April 8, 2016
The Amazon review went something like this:
I am outraged, and I am never going to buy from Felony & Mayhem Press again! They had the nerve to edit Ngaio Marsh, one of the most beloved writers in the history of mystery fiction, and actually remove entire blocks of text! Avoid this publishing house.
Not surprisingly, our hearts hit the floor. We knew we had not deliberately changed a word, not an apostrophe, of Dame Ngaio’s prose. But maybe gremlins had snuck in during the night? And, ummmm…deleted stuff? This is publishing: Stranger things have happened.
Quick like bunnies, we checked the digital edition against the tattered pages of the book from which we had taken the text. And they were…identical. Was the reviewer crazy? Were we crazy?
No. We were American. And so was the edition from which we had taken our text. But that American edition, we soon realized, was in fact somewhat different from the earlier, British edition. And it was that British edition to which the Amazon reviewer was referring. She was hollering at us, but it was actually some long-gone publisher from the 1940s to whom her anger was really directed.
Was her anger justified? The truth is, when a book goes into a new edition, text is often changed. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of correcting proofreading errors that weren’t caught on the first go-round.Then there’s the fact that “vintage” novels (written prior to the 1960s, say) frequently contain language that contemporary readers would find offensive in the extreme. That might be ok if the speaker is a villain, but what happens when the protagonist, a character you’re supposed to like, casually mentions that he was talking to a ________ earlier in the day, or that he bought something from a __________, or that the butler is a ______ _______ _______? What do you do then?
If you’re us, you change the language. To our mind, the sanctity of Ngaio Marsh’s prose – or Margery Allingham’s, or Elizabeth Daly’s, or any of the old-school writers we publish – is not worth stopping a reader dead in her tracks, unable to enjoy the rest of the book. We work hard to come up with phrasing that preserves the meaning of the original and the sense of period, but is less likely to cause the reader to throw the book across the room. (There is, of course, an argument that the original, repellent language should be preserved, as a sort of museum-exhibit of the bad old days. To our mind, this argument has some merit, but is outweighed by our belief that few readers pick up our books as historical documents; they are seeking entertainment, and we seek to provide it with as few impediments as possible.)
The switch from a British to an American edition often gives rise to editorial changes – U.S. publishers routinely dump lifts and lorries in favor of elevators and trucks, for instance, or clarify slang. I can’t swear to it, but I suspect a similar system prevails in the other direction.
And then we come to the world of more subjective changes. We made a big one, when Felony was still wearing training wheels. We published a book called Missing, by Karin Alvtegen, in a translation (from the original Swedish) that had first been published in the UK. But before we went to press, I emailed the author. As published, the book opened with a crazed religious rant in the mind of a serial killer, followed by a scene in which the novel’s protagonist, a homeless woman, pulls an intriguing scam in the dining room of a fancy hotel.
I wanted to change the order of those two scenes.
At first, Ms. Alvtegen was very distressed: Why did I ask for such a change? Well, I thought the hotel-scene was a much stronger opener. Additionally, the success of The Da Vinci Code had flooded the market with Vatican thrillers, many of them featuring crazed religious serial killers. I didn’t want this subtle, quirky Swedish mystery lumped in with the Catholic Conspiracy brigade.
With some reluctance, Ms. Alvtegen agreed to the change. And a few months later, the book was shortlisted for an Edgar award for Best Mystery of the Year. Coincidence? I couldn’t possibly comment.
At the moment, we’re dealing with a challenge that requires us to make almost all the sorts of changes I’ve discussed – or at least consider them. We’re getting ready to print the last four novels in the Marsh line-up, and in one of them the differences between the various editions are the most significant we’ve come across. Our default decision is to use the earliest edition (which is typically, though not always, the British), but in this instance, we felt that the editors of the first American editions had made some very worthwhile changes. Some scenes had been made clearer, some transitions smoother. Did we really want to discard these worthwhile changes? We did not. So we made the unusual decision to go with the American edition.
And that’s when things got interesting.
As we went through the book, we discovered that the original American editors hadn’t only made additions: They had deleted text as well. And after going through both versions with a couple of fine-tooth combs, we determined that, really, we liked some of the deleted scenes, thank you very much. So we restored some of the British text.
The result is essentially a first: A Ngiao Marsh novel that, we believe, combines the best of the original British and the original American edits. Is this the definitive version? Absolutely not, but it is our stab at it.
