I Don’t Suppose You Are Much Interested In Publishers and Their Problems

Mr. Schoenfelder had a “hit list,” when coming to the imprint, according to agent David Hale Smith, so I decided to start with the 20 or so books he’d bought. Some names, like hardboiled heavy-hitter Lawrence Block, made sense. Others made less sense. There were guys who write comics books, guys who write movies. Guys who write Saw movies. I needed an expert so I called Marilyn Stasio, a woman who’s been “covering the waterfront in terms of mysteries and crime” for The Times, according to the paper’s own Jennifer Schussler.

“I see what they’re doing,” Ms. Stasio said over the phone. She called me from home, where stacks of books are piled up in a way that made her hesitant to move away from the phone. “They’ve got some newbies and some middle-listers, and they’re taking a bet.”

A few agents had pointed out that, besides Ms. Clark’s, Mulholland hadn’t purchased another book by a dame. No blondes, and no brunettes either. Not even a redhead. That put a twitch in my foot, but Ms. Stasio said I should drop that angle fast.

“Sue Grafton can still sell the shit out of most of these guys,” she said, like a whip. “It doesn’t tell me that it’s anti-women; it just says they couldn’t find one that fits specifically in that category, or get her.”

The newbies would come easy; Mr. Schoenfelder had to woo the more established authors. The author Laura Lippman told me about hitting the bottle with Mr. Schoenfelder at last year’s Edgar awards, the industry’s Oscars. She was shocked to learn that the imprint had nabbed Mr. Block for its starting list, saying she couldn’t believe he’d stolen him. Mr. Schoenfelder replied with a coy smile, “I wouldn’t call it stealing.” He had the two-by-six grin of the guy who never loses a sale.

Nobody would say so, but it’s an even bet that Mr. Schoenfelder has a bit more money to offer these authors, especially since the imprint just nabbed the debut novel by the big-shot Hollywood director J.J. Abrams, due next year. The money was probably good.

“I don’t have a lot to compare it to,” said Warren Ellis, a second-time novelist and prominent comic-book writer, the kind of guy who’d put as much muscular activity into writing gags as I’d put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. “I just bought Bin Laden’s corpse for my living-room wall. Is that ‘good’?”

But Mr. Schoenfelder is guy who really has a mission in life. His reputation as an editor is sterling. Take Duane Swierczynski, who jumped from St. Martin’s to be with Mr. Schoenfelder after a conversation about a book idea made it “one thousand times better.” And he’s adored among editors and authors whom he doesn’t even pay. If anyone was going to give me dirt on Mr. Schoenfelder, it was going to be Marc Resnick, Mr. Swierczynski’s former editor at St. Marin’s. No soap.

“I would never hold it against them,” Mr. Resnick said. “Duane should do what’s best for Duane and John should do what’s best for John, as long as they’re playing by the unspoken rules, which is, don’t try to steal my author while I’m still working with him.”

I let it hang before I asked, “Wasn’t that what happened?”

“Yeah, yeah, but John was always such a fan, you know?” Mr. Resnick said.

Mr. Schoenfelder would request copies of Mr. Swierczynski’s books when they came in. “At the end of the day,” Mr. Resnick said, “there are a lot of fucking phonies in his business and John is an earnest guy.”

If it all seems sunny, it is mostly. But there are hazards. Genre offers face heavy competition from the e-book world, where nobody cares if there’s a Michael Connelly quote on the cover, and there’s always a danger that an imprint like Mulholland can turn into a ghetto where you place books you’d never want on the list of Little, Brown proper.

“You can call it a ghetto or you can call it a specialized imprint,” Abel said. “You can spin it any way you wish.”

A heavy at another house whispered a little something in my ear about the whole plan. Little, Brown already handles big names like Michael Connelly and James Patterson, not to mention the stuff they do under Regan Arthur, the source said, so why do this imprint? Crime makes money. Money means resources, and in a sleek operation like Hachette, that can make all the difference, even if it means competing with Grand Central, which does a neat little thriller business of its own. This was Mr. Pietsch’s bid to remain the olive in the cocktail at Hachette.

I’m not one for conspiracies. This business seems to get into everyone’s heads. But it’s a business that a lot of people want to be in. W.W. Norton just announced a new label of its own, Pegasus Crime.