Interview Transcripts

Robert Rosenwald: Poisoned Pen Press 7/14/05

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all!

 

Welcome to our Professional Connection live interview.

 

Tonight, we're visiting with Robert Rosenwald: Publisher & President of Poisoned Pen Press, a Mystery publisher.

 

Poisoned Pen Press, although not one of the huge New York publishing houses, has achieved a strong reputation in the mystery field, publishing a significant number of award winners, and excellent mysteries overall.  You can click here to visit the website for more information.

 

Robert, welcome. I'm so pleased that you could join us!

Robert Rosenwald

Thanks. I look forward to it

Mary Rosenblum

Could you tell us a bit about Poisoned Pen Press?

Robert Rosenwald

Sure.

 

We started in 1997 as an outgrowth to my wife's bookstore, The Poisoned Pen.

 

We felt that consolidation in Big Publishing (NY publishing) was causing a loss of the midlist

 

and we wanted to get some out-of-print books and authors back in print.

 

We started original publishing about a year later and now do about 40 new books per year.

Mary Rosenblum

Are you publishing mostly original work, or republishing mostly out of print authors now?

Robert Rosenwald

Now we publish mostly original work

Mary Rosenblum

And you've done very well, from what I've seen in the MWA newsletters...you've had quite a few award nominees and some winners, yes?

Robert Rosenwald

We've had 5 or 6 Edgar nominees (no winners yet) A L.A. Times Best Mystery nominee, A Shamus winner, and a lot of Agatha and other nominations.

Robe

And we won the Benjamin Franklin Award from Publishers Marketing Association the last two years

Mary Rosenblum

For those of you unfamiliar with the mystery universe, these are very big awards. J Even being a nominee means something.

Robert Rosenwald

We've been very fortunate and, yes, these are some big awards

Mary Rosenblum

I think what has impressed me is that you are looking for quality and finding it, rather than operating on a 'numbers only' basis of what will and will not 'sell big'.

Robert Rosenwald

The worst thing an author can say to us when submitting a book is to tell us all the marketing muscle they can put behind it.

 

Our company tagline is Publishing Excellence in Mystery. We look for well written, original voices.

Mary Rosenblum

And you're all taking notes, in the audience, right? :-)

info

Do you take on very many first time authors?

Robert Rosenwald

Yes.  It's our specialty.

Mary Rosenblum

Which is another reason I was so pleased when you accepted my invitation. I really believe that the direction you are taking with Poisoned Pen is where publishing is going to go over the next decade. :-) I hope so.

beckylady

Does your company publish mystery exclusively?

Robert Rosenwald

95% adult mystery only. The other 5% is mystery related non-fiction such as the biography of Ross MacDonald

neo

Mr. Rosenwald, you don't really have a slush pile do you? The guidelines for your press indicate a preliminary query is required. Or do you really accept and look at over the transom submissions?

Robert Rosenwald

I'm not sure how you define a slush pile, but 80% of what we get is over the transom.

 

We are not any agent's house of first choice. We pay small advances but good royalties.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, you PAY an advance, which many small press publishers do not.

 

But here's a chance to clarify something that a number of students have asked me recently,

 

which is about the submission guidelines that request a query only...are you looking for

 

a one page synopsis of the book or something a bit longer?

Robert Rosenwald

We are looking for a one page query. All we are trying to do is to weed out the books that we aren't going

 

to be interested in. We eschew serial killer and spousal or child abuse.

 

We would love to publish YA, but we don't -- it's a different market and we don't know it right now

roe

So within the query you'd like maybe a paragraph describing the book along with our resume?

Mary Rosenblum

Or just the synopsis and worry about the resume later?

Robert Rosenwald

All we want in the query is a brief description of the book. BTW we want EVERYTHING electronically.

 

We do not take paper submissions. We then want a synopsis and the first 30 or so pages.

 

Monty Montee handles the first phase and tries to help new authors create a good synopsis,

 

partly so our readers can decide how badly they want to read on.

 

If it gets past phase 1 then we'll look at the full MS and have approx 4 other readers evaluate it.

 

Eventually, assuming that our early readers like it, it gets to my wife, Barbara Peters, and she is our Senior Editor.

