Thursday, February 14, 2019

What To Do About Otto

By David Nemeth

After a few weeks thinking about Otto Penzler, I believe there are a few ways writers can act to show that Penzler's behavior will not be tolerated anymore.

  1. Writers should no longer use The Mysterious Bookshop on their book tours.
  2. We should ask Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Mariner Books to remove Penzler as the series editor of the "Best American Mystery Short Stories" annual.
Two simple things. And if Houghton Mifflin Harcourt won't remove Penzler then if they want to publish your story in 2019, decline their request and tell them why.

If you're not a writer what can you do? No longer shop at The Mysterious Bookshop and stop buying the "Best American Mystery Short Stories" annual until Penzler is removed as series editor.

* * *

How did I get to here? A couple of weeks ago I saw a post by author Kellye Garrett and she said, "Once again the crime fiction industry proves we have such a long way to go to truly be an inclusive space..." I had no idea what was going on. More reading later and I found this, "Otto Penzler, Pegasus Books Team to Launch Suspense Imprint" (Publishers Weekly).
Otto Penzler, noted founder of the mystery and crime house Penzler Publishing, is teaming with Pegasus Books to launch Scarlet, a joint publishing venture specializing in psychological suspense aimed at female readers.
How dumb is Pegasus Books? How dumb is their publicist? There's much wrong with this, but let's talk about what a dumb idea it is to have a man to team up with a publisher with the intent of "specializing in psychological suspense aimed at female readers" in the throws of #metoo and female empowerment. Does Pegasus Books know how to read a room?

But with Penzler, there's more.

After the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) rescinded their award to Linda Fairstein, Penzler wrote a letter to the MWA. If you can't take a moment to read the letter yourself, I'll give you a few quotes.
Regrettably, I have only recently become aware of this disgusting turn of events. I was not in New York and had no cell phone service when you cowardly and reprehensibly snatched the Edgar Award from Ms. Fairstein, evidently cowed by racially charged and utterly misinformed letters from Attica Locke and Steph Cha.
This is a thing we white people do when confronted by people of color, white people hint at (or blurt it out) that the people of color are the ones being racist. It's our thing. Watch a few hours of Fox News and you'll see I'm right. The letter goes on with phrases like "stupefying ignorance", "noxious article", and "a cowardly stance". He also went on to defend Fairstein and the convictions of the Central Park Five. He finished his letter stating that the MWA "are no longer welcome in my bookshop." Nothing like digging in when you're on the wrong side of history.

But with Penzler, there's more.

Back in 1991, The Chicago Sun-Times wrote an article about Sisters in Crime, which was founded in 1986 by Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski series. This quote from Penzler shows that the infamous MWA letter of 2018 is not a one-off. It shows how the man thinks.
And then there is The Mysterious Press` Otto Penzler, long a major figure in mystery writing and long a critic of Sisters in Crime, a stance, he admits, for which he has been pilloried. Of course, the Sisters would point out, he is also a male. 
''It`s a negative, flawed concept,'' says Penzler. ''It`s an organization that espouses non-sexism but is sexist. They loathe the old boys network in publishing, but they`ve become one. It`s a divisive organization. Some of its members are strident and achingly boring on the subject of sexism. 
''But they are very effective. They are political, well-organized and effective at getting their agenda publicized. And they have become the very thing they say they are fighting.''
Attica Locke, Kellye Garrett, and Steph Cha are telling us something is wrong. We've been ignoring them and going on with our lives. This has got to stop. We can move forward to a world where men like this no longer have sway over careers and lives. All it takes a little effort such as:

  • Writers should no longer use The Mysterious Bookshop on their book tour.
  • We should ask Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Mariner Books to remove Penzler as the series editor of the "Best American Mystery Short Stories" annual.


Aimee Hix said...

I'm down for it. Old White Guys getting away with this shit is long, long, long past the point of "we can't so anything about it so we have to just take it."

Woman control the majority of purchasing power in America. So we need to act like it.

(I point out that Old White Guys doesn't mean all old white guys or that other people can't behave like Old White Guys. Many women buy into Penzler's brand of white, privileged, patriarchal bullshit and use it to try to keep other women down.)

Thomas Pluck said...

