Otto Penzler and I, or Hopeful Luddites Talk Digital

Blood Innocents by Thomas H. Cook
Blood Innocents by Thomas H. Cook
I’ve never downloaded an electronic book.

My book has sold a number of Kindle copies, which leads me to feel a strange imbalance—what does it mean that I produce material for a media I don’t engage in?

I am not one of the people who insist that all books must be printed matter, and can sympathize with the argument that denigrating e-books is classist. While the Harry Potter series was being released while I was in college, for example, I would go quite unashamedly to Barnes and Noble down the road from my dorm and read them cover to cover.  (I was careful to leave them in pristine condition.)  An e-reader might have saved me from awkward moments sitting on industrial carpeting, but given a choice, I’d much prefer to read a book with pages and ink and binding.

Otto Penzler—editor of over fifty mystery anthologies, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop, longtime Mystery Writers of America board of directors member, and a man whose name has been synonymous with mystery fiction for decades, not to mention a nifty fellow—has just launched a digital version of his publishing house, MysteriousPress.comMy Luddite tendencies are many and varied, so I asked why a leader in the field of print publishing for so many years would delve into the digital market.

Otto Penzler:  I don’t own a Kindle or Nook or iPhone or anything technical beyond my 25-year-old television. There’s a cell phone around here someplace, but I have no idea where. I read real books. Yes, I think e-books will ruin (no, let me rephrase that—have already ruined) many bookstores, and more will die because of them. Still, I can’t help but recognize that they are terrific in terms of affordability and accessibility.

LF:  How many books have you published in your life?  I want an exact figure, including anthologies.  Go!

Otto Penzler:  I can’t give you an exact figure on either. My anthologies have not been published by me, but by Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Little Brown, Pegasus, Warner, Penguin, Harper, etc. Probably 60 or so. Books I published as either Mysterious Press or Otto Penzler Books—maybe getting close to a thousand, counting hardcover and paperback.

LF:  What titles are you personally excited about featuring that were previously unavailable?  I was bouncing off walls to see out of print works by Thomas H. Cook and Ellery Queen, for instance.

Ark by Charles McCarry
Ark by Charles McCarry
Otto Penzler:  I used to publish the great Ross Thomas, James Ellroy, Donald E. Westlake, and many of the other writers on my list, such as Adam Hall, Edgar-winner David Stout, etc., and loved their work. I now publish Cook—one of my favorite writers for the past 25 years. I can’t pick one, because I’ve loved these books and these authors so much for so long that I can’t single anything out. OK—I will. The greatest espionage writer that America ever produced is Charles McCarry, and I’m publishing an original by him, Ark, which I got only because it’s a futuristic thriller, somewhat different from his usual work but still mind-expanding and thrilling. He’s the most super-humanly intelligent writer I’ve ever met, and it shows in this book.

LF:  You’re going to be publishing new works as well as previously released titles—have the subgenres you’re most interested in changed?  Are you as in love with Noir as ever?  Are there any subgenres you now enjoy that you hadn’t before?

Otto Penzler:  I’ve loved all elements of the mystery/crime/thriller/suspense genre for more than 40 years, and I don’t love any more now than I did then, though I’m less likely to read cozy books than I was 40 years ago. It’s now become more about the writing style than just plot.

LF:  You own one of the most renowned brick and mortar mystery bookstores in America, The Mysterious Bookshop.  Do you feel at all conflicted about branching into digital publishing, as the owner of a physical shop?

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen
The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen
Otto Penzler:  Hopeful, not conflicted. The store has lost money for the past 7-8-9 years. I hope that the e-books will sell enough to help sustain the store. Even my close friends in the mystery writing community, some of whom call to ask for recommendations, buy their books from Amazon or as e-books.

LF:  Are there other digital publishers that inspired you, or did yours grow from the ground up?

Otto Penzler:  No digital publisher inspired me. Au contraire, as they say in Sri Lanka. I have not been a fan or consumer of e-books. No, this was my own inspiration (well, along with my agent, my wife, some friends).

LF:  When you read books yourself, do you read them in digital format or in print?  And with a nice cup of what beverage by your elbow?

Otto Penzler:  I’ve never read a book digitally and am unlikely to. Boring as it seems, I never drink anything colorful when I’m reading, so it’s water or, if I’m feeling really wild and frisky, iced tea.

Lyndsay Faye, author of Dust and Shadow and The Gods of Gotham, coming Winter 2012 from Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.