Crime Writers Discuss the Death of the Mystery Series

“You’ve got to start out with a hit, right off the bat."   

An agent told me this once after reading part of a novel I’d written. The book, he said, showed promise but wasn’t big enough in scope to snag a major publisher. Being a fan of Ugly Town Books and Point Blank Press, I asked him what were the novel’s chances at one of the smaller houses. He dismissed the idea.


“Years ago, you could slowly build an audience,” he said. “But these days you have to start out with a hit.” He went on to say if your first novel only manages meager sales, it’s unlikely the bigger houses will take a chance on you.


This is not what I wanted to hear. I’ve always had a deep admiration for small press authors, those who write not for the money or acknowledgement but for the sheer love of writing. And truth be told, I’d harbored the romantic dream of becoming a hard-boiled novelist who languished in obscurity, yet created an underground cult of rabid fans. Then, only after growing bitter and despondent at the literary world, turning to the sweet, sweet bliss of alcoholic darkness, would my work find a much wider audience. (Hey, we’ve all gotta have that distant star to stretch for).


As disappointed as I was by the agent’s remarks, I wondered if they had a ring of truth to them. Sure, there have been those who’ve made their mark in a small press then gone on to bigger publishing companies. But how often does it happen? And when it does happen, is the event the exception that proves the rule?


My goal is to someday make a living as a writer. I want to enjoy the work I do, (what’s the point otherwise) but at the same time, I want to reach the biggest audience possible. I know to achieve this goal I must believe in myself and have dogged persistence. I also know I must be flexible in my notions of success. Being a writer isn’t an easy road, and having a publishing company (big or small) take a chance on you should be considered an honor.


I’m an infant in this industry—maybe even an embryo considering I don’t have my name on a cover yet. As such, I have more questions than answers. And today I have one for you.


Is there a stigma associated with being a small press author, one that closes the door to the bigger publishing companies?  

25 thoughts on “Crime Writers Discuss the Death of the Mystery Series

  1. pari noskin taichert

    Mike,I think you might be on to something. Being with a small press means that your distribution and numbers appear smaller for a variety of reasons. I know my New Mexico series, though it’s gotten a lot of national attention, is considered “too small” for many publishers. So, I have to continue to sell and sell with the hope that eventually one of them will realize that I’ve been building a strong audience for years and could make them money if I got the right distribution.

    That said, I know so many authors who are with big houses and who get royally screwed. Last night, I went to a holiday party at UNM Press’s Executive Director’s home. I know all of the people who’ll be involved in bringing out my next book. I can ask them face-to-face about design, to up the initial HC print run, and — in this case — to push back the publication date to Jan. ’08 rather than Nov. ’07 so that my book won’t get lost in the holiday releases from major houses/names.

    I’m convinced that I’m going to begin to make a living as a novelist within the next few years. It’s just a different path.

    Stigma? Maybe. But there are also a hell of a lot of pluses.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am also too new to really be able to answer this question with authority, but three examples of breakout authors spring immediately to mind: MJ Rose, who started out publishing e books (and the rest is history) – and our own Simon Wood and Pari Noskin Taichert. Simon has made the leap from small press to big, and from what I’ve seen, anyway, has quite a rabid fan base built up from his small press beginnings, and so does Pari. I came into the mystery community as a total novice, but Pari was instantly on my radar – everyone seems to know and love her and Sasha.

    I’m interested to hear what they have to say on this subject.

    Honest to God, I think it’s always ultimately about the author and the work. Cream rises to the top. (It DOESN’T rise automatically, though – you have to work it. Maybe the analogy I want has more to do with a butter churn. Or maybe I just shouldn’t try to post before the coffee kicks in.)

  3. billie

    I’m in a similar dilemma, Mike. First novel repped by two agents so far and shopped to big houses with good response – close but no sale.

    Second novel deemed “quieter” and still seeking an agent.

    I haven’t looked at smaller houses seriously, but it’s on the radar screen.

    I will read with interest what more experienced folks have to say here – thanks for asking the question!


