PW Does Mystery: notes from the peanut gallery

Sadly, Dick Donahue’s forecast piece and Rosemary Herbert’s bookseller spotlight on the mystery world for PW are behind subscription firewalls, but I’ll do my best to offer up some of the salient points anyway:

Donahue divides the “ones to watch” into three categories: notable debuts (Jesse Kellerman, Joshua Spanogle, Robert Dugoni), gear-switchers (James Grippando, Peter James) and on the cusp of stardom (William Kent Krueger and Jacqueline Winspear.) And those are the only authors profiled, a grand total of eight. To which I say, WTF? Were there space limitations? Is this one of those cases where a lot of worthy folks don’t count b/c PW lumps them into general fiction?

That said, there probably aren’t a lot of notable debuts published between January and March, as most of the HypeMonster ™ types won’t show up till the spring and summer. The gear-switchers make sense, if it’s directly correlated to advance buzz and promotion (Grippando, for example, is getting a gigantic push from HarperCollins, because for a NYT Bestseller, he is rather low on the radar.) And while I question the inclusion of Jacqueline Winspear if only because she’s still fairly new in the publishing game, any and all attention Kent Krueger can get probably isn’t enough. Here’s to much more for him.

Herbert’s article is more intriguing as it focuses on mystery book retailers who’ve crossed over into publishing, mostly to bring beloved favorites back into print or spotlight writers who might not get enough attention from a mainstream house. But stalwarts like Barbara Peters and Otto Penzler are quick to point out what the strengths and limitations of smaller presses are:

Recalling his days as the independent publisher of the Mysterious Press (before it became a Warner operation) and of Otto Penzler Books (formerly an imprint at Simon & Schuster and at Carroll & Graf, and now a Harcourt imprint), Penzler, too, celebrates the freedom of the independent publisher. “You can choose what you like. Nobody can tell you ‘No.’ And that’s a glorious thing.”

Penzler says he now accepts the fact that major publishers look at risk differently than do independents. “They’re still willing to take a risk but they want to hit a home run,” he says. Still, he sees two big advantages in working with a major house. “It’s their money, not yours. And distribution is taken care of for you.”

For her part, Peters acknowledges that it’s easy to criticize “the big guys” and points out the pressures that acquisitions editors face at large publishing houses. “With big overheads and advances to pay, it’s unrealistic to think a big publisher isn’t forced to play the marketplace and the media,” she says. “That’s why I think the small press has such abright future; they offer independent bookstores inventory perfect for the kind of reader who shops in one.”

In the end it’s all about realistic expectations, but one thing that gets lost in this article is the issue of distribution. It’s great that a lot of these small presses are out there, no doubt about it, but many books simply aren’t available widely, and it can be frustrating. If there’s one thing any bookstore — mystery or otherwise — ought to keep in mind, it’s that you might not want to play with the big boys on some things, but the more people who can be potential book buyers, the better.