Why We Persevere

(Originally published in slightly different form on the Mysterious Matters blog, 2009)

In these days of shrinking readership, book sales, and review space; electronic dominance; consolidation of large publishers; and general economic instability,  why does a tiny company of five people continue to publish “mysteries for the new Golden Age,” as the Perseverance Press slogan defines our mission? Especially when no one is making very much money from this quixotic venture?

The answer lies in our love of the traditional mystery and our desire to help keep it alive. Speaking for myself, there is also a component of personal fulfillment: editing is one of my favorite activities and having a red pencil in my hand makes me feel more alive and more like myself. (Okay, I know I’m weird.) I think my publishing partners have similar motivations of self-actualization. So the ultimate answer is, it’s what we do.

My old friends John and Susan Daniel have a long background of bookselling, writing, editing, marketing, and publishing for other companies as well as under their own name. I had a one-person mystery publishing company throughout the 1980s, then took a hiatus to freelance edit during the ‘90s. In 1999 we joined forces to publish mysteries by established midlist authors who had been dropped by their large New York companies. Specifically, I wanted to resuscitate beloved characters and settings, which I felt had been murdered by cruel big-publishing bottom-liners (cue Jaws music). It’s criminal, if you ask me. I hated the idea of never again mentally inhabiting Janet LaPierre’s coastal California Port Silva, or Shelley Singer’s Bay Area environs. Since I knew Janet and Shelley from local MWA and Sisters in Crime activities, they were the first authors I called.

We were greatly encouraged in 2000 when the third and fourth mysteries we published, Guns and Roses by Taffy Cannon and The Kidnapping of Rosie Dawn by Eric Wright, won six award nominations between them (for the Agatha and Macavity, and the Edgar, Ellis, Anthony, and Barry), the latter a winner. A year later, Keepers by Janet LaPierre was nominated for the Shamus. But there were no more nominations for the next seven years, though we published many books we’re proud of, most of them still in print. Sales have ranged from abysmal in a couple of cases to well beyond our expectations in others, with several going into multiple printings.

We’ve also published two writers’ handbooks, by Carolyn Wheat and Kathy Lynn Emerson. Of course they’ve sold much better than the 50-plus mystery fiction books we’ve put out to date (averaging four a year), since nonfiction always sells more. How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries by Emerson won an Agatha in 2009, and was nominated for the Anthony and Macavity. Another award that year was the WILLA Award (named for Willa Cather, from Women Writing the West) for Buffalo Bill’s Defunct by Sheila Simonson. This is an example of a new series started by an established author, in which we also specialize. She’s an example of a writer who had to drop out for ten years, to care for elderly parents, after a successful five-book series for St. Martin’s in the ‘90s. Ten years is a lifetime in publishing, and the challenge is to remind older readers of her previous books while trying to interest a new generation of mystery consumers.

Another writer with a ten-year hiatus is Edgar-winner Wendy Hornsby, who has now added to her prize-winning series about filmmaker Maggie MacGowen with two more books, plus one next year. They are more hardboiled than our usual fare, but written with such compassion that any reader will warm to the admittedly noir-ish  material.

I think there’s a misconception out there that PP/JD publishes only cozies. In the early years of this decade we did detour into cozies, since that’s what we were mostly offered; one or two even had recipes (gasp!). Although this sort of book certainly has its strong  points, it’s not my personal favorite. Ever since I’ve been reading mysteries I’ve liked best the kind of book that’s not too cozy and not too violent. It’s hard to define this middle ground, but the majority of mysteries used to occupy it. However, there seems an increasing push toward both ends of the spectrum, the cozy and the hardboiled, and a thinning out of the middle. Many big-name authors still occupy the middle (Grafton, Muller, Brett, Paretsky, Lovesey, L. King, Crombie, Barnard, Penny, Pronzini, E. George, Elkins, Spencer-Fleming, Francis, Bowen, C. Fowler, et al.) but the proliferation seems to be in craft/job cozies at one end and explicit, often hyper-violent thrills at the other. Recently, we’ve been publishing more to the middle, even across it. Another increasing subgenre for us is historical mystery; in my opinion this category is a refuge for readers like me who prefer traditionals.