Thank you for speaking up, but...
Have you written to Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt? Got a contact there?
Because it's easy to tell other people what they should do, when it doesn't affect your livelihood. Start a petition with your name on it, we'll sign.

The employees of Mysterious Bookshop have spoken out against their owner's statements. Guess they should quit? There's one mystery bookshop in NYC left. I use my local bookshop, Watchung Booksellers, for events, but I don't sneer at the writers who still hold events there. What about the people published by, or who work for, Mysterious Press? What are they to do? I have a day job. I can afford to walk away from anything, but I don't judge those who can't.

We've all been cheering Kellye Garrett, Attica Locke, and Stephy Cha while standing safely behind them. That has to stop. They shouldn't be taking the risks for all of us. I was about to let my MWA membership lapse until they stood up. Now I'll renew to support the current leadership, because they are not "the constantly outraged fringe," they are the future, and men who call them thugs, mobs, "strident" and so on are afraid of their own irrelevance.

JDE said...

The employees at Mysterious Bookshop didn't do anything wrong.

Why punish them?

David Nemeth said...

My response about employees of the Mysterious Bookshop is this.

Clerks: Contractors on the 2nd Death Star

I'm not being cavalier about it. We all have choices in how we earn our monies and sometimes when you work for a boss who holds sexist beliefs, there are consequences.

Anonymous said...

Brave stance. But is it enough?

Do you know that Jeff Bezos is a complete bastard of a boss? Not to mention all of’s troubling business practices and the mistreatment of their employees.

We should all demand that no authors allow their books to be sold on and stop reading them if they refuse.

David Nemeth said...

Equally brave, Anonymous.

Read my article on Amazon right here, published January 17th of this year, "The Evil We All Do".

Anonymous said...

Cool. But apparently it's still something you need to address. Why no call to action? Why do all of the links on this site redirect to instead of an indie bookstore?

Rupert Murdoch owns HarperCollins. Should we tell all authors to refuse book contracts with HarperCollins until Fox News ceases to broadcast right-wing propaganda?

Think Otto's an asshole all you want. It just seems silly to tell authors to willfully hurt their careers when you can't be inconvenienced enough to cancel Amazon Prime or link to a worthy independent bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous comments are always the toughest.

David Nemeth said...

First, Tommy, I’m buying you a beer at the Hoboken Noir at the Bar on the 24th.

That said when you start your response with “Thank you for speaking up, but…”, I first instinct is that you aren’t really thanking me.

No, I haven’t written to Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt and no I don’t have a contact there.

This line though, “Because it's easy to tell other people what they should do, when it doesn't affect your livelihood.” I feel that you are sarcastically telling me I have no skin in this game. Seriously, what’s with that?

Petitions aren’t my thing. Luckily, blogging is.

Once again, I'm you’re being sarcastic about having all the employees quit the bookshop. However, they know who they work for and they’ve probably known a lot longer than everyone else. Penzler’s actions will have an effect on his businesses. That can’t be denied.

You said you don’t judge the employees at the Mysterious Bookshop, I feel that you are inferring that I did. I don’t see that in my post.

I think that’s it. And, I’m still buying you a beer at some point.

Anonymous said...

I hope your boss never says anything sexist.

Anonymous said...

You’re aware that the author Rob Hart’s day job is working for Otto Penzler running, right? I can’t speak for anyone else at the company or Otto’s other publishers, but Rob is a great guy and he’s been there for years. By your logic he should be judged for some vague complicity and have his livelihood dry up because his boss is a jerk?

Steve Weddle said...


Thanks for putting your idea out here. I know many folks have emailed and discussed privately, expressing concern and saying something needs to be done.

I've meet Mr. Penzler once, at Bouchercon. I introduced myself, told him that I'd had a book event at his store and mentioned how much I appreciated that and appreciated his store and the folks who work there.

He said, "You? At my store?"

I nodded, and he replied, laughing and shaking his head, "I don't think so."

He walked away, as if I were a bellhop who didn't deserve a tip.

I don't owe Otto Penzler anything, but I do owe the staff at Mysterious. So do many of us. Not only for what they've done to help me, but to help all of us, both authors and readers. I've found them to be kind and tireless in their work, in their dedication to crime fiction.