 

Right now we get about 1200 submissions per year and about 100 end up getting to Barbara. In a good year we'll find 5 or 6

 

of these to publish.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm impressed. So far, my experience has been that the average first-time novelist writes an awful synopsis, without some help.

 

You're really interested, in other words,

 

in seeing the book fairly.

Robert Rosenwald

That's our experience too. A synopsis that says "there are twists and turns in the plot and the killer is a surprise in the end." doesn't cut it.

Mary Rosenblum

Nooooo kidding. :-)

redraven

Should the solution to a whodunit be in the synopsis?

Robert Rosenwald

Not so much the solution as something that convinces us that the author knows how to get through the book properly.

 

We need to get some sense of the author's ability to describe well what they are going to

 

try to accomplish in the book. Yes, ultimately we need the solution, but that's really secondary. 2-3 pages is plenty.

jr souza jr

Do you prefer a certain type of mystery--ie puzzle, whodunnit, ticking clock, caper, suspense, etc

Robert Rosenwald

No. As I said we aren't interested in serial killers or abuse. We seem to publish more historical mysteries than others

Rober

but Barbara's tastes are very catholic. We do distinguish between Mystery and Thriller/Suspense.

 

We strongly prefer Mysteries (more interested in the resolution) than Thriller/Suspense which are almost purely plot driven.

beckylady

Are there any plots that you have seen *TOO* much of?

Robert Rosenwald

Any book that looks derivative to us is a plot we've seen too much of. There is no target to aim for.

 

We publish well-written mysteries and we're much more interested in original voices. So we like authors

 

who write what they want, the way they want to, and then submit. We NEVER buy a proposal.

Mary Rosenblum

So the book needs to be finished and ready to go before that query goes in to you?

Robert Rosenwald

Yes.

speckledorf

Once you accept a manuscript what is the process it goes through to publication?

Robert Rosenwald

I'll give the brief description.

 

I negotiate a contract. Barbara and the author begin the editorial process which usually will involve at least one and often two

 

rewrites. I put our illustrator in contact with author to talk about cover art. Once we get final MS from author it goes

 

to typesetting. We then create ARCs using cover art that illustrator and author are happy with.  We do not give the author right of refusal on the cover,

 

we just like author's input. ARCs get mailed to prepub reviewers and also to the author for final edits. Author's edits and proofreader 1's edits go to final proofreader.

 

Typesetter gets final edits. Final files are made and sent to manufacturer and we get books. Just like a gumball machine.

Mary Rosenblum

Actually, the fact that the author gets to do a final proof read is wonderful. I've known a couple of small press authors who did not get that option and found a LOT of typos.

 

And for those of you about to ask,

 

ARCs are Advance Reader Copies...copies made before the book is actually published...

 

so reviewers can review it. :-)

 

How much input does the author get on the cover? That is a treat, right there. :-)

Robert Rosenwald

The author gets a lot of input, but what I avoid is giving the author control. We have a number of books we published with author-furnished covers

 

but they first have to convince me that they have the capability (or a friend does) to create the front cover.

speckledorf

I love it that the author has some input into cover art. What kinds of promotion do you do in general?

Robert Rosenwald

Relatively little.

 

We create postcards for authors and when authors setup booksignings we'll send out posters if the store wants them.

 

We don't organize author tours but we help authors who take the bit and run with it.

 

We're a small press - 3 full-time people - and don't have the resources to do big promotion.

 

We do a fair amount of advertising in various trade publications and recently have been doing more direct to consumer

 

advertising in publications like Bloomsbury Review, but we almost never have a big push for an individual title.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, mythology aside, New York publishers don't do much promotion either unless you are the market leader for that imprint.

gwanny

Actually I was going to ask where I could buy one of those gumball machines

Mary Rosenblum

And I want to thank you, Robert, for making the process so clear for folk here.

 

The process of actual publishing is pretty murky until you've been through it a couple of times. :-)

babbles

Do you charge reading fees or any other fees to the author?

Robert Rosenwald

IMHO if we did we wouldn't be a conventional publisher. And we are. NO, emphatically. We don't charge authors anything and consider the practice abhorrent.

Mary Rosenblum

And I think that's the real dividing line between publishers

Robert Rosenwald

Certainly one of them

Mary Rosenblum

and the many scams that call themselves publishers but are really vanity presses.

