The Poisoned Pen Press
The Poisoned Pen Press was founded in 1997 by Barbara Peters’s husband, Robert Rosenwald. It is an independent publisher that publishes more hardcover mysteries than most other publishers in the world. Don’t let the similar names fool you: The Poisoned Pen Press and The Poisoned Pen are two separate businesses in Arizona each with their own staff and business plans. While Barbara Peters owns the bookstore, her husband owns the press. Each offers the other business their unique expertise; Peters edits for the press and her husband works on IT for the bookstore.
Throughout the years, Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters have won awards for their work at the press. They received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bouchercon Crime and Mystery conference in 2008 and the Ellery Queen Award at the Mystery Writers of America in 2010. Some of their recent titles include Michael Bowen’s “A Michaelson and Marjorie Mystery“ series, Jon Talton’s The Night Detectives, and Michael Kahn’s The Flinch Factor.
“Both are successful and challenging and as neither of us draws a paycheck, true labors of love. Neither of us can imagine retiring but we are making provision for both in case one of us is sidelined by age or illness. Meanwhile we bucket along, doing the nuts and bolts but working on reinventing ourselves as often as we can. To that end, I’ve just promoted the 21-year-old to fill a vacancy so she can keep dragging us along into the future, and we’ve hired a more seasoned copy editor for the press to improve the quality of our production. You can never afford to sit still,” Barbara Peters states.
Indie Groundbreaking Bookseller
The Poisoned Pen
Adding a Little Mystery to Conferences and Author Events
With a name like The Poisoned Pen, you may feel like you should be walking into the setting of a murder mystery instead of a favorite independent bookstore. Since 1989, Barbara Peters, the owner and founder of the Poisoned Pen, has made the Scottsdale, AZ store a place where customers come from far and wide to pick up their next whodunit fix or the newest fiction title.
Before The Poisoned Pen, Peters was a librarian for a university and the Library of Congress as well as a lawyer. The store would have never have been born if Peters hadn’t chosen crime fiction titles over law. “After a serious medical mishap sidelined me, I moved to Arizona where my husband to be one day said, ‘Now that you can do whatever you want, what is it you’re going to do?’”
The question wasn’t a hard one for Peters who says the challenges of publishing and bookselling keep her pushing the envelope. “I realized I missed books more than law, so I thought I’d open a little bookstore just for fun, make some coffee, talk about books, support my lifelong reading habit. Who knew?”
During the store’s first year in 1989, Phoenix was a hotspot for chains and indies so Peters knew they needed to do something different in order to survive. “What I knew and loved was mystery, which I now broaden to call crime fiction as it embraces so many forms and aspects,” she reveals.
The recent move in bookselling away from the chain model and to online outlets has led to some changes in what The Poisoned Pen sells. “We’ve been pushed for say a decade out of crime fiction and into a bookstore that specialized in fiction and whatever else we like. The great thing about being an independent is when people ask, ‘Why is this book here?’ we reply, ‘Because we like it.’ No corporate policy controls,” she continues.
Keeping in line with no corporate policies, The Poisoned Pen doesn’t do author events like other stores where an author just does a reading or pitch. “We offer an evening (or afternoon, or whole day) out with an interview of 60–90 minutes that might include some reading, very interactive with questions,” Peters states.
It only takes a quick glance at the calendar to see that The Poisoned Pen has an author event nearly every day. Due to the large crowds each event draws, there are fewer books stocked in the store and more daily deliveries to ensure they can sit over 160 people and have standing room for 200. “We add visuals, power point presentations, music. Food works, so we serve a lot of it free. We give away ARCs at events to customers who have supported the author by buying a book (we gets hundreds of ARCs so it’s a great use for them),” Peters explains.
“Our online customers, who outnumber our local customers, participate in drawings for prizes and can watch webcasts of some of our events,” Barbara Peters states. Their webcasts on their livestream account allow fans of their bookstore to personalize their experience with The Poisoned Press. This is especially helpful since nearly 15 percent of their business is global now. There are over 60 webcasts with authors such as Sue Grafton, Lauren Beukes, John Sandford, and Craig Johnson with new ones being added all the time.
When it comes to different kinds of events, it seems like The Poisoned Pen has tried it all. “We host big events offsite at the Arizona Biltmore or various libraries or other locations. We support offsite events publishers set up, say a business event. We’ve hosted teas and rum-tasting parties and potlucks and book launches and author lunches and dinners and once a New Year’s Eve party with readings. This year we’ll get to do a Halloween Party with Sara Paretsky so we may do prizes for costumes,” Peter states. All of the events ring true to The Poisoned Pen’s motto, “It’s more than a bookstore, it’s an experience.”
The author-reader interactions don’t stop at the events held at the store or nearby locations. Barbara Peters has put together 15–20 one-day conferences in which authors participate in serial interviews with her. A few years, Barbara Peters invited authors such as Lee Child, Vince Flynn, Kathy Reichs, Steve Hamilton, and David Morrell who just happened to be all thriller writers. “Yet at the conference these writers decided with a nudge from me that it would be a great idea to form a support organization for thriller writers, and so the International Thriller Writers Association was born,” Peters tells me.
“We hosted its first ThrillerFest the next year at the Biltmore. Now it meets each July in NYC. If I have a theme for this year it would be ‘Experience the Unexpected’, and authors include Qiu Xiaolong, Marcia Clark, Steve Hamilton, Susanna Kearsley, and Jane Cleland, a Cupcake Cozy with Aavery Aames, Kate Carlisle, and Jenn McKinlay, and two of my own authors from Poisoned Pen Press, Michael Kahn and Sheldon Siegel,” Peters continues.
With a packed calendar and devoted staff, Barbara Peters and The Poisoned Pen aren’t stopping anytime soon. Next year, The Poisoned Pen turns 25, and they will certainly celebrate the milestone with a celebration fit for this innovative bookstore who has redefined the author event and given conferences their signature spin.
We look forward to seeing what The Poisoned Pen accomplishes in the future. To read more about the store, check out their website at: poisonedpen.com
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Nicolette Amstutz is a writer for Independent Publisher. She is currently studying English and Communications at the University of Michigan. Please contact her with any comments, questions, or criticisms at namstutz (at) umich.edu