Crime Scene: a light-footed crime publisher

Sarah Williams • 05 December 2016

Sarah Williams reports on how her small imprint has found a place in the competitive world of crime
"You've done what?" colleagues, friends and family echoed, in various modulations of disbelief and dismay when told, just over a year ago, that I had started a small publishing imprint, Crime Scene Books, specialising in crime fiction and in non-fiction books on forensics and crime fighting.

It certainly doesn't seem an obvious step to take when the big boys are making such a concerted move on the crime fiction market. On the other hand, things have been moving in book publishing at such a rate over the last 20-odd years, it seemed that there might be an opening for an entirely new kind of very niche publishing house, specialising exclusively in high-quality crime fiction and in non-fiction which would be of interest to those reading and writing crime fiction - books on forensics, on police procedure, on criminology…

There were two separate strands which led to this thought.

The first was linked to my own recent experience. I had become increasingly fascinated by all things crime fiction-related over a number of years, and this had led to three interesting initiatives in my professional life. I founded a weekend crime-fiction writing workshop, Thriller School (www.thriller-school.com), which runs annually in the UK and the US. Linked to this, I set up a digital monthly magazine, Crime Fiction Fix (www.crime-fiction-fix.com), which caters particularly to those interested in writing, reading and publishing crime fiction. And thirdly, I was very proud to be commissioned by Little, Brown to write a book on How To Write Crime Fiction, which was published in 2015.

Hence the focus on crime fiction.

The second strand leading to the setting up of Crime Scene Books was partly as a result of these activities, and partly because of my own background as a professional writer and editor, working for a range of publishers in England and France. Having been both a writer of a whole range of different kinds of books, publishing well over 80 titles under my then writing name of Sarah Matthews, and having worked as an editor both for OUP and for Gallimard Jeunesse, I felt I had some insight into the pressures on writers and into the constraints on publishers.

At the same time, I was meeting more and more aspiring writers, both of fiction and of crime-related non-fiction, who were puzzled about the publishing scene and who were looking to find ways of writing their own books and of reaching their potential readers.

And this is where everything came together.

I was very fortunate to receive substantial and supportive backing, and, together with my backers, I explored ways in which crime-related publishing could be made to work for everyone involved.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least within the publishing world, that fiction publishing is barely less risky than Russian roulette. Even if you find a gem of a writer, the timing, the marketing, the positioning of the planets have to be just right in order to achieve any kind of success. And yet there are scores, hundreds, even thousands of very good fiction writers who are looking to publish their books and find their readerships.

At the same time, there are a number of experts in forensics, criminology, policing, legal process, and all the host of specialisms which go into investigating, identifying, apprehending and punishing criminals for whose stories there is an avid public, but who have neither the time nor the specific skills to put those stories into the hands of their readers.

We thought that Crime Scene Books could offer these experts a way of reaching a popular readership, providing supportive editorial intervention, high-quality production and well-informed marketing. It is, we believed, much more straightforward to identify the right books for the right markets when publishing non-fiction than it is when publishing fiction. Equally, there is a dearth of high-quality, easily accessible non-fiction books on understanding, preventing, detecting and prohibiting criminal behaviour. Books which would be of great interest to a general readership and invaluable to crime writers.

The aim, then, was to create a virtuous circle of mutual support. The identification, editing and publishing of high-quality non-fiction books on crime by recognised experts would enable these specialists to touch a readership beyond the walls of academe. The sale of these non-fiction books would help support the publication of new or as yet unrecognised authors of high-quality crime fiction.

That, in a nutshell, is the publishing model.

But there is another virtuous circle which is special to small independent publishers, and inaccessible to larger organisations. That is the intimacy, flexibility and responsiveness possible for a relatively small business. We can find the best freelancers and suppliers for each project as it arises, we can respond to the needs of our authors swiftly and supportively, and we can, and do, form a community of interesting and interested individuals, all eager to share their understanding, experience and skills.

We tiptoed into the marketplace last year, and set about quietly refining our identity and our business model. We currently have five fiction books on our list (or six if you count one title in translation). In 2017 we have eight titles scheduled: six fiction and two non-fiction. In 2018, we are looking to maintain this ratio while doubling our output, with 12 fiction and four non-fiction titles.

SMEs, we are told, are the engine for the success of the British economy. As an SME, our goal is to be an engine for the success of our authors, and to take our place in the diverse world of UK publishing, light on our feet, with our eyes on the stars.

The latest edition of Crime Fiction Fix is out today, 5 December.