Akashic Books, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Like everyone else in this business, I want to sell as many books as possible, but our publishing philosophy has never been driven by trends or primarily motivated by our bottom line—perhaps sometimes to a fault. Put more bluntly, Akashic’s very survival over the years is itself unlikely and remarkable; the fact that it feels like we’re only just beginning to hit our stride is invigorating and provides me with ample motivation all these years later.”
Ibrahim Ahmad has displayed a keen editorial eye since joining Akashic Books as an intern when he was 17 years old. “Knowing absolutely nothing about the publishing business other than trusting my instincts as a reader, I tried to acquire a book, Boy Genius, by Yongsoo Park,” he says. Akashic did eventually publish that book, for which Ahmad had concluded the reader’s report with “F— YEAH!” in black Sharpie, written in all caps, which “is exactly how I still respond when the right manuscript crosses my desk today,” he says.
And then came the million-plus-selling international hit Go the F**k to Sleep, for which Ahmad spearheaded the publicity and marketing campaign. “I could not have anticipated the gray hairs I would develop when Go the F**k to Sleep hit #1 on every bestseller list six months before our scheduled publication date,” Ahmad says. Its wild success provided far more than bragging rights (and gray hairs) for Ahmad. “This was a crash course in publishing that simply cannot be taught,” he says, “having just about every media outlet on the planet trying to get through to our single office phone line.” Even more importantly it brought this wholly independent company some financial security in the short term and gave Ahmad and the entire Akashic team the confidence that they could successfully handle a very big book. The experience also emboldened the team “to get back to our core commitment as a publisher: taking risks and publishing fresh voices that might not otherwise find a home.”
Akashic’s four core staffers, including Ahmad, have worked together for over a decade. “Akashic’s idiosyncratic sensibility has benefited from Ahmad’s editorial vision,” publisher and editor-in-chief Johnny Temple says. “Equally comfortable championing everything from literary writers from the Middle East to hip-hop literature, from gritty crime fiction to offbeat picture books for young readers,” he adds, “Ahmad’s tastes wholly reflect the smart eclecticism that has come to define our list, balancing a deep commitment to publishing new voices with a keen understanding of the changing marketplace and its demands.”
Ahmad is now aggressively pursuing works by Middle Eastern writers. Specifically, he is zeroing in on crime fiction, “which is basically unprecedented in that part of the world,” he says. Akashic recently published Tehran Noir and Tel Aviv Noir as part of its award-winning Noir series. Forthcoming volumes will be set in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Marrakech and will “make these cities come alive to American audiences,” Ahmad says.
Temple says Ahmad has “indelibly shaped Akashic Books into the thriving press it is today,” and adds that “he is uniquely positioned to help establish the possibilities for the next generation in publishing.”
Jessica Stockton Bagnulo
Cofounder, Events & Publicity Coordinator
Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“People are rediscovering the value of the local community base. The rise of bookstores is parallel to the rise of farmers’ markets and people thinking about ‘buy local.’ People are increasingly becoming aware of and educated about the value of independent bookstores.”
Since opening its doors in 2009, Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore has thrived under the vision of Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and her partner, Rebecca Fitting, two booksellers who came together to seize the moment at the right time in the right community. Although Bagnulo is the one who was nominated for Star Watch, she is quick to point out that she is “only a small part of Greenlight and everything that goes on here.”
In 2008, Bagnulo submitted a business plan to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Power Up! competition and was awarded the grand prize of $15,000, allowing her to join with Fitting to make the bookstore a reality. At the beginning, Bagnulo and Fitting had to convince people that they weren’t doing something completely crazy. “I feel like Greenlight was at the start of the wave of the resurgence of independent bookstores,” Bagnulo says. Not only was the environment for indies hostile, but it was the peak of the recession.
Around the same time, as inexorable gentrification was taking place throughout Brooklyn, the Fort Greene Association (FGA) conducted a survey to allow the community to have some control of the neighborhood’s rapid development. Top on the list of what the community wanted was an independent bookstore. Working closely with the FGA, Bagnulo has forged partnerships that have nurtured the relationship between the business and the local community. Bagnulo recognizes that “we are very lucky to have a lot of educated writers and readers who understand the value of an independent,” she says.
One of Greenlight’s most important partnerships is with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) performing arts center. The 150-year-old venue has a reputation for showcasing avant-garde acts and, at the start of the partnership, had a fledgling literary program, which has blossomed since Greenlight’s involvement. The store has kiosks at the theater that carry a revolving stock of books related to the current performances. In 2012 Greenlight and BAM launched the Unbound literary series, which enables the store to host big launches for big authors with “big production values, way beyond anything we could do in the bookstore,” Bagnulo says.
Another key community partnership was born when St. Joseph’s College wanted to expand the horizons of its fairly new creative writing M.F.A. program. Greenlight has hosted such authors as Jonathan Franzen, Greil Marcus, David Mitchell, and Patti Smith in the college’s auditorium.
Bagnulo is particularly excited about further off-site growth, and Greenlight has increasingly participated as a bookseller at a range of conferences, including the Afropunk and the Yoga Journal conferences. And she is just as proud of “a packed calendar of in-store events that have their own special vibe.” She points to a recent event with Elisabeth Egan, which she describes as a “wonderfully warm evening with friends and supporters—the goal is not always to sell a ton of books, but to bring them into the store and give them a great experience so they come back again.”
