You Wrote a Murder Mystery, Now What? Part Deux: Independent Publishers

Selling Maeve Malloy Mystery series at an event.

Congratulations on writing your book! And you want the world to see it! Your three basic choices are: traditional publisher (which means get an agent), independent publisher, or self-publish. Today we’re talking about independent publishers.

In the murder mystery world, there are a handful independents who take queries directly from unrepresented mystery authors: Polis Books, Crooked Lane, and Kensington to name a few. Before you query, here are a few things you should consider:

1.         Does the publisher secure reviews from respected industry reviewers before the mystery is release?

You can tell by looking at their authors’ Amazon listings if they promote the book pre-release. Industry reviews are critical for your sales, especially your presales so you need pre-publication scuttlebutt. Many reviewers only accept advanced reader copies (ARCs) directly from the publisher prior to the release date. So, if your publisher doesn’t send out ARCs, you have already lost a huge marketing opportunity.

Your presales are counted as first day sales. If you have a lot of presales, you will rank better on the day of your release. Take a look at Alex Segura’s most recent book, Secret Identity, released March 15, 2022. Secret Identity: A Novel: 9781250801746: Segura, Alex: Books

I’m writing this on March 18th. You’ll see he has a ton of blurbs including a Kirkus starred review, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly. Those reviewers received advanced reader copies (ARCs) directly from the publisher months ago. This is what you want, a publisher that will promote your book to the right people long before the release date.

As I write this, Secret Identity is #7,110 in books, #168 in amateur sleuths, and #1,454 in suspense thrillers – that’s really high in a world of 3 million books but as of today he only has 11 reader reviews. What does that tell us? The ranking is high because loads of people bought his book. The reviews are low as of this date because they haven’t reviewed it yet. Any author would be thrilled with these numbers. This book will do well.

2.         Does the publisher provide the author with advanced reader copies to distribute to reviewers?

Book bloggers accept submissions directly from authors. Will your publisher provide ARCs well before the release date so you can distribute yourself? If it’s not in the contract, they won’t. More on contracts, below.

3.         It the publisher’s books carried by brick-and-mortar stores?

If you’re a writer, you’re a reader. You know only too well the delight of perusing bookstore aisles. You pull a book of the shelf, thumb through it and smell that whiff of freshly printed paper. You read the back cover copy, the inside flap, maybe the first page, and trot off to the cash register with your new find.

So, if your publisher isn’t carried by brick-and-mortar stores, this chance to charm a new reader is lost to you.

4.         How do the publisher’s covers look?

Good covers are a turn on. Bad covers are a turn off. They’re also a bad sign. If the cover is shlocky, how good can the copy editing be? What else is the publisher sliding on?

5.         Did you get an offer? Is the contract fair? If not, is the publisher negotiable?

If you belong to Sisters in Crime (and if you write crime fiction, you should), there is an excellent archived webinar called “Writer’s Law School: Protecting Your Artistic Rights” posted on August 13, 2021, with author and lawyer Jode Millman. You will learn the basics about intellectual properties and what should and should not be in your publishing contract.

Another resource is Authors Guild – The Authors Guild. If you are regular or associate member, your benefits include free legal consultations regarding publishing contracts.

6.            Sales: Is the Publisher Selling Books?

Check out the Amazon sales figures for books released by that publisher. They don’t include all sales because books are sold elsewhere but they will give you an idea of trends. You can find the names of these books on the publisher’s website. Look at books that were released recently, a few weeks ago, a few months ago. Are they selling? If the book ranks at 2,500,000 or worse, the answer is “no.” If the book ranks around 1,500,000, then that means one book was bought recently. What you’d like to see is something like Alex Segura’s numbers. Also check out M. E. Browning’s Shadow Ridge, published October 6, 2020, by Crooked Lane. Shadow Ridge: A Jo Wyatt Mystery: 9781643855356: Browning, M. E.: Books As of this writing, her book was ranked at #204,692. That’s really good for an older book.

Chime In!

What about you? Do you have any wisdom, advice, or concerns you’d like to share about publishing with an independent? I’d love to see your comments!


Keenan Powell


Keenan Powell is the Agatha, Lefty, and Silver Falchion nominated author of the Maeve Malloy Mystery series, Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, Hell and High Water.

While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.

6.            Sales: Is the Publisher Selling Books?

One comment

  1. Great advice and context here. You’re right that Alex’s book is going to do super well . . . every day more reviews come in from ‘big names” including major newspapers and NPR. Yet, he’s not No. 1 (maybe he will get there) and so numbers need context. At the same time – amazing numbers, as you point out, for a book so recently released. There’s so much to process in publishing!

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