  4. Naomi

    I don’t think that there’s a stigma. I’m sure that it can be an asset if your book is a runaway hit for your small press. But I also don’t think that publication by a small press may mean a whole lot for larger publishers. They probably will judge you and your work based on the latest manuscript you are shopping around.

    Of course, if your first book is published by a big house, they can market you as a debut writer, etc., which definitely will garner you some special treatment by reviewers.

    The thing is, it all depends on the scope of your book. The proper home for your book may be a more niche-oriented publisher. If the book should resonate with a larger readership, then wait for the NYC publisher deal (get some honest feedback from other published writers in the meantime–rewrites may be in order).

    I think the worst thing for a writer is to get that huge deal only to have middling sales. Now that’s a problem.

  5. Al Guthrie

    Since you mentioned PointBlank Press… The first four original PointBlank Press novels were: Two-Way Split (Allan Guthrie), Fast Lane (Dave Zeltserman), The Big Blind (Ray Banks) and Secret Dead Men (Duane Swierczynski). Banks and Guthrie (me) now have contracts with Harcourt. Swierczynski has a contract with St Martin’s. Zeltserman has a UK deal with Serpent’s Tail. Draw your own conclusions… Has to be said, I moonlight as a literary agent and I’ve come across certain editors who won’t look at material by small press published authors, but those editors are in the minority, at least in my experience.

  6. Louise Ure

    Mike, I don’t know enough about the publishing business yet to know how acquiring editors at the big houses would respond to your question.

    But I just heard Ed Kaufman, bookseller extraordinaire at M is for Mystery, wax eloquent about the rise of small press crime fiction in the last couple of years. He says the number of small, goog quality houses is up, as is their visibility and the high standard of their work. That doesn’t sound like a bad place to be at all.

  7. JT Ellison

    A very wise man (John Connolly) once told me “every good book finds a home.”

    Whether that home is with a large or small press, I really believe that the editors who are interested in your book know whether it’s right for them or not.

    Personally, I really wanted to publish with a major house. What I write, and how I write it, fits that model. Would I have turned down an offer to go with a small press? That depends entirely on the press.

    Look at Capital Crimes. Brilliant authors reside there. They have the background, the knowledge, to make it work for their authors. Same with Poisoned Pen Press. There are certainly many small presses who are doing it right.

    And there are some who aren’t. Since one of the things we do here at Murderati is share advice with aspiring authors, keep this in mind. If it’s too good to be true, if you are responsible for everything with your novel, if they don’t give you any advance, if the house expects you to send out all your own ARC’s, do your own marketing, hands you an ISBN number but doesn’t have any entree into actual bookstores, run away.

    In my opinion, it’s better not to be published than to be published poorly.

    Small or large, what’s important is the author is treated with respect and dignity. Decent contracts, reasonable advances, marketing saavy — all are vital to a longstanding relationship.

  8. Mike MacLean

    Thanks to everyone for your responses and insight. So much to think about.

    To Mr. Guthrie, the authors you mentioned (including yourself) are exactly who I had in mind when writing this post (a lot of talent there). The question becomes have they broken the mold? Are they the exceptions that prove the rule?

    I hope none of my questions come off as a condemnation of small-presses. I have great respect for these publishers. Often, they take chances that the bigger houses might not and give some really great writers a voice.

  9. Elaine Flinn

    I get back from Mass and Christmas shopping all ready to be profound – and what do I find? All my brilliant bits of advice were already offered. 🙂

    So – I’ll just add this: Big publishers are everyone’s goal – but keep in mind you’re one of hundreds and mud on the wall. Small publishers (the good ones naturally) know your name and work twice as hard for you and offer a more personal environment and stronger stake in your career and their longevity.

  10. Al Guthrie

    “A very wise man (John Connolly) once told me “every good book finds a home.””

    JT, how I wish that were true. It’s not my experience, though. Not even close.

    “The question becomes have they broken the mold? Are they the exceptions that prove the rule?”

    Mike, I’d suggest the opposite. Small presses are frequently a springboard for an author’s career. That’s certainly the case with (in Scotland alone) Lin Anderson (started at Luath), Alex Gray (Canongate), Ian Rankin (Polygon), Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon), Irvine Welsh (Rebel Inc). Having said that, I’ve yet to meet two agents or editors who agree on anything very much. I should mention that I was advised by a ‘well-meaning’ UK agent (not my current agent) to get out of the contract for my second novel with Hard Case Crime cause they were a small publisher. I didn’t. And had I done so, it would have been the most regrettable decision of my life.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Can I just add something, here?