We would like nothing more than for you to take your own stabs (hey, we publish murder mysteries; we’re all about the stabbing). Compare our version to the crumbling paperbacks that we know are on your shelves, and tell us which text you like better and why. One of the cool things about the new publishing technology is that it is now relatively simple to make changes, even after a book has been printed. So give us some great changes – with some great reasoning to back things up – and we’ll not only make them, we’ll acknowledge your contribution.
Which book exactly are we talking about? We’ll dribble some clues out in the next few weeks. But if you want the answer, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. We think you might have a knack for that.
February 16, 2016
It has come to our attention that the paperback edition of Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds contains a serious printing error: namely, toward the end of the book, pages from Death of a Fool, another Ngaio Marsh title, replace pages from Singing in the Shrouds. We are very sorry for this error, which occurred during the printing of the book (a press error caused by using the wrong plates during printing) and which our printer assures us they have never had before. When we heard from irate readers with defective copies, we combed through our existing inventory, opening every single copy of the book, and found 261 misprinted copies. We destroyed all of these copies, and everything that has left our warehouse since January has been error-free. Unfortunately, an unknown number of erroneous copies were shipped to book sellers, and then sold, and we have no way to identify these copies and recall them (though we did indeed try to find one). So instead, by way of apology, we are offering every one of you who has purchased a misprinted copy of Singing in the Shrouds a replacement copy of that book (verified by an actual human as correctly printed) shipped to you at no charge, as well as a free copy of a Felony & Mayhem book of your choice. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
February 12, 2016
The iconography of Valentine’s Day tends to be pretty limited in scope. Absent some Very Special Episode, we’re almost always talking about young lovers, attractive and able-bodied, heterosexual and of the Caucasian persuasion.
Well, boo to that. Everyone deserves a valentine, and love takes many forms. We’re therefore offering a sale on a hatful that have some splendid sleuthing, of course, but also some true love. Sometimes the lovers are young and lovely, and sometimes they’ve got the soft bodies of folks well into middle age. And sometimes they’re not lovers at all, but the friends that can mean even more.
So give a little bookish joy this Valentine’s Day to someone you love. And if you can’t be with a one you love, honey, love the one you’re with – even if that’s the one you see in the mirror.
January 25, 2016
Generalizations are the hobgoblins of little minds, but nevertheless, I’ll make one: The vast majority of mystery readers cut their sleuthing-teeth on either Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes or the Nancy Drew series, the first volume of which – The Secret of the Old Clock – was published in 1930 (making Nancy – with her roadster and her neat bob – the very model of the Golden Age heroine). True Nancy-ites (Drew-ids?) know that, beginning in about 1959, the series was rewritten, ostensibly to get rid of racist language and bring the books “up to date.” Unfortunately, “up to date” went hand in hand with “dumbed down”; the language of the rewritten books is noticeably more simplistic and less nuanced.
Nor do the changes stop there. As Cara Nicoletti notes in her irresistible new collection of essays Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, the Nancy of the early editions is much less compulsively perfect, and considerably more approachable. But the weirdest change has to do with Nancy’s pal Bess, who makes her debut in Book 5 of the series, The Secret at Shadow Ranch. In the rewritten edition, Bess is introduced as “slightly plump,” and this description “precedes her name in nearly every sentence for the remainder of the book,” according to Nicoletti. Furthermore, she is forever being taunted about her weight, mostly by her skinny cousin George, who has morphed from a goofy tomboy in the original version into a bona-fide Mean Girl. George is “always drawing attention to how much Bess has eaten,” says Nicoletti, “while Nancy giggles demurely in the background.” “Eating is really a very fattening hobby, dear cousin,” smirks George, smugly sipping a soft drink while Bess prepares to dive into a chocolate sundae with nuts.
But, says Nicoletti, “in the original Secret at Shadow Ranch, there is no mention of Bess’s weight.” In fact, she is described as being “noted for always doing the correct thing” and for being prettier and better dressed than George. Nicoletti’s literary analysis, throughout the essays, is clever and engaging, but she doesn’t offer any theories as to why a virulent vein of fat-shaming should have been inserted into a book that is otherwise about three teenage girls solving crimes. On the other hand, she does offer a swell-looking recipe for a double-chocolate sundae with nuts, and many readers will regard that as more than a fair trade-off.
December 18, 2015
“The best appetizer is herring,” goes one famous Russian aphorism. Maybe yes, maybe no, but we’re quite certain of this: The best present is books. Always in style, never the wrong size, they comfort the melancholy, inspire the despairing, provide a chuckle, a diversion, a window onto another time, another place, another life, another mind.