I understand the problem in putting coin into Mr. Penzler's hand, but I will do whatever I can to support the staff who work at his store -- not because of what they've done for me, but for what they've done for all of us.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous tough guy here. The anonymity is because I also object to Otto’s offensive statements and don’t want to be labeled as a Penzler apologist. Attack me for that, fine, but it doesn’t make anything I say less valid.

There are far greater villains in the world of bookselling and publishing than Otto Penzler. You yourself acknowledge the evils of Amazon, yet you actively promote them. If you weren’t aware before, you now know that every HarperCollins book you buy puts money in the pockets of Rupert Murdoch. Should Don Winslow and Jordan Harper pull their upcoming HarperCollins novels from publication as you suggest writers do with Best American Mystery Stories? Surely you believe that Fox News has done more harm to the world than Otto Penzler?

You can think that Otto is a creep and critique him all you want. But I’m not aware of him ruining lives. In the scope of things, suggesting that authors shouldn’t associate with him or that his businesses should suffer and his employees had it coming is grossly misguided and hypocritical.

David Nemeth said...

Sweet Jesus on a pogo stick.

Anonymous said...

Okay... I'm raising valid points about your publishing purity test. If you'd rather flippantly dismiss me than have a conversation, that's up to you.

Danny Gardner said...

My personal point of view, what the market needs isn't the end of Mysterious, but alternatives to Mysterious Bookshop, an institution which took considerable time and commitment to establish. Otto made that commitment long ago, and thus he has what he has. It works for some. It has worked for me. Other institutions work for me. Until they don't. Then I fend for myself. Same as anyone.

Otto holds sway over what he has. He has every right to. It's his. If I don't like it, I can find an alternative. If none exists to my knowledge, I have a choice to make one or deal. I've enjoyed even recent sales there. I've also been painted by his broad brush, but only a few weeks before someone Bookstagrammed a copy of my book purchased from his staff. I came hard over the Linda Fairstein thing. I was painted by his broad brush. That Instagram felt good at a tough time. I'm saying, it's all a rotten tangle, at this point, because Otto's staff, in AAVE-terms, be out here in these crime fiction streets doin' it for us.

But Otto buck wil'. And y'all know your boss is buck. Sure, the staff is aces, but the staff at the Clippers was prolly aces, too. But then, the Lakers made big staffing moves, and that lease on the Staples Center was coming up (my late homie worked the deal.)

Feel me?

Nothing in Otto's purview led to his annoyance of my particular end of the mishegas to the degree Mysterious won't sell my book. There's balance here, in my opinion.

There's just no DESPERATELY NEEDED alternative. I'm not in that side of the business, but I know that side, and I know there's room for many different Mysterious Bookshop-level institutions that work culturally to our preference. We just may have to stimulate them.

Otto needs competition, is all. It'll even help Otto and Mysterious. Now that we've talked about it, we should try to be about it. We'd have to share ideas for that. That's not happening. Nuff said.

Also, and not for nothing, but perhaps one of those awesome employees can run down to the library basement vault and perhaps free all the dead black mystery writers he has chained up down there. "Hughes Allison? But, you're dead."

"Yes, but in this vault of horrors, and dead black writers, my career lives on."

It puts the lotion on it's skin, or these Chester Himes reprints don't happen.

If I hear about Otto's basement one more time, I'm calling the BPRD and letting Hellboy sort that shit out. He got black writer ghosts down there. Set 'em free so lil black kids don't think me and Walter and Kellye the only ones.

Y'all know that shit's funny. Haaaaaaa!

And finally, dig it, there's a lot of shit wrong with what happens over there, including the notion he's the only clearinghouse for what ranks in crime-mystery-thriller. If you're going to hold that much sway, you're going to take some rotten tomatoes. Anyone would. It's a consequence of being on top. He's the leader, hence he's in the dunking chair. I say, no more picking on Otto, but no more defending him, either. He's a big boy. He pops mad noise. He has the zeitgeist. Dude can take it.

Stop agreeing so much about everything, challenge some MFs, and make the bullshit shake out. Y'all know me. We can get buck wil
', and I'll still sit across from you and offer you a fair shake. Y'all Uncle Otto is wild, but he's not immortal, so...


Disagreeing with Otto or any of you doesn't mean we're condemning each other to hell. Still, sometimes shit needs to be said. If we're a community, I'm saying. I'll take a punch from one of you cats, if it meant we'd move forward toward something but career oblivion.

