, may move to larger publishers—but established authors also sometimes make the move from big-name houses to Poisoned Pen.

Libraries as a Major Market

One reason for author interest in Poisoned Pen Press may be its careful cultivation of the library market, which is currently the single largest market it serves. As of January, it publishes every new title in three editions: trade paper, hardback, and large print, since both hardback and large print are important for library collections.

“Another important factor for library sales is sturdy books,” Tribble explains. “Books have to stand up well in circulation. If a book by an unknown writer falls apart, it’s unlikely that the library will have the funds to replace it.”

To attract librarians’ attention, trade publication reviews are also important. “A Library Journal review makes a huge difference in sales,” Tribble continues. And catalogs and mailings matter to librarians, perhaps more than email promotions.

“Librarians look at a lot of print material,” Tribble says, adding that flyers and fact sheets are easier to route to other librarians for comment than email messages are.

Finally, to make it in the library market, she believes that a publisher must have a brand identity. Or, couched in other terms: Stick to your niche. “When you’re a small publisher, it’s already hard to get noticed,” Tribble says, “so you’ve got to be specific.”

How Authors Add Value

Poisoned Pen Press’s hardcover sales are driven in part by the collector market, where there’s a strong demand for signed copies. Author events are the best way to get customers signed copies, especially personally inscribed copies, and the press maintains an email community for its authors, so that they can share information about contacts for signings.

The authors are responsible for most of their own signings. Because they all have day jobs and/or a variety of other commitments, authors can arrange their events more easily than the press staff can—especially given the press’s small staff and volume of publishing.

Although sales promotion is a focus for the press, its authors vary significantly in their promotional ability. The authors with young children often have complicated schedules, while older ones tend to be calmer and can adapt to the unpredictabilities of event venues and attendance.

Like a good novelist, Tribble has a clear idea of each kind of press author, and she segmented them as A, B, C, or D level. As many as 20 percent belong in the first category: they do frequent signings, maintain blogs and/or Web sites, know their customers well, and publish a book each year. Some work in advertising, and when it comes to promotion, “they really get it.”

More typical, however, are the authors who publish consistently but do less publicity and are less familiar with their readers. A few are what Tribble calls “technophobes.”

Production and Promo Procedures

Because of Poisoned Pen’s volume, all submissions are now electronic. When the press acquires a previously published title for which electronic files are not available, Rosenwald’s crew may have a copy disassembled and sent to India for rekeying, which can cost as little as $215 for a 300-page book.

Most new titles are about 250 pages, and their texts are designed with a standard template. Print specs are standardized, too: 50# text stock and 10 pt cover stock, coated to ensure the books travel well. This standardization is another reason that Poisoned Pen can release three dozen titles annually in three editions each—more than 100 products—with its very small staff.

Paperbacks are usually printed offset for the first run, but they go to Lightning Source for the second printing. “We’ve found that most of our sales for a title occur in the first three or four months,” Tribble explains, “and after that we can keep a book in print indefinitely with digital printing.”

When it comes to promotion, Tribble also works in high volume, with an average of 20 (and sometimes as many as 40) messages a day on Twitter. “I’m an addict,” she admits, pointing out that the high number is partly because she and the press authors retweet each others’ messages. She cuts down the work involved by using TweetDeck, an online service that automatically sorts incoming tweets into files such as “must read” and “author tweets.”

Like most who use Twitter for promotion, Tribble sticks mainly to business in her tweets. “My formula is 60 percent informational, 10 percent promotional, and 30 percent personal,” she says.

And speaking of personal, how do Rosenwald and Peters manage? According to what Peters told KPNX-TV, “I own the bookstore, Rob works for me; he owns the publishing company, I work for him. And that way we have survived”—both in business and in marriage.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) is the author of Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest, which describes at least one town that has been the setting of mysteries.



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