Mysterious Press, Southern-Fried?
By Brewster Milton Robertson
Back in the early 60s when Bob Dylan penned the portentous lyric, “The times they are a’changin,” most likely the furthest thing from the young visionary’s mind was the near-seismic upheavals that would beset the publishing industry beginning in the 80s. Not the least of the resulting fault features on the merger-ravaged publishing landscape has been the burgeoning ranks of intrepid small independent publishers making a strong presence. One of the most recent and perhaps most promising is feisty little Harlan Publishing of Greensboro, North Carolina—a sort of Tobacco Road mini-edition of Mysterious Press.
Looking more like an affable young golf pro at an upscale country club than a publishing mogul, at age 36 former High Point, NC, policeman Jeff Pate seems as unlikely a perpetrator as ever appeared in a “line-up” of individuals claiming to be writers and publishers of mainstream hardcover fiction. To further subvert his claim, Pate’s early history reveals absolutely nothing that would indicate a future proclivity for such highly dubious activity.
“Except for mandatory school assignments, I was not a reader in school or college,” Pate reflects seriously, struggling to explain how it happened that past the age of thirty a career policeman could be suddenly seduced toward writing, then to publishing—first his own novel, then, following rather heady overnight success, quickly expanding to publishing other writers.
Growing up and attending high school in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, in 1983 Jeff Pate was lured to North Carolina’s High Point University on a baseball scholarship. Famous as a Mecca of furniture manufacturing, High Point—nearby to larger Greensboro and Winston-Salem—is part of a kinetic hotbed of business and culture known locally as the Piedmont Triad. In college, his hopes of a baseball career fading, Pate was attracted to a career in law enforcement. By the time he graduated in 1987, he had completed training, passed the police exam and was already receiving on-the-job experience. On graduation day, he officially became a member of the High Point police.
Quite poetically, the “burning bush” experience that turned his mind to books was an encounter with a serial killer while on duty as a cop. One night in 1990, Pate and his partner were called to investigate a drunk having problems with his motorcycle in a hotel parking garage. The man seemed affable enough and gave them no trouble as they escorted him back to his hotel. About a week later, Pate learned that this same individual was wanted for murder in Asheville, NC, and in South Carolina. After being transported back to Asheville, the man not only confessed to the Asheville slaying but also admitted killing a High Point woman just days after Pate’s encounter in the parking garage. Before the investigation ended, the prisoner confessed to killing three women in all, with yet another unconfirmed in New York.
“I was stunned—this guy seemed so normal…so polite…courteous. I found it almost impossible to believe that I’d had eyeball-to-eyeball contact with a cold-blooded psychopath without receiving a hint that I was dealing with a monster.” Pate shakes his head, remembering.
Although he is quick to point out that his debut novel Winner Take All did not chronicle the case of that serial killer, that incident certainly marked the seminal turning point in his life.
“I was so shaken by the episode that I started to read everything I could get my hands on about cold-blooded killers. By the time I’d finally run through books by FBI profilers John Douglas and Robert Ressler, Anne Rule, Jerry Bledsoe, and Truman Capote and other true crime writers, I was hooked. I started reading crime fiction authors like James Patterson, Tami Hoag, Michael Connelly and Patricia Cornwell. Gradually, over the next seven years, the idea began to take root that drawing upon my real-life experience in law enforcement, I wanted to try my hand at writing my own crime novel.”
In January, 1998, Pate began writing Winner Take All featuring protagonist Clark Hager, a North Carolina SBI Special Agent. Incredibly, he completed the novel in five months. Following all the traditional advice on the subject of getting published, by May he had already sent out query letters to ten literary agents scattered across the country. After only a relatively minimal number of rejections, Daniel King, an agent based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, signed him to a one-year contract. However, as so often happens, Pate’s premature celebration quickly dissolved into a nightmare of frustration and rejection. To his credit, this naive blunder became his crucible experience.
“Throughout all this, my dad kept prodding me to publish the novel myself. With encouragement from friends and family, by the time the contract with King expired, I’d made up my mind to take my father’s advice.”