We’re so certain that books are where it’s at (baby!) that we’ve come up with a holiday offer: Give some Felony books to a friend, and we’ll give one to you. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re running a buy-three-get-one-free offer, good through the end of the year. And of course, if you want to keep all four for yourself, we won’t tell. At the same time, though, we are kinda serious about the “give them as presents” thing. The conversation that begins with a book – “Do you think he knew? Should she have sent that letter? Why did she leave so quickly? I can’t believe he was stupid enough to marry her” – makes that book the gift that keeps on giving. So at this season of good will, we hope you’ll consider giving one.
Need help deciding? Shoot us an email, twit us a tweet, or drop us a line on Facebook: WE LOVE TO MAKE SUGGESTIONS.
(Enter coupon code HOLIDAY443 to take advantage of the Christmas sale.)
December 14, 2015
Miracles come with time-limits, right? Or they wouldn’t be miracles, they’d just be the New Normal. So our Miraculous Hanukkah Sale must, sadly, come to an end. The sale-candles will continue to burn until 5pm Eastern time, after which they go POOF! blown out for another year. (To get in on all that miraculous fun, check the slider above.)
But but but, you may say, I don’t CELEBRATE Hanukkah! (You have something against crispylicious fried potatoes?) Where, O where, is the miracle for the Rest Of Us?
Patience, grasshopper. Have we ever let you down? In the meantime, have some of that mulled wine. You know, for quality-control purposes.
December 6, 2015
Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of a miracle that, according to tradition, occurred in about 160 B.C. Enemies vanquished (for the moment), the Israelites turned their attention to the Temple, which had been defiled by the bad guys. An important element of the Temple was the “eternal light,” a lamp that burned sacred oil and was never permitted to go out. The baddies, of course, had put it out, and when the Jews re-lit the lamp, they discovered they had only one day’s worth of oil. Sanctification doesn’t happen overnight, and acquiring a fresh supply of sacred oil would require eight days. Miraculously, that single day’s supply of oil lasted for the necessary eight, and today Jews around the world celebrate the “festival of lights” by lighting special candles (because: eternal light) and eating fried things (because: oil) (also because: delicious).
From a religious standpoint, Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor holiday, but its association with both glittering lights and special foods, combined with its tendency to be celebrated in December, has framed it, in the popular imagination, as the “Jewish Christmas.” As a result, for the past 100 years or so, the Hanukkah celebration (in the USA at least) has featured not only sparkly candles and delicious fried things, but also presents, making it pretty much a trifecta of terrific. And just to gild the lily (and give Jewish kids something to brag about to their gentile friends), custom dictates that presents are given on every single one of the celebratory eight days.
Eight days of presents AND potato pancakes! It’s difficult to imagine a better combination. And yet, for me, the most important part of Hanukkah is the candles. It’s not because I’m particularly religious – though hey, thumbs up for the eternal light of faith, mercy, truth, whatever you’d like it to embody – but because I need light to read. The one-day lamp that burned for eight days? I’m all for the rededication of the Temple, but the really critical part? EIGHT DAYS’ WORTH OF READING.
Of course, reading has two requirements. We’ve already covered light; here are the books. For the eight days of Hanukkah, we’ll be running some especially tasty discounts on some of our favorite books. Get with tradition (albeit a fairly recent one) and give the books as presents, or give’em to your own self. Just don’t dribble them up with pancake greasies. Check in daily to see the featured title.
Ok, and about those pancakes. First of all, if you are the Pancake Maker, then ABSOLUTELY get the books for yourself: He or she who grates the potatoes and stands over a skillet full of hot fat is more than entitled to some righteous reading matter. And second, if you are craving some latkes and have no family tradition in that department? I’d recommend any recipe (and they’re widely available online) by Joan Nathan: She’s never steered me wrong.
August 27, 2015
Second part of an interview with Felony & Mayhem publisher Maggie Topkis (you can read the first part here). And, if you’re curious about some of the books mentioned below, you can read the Donald Westlake “Sam Holt” books at a discount this week.
Tell me more about the early covers.
So much of what we did in the early days was defined by having no money and no contacts, and needing to make something work. For the Ganja Coast cover, Margaret, our cover designer, found a great image online. She emailed the photographer, and he sent back this snooty email, saying he only licensed his work to non-profits. So I emailed him and said, look, I promise, we have never made a profit. He agreed to let us use the image.
