August 18, 2015
On our 10th anniversary, we have been talking a lot about our early days. Here is the first part of an interview with Felonious publisher Maggie Topkis:
You started Felony & Mayhem in 1995. What did the publishing world look like then?
The early 90s were a really interesting period. Publishing was making a transition from a really inefficiently run industry of passionate amateurs (in the best sense) to a professionally run corporate industry. There was massive consolidation, and when companies consolidated and (often) went public, they jettisoned their midlists, which meant that hundreds of thousands of books were taken out of print. And that, of course, was where I saw an opportunity for Felony & Mayhem – well, sort of. Mostly I was just pissed that I couldn’t get these books for my customers as the bookstore.
When we did the launch party for Felony (and we did it at the bookstore, natch), a surprising number of people turned out. I mean, I had been kind of thinking my mom would come, you know, and maybe bring a friend. But in fact there were all these people from the world of publishing, all of them passionately wishing us good luck. I remember saying to somebody at the party, “Why are all these people so excited about this?” And she said, “Don’t you get it? You’re doing what they all want to do. They got into publishing to publish books they love, and now they find themselves working for another faceless corporation, putting out books like Ten Days to a Tighter Tummy.”
Felony books have a pretty distinctive look. How did you come up with that?
I knew from my experience at the bookstore that readers had very little sense of publishers’ identities, of publishers’ brands. With one exception: Soho Crime. Many times a customer would come up to the cash register with a pile of Soho Crime books. I’d ask he chose these books, had he read reviews? Did he recognize the authors’ names? No. Inevitably he’d say he had read other books from this publisher, had liked them, and knew from the design of the covers that these books were from the same publisher. I decided to steal that idea: I wanted our books to be recognizable as Felony books from halfway across the room.
So we needed a design. I spent hours and hours at the bookstore, looking at covers, trying to find covers where I liked the architecture. I finally found a good designer, Jose, and I told him that we wanted a design that would feature the author’s name more prominently than the title; I knew we had authors, like Edmund Crispin and Reginald Hill, whose names people would recognize. Jose initially gave us a sort of wedge running across the middle of the cover, and this didn’t work for me. I knew that the majority of our readers were likely to be women, and I didn’t want angular shapes; I wanted something more sensuous, which I thought would be more appealing to our audience. And so the Felony “swoosh” was born, that weird curving band where the author’s name is displayed.
As much as I might like the idea of designing each book’s interior, specifically for that book, I knew we couldn’t afford that approach. Jose knew a woman named Donna Miller who had designed the interiors of a number of books, so we hired her to create our templates. Actually, we hired her for more than that. One of our early books was Satan’s Lambs, by Lynn Hightower (which is currently out of print, but we really should reissue it, because it’s wonderful). A pivotal scene in the book is set in an all-but empty house. Our heroine is sitting in the house, waiting for nightfall, waiting for the man she knows is coming to kill her. She has deliberately stripped away everything – every side-table, every throw-rug, every piece of furniture – that could impede movement. The house is like a theater of war. And that was the scene I wanted to illustrate on the cover. My friends Fred and Maureen had just moved to Hong Kong, leaving behind their empty apartment, so I had an empty space. Now I needed a wiry, tensely muscled woman with short hair, to approximate the book’s protagonist. Well, that’s what Donna looked like. So we shot a roll of film starring Donna, sitting in Fred and Maureen’s empty apartment, clutching a rifle.