Self-described as “a guy who wants to do everything right,” Pate was determined to make Winner Take All a quality hardcover. He got busy and did some serious homework.
“I read Tom and Marian Roth’s book The Complete Guide to Self-publishing and other books. In September 1999—the month after my contract with King expired—I officially launched Harlan Publishing.” (Harlan is the middle name for both Pate and his father.)
By the time Winner Take All was actually published in April 2000, Harlan Publishing was fully formed with distribution through leading wholesalers like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and important national outlets such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. In for a penny, in for a pound, Pate allied Harlan Publishing with PMA (Publisher’s Marketing Association), a major consortium respected for its aggressive marketing of member independent small presses.
Through all this, the new author lately turned publishing entrepreneur was busy getting the word out. Wasting no opportunities, by the time the book was shipped to the distributors, Pate had logged an impressive number of Radio/TV and print interviews and personal appearances. Before the book hit the stores, he had sold over 200 of the handsome new hardcovers to fellow policemen, other friends, and family who promised to spread the word.
From the outset, Winner Take All proved to be something of a phenomenon—almost overnight Amazon.com ranked the book in the top 1000. During the first nine weeks following its April 2000 release, Winner Take All’s Amazon ranking climbed as high as 156—at one point the novel was listed at 24 on the Mystery Bestseller List.
Encouraged by such resounding success, Pate officially resigned from the High Point police at the end of May, 2000.
The old saw about “the world beating a path to the door of builders of a better mousetrap” was never more axiomatic than in publishing. And, within the industry, word travels fast. In about the same length of time it takes a new John Grisham title to go to the top of the bestseller list, Pate was besieged with letters and calls from wannabe authors and agents.
“I got lucky again.” He grins. “When the literary agent of celebrated TV director Raymond Austin (The Avengers; Hawaii Five-O; Hart to Hart, etc.) brought me The Eagle Heist, a very well-written book—and the first of Raymond’s character series based on a Wilford Brimley look-alike private eye named Beauford Sloan—the obvious potential for a movie deal made my decision to publish The Eagle Heist a ‘no-brainer.’”
Hardly before the ink was dry on Austin’s contract, a Barnes & Noble employee referred Marshall Frank, a retired Miami police captain who brought Pate Dire Straits, a remarkably well-crafted south Florida crime novel introducing an Hispanic Miami homicide detective.
“The Eagle Heist was published in November, 2000, and Eye of the Beholder—the sequel to my North Carolina SBI Special Agent Clark Hager character in Winner Take All—followed in April, 2001…and, in May, Marshall Franks’ Dire Straits hit the shelves.” The young author/publisher beams with pride.
To date all of Harlan’s titles have met with well-deserved praise. Emboldened by such success, Pate is full speed ahead. Upcoming in the Fall 2001, Harlan will publish Austin’s second novel Dead Again: A Beauford Sloan Mystery. Still Waters Run Deep, a thriller by Austin’s gifted wife Wendy is also scheduled for Fall 2001 release.
Looking to Spring 2002, “Pate the writer” is well underway toward completing Boiling Point, the third novel in his Clark Hager series. On the other side of the desk, “Pate the publisher” has the enviable problem of choosing from two completed Marshall Frank novels as a follow-up to Dire Straits. And, his desk is literally stacked with queries from promising novelists. For a baseball wannabe who never read a book, this little scenario reads like the pulp fiction equivalent of a rookie hitting a game-winning homer in the last half of the ninth.
Asked about the future, former cop Pate—the paragon of late-night TV’s Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday’s ‘Just give me the facts, ma’am…’—says deadpanned, “All this hype about the second coming of Mysterious Press sounds OK, but the reality of this business is that small presses often lose their best writers to the deep pockets of the name brand publishers. I’ve been unbelievably lucky to find such loyal authors…but I know I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
Dire Straits, Marshall Frank, 2001
© 2001 Brewster Milton Robertson, All Rights Reserved