    So okay, maybe a book doesn’t find its home with a publisher. Maybe that means the story is actually meant to be a screenplay, or a short film, or a TV series, or a play.

    Stories have so many forms they can take. Maybe the form you start with is not the best form for it. Remember – we’re creators, and we have infinite power, and infinite latitude (yes, I really do believe that).

    One of the most spellbinding moments of APOCALYPTO (one of many spellbinding moments in a truly spellbinding movie, I swear…) is a long, lovingly detailed scene of the villagers sitting around a campfire listening in rapture to an elderly storyteller. Oh. My. God. Do we crave good stories? Do we need air?

    If you have one, keep trying until you find the right agent, the right publisher, or the right medium. It might not be the avenue you expect. That’s fine. Move on to the right one. Just keep moving.

  12. Ray Banks

    Chiming in here, primarily to back up the sage Mr Guthrie. Uglytown brought Victor Gischler and Sean Doolittle (both with Bantam Dell now, I believe) to the world, and I fully expect the likes of Neil Smith (whose first two novels are small press and excellent) and Pearce Hansen to follow them.

    Personally, I count myself extremely lucky to be published by a small press first. I learned some very important lessons from being edited by Guthrie (he is an astounding editor) and my modest sales haven’t affected my fledgling career in the slightest. In fact, I HAVE that career because of the small press – that debut got me an agent, got me contacts within the industry and led to the deals I have now.

    Put it this way, if THE BIG BLIND had, for some bizarre reason, ended up being published by a large press, chances are I would’ve gone nuts trying to earn out, the book would have tanked, it wouldn’t have found the audience it needed and I would’ve been toast. Seriously.

    So, if I had to do it again (pfft, look at me, Mr. Big Time Author, sheesh), I’d do it the same way. And I have the same goal as you, Mike. Maybe I’ll get to it the way Hunter, Westlake and Block did: by being a few other guys…

  13. Elaine Flinn

    P.S. I agree with Al – ‘every good book does not always find a home’.

    And – to debunk another myth – the big publishers no longer ‘grow writers’ or allow you to build a readership as they once did. Either hit the mysterious magic numbers (which they rarely say what they are) out of the starting gate – or hit the bricks, baby.

  14. Jim Winter

    Of course, one can go too small. I found that out the hard way. Get with someone with no skill or resources to get the word out, and you might as well go vanity press.

  15. Robin Burcell

    This has been a most interesting thread. I think what it boils down to is making wise decisions and a bit of serendipity thrown in. The right book at the right place at the right time. Sometimes, going with that small press can be the wisest. I have a handful of friends, and a handful of writers I admire but don’t know, who have gone that route from the beginning. And their careers have taken off. Sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the pursuit of becoming published that we forget that this is a business. And with any business decision, sometimes going with the largest corporation over a boutique operation isn’t the best move.

    A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the latest “trend” of some big name authors publishing books with small presses, forgoing the large advance, because they believe it is the better business decision for a variety of reasons.

    I, myself, am doing a combined publishing contract that mixes small press with large press. The hardcover is coming out with Poisoned Pen Press, and the mass market paper is coming out with Avon/HarperCollins.

    This was a business decision. Only time will tell if it was the right one.

  16. Pearce Hansen

    i’m reminded of the words of Donald Maass (a 30 year veteran NY literary agent) in his useful book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: “If you write a book people want to read — your book will sell. Your destiny is in your own hands.” in other words, there’s no substitute for quality.

    small press, big press, makes no difference overall. still, as Ray Banks noted, if you go big press there’s the pressure to earn out on your advance — its not “free money” after all.

    “you have to start with a hit?” define hit. word-of-mouth is what drives a book, not promo, marketing and distribution (even though they all have their place). in this bloggety-blog world, all that matters is satisfying the customer, the reader — it may take longer with a small press, but in the end the readers are the ones that decide 🙂


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