Founded in 2015, the Los Angeles–based press We Heard You Like Books started when author Jarett Kobek was looking for a home for his novel I Hate the Internet. He had a hard time selling the book, but was confident the title would eventually get a “response that was disproportionate to the circumstances of its publication being with a smaller indie press.” So with the backing of two friends, John Mast and Brandon Creighton (who serve as copublishers), Kobek formed We Heard You Like Books, and the trio released the novel as its first title in February 2016.
Their bet was a good one. Media coverage came in almost immediately, led by a review in the New York Times. Kobek wasn’t necessarily surprised by the amount of attention I Hate the Internet received, but by “how quickly it happened.” He explained: “I think you could have had that title on a book where the pages were blank, and people would still have responded, but I didn’t think it would take three weeks. I figured that at the end of six or seven months, we would end up somewhere equivalent to where it is now. It’s really surprising to go from the publicist trying to get people to review it on blogs to Dwight Garner of the New York Times reviewing it above the fold on the arts section. That was what was shocking.” The press attention translated to a jump in sales, and I Hate the Internet now has 7,500 copies in print following a 4,000-copy second printing.
We Heard You Like Books is focused on titles that might otherwise slip through the cracks, and though it features lots of debut authors, it also revives great works that have fallen by the wayside. Examples from 2016’s lineup include Kanley Stubrick by Mike Kleine; a reissue of Iain Sinclair’s Kodak Mantra Diaries and Other Smoke Signals, first published in 1970; and True Homosexual Experiences by William E. Jones. Kobek said he was stunned when PW reviewed True Homosexual Experiences, noting: “That’s an extreme book. It’s an amazing thing to see [it reviewed in PW].”
Despite not having a publishing background, Kobek had spent enough time around people with small presses that when he published his own books, he was familiar with the process. “I know every dirty aspect of this business, and that’s a very useful thing,” he said. Kobek feels it’s great for writers to have their own press, because of the ability to exercise control over the work: “By having your own press, you learn very quickly how incredibly stacked publishing is against writers. You learn it in a way that you don’t learn it if you’re freelancing an article or selling a book.”
Kobek noted that many iconic works have been published by authors. “The most obvious example is Ferlinghetti,” Kobek said, referring to the creation of City Lights Publishers by activist/poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “That’s the gold standard. But then there’s Chris Kraus, one third of Semiotext(e).” Semiotext(e) published Kobek’s novella Atta. “Then there’s Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s. Regardless of anything else, that turned out to be the smartest move he could have made at that moment.” Kobek added that being on the West Coast also means you can publish works by authors who are “often overlooked and ignored by the people who control most of mainstream publishing.” He cited Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as an example of what controlling the publication of one’s own work can do. “The best book in American history was a self-published book. There’s a really valid model in this in terms of establishing your own work and supporting your own work.”
We Heard You Like Books is distributed by SCB and has a target of releasing two to four books per year, although the press will publish five titles in 2016, which Kobek said is probably “one or two too many.” He noted that he provides the editorial direction for We Heard You Like Books, with Mast and Creighton “giving me money, and some input.” Kobek added: “But money is actually going to start coming in because sales of I Hate the Internet have been ridiculous. That’s nice, because there may be a point when I have to stop going to them for more money. We’ve gotten better at driving down costs.”
Kobek’s hope for the press is longevity. But he said its larger mission is to “make the world safer for its freaks,” adding, “One of the ways you do that is by publishing voices and giving them a presentation that they might not otherwise get.”