Skip to main content


August 16, 2018

Celebrating the 21st Anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press with Its Founders, Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters


Poisoned Pen Press, an independent publisher of mystery novels, was founded in 1997 by Robert Rosenwald (President and Founder), Barbara Peters (Editor-in-Chief), and their daughter Susan Malling. In recognition of their contribution to the publishing industry, Robert and Barbara received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Bouchercon Crime and Mystery conference, and were given the Ellery Queen Award at the 2010 Mystery Writers of America’s annual dinner honoring “writing teams and outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.”

This month marks the 21st anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press, and in this interview, Robert and Barbara reflect on the Press’s history --- including the first titles they published, the various challenges they’ve had to overcome, and their proudest accomplishments. They also identify the single most satisfying day they’ve enjoyed so far as publisher, the publishing trends they would like to implement (and reverse) if they had the power, and their primary goal for the Press over the next few years.

Question: Who were the very first authors you signed for Poisoned Pen Press? Do any of them still remain with you after all these years?

Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters: The first original mystery we published was ONE FOR SORROW by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. We have since published 11 more John, the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth-century Byzantium. And now in October, we will be releasing AN EMPIRE OF RAVENS, the 12th book in the series, which already has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Q: The first title you published was a collection of essays about mystery writers in Arizona, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical. What percentage of nonfiction has comprised the Poisoned Pen Press list over the years? And has that proportion changed dramatically since 1997?

RR & BP: AZ MURDER GOES…CLASSIC was actually a compilation of the papers presented at a crime conference in Scottsdale at which a number of contemporary international crime writers discussed past masters with the theme “What makes a mystery a classic?” Presenters were Justin Scott (Robert Louis Stevenson), Laurie King (Arthur Conan Doyle), Joe Gores (Dashiell Hammett), Michael Connelly (Raymond Chandler), Val McDermid (Hard-Boiled Detectives), Edward Marston (John Dickson Carr), H.R.F. Keating (Dorothy L. Sayers), Miriam Grace Monfredo (Daphne du Maurier), Steven Saylor (Stuart Palmer), Robin Smiley (Erle Stanley Gardner), Peter Lewis (Eric Ambler), Susan Moody (Crispin, Innes and Blake), Margaret Lewis (Ellis Peters), Janet Laurence (Publishing in the Golden Age), and Catherine Aird playing devil’s advocate.

Q: What was the first major obstacle you had to overcome when Poisoned Pen Press debuted, from the business side of things?

RR & BP: Most of the independent bookstores, and especially the mystery booksellers, thought that Poisoned Pen Press was an extension of The Poisoned Pen bookstore that my wife, Barbara Peters, and I opened in 1989, and they were loathe to support “the enemy.” In fact, the bookstore and press are two completely separate companies, and as far as the Press is concerned, the Poisoned Pen bookstore is just another customer no different from any other retail account --- same discounts, same terms.

Q: How have you had to modify your goals for Poisoned Pen Press from the first plans you conceived?

RR & BP: When we started up, I had this vision of all Poisoned Pen Press titles having the same generic cover --- a white background with blood drops --- like the Penguin Crime Line’s banded green and white covers. You didn’t need to know the author or series, you just knew that if you bought a Penguin Crime Line mystery, you’d get a great read. I forgot to realize that Penguin had earned that consumer mind-space, and we had a long way to go to get there. Big mistake...

Q: Looking ahead, what would you say your primary goal for the Press will be over the next few years?

RR & BP: To start earning enough so that we can increase our advances. Our authors always earn out and make good royalties, but our advances are on the low side, and I’d like to get them closer to industry standards.

Q: Could you identify one special triumph for each of the decades the Press has been in existence?

RR & BP: When we published MUTE WITNESS by Charles O’Brien, the starred review from Publishers Weekly began: “The bar for historical mysteries has just been raised, thanks to this masterly debut novel.” It was one of our first starred reviews and resulted in our first rights sale.

Another favorite accomplishment: Because none of the major New York publishers wanted to publish a 30,000-word novel by my friend James Sallis, we ended up getting the publishing rights. When the New York Times review came out, it began: "At 158 pages DRIVE (Poisoned Pen, $19.95) is the most compact novel I've read in some time, so I'll make this brief: James Sallis has written a perfect piece of noir fiction.” It became the award-winning eponymous movie starring Ryan Gosling.

Q: What has been your biggest surprise since launching Poisoned Pen Press --- something that you never saw coming when drawing up the game plan?

RR & BP: I expected that the independent bookstores, and especially the independent mystery booksellers, would aggressively embrace what we were doing with our publishing program because we were publishing excellent mysteries that were extremely well reviewed, giving them a product that would not be typically offered in the chains. I was surprised that most accounts paid little attention to our titles, instead continuing to attempt to compete with the chains by selling the same bestsellers the chains were using as loss-leaders.

Q: The challenges facing Poisoned Pen Press can't be remotely the same today as when it launched. What has been the most dramatic shift for the imprint since the late ’90s?

RR & BP: The biggest shift has been adapting to working with a national distributor. From inception until 2009, we distributed our own books. Then, in 2009, we signed up with Ingram Publisher Services (IPS). I once was proud of the fact that in the late ’90s we got a book typeset, published, into print and for sale in less than a month, and normally had a book available for sale within four or five months. These days, we need to schedule books about a year ahead so that our sales reps at IPS can present the books six to seven months before publication to the national accounts. Adapting to the timing continues to be difficult, though it’s improving every year.

Q: What has been the single most satisfying day you've enjoyed thus far as publisher?

RR & BP: The day I got to tell one of our authors who had a husband with congestive heart failure that we had sold the rights to her debut mystery for $250,000 and heard her sobs of disbelief and pure joy.

Q: Is there one decision you made about the Press you wish you could take back, given the luxury of 20/20 hindsight?

RR & BP: I don’t think there is any one decision I made that I wish I could take back. There are a couple of authors we reprinted who ultimately dealt less than fairly with us. I have made a few bad hiring decisions over the years, though none that were disastrous. And, of course, there are the titles that I significantly overestimated on print runs. But for the most part, I feel things have gone remarkably well.

Q: If you had the power, what trend would you like to implement in publishing --- specifically mystery publishing --- over the next five years?

RR & BP: If I had the power: How about fining publishers 1¢ for every copy of every book published in which there exist blatant editorial errors, whether they be in grammar, spelling or whatever. I’d also charge 5¢ for every time the comparative of “unique” is employed, and maybe a little less for each incorrect usage of “lay” and “lie.”

Q: And in that vein, which trend would you most like to reverse?

RR & BP: The dumbing down of English.