One of my favorite stories: We published a book by William Marshall called Yellowthread Street. The book is set in Hong Kong, while it was still under British control, and it’s about cops. I knew I wanted a police badge on the cover, but it had to be a badge from the British days, a pre-handover police badge. Margaret found this guy in Norway who was obsessed with police forces. He had a collection of police ephemera from around the world, including several Hong Kong badges from the right period. And yes, he’d be happy to send us a high-resolution image for our cover. What did he want in exchange? Well, it seems there is a book that lists the address of every police station in the United States, a book that is not allowed to be sold outside the U.S. This frustrated him enormously. So we bought a copy of the book, and sent it to him, and he sent us our badge.
Quite a few of our books have covers that feature illustrations, rather than photographs. Donald Westlake’s books, the four he wrote under the name Sam Holt, were among the earliest titles we illustrated. And I know there’s a good story there.
Actually, there are a couple stories about those books. I really wanted Don’s “Dortmunder” series, but Don’s agent, Larry Kirshbaum, wanted to go with a bigger publisher (that was understandable; Felony & Mayhem was roughly the size of a lemonade stand). In the hope that we might begin a relationship (that would go on to embrace the Dortmunders), I wrote to Don, asking if we could publish the Sam Holt books. He said yes. And then I asked if we could publish them under the name Donald Westlake, and he said absolutely not. Hunh? Don explained that he had essentially written the books to win a bet with himself. He had become very successful, as a writer, getting wonderful reviews, and he wanted to know if he could sell books and get good reviews without trading on his name. So he brought the books out as written by “Samuel Holt,” swearing his agent and his initial publisher to secrecy. Ultimately he decided that enough time had gone by that he could allow the secret to come out.
Anthony Kosner had by that point become our art director, and I told him that I wanted pictures of a guy who looked like Magnum P.I. These were 1970s books, the guy should be sexy and happy; he’s got a convertible and a gun and a couple of babes, life is good. Remember, we had no money. So Anthony found an illustrator in Poland who worked cheap. Unfortunately, he kept sending us images of this guy with really hollowed-out cheeks, deep-set eyes, and a pencil mustache. He looked like a Latvian pimp who hadn’t eaten in a long time. I kept sending back emails saying “No, no, happy, happy,” and enclosing images of a grinning Tom Selleck. But we kept getting the guy who looked like he was saying “I will not smile again until my people are free.”
Were you still tiny at this point?
Yes, but tiny is relative. We launched in June 1995, and in October I went to Bouchercon, in Chicago. By the time we registered, all the publishers’ tables were gone, but I was told that a company called Ramble House might be willing to share its table with me. At the time, Ramble House published the work of only one writer, Harry Stephen Keeler, who wrote sort of wacky, hard-boiled stuff in the 30s and 40s, and apparently has a small but passionately devoted audience. We were brand new, we had a grand total of six books to sell, but Ramble House made us look like Simon & Schuster. The publisher, Fender, and I had a lot of time to talk, sitting at this table doing nothing. So I asked him, Who’s your printer? (This is classic publisher small-talk, the equivalent of “What’s your sign?”)
Well, Fender didn’t use a printer. He had a copy machine at home, and a paper cutter, and he wound run off copies of the books on the copy machine, use the paper cutter to trim them, and then (he was very proud of this), he had developed his own recipe for glue, which he would boil up in one of his wife’s saucepans. His wife had gotten very annoyed at this, so he had finally bought his own saucepan. Anyway, he would glue the pages together, and iron on the cover, using his wife’s iron, but she got tired of this, too, since glue always got on the iron, so she made him buy his own book-ironing iron.
We were not exactly boiling up our own glue. We did in fact have an actual printer – Sterling Pierce, which I had found through the small-press book fair. But the pre-print process was not exactly high-tech. Xerox had come out with a new machine, a souped-up copier that had a footprint the size of two shoeboxes. That was good, because my office was the size of four shoeboxes. With just a click of a button, you could scan a page and copy it, and turn it into a Word or PDF document. This was revolutionary. I would pull apart an old edition of a book, turn it into a badly OCR’d Word document. Someone would proofread that document, we would typeset the proofread copy, someone else would proofread the typeset version, and then we would send that proof to a fellow named Dan Smullyan, an old friend of Donna Miller’s who has for years acted as our final set of eyes.
Astonishingly, the process has remained similar to this day, except that we don’t do our own scanning anymore, and we’ve switched from Quark to InDesign. But still, because we are dealing with reprints of, often, fairly old books, OCR is the only method we’ve come up with for extracting the text. As a technique, it’s clunky and almost comically old-school, but…it’s what we’ve got. And as dopey as it may be, it’s a technique we’ve used to put out more than 300 books.
To be continued