Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A visit with Barbara Peters

RHYS: Today our guest is a true icon in the mystery world. She's not a writer, publisher nor agent. Yet she has won the universal respect of our community and is considered a real power lady. She is Barbara Peters and she owns the Poisoned Pen Bookstores in Scottsdale, AZ. With husband Rob Rosenwald she also owns and runs Poisoned Pen Press. I've been proud to call her a friend for some time.

So welcome to Jungle Red Writers, Barbara. Usually you're known as the interviewer so today it's my turn:

RHYS: You're universally known as an icon in the world of mystery, but you didn't start out as writer, publisher or bookseller. Tell us how you came to be involved in the genre.

BARBARA: As a reader. I had "retired" from libraries and law and grew bored. One day Rob, my husband, said, "now that you can do whatever you want, what do you want to do?" I said, "go back to books" and he said "how?" and I said, with rare acumen, "I am not a Civil Service sort of person, ruling out libraries again" (my library career was at the Library of Congress), and he said, "so then what, a store? what kind?" and I said, having shopped in mystery stores for years, "mystery is what I know. How hard can it be?" Those last are the fatal words that propelled us first into founding The Poisoned Pen and then, ten years later, Poisoned Pen Press. It's a lot harder than it looks.

RHYS: When did you and husband Rob Rosenwald decide to start your own press. What made you decide to do this? Has it been as successful as you hoped?

BARBARA: We held a very successful mystery conference in Scottsdale in 1996, the first of nearly annual Poisoned Pen conferences where authors speak by invitation only and fans are limited to roughly 200. The first group of authors produced spectacular talks on classic crime writers (Connelly on Chandler, Gores on Hammett, King on Doyle, Keating on Sayers, Saylor on Palmer, etc) and when it was over, said "All that...what about our papers?" So I said to Rob, "how hard can it be to publish the papers in a kind of festschrift (thinking academically) and he, a computer junkie admiring new print technology, said, "why not?" So we organized a book and it was nominated for an Edgar (how hard can that be? hmmm, plenty hard). And we were hooked. Rob abandoned other computer projects to organized a publishing company. I agreed to do the editorial work.

We are now up to 36 original novels a year (it is hard to do this volume of editing as a second job), have had amazing critical support, developed wonderful talent, are hugely proud of our list, all of which is still in print either coventionally or in POD and is also mostly on audio books and Large Print and moving into ebooks. Last February we moved from doing our own distribution to Ingram Publisher Services which will make a big difference in time to sales volume. So we're not yet to a level of sales we'd like to see for the authors (that is, their revenues), but in all other ways it's turned out better than we imagined when we first thought of publishing.

RHYS: Which do you enjoy more, the store or the press?

BARBARA: That's an apples and oranges question. The bookstore has moved by necessity given the size of its staff, its expensive location, and probably the nature of its employees including me who all are comfortable with chaos, into theater. We do constant and often enormous events which are tremendous fun whether small for a new writer, middle sized for most authors, or big for celebrity or local interest writers, we organize conferences for our customers. And we remain over 75% mail order with a global reach that is connected to us mostly by our electronic publications (thousands subscribe to our Enews which takes a ton of time to write but seems to be enjoyed and is just just about books but about the publishing world, news, even stuff like travelogues and random medical information (I am aging and so are many of our customers so I tell them about stuff like cataracts surgery). So on the bookstore it's a cross beween show biz and literary issues and behind the scenes, how to run a business.

Editing for the press is, by contrast, since the press has its own, separate staff under Rob, just fun for me if often immensely hard work getting into the skin of a book, characters, landscapes, concepts...even the author. It's sort of a mom thing, or maybe a mid-wife thing, helping give birth. I'm sure our authors don't always agree with, or even like, how it goes sometimes but the results speak for themselves. We've had very little author turnover and much of it has been about personal issues rather than professional. Our original design was to discover and nurture new talent and see it move away to Big Publishing, but this marketplace quashed most of that so now we're figuring out how to run an on-going quality small publishing company. Our greatest fear, truly, is that we might produce a runaway bestseller which we are not equipped to handle financially (or emotionally) and which would end up being unfair to the other authors on our list. Here we've already figured out how hard it would be. Meanwhile we stick to our game plan of paying the same small advance to everyone, leaving it to the books to earn out, and treating everyone we publish as even handedly as we can.

I'd like to add that our submission guidelines etc are available at www.poisonedpenpress.com and that I do not respond to any email about the press or publishing, which should instead be directed to info@poisonedpenpress.com

Thanks for the opportunity to participate in the blog. -- Barbara Peters

RHYS: Thank you, Barbara. And you are not getting old. You are the female version of Peter Pan and still a hunk magnet, as displayed in the photograph with hunks Brent Ghelfi, John Lescroat, Steven Martini and Brett Battles.


I should add that this Saturday Barbara and Rob are trying another ground breaking feat--the first ever web-con--an online convention for mystery lovers, writers, fans. It will have great panels and author interviews like real mystery conventions but you can take part from the convenience of your own computer. What's more it only costs $25 to register and take part in discussions, and you will receive a $20 coupon to be spent at the bookstore. So it's virtually free. Go to the Poisoned Pen Press website to check it out and register.

RO: Hello, Barbara! Even though I'm not a Poisoned Pen author, I feel like one of the new writers lucky enough to have been nurtured by you. When my first book was about to be released I asked my publicist if he thought I might have an event at Poisoned Pen. I fully expected him to laugh and say "only if you can get Michael Connelly to go with you." But I did have an event, and in fact you chose Pushing Up Daisies for your new writer program. When I got to the store there were stacks and stacks of books to sign - I thought I had died and gone to heaven! It was my first event after my launch and nothing else has ever come close to that feeling - it's still heaven and I hope I get to go back next spring for book three.


  1. Hi Barbara, welcome to JRW! You certainly have picked an interesting path to "retirement"! We have a number of aspiring writers who read our blog--could you give us a few of your best tips for writing a book that Poisoned Pen would like to buy?

  2. Hey Barbara! So lovely to see you here. And Rhys is right--as always--you are such an icon.

    It's hilarous that you're worried about having a best-seller--you're probably the only person in the planet in that position.

    And please envision me raising my hand to join the happy group--I'd adore to come visit you all.

    That brazenly said (!)...What advice do you have for new authors like me? In-person visits? On line visits? I always think a signing in a bookstore is a marvelous thing--something wonderful always happens in every one I've ever done.

    But some people advise--forget it. Stay home and meet thousands of people on line.

    What do you think?

    And congratuations on your wild success! That's quite the memorable photo of you all....

  3. Barbara asked me to jump in on her behalf and apologize that she is up to her neck with editing several manuscripts so please forgive her for not chiming in.

    She suggests you check PP Press's latest catalog for the sort of books they like. Interesting, different, and well written would sum it up, I suspect.

  4. Barbara,
    As an enormous fan, I just wanted to thank you for your dedication. I just purchased 'Devil's Food' by Kerry Greenwood (in large print - found it at Evjoy Large Print Books) and thoroughly enjoyed every page. You're an inspiration!

  5. I'm so sad to be joining the party too late for the online conference. This is my first visit to Jungle Red and I've been glued to my computer for a couple of hours reading older posts. What a wonderful site.

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