The University of Texas Press is trying to achieve something new with Kristin Hersh’s memoir Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt: a trade bestseller.
While other books in the series focus solely on the music created by various artists, Don't Suck, Don't Die is part memoir, part biography--a personal take on the life and work of singer-songwriter Chesnutt by one of his close friends and fellow musicians.
Chesnutt, who hails from Athens, Ga., released 17 critically acclaimed albums before his death in 2009; he was ranked, in a 2006 list by NPR, as one of the top five living songwriters alongside people like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. Hersh, who is arguably best known for fronting the band Throwing Muses, was a close friend of Chesnutt's, and the book is both an attempt to capture his life, as well as to honor him. Its publication also marks the first time that UTP will be sending an author on tour.
Hersh's tour kicked off Oct. 1--the book's publication day--in Athens with a sold-out show at the 40 Watt Club. Throughout the tour, which ends Nov. 4, Hersh will visit 12 bookstores and fairs across the country.
While the tour will primarily be funded by musical performances Hersh will play along the way, UTP is handling media outreach and has connected with booksellers to organize each of her stops. It has also printed special t-shirts that stores can give away at each event.
Hersh said the tour, like the book itself, is about honoring Chesnutt, a quadriplegic who committed suicide at 45. “I’m playing shows because Vic would have wanted it that way,” she said.
Don’t Suck, Don’t Die also marks one of the first books that UTP has promoted heavily to independent bookstores. Gianna LaMorte, assistant director and sales manager for UTP, who presented the book during the ABA's Winter Institute, said she thinks that building relationships with the indies is "something very few academic presses do these days." She went on: “Bookstores don’t connect these trade books with us. And we find that we have to remind people that while we have very deep and scholarly books, we really do have a lot of trade books.”
A longtime fan of both Chesnutt and Hersh, LaMorte said UTP has always wanted to do a book on Chesnutt. “We thought Kristin would be the perfect person to write it,” she said. “He was one of the best songwriters of his generations. He had very limited use of his hands. He played very simple chords. But when he played it was like he was on fire.”
With an initial print run of 5,000, the press is already contemplating a second. “I think we can sell 50,000 copies,” LaMorte said, adding that UTP believes the book is "that good." Given the compelling subject matter, LaMorte said the press feels the title could be a bestseller. If Don't Suck, Don't Die does break out in the way LaMorte is envisioning, it will certainly distinguish itself from the other titles in the American Music series; top sellers in the line, which include biographies of artists like Ryan Adams and Dwight Yoakam, have moved between 3,000 and 4,000 copies.
Hersh, who published the memoir Rat Girl (Penguin Books, 2010), initially declined the project, overly concerned about trying to write a book that would celebrate Chesnutt "without people taking it the wrong way because he was so strange." When she finally agreed to write the book, she did so with the idea of focusing on their friendship. “You still use the same elements to tell the story of memories," she explained. "You still use the same colors and lines and hues to paint the picture. And the story just came out, because I think I had Vic looking over my shoulder telling it for me.”
LaMorte has also been buoyed by reactions to the the title. Booksellers, she noted, have been particularly supportive. “I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t know Vic Chesnutt or Kirstin Hersh,” she said. “But I really want people to discover these two.”