We’re privileged to have published so many wonderful writers, whom we’re proud to call our friends, that there’s no room to mention each one (but you’ll be able to read blogs by all of them here). I cite individual authors above only when they’ve won awards, or have started a new trend.

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12 Responses

  1. Thanks for your comprehensive “survey” Meredith!

    I’d like to submit that the spectrum — cozy/middle/violent — is defined more by tone and language than particular content. I’d like to think my “cozies” are in the middle though one series has a crafts setting. The cozy extreme is occupied by those that are silly, if I might use that word, with clown-like characters and names and frivolous plotting. I believe it’s possible to be in the middle regardless of setting, whether it’s crafts, a PI office, or a racetrack.

    • My survey isn’t all that comprehensive. You make a good point, that there’s a spectrum of cozies as well. I think we need a new word for that subgenre.

      My point in this article was intended to be mainly economic, about which more in Part II next week. (I had to split it up because of length.)

  2. Fantastic post, Meredith. I’m going to send the URL with a recommendation to listservs I follow. (I’ll bcc you.) I’m looking forward to Part 2.
    Pat Browning

    • Thanks, Pat! I think you’re one of our biggest fans.

      Do any other readers have any opinion on what Camille wrote, about how the mystery spectrum I mentioned may be wider than I thought?

      • Excellent post, Meredith! I loved reading about the Perseverance past and the work of some of its earliest authors. I do agree with Camille that tone and language must be taken into consideration before calling a book a cozy or a noir. I called my SMP Vermont dairy farmer series “a rural noir” (actually it was Julia Spencer Fleming who suggested that label for me, and I went for it.) A cozy yes, but darker than cozy, yet no gratuituous violence. So cozy alone doesn’t describe all softboiled mysteries. And I’m glad to see you take on more historicals, Meredith. I love them, in part, because I don’t have to keep up with the latest weapons of destruction or other technological ipads, jpads,kpads, or whatever else rushes onto the market. My sleuth just uses her reason, intuition, observation, and mental acuity to solve the crime. Not even a cell phone or flashlight! (Nancy)

  3. A friend and I briefly had a small press for five years and published, in addition to a literary journal, five mystery novels, and I’m glad to say that 4 of the 5 authors have gone on to do more great work. When people asked me why we started The Larcom Press when we knew it wouldn’t make any money, I just looked at them and thought, “Another person who doesn’t love books.” There’s something wonderful about creating a book–working with another writer and a designer, and watching this magical thing come to life. Nothing better. Thanks for the post.

    • Susan, thanks so much for the Larcom Press. We need all the small presses we can get!

      Nancy: for some reason there’s no Reply button by your post. Thanks for your comments. I really am enjoying both reading and editing historical mysteries, yours among them, and feel that they’re the direct descendents of the mysteries I’ve read and loved since my youth. And yes, the authors have to be more ingenious and not rely on modern technology.

  4. Thanks for the historical view, Meredith, and glad my books are now counted among your numbers. The mystery community is lucky to have PP to “rescue” so many series that were lost to downsizings and the cuts of mid-list elimination knives. Lea

    • Lea, welcome aboard! I only wish that PP could reward all its wonderful authors in the way they so richly deserve (lots of money, many printings, and a movie deal!)

  5. Good discussion here. Thanks for getting us started with the post, Meredith. Nancy and Meredith, I like your ideas of new categories. Great work on the rural noir, Nancy!

    • When Kelli Stanley wrote her first Roman mystery (Nox Dormienda, which means The Big Sleep in Latin, more or less) she coined a new term: Roman Noir. Maybe we could have a Cozy Noir–nothing wrong w/ oxymorons! Cozy spy thrillers, anyone?

  6. Enjoyed reading your post, Meredith and I’m finding the discussion of cozy fascinating. I think my stuff is somewhere in the middle, but I love the idea of cozy noir. I love historicals, too. A cozy historical noir? Now I’m wandering all over the place. Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

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