Interview with Rob Hart (by Scott Loring Sanders)

It had been my intention to blog about EQMMs recent 75th-anniversary events today, but since I was not able to gather all of the photos in time, we will postpone that until a bit later this month. In the meantime, this week we have a terrific start to what promises to be a series of interviews of interesting figures in the mystery world by Scott Loring Sanders. Scott is the author of two novels, and he has been contributing short stories to EQMM since 2006. His short fiction has also appeared in many other periodicals and has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories. In March, a new collection of his stories, Shooting Creek, is due from Down & Out Books. EQMM readers will find a new Sanders story in our November issue, on sale October 11.
Joining Scott in the discussion this week is Rob Hart, author of the novels New Yorked, which was nominated for an Anthony for best first novel, City of Rose, and South Village (which also comes out this coming Tuesday, October 11). Rob is also the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. His short fiction has appeared in many publications, including Thuglit and Helix Literary Magazine.—Janet Hutchings

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Rob Hart, the newly appointed publisher at Mysterious Press. In addition to his work on the publishing side of the business, he’s also a writer, so I thought it might be interesting to pick his brain, focusing on his firsthand knowledge from both ends of the spectrum. His answers were enlightening and didn’t disappoint.

You’ve been working for Mysterious Press for several years now, but you were recently given a new title. What is that title and what all does your job entail?

I’m the publisher and COO. I’m also the company’s only full-time employee. So my job description is: Pretty much everything. Mostly it’s making sure the trains run on time between MysteriousPress.com and our publishing partner, Open Road. I’ve done everything from acquiring and editing, all the way down to filing contracts.

So clearly a jack of all trades. How did you stumble into the publishing world? I know you started off as a reporter and then worked in politics. How does one go from politics to the world of crime, murder, and mystery? Actually, on second thought, maybe that’s not such a leap after all!

I had been working in politics for four years and was very much burnt out. I was on the clock 24/7, and dealing with a lot of high pressure and demanding personalities. About five years ago now, I saw a job posting for Otto Penzler’s MysteriousPress.com—Otto was looking for someone to run the website. It was a bit of a step back for me, but I wanted something less intense that would let me focus on my own writing.

The advantage of working in politics for so long is I got used to adapting and handling a large workload. And Otto always has ten things going on at once. He found that he could hand a lot of tasks off to me. I was doing more and more until finally he named me associate publisher, and then publisher.

I miss politics and I miss journalism but I can say without question this is the happiest I’ve ever been. I love it here.

When I first contacted you about this interview, you briefly mentioned your unique perspective of the mystery genre from both the publisher’s side as well as the writer’s. One thing you said you’d learned was the value of patience. I think this is an interesting concept that might shed light for other writers out there. For example, why does it take so long to hear back from an editor/publisher after you submit a story or book? Sometimes this can be maddening, all the waiting. Could you speak to why patience is so important and/or how you manage the inevitable waiting we all must endure as writers?

This is a long, long process. There’s no way to make it fast. Just reading a book can take several days to a week. Maybe an editor reads a book and likes it but a second person needs to vouch for it. That’s more time. Then you have to take into account that no one’s sole job is to read your book—editors and agents are often doing a dozen other things at once.

Time isn’t that bad a thing. I know it can be frustrating—especially after you’ve spent so much time working on your book. But the wheels turn slow because this isn’t a simple process. You’re not just slapping a cover on a Word document and printing it out.

I once had an author who wanted his book to come out as soon as possible. He wanted us to push up every deadline and get the book out within a few months. This is a problem for several reasons: One, you have to rush through several rounds of copyediting and proofreading, so you’re going to miss stuff. Two, you’re going to lessen the chance of getting timely reviews. You might not get trade reviews at all. And three, you’re going to force us to rearrange other parts of our schedule, and possibly negatively impact other authors who were in line first.

You need time to solicit bookstores. And design a nice cover. And send out galleys. There are a lot of moving parts. Faster isn’t always better. It doesn’t always feel nice, but that’s the process. All that nervous energy and frustration an author feels while out on sub ought to be channeled into a new writing project.

Yep, that makes perfect sense. A lot more going on behind the scenes than most of us realize. On that note, is there any advice you can offer aspiring mystery writers when it comes to submitting their work? Either the process of submitting and/or about the work itself? Any common missteps you repeatedly see?

A common misstep is not following directions. MysteriousPress.com isn’t open to unsolicited submissions. But we keep on getting them. Even after I added a note next to our e-mail address. Even after I bolded said note and increased the font size. The kind of person who figures they’ll take the chance and send it anyway is the kind of person who is going to find more doors closing than opening.

Oh, and, invest in Microsoft Word. It drives me crazy when I get a file in a strange format I then have to try and hack open. And I know programs like Pages and Scrivener will spit out a Word doc for you—it’s still good to have Word for stuff like track changes and whatnot. When you’re using other programs, something always gets gummed up. Word may be a little obnoxious but it’s the industry standard.

Finally, in a larger sense: This is art but it’s a business too, and you can’t take things so personally. I’ve seen authors burn down their reputations on social media—agents and editors read that stuff!

That’s excellent advice, and perhaps a nice transition into my next question. I’d like for you to talk about the differences you see between small, independent presses versus the major houses. Obviously publishing with one of the Big Five has certain advantages, but the reverse is also true. I’d like to hear your take on it. Maybe a pros and cons approach? Any insights you can offer?

