I’ve been reviewing the British Library’s crime publishing since Revelations of a Lady Detective in 2013, but for some reason it has only just occurred to me to include them in my occasional series of publisher profiles. Rob Davies at the BL has been kind enough to submit to an interrogation…
Let’s start with a bit of a job description. How did you get the job?
I came to the British Library after a fairly traditional editorial background with other London-based publishers, copy-editing and project-managing non-fiction books about art and design. The move into commercial fiction was a very unexpected shift: I just happened to join the Library as our crime series began to take off.
I work across our publishing programme, which means that the job is incredibly varied. On any given day I’ll be thinking about several titles – which could be exhibition catalogues, illustrated books about maps and medieval history, gift books and the occasional collection of highly specialised academic essays. Nonetheless, the Crime Classics are increasingly the focus of my attention, and I’m having to perfect the art of speed-reading at my desk to keep up with the avalanche of ideas and submissions.
How significant is crime in the BL’s publishing?
It’s steadily becoming the most important part of our activity. We dipped our toes into the water back in 2012 with a couple of well-received reissues of historically significant Victorian titles; but since we started publishing golden-age books with The Santa Klaus Murder in late 2013, the interest has just grown and grown. We can hardly keep up with the appetite for more of these books, which is a very lucky position to be in.
Do your profits go back into the library, or do you use them to fund more publishing?
All our revenue is used to support the Library’s non-profit activities – so this means that sales of our books directly help to fund public exhibitions, family learning programmes, major acquisitions and other curatorial and conservation work on the Library’s collections. We make a modest but important contribution to the Library’s funding at a time when direct support from government is gradually declining.
How many books do you print, typically?
It varies, but a first run of a new title is now about 8,000 or 10,000 copies – a big leap from the 2,000 we were producing just a year ago. I suspect we’ll be thinking even bigger for the first printing of our Christmas title, given the overwhelming response to Mystery in White.
Your books feel a lot nicer than most paperbacks. Are they quite expensive to produce?
We do take pride in design and production, carefully selecting the right images, and choosing good-quality paper and finishes for the covers. We’re starting to commission original artwork for the covers, as well as searching for vintage poster artwork to illustrate them with. This is a new type of investment for us. Still, being simple black-and-white books, these are comparatively economical to produce.
Was Mystery in White the break-out title, or have the sales gradually been building up title-by-title?
We saw a gradual build-up last year but there’s no doubt that Mystery in White was the break-out book: it became the Library’s best-selling title of all time by a long way, and helped us to gain new attention and support from reviewers (both online and traditional print outlets) and bookshops around the country. We’ve even received lots of enquiries about adapting the book for TV, which is very exciting – it would make such a good Sunday-night drama one December. Beyond Mystery in White it seems that John Bude has earned himself a good number of fans – I get plenty of letters and emails asking us to republish more of his books (and plans are afoot).
We’re slightly constrained by the availability of rights: the real superstars are in print with some of the country’s biggest publishers, and – being a very small player – we can’t go offering six-figure advances to secure the most famous estates. Still, we’re negotiating with a number of agents and estates for some really exciting work by lesser-known authors, including more books by J. Jefferson Farjeon (look out for those in the autumn). We’ve also just been fortunate to secure a big name for our companion series of classic thriller novels.
Had you considered crowd-sourcing recommendations, or are you constrained by what the BL can get rights to?
I can’t emphasise enough how much I welcome thoughts, suggestions and constructive criticism (email is the best way to reach me – email@example.com). Martin Edwards acts as a mine of advice and expertise in his role as series consultant, but we also benefit from ideas from a number of readers who get in touch with their comments. I’m starting to realise that golden-age fans are some of the best-read and most devoted enthusiasts for any fictional genre, and I’ve also learned a lot from reading blogs like Past Offences, Martin’s Do You Write Under Your Own Name? and Curt Evans’s The Passing Tramp.
Do you read crime fiction in your spare time? Any favourites?
I do read quite a bit of crime, but I’m a complete novice when it comes to the golden age (except for having read a lot of Agatha Christie in my early teens). I usually read contemporary European and American crime, and have recently been making my way through James Lee Burke’s backlist. I’m blown away by the quality of his writing and not sure why it’s taken me so long to catch onto his work.
Have you got a personal favourite from your titles?
I’m especially proud of Resorting to Murder, a collection of holiday-themed stories which we’ve just published. I came up with the idea of a golden-age anthology to read on the beach, and Martin Edwards put together a really exceptional collection of little-known gems, with a few classic tales by the biggest names in the genre.
Are you involved in the Bodies from the Library event in June?
The British Library is a key partner for Bodies from the Library: we’ll be hosting the event [on Saturday 20th June], and giving away a free book to everyone who attends. I’ll also be speaking on a panel with the publisher from HarperCollins (who have rights to Agatha Christie, and much else) about the possibilities and pitfalls in publishing golden age crime.