Poison: Sally Spencer Celebrates 50 Books with Severn House

by Sally Spencer (aka Alan Rustage) on 12 August 2021

“Deft writing and plotting combine with an intriguing mix of all-too-human characters . . . An excellent series”

Booklist Starred Review

Poison, the latest instalment in the critically acclaimed Monika Paniatowski police procedural series, marks the fiftieth book Sally Spencer (aka Alan Rustage) has published with Severn House.

Here, Alan talks about his time with Severn House, and how both publishing and his writing process have changed over the years.

It was sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire that Severn House published the first of fifty books bearing my name. It was a very different company back then. It had been created for the purpose of reprinting classic hardback library books to replace those worn out by overuse – and it did so superbly. Over time, it expanded its scope, especially after Mr. Murdoch – a man with no interest in mid-list authors – bought, and then scuttled, Collins’ Crime Club, leaving its authors bobbing up and down helplessly at sea, until they were washed up on the welcoming shores of SH.

Even so, by the time my agent approached SH with The Silent Land, hardbacks for libraries was still all the company did. It didn’t even publish the large print editions of its own books. As far as the newly emerging Amazon was concerned, SH was aware of its existence but pretty much dismissed it, in much the same way as a ballroom dancer might know about raves, but would never consider taking part in one.

We worked under primitive conditions. Manuscripts were manuscripts – several hundred pages of dot matrix printing which it was necessary to walk down to the post office (a good two kilometres from my home), and collect from the same place when it had been copy-edited. Proofs needed to be amended with a large number of mysterious symbols which I could never quite get the hang of. But at least we didn’t have to write letters any more – we communicated by fax, and considered ourselves to very techno-savvy.

Living abroad as I did – and do – research was something of a problem for me. The internet existed, but still cast only a tiny shadow on most people’s lives. I bought a book listing all the internet websites that could possibly be of any interest to anyone. I no longer have it, but I believe there were about a hundred sites listed. So, once or twice a year, I would visit my parents and do several days research, some in the local library (remember them?) and some in Manchester University.

My other great research tools were the books I acquired from the remainder bookshops on Charing Cross Road. In one of my sagas, the Victorian magic lantern plays quite a large part – it contributes to plot development and character development, and helps illustrate the theme of changing times. Looking at the book in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it without the magic lantern, yet the only reason it is there is because a book on the subject happened to be remaindered at the time I was in London. All these books I would cram into my luggage for the flight home. My suitcase always weighed around fifty kilos, my hand baggage never less than twenty – but in those days, the check-in staff didn’t seem to mind.

My second book for SH was the first of the Woodend series. I saw it as a one-off, like The Silent Land, but it got good reviews in the States, and so I was invited to the company’s offices, where I was fed specially-bought-in cake, and offered a contract for what would be Murder at Swann’s Lake. A two-book contract followed that, and then a six-book one, which was marked by Edwin, the company’s chairman director, inviting me and five of the staff to a meal (my publisher and I stayed on when everyone else had left, and drank to excess). The Blackstone books were my idea, but it was Edwin who suggested that we send Charlie Woodend on gardening leave and start a new series, which I did by promoting Monika Paniatowski to DCI.

So how have things changed over the years? Obviously, there’s the technology, but there are other things, too.

It seems to me that the company has become slicker (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense). For example, each cover would be commissioned for a particular book – and make no mistake, that’s a great gift to an author, because many publishers just select something that looks vaguely appropriate from covers they’ve bought in wholesale – but there was still something slightly haphazard about them. One would be a photograph, the next a painting, a third might be a painting that looked like a photograph. Now, all my covers are commissioned from the same studio, and give each series its own definite identity.

And my relationship with SH seems to have changed on a personal level. The staff were always helpful and amiable, but over the last few years I have come to feel more appreciated and – I hate to use this word – cherished. I strongly suspect that this comes from the new publisher, Kate, but it may simply be that the overall ethos in the publishing world has changed. It may even be that I am regarded like an old dog who has given the family faithful service, and should now be allowed a little leeway in his dotage.

Whichever it is, I don’t care. I am a writer, and writers must be amongst the most insecure people on the planet, who will eagerly lap up any casually spilled words of encouragement. I have always felt lucky to be a Severn House writer, and I feel luckiest now.

A note from Alan’s in-house editor, Rachel Slatter:

Fifty books in 25 years, give or take – however you look at it, it’s a remarkable achievement. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with Alan on and off since I joined Severn House as a junior editor back in 2008, just in time for the start of his DCI Monika Paniatowski series.

I was hooked then, and I remain hooked now. POISON, the fourteenth book in the series, is classic Sally Spencer: brilliantly drawn characters, an undercurrent of darkness, and a twisty, nail-biting plot that will have you turning pages until the end, and then already looking forward to finding out what lies in store for Monika in the next book!

Alan is a huge talent, as well as being friendly, easy-going, receptive to editorial suggestions, and an all-round pleasure to work with. We’ve been lucky to have published him for so many years, and look forward to publishing him for many more!

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