Smaller presses are a great way for some authors to reach an audience. A lot of crime writers will tell you that when they went out on submission to the Big Five, what they hear is that their work is too niche, or too hard to market. That’s not a knock against the Big Five—they’re big companies with huge staffs and they have to take on what they think can sell.

But now, thanks to small presses, a lot of those “too niche” authors are finding homes. Stuff that’s a little riskier, or a little darker. And you’ve got some great small presses out there. My own publisher, Polis, is a small press, but it’s run by Jason Pinter, who’s done just about every job in publishing, so the books get some really nice distribution and coverage. Then there are the punk rock outfits, like Broken River, Down & Out, One Eye, and All Due Respect—small operations run by passionate folks, doing some really fun, exciting things.

There are pros and cons on both sides. At the Big Five, you might get a ton of support and make more money and sell more books. You might also get lost in the machinery, or fail to meet expectations, or find you’re compromising your vision.

At a smaller press you might get to experiment more, and get more individualized attention. You also might only sell a few copies of your book, because the press doesn’t have a marketing budget, or entrée with the trade publications, or the book is only available on Amazon.

I agree completely. My first two books were with a major publisher, while my new collection is forthcoming with aforementioned Down & Out. Eric Campbell has been a pleasure to work with. He’s so enthusiastic and passionate, and I’ve enjoyed the hands-on, one-on-one interaction. So I hear exactly what you’re saying. Of course, every publisher is different, just as every writer is. Which makes a nice transition to my next question about the “writing process.” We all approach it differently. Can you take us through a little of yours?

Right now it’s run and gun. I have a daughter who’s not yet two, so a lot of my writing is scheduled around her naps, or when my wife takes her to the park, or after she’s gone to bed for the night.

The time and place isn’t always consistent, but the nuts and bolts of the process are: I like to outline three times. The first two times I throw it away, and start from scratch a few days later. This is an idea I stole from a friend who uses this process for his short stories. He figures that he’ll remember the good stuff, forget the bad stuff, and have time to mull over how the pieces fit together.

Interesting. I’m the exact opposite. I don’t outline and I don’t throw anything away. But like I said, every writer is different. And obviously your method seems to be working because your first novel was nominated for an Anthony Award. Anything you’d like to say about that? Any sort of Bouchercon shout-out you’d like to offer?

I was really honored. It was an incredible crop of writers in the Best First category.

In terms of shout-outs, I’d like to say this: If you’re on the fence about going to Bouchercon, or any writing convention, you should just do it, if it’s within you means. You’ll find that everyone is really nice and it’s generally a very good time. Writing and reading are solitary acts, so it’s nice to go to these things and realize that you are not alone.

I saw something you recently posted on Facebook about being sick and tired of the new book you’re working on. As a fellow writer, I know exactly what you mean. But for those out there who aren’t writers, this might sound strange. Could you explain?

I was on the third copyedit of South Village at that point, and that’s after doing five or six drafts, so it’s a lot of times reading the same book. So it was me being a little cheeky—as much as I love writing, it’s still a job. And sometimes jobs are frustrating.

2016 marks the 75th anniversary of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, an extraordinary accomplishment by any measure. There aren’t many publications, in any genre, that can make that claim. What’s your take on the current state of the mystery/crime genre?

I think it’s a great time and a scary time. Great because there are small presses that are doing well and giving more authors a shot. There are some incredible books coming out, all across the board. The genre wall is coming down, in that a lot of great crime-fiction writers seem to be getting more mainstream recognition. Plus, in a general sense, it’s a very kind, welcoming community.

Scary because the short-fiction market is getting tough. Thuglit just closed. The Big Click closed. All Due Respect used to put out short fiction but they don’t anymore. There aren’t a lot of options for authors, which increases competition. It’s especially hard for those doing darker stuff. I recently finished a story and I’ve got no idea where the hell to send it.

I don’t know what the solution to that is. I’m not sure there is one. Short stories are a tough sell, whether it’s in an anthology or a magazine. Which is a shame, because it’s a great form, and a good opportunity for a writer to stretch muscles and try new things.

Yeah, I agree, especially what you said about the shrinking short-story market. Seeing Thuglit close was a bummer as Todd (Robinson) was producing a magazine that seemed to get better and better with each issue. But I also understand his decision to do so. Regardless, speaking of scary, what is your biggest fear? I don’t mean with regards to writing or publishing. I mean in general. Have you ever considered writing about it, fictionally or otherwise? I find it can be an interesting place to start a story.

My biggest fear used to be bees. Now it’s something bad happening to my daughter. Which I already lived through: She was born with a heart defect that required two open-heart surgeries to repair. She’s all fixed up, so now I just have normal kid stuff to be terrified of, like uncovered electrical outlets, and strangers driving vans with tinted windows. I expect a lot of that fear is going to make its way into my writing pretty soon.

Well, glad to hear she’s okay, obviously. And we’ll all look forward to seeing that stuff (tinted windows, bees, etc.) in some of your new work. I can’t thank you enough for your time, and best of luck with the new book and all of your upcoming adventures at Mysterious Press.

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One Response to Interview with Rob Hart (by Scott Loring Sanders)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Terrific interview!

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