Edwin Buckhalter, whose UK-based Severn House Publishers turned 40 this year, forged his library connection long before he had any idea of publishing primarily for the library market. His father was a bookseller, and their South London shop housed a “mini-library division” that supplied books to libraries.
“In those days [from the mid-1960s on], you could get an order from the library in your morning mail, drive into central London where the big publishers kept small warehouses adjacent to their offices, collect the books, and deliver them to the library that afternoon,” Buckhalter said. Buckhalter did the run himself during school vacations.
“Writing those orders and collecting the books gave you a good sense of what was popular then amongst library readers—which genres and authors were popular,” he said.
That knowledge was invaluable when Buckhalter launched Severn House in 1974. He started out with six titles a month, mostly mysteries or thrillers. The titles were all hardcover reissues of books out of print from crime stalwarts like Erle Stanley Gardner, Ross Macdonald, and British writer Elizabeth Ferrars. Initially, he picked up UK and Australian rights from publishers including St. Martin’s and “the great (Harper) Collins Crime Club,” he said. Happily, Buckhalter found that mystery travels well across the Atlantic—both ways.
The proliferation of mass-market originals—and the downward slide of mass-market sales in the 1990s—propelled Severn House’s success. First, said Buckhalter, “Libraries loved the idea of Severn publishing durable hardcover editions of many of these titles.” Second, as publishers began to drop midlist authors who had a track record but whose sales were diminishing, Severn House began commissioning new titles or series from these authors. “They still had a fan base,” said Buckhalter. “We always looked for good storytellers.”
Raising the bar
Now, Severn House does few reprints, though Buckwalter pointed out that it was among the first to publish in hardcover romance genre greats like Rosemary Rogers and Jude Deveraux. It publishes ten titles a month, 120 a year, still mostly mystery and romance, with some historicals and general fiction, too—and a Harlequin reissue every other month “for a new generation of library patrons,” said Buckhalter.
Over the years the list improved, said Buckhalter, with the publication of more originals and of authors with a proven track record who are better known in libraries. “That’s not to denigrate many of the earlier authors, but the overall level of writing month by month, quarter by quarter, is of a higher level…than, say, a decade or two ago.”
Librarians took notice of the improved quality as well. Severn’s Crème de la Crime line, launched in 2011, has garnered numerous starred reviews in the library press (e.g., Chris Simms’s A Price To Pay, LJ 1/14). The books are all by British mystery novelists, many of whom have “an adoring public in the [United States],” said Buckhalter. They range from old-hand Simon Brett’s Fethering and Charles Paris series, to Paul Doherty’s medieval Brother Athelstan series, to dark historicals from R.N. Morris and edgy contemporaries from Jim Kelly and Patricia Hall.
“We’re almost a sole survivor of library midlist publishing in the UK,” Buckhalter told LJ, though “60–65 percent of sales are in the United States—and our main customers are still libraries.”