 

Yes, one of them. :-) But a big one.

jmr

How extensive are the edits... typically?

Robert Rosenwald

That depends and varies enormously. In some cases it will be big-time extensive.

 

In others it will be trivial.

jmr

How long does it take to hear back from you to find out if you interested in a submission?

Robert Rosenwald

We respond to queries very quickly. We can take a long time to fully evaluate a MS. And, before someone asks, we don't accept simultaneous submissions.

writeaway

Welcome Robert. I notice that you publish freelance as well as agented manuscripts. What really wows you about a story?

Robert Rosenwald

Gimme a sec.

 

I'm not trying to evade, but I'm not editorial. I love well-written books but wouldn't pretend to be an editor.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, it can be darn hard to put what grabs you into words, even if you know it when you read it. :-)

Robert Rosenwald

OK...

wolf122

In the submission guidelines, listed is "editorial standard is The Chicago Manual of Style". Could you clarify this?

Robert Rosenwald

We prefer that, in matters of style, an author adhere to CMS. If you're unfamiliar with CMS I'd got to the library and take a look. It lays out issues such as

 

the fact that numbers should generally be written out (one instead of 1) but there are exceptions. And many other stylistic issues.

 

We're not manic about it, but it makes it easier for us to read.

 

If a MS gets to Barbara there are many that she can't read because of an author's use of their own style rather than standard style. She is forced to fight through it and will often send it back to the author to fix standard style issues

babbles

What makes an historical mystery? Does it need to be based on a real event, real town?

Robert Rosenwald

A historical mystery needs to have good, accurate history. You could fictionalize a town but not the history. You can't create a Regency period

 

mystery and have a character say "Cool"

Mary Rosenblum

But it can simply be set in an historical period? You don't need to focus it on a particular event?

Robert Rosenwald

That is correct. It needs to work within the context of the time it set. No particular event needs to be present.

bud

Do you have a minimum or maximum number of words that you prefer in a MS?

Robert Rosenwald

We prefer 70,000 - 110,000 but we're not rigid.

Mary Rosenblum

And do you use print on demand technology?

Robert Rosenwald

We very rarely use POD.

 

We do use POD to keep trade paperback books in print.

 

Almost all of our original publications come out in hardcover. We then go to trade paperback and MAY use POD at that time, but more often

 

than not we print. POD is simply a printing technology--not a business model (which answers a different question than the one you asked.)

redraven

Do you base the size of the first printing on reviews?

Robert Rosenwald

No.

 

We use our best judgment on what we'll need. Most of our first print runs are from 3,000 - 4,000 hardcover copies. We never have done more than 5,000 and rarely do fewer than 2500

Mary Rosenblum

Which was my next question, thank you. :-)

jmr

You mentioned "midlist" before... to those of us new to all of this, what's a midlist?

Robert Rosenwald

Not John Grisham.

 

It includes the majority of authors--those who sell 10,000 -15,000 copies or less. Today's publishing houses want to sell 100,000 copies of everything they do but it doesn't work that way.

Mary Rosenblum

Ha, it includes bigger sales numbers than THAT, at least in the mystery universe. Alas.

 

And the New York houses are dropping those midlist writers,

 

hoping for the block buster brass ring instead.

Robert Rosenwald

Very true - I was trying to be generous

Mary Rosenblum

I'd say under 35,000 qualifies you as midlist, sadly...from what I have been hearing lately.

Robert Rosenwald

Yes

Mary Rosenblum

So do you see the midlist moving to small press publishers like yourself?

Robert Rosenwald

Absolutely...

 

The big houses wanted content--not books. There is not a single editorial person running a major NY publishing house.

Mary Rosenblum

What about the proliferation of the internet, blogging, online stores like amazon.com...do you see this shifting the balance of sales power away from the NY style distribution system, in favor of small press publishers?

Robert Rosenwald

Yes.

 

The playing field isn't level, but the internet and other new technologies have made it possible for small niche publishers to operate successfully.

Mary Rosenblum

This is certainly my feeling, and I do think we're seeing the beginning of a large change in how books are created and sold. Hope so. :-)

 

I really would like you to address one issue that I feel is very important.

