The Case Of The Disappearing Crime Publisher by Martin Edwards
Every now and then a new publisher
appears on the crime fiction scene. Occasionally, the company goes from strength to
strength; more often, after publishing a handful of books, it vanishes from sight. Given
that such businesses are almost always run by enthusiasts who are not just in it for the
money, and that the public remains hungry for mystery stories, why should this be? Some of
the answers may be gleaned from the sad story of Ross Anderson Publications, which produced seven crime novels in the 1980s - to which, it
seems, there will be no successors.
Ross Anderson was launched in l982 by Michael Malone, a Bolton solicitor who is an expert in employment and property law. A couple of years previously, he had written a text book on racial and sex discrimination, which had been brought out in paperback by a London-based publisher. The world of literature had always appealed to him and he decided that in future, he would try his hand at publishing not only his own books, but also those of other writers.
Initially, his intention was to publish both practical guides to legal topics (including two of his own about business tenancies) and , books of more general interest in the fields of history and biography. Three of the first titles which he commissioned were a life of the politician Austen Chamberlain; a collection of potted biographies of hymn writers; and the memoirs of a veteran of the Burma Railway. As he now says, "Already I had forgotten (or never learned) the golden rule that the small publisher must specialise".
Even more ambitiously, he soon began to publish works of fiction. He had long been an admirer of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham , John Buchan and Hammond Innes. Novels with a political background also held a political appeal for him. The Man Who Lost His Shadow by Bertie Denham (Macmillan) had appeared a couple of years or so earlier combining a political setting, with a crime plot. Lord Denham's experience of the corridors of power - he is possibly best known as the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Lords - lent authenticity to the story, which Malone admired. On reading in the press that it was possible that Macmillan might not be bringing out the sequel, Malone seized his chance. He approached Bertie Denham and soon began a collaboration with the author and his literary agents, Curtis Brown. The result was the first Ross Anderson crime novel, Two Thyrdes, which appeared in September 1983.
The next two years saw four more crime titles appear in hardback under the Ross Anderson imprint. Look Back At Murder by Malcolm Gray (perhaps better known to enthusiasts of the genre under his real name, Ian Stuart ) was a traditional detective story with a country house setting: the sleuth was Alan Craig, a policeman turned private investigator.
Adventure Of State, by the respected political commentator Patrick Cosgrave, was about the attempt of a character, in the tradition of Richard Hannay to unmask a traitor. Here again, Malone had read an earlier book featuring the same hero, Colonel Cheyney, and had been impressed by the character.
The two other crime novels were comedy thrillers by Sir Richard Parsons, a serving Ambassador, who has written a number of books under the name of John Haythorne. The anti-hero of both Mandrake In Granada and Mandrake In The Monastery was Oliver Mandrake, a Billy Bunter of the Diplomatic Service.
Michael Malone edited the books himself and found the task not only less onerous than he had anticipated, but actually enjoyable. Although he had previously had little knowledge of book production, he found that in practice the only significant area of difficulty was getting the dust wrapper right.
Much more of a problem was the marketing of the books, Malone found that none of the stories sold in sufficient numbers even to cover the cost of production. He sent out scores of review copies to the national press but to little effect. It may offer a crumb of comfort to any fledgling author who has been dismayed by the lack of reaction to his or her literary masterpiece to learn that it is far from uncommon to come up against a wall of critical indifference. Michael Malone puts it well and candidly when he says, "By the time that five novels had been published with only a couple of reviews between them, raging paranoia was well established, coupled with a modest helping of xenophobia when I saw how many American crime novels were being reviewed in some national newspapers. It took me some little time to accept the mundane fact that so many novels are published that only a fraction can be reviewed".
Like others before him, Malone entered a Catch-22 situation in that books cannot be bought (or at least not bought easily) if they are not stocked in bookshops. The vast majority of booksellers stock books in advance of publication, but usually buy them from publishers' sales representatives. A new company with limited resources cannot employ its own team of salesmen and must therefore share the services of freelance representatives with a large number of other companies. It is difficult for a small publisher with no real track record to get advance copies of his books into more than a few dozen of the many bookshops up and down the country.
Undaunted, In 1986 Michael Malone decided to try a different approach. He reasoned that booksellers unwilling to invest in a hardback novel from a new publisher, might be willing to risk a couple of pounds for a paperback. Market research suggested that paperbacks might be well received and he therefore brought out a couple of paperback original mysteries in September l986.
The Hunting Of Mr.Gloves by Philip Daniel (pseudonym of the veteran writer Peter Chambers) was a police procedural told through the eyes of the villain as well as those of the police officer. Glyn Hardwicke's Acting On Information Received began with a robbery in the Port of London, but was mainly an account of the preparation of the trial of those arrested and the trial itself. The book gained much from the experience of its author as a prosecuting solicitor; Hardwicke was also an enthusiastic member of the Crime Writers' Association Committee (and a reader of CADS) whose premature death in l989 with his second novel incomplete deprived the mystery world of an emerging talent and a man with a great love for the genre.
Admirable in theory, in practice this new exercise was a f lop in marketing terms. The two books received only one review between them and only a handful of shops ever stocked any copies. Michael Malone and his authors learned the hard way that the necessarily low financial return on a cheap paperback is only attractive to a shop which is able to stock and sell paperbacks in large numbers. Agatha Christie is a safe bet; unknown authors are not.
Michael Malone admits that Ross Anderson's brief crime series was not a financial success. On the credit side, he gained much pleasure from it, as well as some valued friendships. His sobering conclusion, however, is that anyone who contemplates following in his footsteps "must have substantial capital (and be prepared to lose it), must specialise and must enjoy reading balance sheets more than crime novels". Mayhem Parva and the mean streets offer endless scope for escapism: but for crime publishers there is no getting away from harsh economic reality.
Article originally appeared in CADS and is reproduced with kind permission of the author and Geoff Bradley
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