Let's just get it, y'all. Everyone grab a wrench and figure out what they can tighten, at least so we can calm down.

Just release the brothas, I'm sayin'. Free Hughes!! Hahahahaha!

Danny Gardner said...

And I'd prolly leave David Nemeth alone, too, because he works his ass off, is the Walter Winchell of our community, I don't see any other sponsorship names on his site, and he puts in work, as much as anyone, if not more.

I'd stop demanding everyone see our individual positions or STFU, open the ball up, and just let the hurts fly until we get it all out and sort it out. I'll commit any resources I have to airing it all out positively. I will knock one of you cats out, tho', so play fair.

Danny Gardner said...

Last comment, on the real side, this is the tamest I've ever seen this discussion go, and I'm usually somewhere in the good seats, if not on the floor. Something more positive is happening. There has to be a way to get a dialogue going that has a lasting effect on our economic possibilities. I'm proud of my achievements and being represented in that institution, but damn, if we don't need a lot more institutional choices, leading to more reading choice. Insensitive fat cats, $20 short stories, harassment of all kinds, plantation economics, this is what you get when you're ghettoized.

We all ghettoized up in this piece. Let's clean up this ghetto.

JasonT said...

No one born after 1950 knows who Otto Penzler is.

David Nemeth said...

What I've learned after writing this article is that Otto Penzler's blatant sexism is okay because he owns a bookstore.

Thomas Pluck said...

"Petitions aren't your thing" ... you are asking SOMEONE ELSE to do the work. Why not you? You don't see the problem here?

If you want an email campaign to change the editor of BAMS, START ONE, write a sample letter, find the person to contact, and share it.

Vaguely suggesting that we don't read authors who hold events at the store--when Penzler barely knows who holds events there--is weak and is like saying "you all should picket this injustice and maybe get arrested. I'm gonna tweet and hope it changes things." I had a very similar, almost EXACT reaction from Penzler that Steve Weddle did. He's not involved in the daily operations of the store. He shows up to see old friends. The employees are running the show and actively helping writers and readers... why punish them for it? They stood up.

And if you still buy from Amazon instead of a local mystery shop--most of them ship--you have no moral standing to tell people what to do. wah wah wah cheap convenience... convenience is the same reason people will hold events at the biggest established mystery stores. They aren't worshiping the owner any more than people who buy cheap cat litter on Amazon are worshiping Bezos. Also, no mention of Poisoned Pen? Their owner sided against the MWA as well.

I don't want a beer. I want people who demand purity from others to walk the walk.

Bliss said...

Just gonna point out one little thing and then I'm gonna be on my merry little way: Anyone else notice the comments section on this post is just a bunch of men arguing with each other?

Think about who's not saying anything here and why.

Anonymous said...

Waiting for one of the many, many women whom Otto has touched, sexualized, berated, shunned, or maligned in some way to speak out. The #MeToo of the publishing world starts at 58 Warren.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And who gives you the right to demand any woman speak out? It isn't enough for you that we are victimized to begin with, but now we don't have the right to privacy? We have to bear the pain and shame publicly just because some person with enough nerve to anonymously demand it says so?

I haven't dealt with Otto. But I have had to see the look on my husband's face when I told him about the abuses I have endured, and that was just the surface stuff. I have to live with it and with him having to live with it.

And some chickenshit 'anonymous' arsewipe thinks they have the right to demand any of us bear that publicly? Put it out there to get you off?

Men shouldn't be talking about it. Period. You back us up when we're ready if you want to be supportive but don't you dare demand one single woman put her story out there before she's ready. That's just an extension of abuse.

And to think someone asked me if I was anonymous yesterday. Didn't know what they were talking about at first. Then I was like, "I love Amazon." For every jerk there another 10 employees are good people. You all get up on your high horse when you order a burger? Danny is right - what is needed is alternatives. That comes with demand. So instead of anonymously bullying women victims how about you go out and promote great books and win new readers and support great stories that don't demoralize women and aren't covert support for racism and other forms of discrimination? Is it because the only think you know how to do is tear down? Don't know how to make something great and worthy? Then how about you just zip it.

But truly, you think you can demand women speak out if they don't choose to and aren't ready? Damn you. Thanks for picking that scab today.

Doesn't take anything special to be a piece of crap.