Like many bookstores aboard the Titanic of independent bookselling, the Mysterious Bookshop hit the Amazon iceberg a few years ago. More accurately, it hit us, and we’ve been doing everything short of throwing women and children out of lifeboats, to avoid drowning in the icy waters of insolvency.
As the owner of a specialty store devoted to mystery fiction for more than 33 years in the high-rent area of Manhattan known as TriBeCa, I’ve come to know most of the authors who write in this most challenging and rewarding literary form and have formed great friendships with them.
Naturally, I take shameless advantage of these friendships in order to advance my clever scheme of staying in business by engaging in proprietary publishing.
I should be clear that this little in-store program has nothing to do with the Mysterious Press imprint that is part of Grove/Atlantic, apart from the fact that I run both, just as I run the MysteriousPress.com electronic publishing company that is distributed and marketed by Open Road Integrated Media.
Each Christmas for the past 18 years, I’ve commissioned an original Christmas mystery story, printed in a handsome chapbook and given free to my customers as a thank you for their loyalty to the store. They were eventually collected as Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop and published last year by Vanguard.
At one of our infrequent staff meetings, we came upon the idea of commissioning bibliomysteries (stories with a background of books, libraries, bibliophiles, bookstores—anything involving the world of books). Instead of handing them out for free, we’ve been selling them—which, it turns out, is a better business model than giving them away. We publish one a month as individual paperbacks (mostly at $4.95) and hardcover books for collectors, limited to only 100 copies, each numbered and signed by the author (at $50). Authors in the series include Ken Bruen, Anne Perry, Nelson DeMille, Jeffery Deaver, Laura Lippman, with others scribbling away as we speak.
Every author is paid, and so are the printer and binder, so no one is getting rich off the series, but a few thousand bucks a month helps pay the rent. Did I mention that rent in New York is more brutal than Vlad the Impaler?
Previously, I had asked some of my favorite writers to produce 5,000-word profiles of their series characters. Michael Connelly wrote about Hieronymus Bosch, Robert Crais about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert B. Parker about Spenser, Carol O’Connell about Mallory, Lee Child about Jack Reacher, and so on.
We printed them in paperback, which we gave away free to the first 1,000 customers with any purchase in the month of publication—a pointless incentive, as it happens, since we don’t have 1,000 customers a month. We also published 100 hardcover copies, numbered and signed by the authors, offered for $60.
The first 21 of these “Mysterious Profiles” were collected in a Little, Brown book titled The Lineup, in 2010, which earned me my second Edgar Allan Poe Award, though I earned it as much as Barack Obama earned his Nobel Prize.
There are other books, too. We’ve been publishing beautiful collector’s editions of novels by Connelly, Crais, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, and others. We make sub-rights deals with the publishers and produce 100 copies in marbled boards and leather spines stamped in gold, signed by the authors. The Mysterious Bookshop is allowed to issue these before the trade editions come out, so collectors receive the true first edition.
Everything except the printing and binding is done in-house, which helps to fill the day—a good thing because, if you happen to be a bookseller reading this, you know how much down time there is in running the business.
We’re proud of our publications and are excited to open cartons from the printer. Our customers, that small band of much-loved loyalists, tell us they like them. Authors still (mostly) return my phone calls, even knowing that I’m going to be asking for something.
Granted, the waters are still icy, the iceberg refuses to recognize the concept of global warming and looms ever larger, but we remain afloat in our leaky raft, paddling optimistically toward the next rent check.
Otto Penzler is the founder of The Mysterious Press and owner ofthe Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.