R. Andrew Hunter
Publisher & COO
Catapult, New York City
“Andy Hunter is more than just a publishing visionary. He’s also a firm believer in the creative power of collaboration and a true champion of writers.”— Jennifer Kovitz, public relations and marketing director, Catapult
Once upon a time, Andy Hunter was an IT guy—a software engineer for companies like Disney and MGM. Then, after “doing journalism on the side,” he landed at a glossy magazine. From there he emerged as an innovator who has launched startups that have modernized and transformed publishing in the digital age. When he conflates culture and literature and states that the latter is “the most important factor in social progress,” he sounds far more like a tweed-wearing gentleman publisher of yore than a pioneer in digital platforms for the book industry.
Timing is everything. Circa 2009, armed with his M.F.A. in creative writing from Brooklyn College, Hunter faced a publishing environment that was rife with anxiety and fear. The prevalent thinking was that the new online and digital worlds would “erode or destroy the entire publishing ecosystem,” Hunter says. He notes that it was a time when many writers simply refused to allow their works to be read on phones, and there was pervasive fear that great literature would be razed into the rubble of 140-character tweets.
Hunter recognized early that the online world, culture at large, and writers and literature had something in common: connection. Culture is what connects people, writers want to be connected to their readers, and the online world expands exponentially the ability to reach people.
In 2011, Hunter founded Broadcastr, a location-based digital storytelling platform, and grew it to more than 300,000 users. Next, he cofounded Electric Literature, which was the first independent publisher to offer titles direct to the consumer in every viable format, including ePub, Kindle, iOS, PDF, print on demand, and video-enhanced audiobook. Today it is a literary nonprofit with more than two million unique visitors. Further narrowing the gap between traditional publishing and new platforms, in 2014 Hunter teamed up with Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin and magazine editor Terry McDonnell to launch Literary Hub, which sources content from 150 partners. Hunter calls Literary Hub “a grownup version of Electric Literature” because it is less irreverent and aimed at an older demographic.
Hunter’s newest project, Catapult, launches this month. Public relations and marketing director Jennifer Kovitz says, “Catapult is Hunter’s vision of what the future business model for independent publishing should be: a print and e-book publishing program dedicated to extraordinary narratives, a robust series of top-quality writing classes—both in New York City and online—and a daily editorial website.”
Hunter says Catapult has three pillars that support each other. The first is classes and workshops taught by top-notch writers. This provides income to Catapult and, with teachers receiving 51% of the revenue, is also a source of financial support for many writers. The second pillar, led by Yuka Igarashi (formerly of Granta) as Web editor-in-chief, is an online community where emerging writers can show their work, get feedback, and develop their craft. Finally, Catapult’s editorial division, led by industry luminary Pat Strachan, will publish 12 books a year.
Catapult is not a literary version of Huffington Post or Buzzfeed. Nor is it a newfangled digital delivery system. Hunter says Catapult is committed to “extraordinary storytelling” while it takes advantage of the Web’s ability to connect people on a grand scale.
Quirk Books, Philadelphia
“During his 15-year tenure at Quirk Books, Jason Rekulak has embodied Quirk’s mission to develop the most strikingly unconventional projects and bring them to market in a commercially viable manner. He resists the urge to piggyback on trends and instead creates them.”— Brett Cohen, president, Quirk Books
Jane Austen and zombies? Vintage photographs and young adult fantasy? These are just two examples of seemingly disparate concepts that Jason Rekulak has conjoined to create category-busting successes. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a major bestseller and will be released as a motion picture in February 2016. The same pattern was repeated with an entirely different book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which was a bestseller and will be a major motion picture in 2016 from Tim Burton.
“In the last six years alone, Jason has conceived or acquired 10 New York Times bestsellers,” says Quirk president Brett Cohen. “He has an incomparable knack for working across a range of publishing categories while bringing something exciting and new to each of them.” But, for years, one category was verboten: fiction. When Rekulak joined the newly established Quirk as the company’s first acquiring editor 15 years ago, the mission for the four employees of the press was to keep the lights on and try to make a living.
Fiction was not part of that detailed business plan. “Fiction is too hard; fiction is too competitive; don’t do fiction,” was the advice they were given. In spite of the fact that fiction was what Rekulak wanted to do all along, he didn’t touch it for years. And then with PPZ (as Rekulak affectionately calls Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), he had an opportunity to “sneak one through.” He points out that about 85% of the book is in the public domain; Quirk transformed the remainder, and Rekulak thought it would merely be a funny impulse buy. “When it blew up,” he says, “the doors were open to fiction, and I wanted to take the philosophy that we’ve had all along with nonfiction.”
The one overarching principle of that philosophy for Rekulak and the team at Quirk is no copycats—no me-too publishing. “It is a very tough goal because much of publishing is derivative,” he says, but he won’t back down. Instead, he turned a submission for an art photography book of weird photos of children into the Miss Peregrine’s phenomenon that, four years after publication, is still riding atop the bestseller lists. This project is something of a miracle for all involved. When Rekulak suggested to the book’s creator, Ransom Riggs, that he write a novel along with the photographs, Riggs responded, “I’ve never written a novel.” Rekulak’s retort: “Well I really haven’t edited one yet.” Two stars were born.
Rekulak says there is “nothing more gratifying than helping really creative people find vehicles for their talent that allow them to be creative all the time.” He’s talking about Riggs, but Quirk has provided a vehicle for Rekulak’s talent—one that allows him to be more creative as well.