 

A lot of novice writers have hard time understanding the difference between a publisher like yourself

 

and one like iUniverse or Publish America. Could you explain where the difference lies, for us?

Robert Rosenwald

You've touched on a big issue for me.

 

When we publish a book it goes through an extensive editorial process.

 

iUniverse and PublishAmerica, as far as I can tell, pay lip service to editorial work.

 

They are an inexpensive variant on vanity publishing, IMHO.

 

I moan every time I get a book from an author who went to iU or elsewhere and asks if we'd be interested in picking it up

 

because it has sold n copies.

 

That author, especially if it is a first book, has thrown away the tremendous leeway that prepublication reviewers will give to a first-timer.

 

They have also thrown away the collector market, and there' a considerable market for modern first editions.

 

What's more, and most people are totally unaware of this, most bookstores will not buy books from iU or PubAmerica because of the returnability issue.

 

Thus an author who thinks they can publish their book and get them out there often gets a very rude awakening.

babbles

I have to agree, I received a sample copy of a contract from Publish America, found hidden fees and have reviewed a few book, and see that it isn't worth my time of day :-)

neo

Are your books sold by traditional distribution, allowing bookstores to return unsold copies for credit?

Robert Rosenwald

Absolutely.

 

We use Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and other wholesalers and have independent sales reps who sell our books. All books are returnable.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you, Robert. It's very difficult for novice writers to really understand the difference. I appreciate your clarity.

wolf122

Thanks for joining us! Did it take a lot of effort to become a publisher (i.e. capital, drawing in authors, etc.)? I'm just curious for 20 years down the road. . .

Robert Rosenwald

Good question.

Rober

It didn't take a lot of capital to start.

 

Once we started growing it has taken capital infusions.

 

There's a dramatic imbalance between inflows and outflows in publishing.

 

We print books and need to pay for them in 30 - 60 days and we sell books and get paid for them in 100 days if we're lucky

Mary Rosenblum

And you have to pay the printer, but the bookstore only pays you if the books SELL, yes?

Robert Rosenwald

You got that right, toots.

Mary Rosenblum

I make my living in this business, too. I know that WAY too well. :-)

 

We're almost out of time, and I wanted to ask you to tell us what you have coming out, and available now.

Robert Rosenwald

We have a few KILLER books - no pun intended.

 

My favorites include in late August, James Sallis' Drive. James Sallis is a writer I could only have hoped to publish.

 

Happily no one else was willing to buy a very noir novella. He has many, many books and credits to his name and Drive is exqusite.

 

We also have in August, Mary Anna Evans' Relics which is the sequel to her Benjamin Franklin Award winning Artifacts...

 

Just heard today that Ingram has picked Relics for their Advance Handseller coming up (this is a big deal - an E-newsletter that goes

 

out to 12,000 bookstores and is an editorial pick -- not paid advertising)

 

Oh, hell... I can't go into all the great books we have coming. I type too slowly.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, congratulations on the Ingrams pick.

Robert Rosenwald

Thank you

Mary Rosenblum

That's great. :-)  And for those of you who want to see Poisoned Pen’s list of books, click here

 

Can you give our aspiring writers one piece of advice?

Robert Rosenwald

Don't worry about what anyone else thinks and don't try to write just like.... And write the best book you can. (Guess that's three pieces)

Mary Rosenblum

Those are great pieces of advice, Robert!

 

Thank you very much...you've been a great guest!

 

I hope you all check out the Poisoned Pen website

 

and if you're looking for a good mystery, you know where to go! J

Robert Rosenwald

Thanks - glad to have participated.

Mary Rosenblum

Support your small press publisher!

roe

Thanks, Robert, you've been VERY informative. And thanks for the great advice!!!!

Robert Rosenwald

And support your independent bookseller

writeaway

Thank you, Robert, for an enlightening interview. Thank you, Mary for making sure we have interesting and informative guests.

redraven

Thanks, Robert, very interesting!

Mary Rosenblum

You have been wonderful!

Robert Rosenwald

Ta, dear.

Mary Rosenblum

I hope I can entice you back again some day.

Robert Rosenwald

Someday.

Mary Rosenblum

Good night all!

 

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