It’s always too late for someone.” That’s the enigmatic tagline of Hong Kong-based Crime Wave Press, a two-and-a-half-year-old publishing company with a wicked hunger for crime fiction. Founded in 2012 by publisher and photographer Hans Kemp and writer Tom Vater, the press churns out all manner of grisly, quirky and full-throttle murder mysteries, from hard-boiled to noir and “cozies” – community-set stories in which violence and sex is downplayed.
Although the two nomads met while travelling in Pakistan, it was many years and a collaborated illustrated book – Sacred Skin, Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos – later that they began to consider launching their own press focusing on crime fiction. Both permanently based in Thailand, they found Hong Kong – a frequent pit stop in their freelance lives – the perfect nexus between business and culture, the West and the East. And so Crime Wave Press was born in the city.
“We were just sitting together one day, talking about [Tom’s] first crime story set in London and Cambodia, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. It’s about a drug deal that went bad. He said he hadn’t found a publisher yet and I said: ‘Well, I don’t know fiction publishing very well, but I do know publishing’,” says Kemp.
Before starting Crime Wave Press, the Dutch-born photographer had self-published several illustrated and photography books. His 2003 book Bikes of Burden features motorbike drivers in Vietnam, some almost toppling over with strapped boxes and bags.
The press started small, first with Vater’s crime story, then later with manuscripts chosen from unsolicited submissions. They now have 16 titles under their belt and take about one out of every 10 manuscripts that are submitted by writers across the globe. Although the duo initially were looking for crime stories set in Asia, they soon had to widen their pool because of the dearth of such stories.
“We thought stories set in Asia was more niche, but there just wasn’t enough material coming in,” says Kemp. “And it has to be written in English as we can’t translate yet. But half our titles are still set in Asia and we have authors across the world.”
Their books include Gaijin Cowgirl (written by Hong Kong-based Jame DiBiasio), featuring a time-travelling heroine on a dangerous treasure hunt, yakuza mobsters and painted genitals, and a pulp series whose protagonist is a Buddhist monk pulled back to his former duties of ghost detective.
Vater’s background as a journalist and editor comes in handy when polishing manuscripts, and Kemp’s visual eye for detail oversees the design component of the books and website, although both put equal effort into the small start-up – “a real labour of love”, says Kemp.
Crime Wave Press also operates with a unique strategy where a book is only printed if a customer buys it – a model called print-on-demand. Traditional, huge publishing houses usually order paperback copies in the thousands. However, Kemp says this way he and Vater can manage the production without going out of business, and more and more small publishing houses are starting to operate this way as well. “The publishing world is always changing. Nowadays it’s possible to publish without incurring a huge amount of overhead costs,” he says. “We’re not making much money – yet – but we really feel there’s potential here.”
With authors self-publishing their works also on the rise, Kemp is aware of the many routes writers can take in getting their work to the readers. “Self-publishing is totally possible, but you’re always the worst judge of your work, I feel,” he says. “You might need someone external to direct you and guide you.”
Kemp says that with Crime Wave Press, the relationship between the publisher and writer is a priority, something that might not be the case at a larger, traditional house where a writer is one of hundreds – plus, he and Vater favour meaty, intriguing stories over profit.
“We do publish stories that are slightly weirder that we know might not sell a lot of copies, but we do that because we like them and they’re well-written,” Kemp says.
The market for literature is undeniably tough – especially in Hong Kong, with the Dymocks bookstores closing recently and a start-and-stop culture when it comes to books. However, Kemp and Vater are persistent in their mission and regularly nose out Asia’s prominent literary festivals.
The submissions page on Crime Wave Press’ website states they’re looking for manuscripts (completed) between 20,000 and 90,000 words, and the deadline is rolling. They’re eager to publish the next best crime fiction writer. Could it be you?