This summer, Akashic Books is placing its faith in a 1,000+ page book about Robert Moses. And no, the book is not called The Power Broker. But if preorders of Arthur Nerserian's The Five Books of (Robert) Moses are any indication, the publisher's faith in the title is nonetheless well-placed.
Nerserian and Akashic have nearly a quarter century's worth of history. His cult classic novel, The Fuck-up, was the first book that the indie press ever published, in 1997, a few years after the author self-published an earlier edition. The book went on to be one of Akashic's biggest successes. (S&S now holds the rights to the book.) Since then, Akashic has published a number of other books by Nerserian, including such titles as Manhattan Loverboy and Suicide Casanova. And all the while, the author had been working away at this mammoth tome—one that he's spent more than 25 years writing, and one that Johnny Temple, Akashic's publisher, has spent more than a decade editing.
The work began to pay off before the book's July 28 pub date, when it has been released with a 5,000 copy first printing. Temple said that, as of the book's publication week, the book had sold upwards of 1,000 copies in pre-orders, with more than 400 of those copies bought directly from the publisher's website—which he believes is an Akashic record.
"When Covid started to hit, and I was looking at this book with a $45 retail price that Arthur worked on for 25 years, I was thinking to myself, 'Are we even going to be able to sell 500 of these in this environment?' " Temple told PW. "It's been a stressful time, but this book has helped to relieve some of the stress. And we're not talking about huge numbers—none of this is lucrative—but 5,000 is a decent print run for an important indie book, and we can print more books if we need to."
It's helped that the book has gotten a lot of support from across the industry and beyond. For one thing, Temple said, Nerserian's dedication to his Facebook community went a long way in driving prepublication buzz. Authors are often told they must be active on social media when promoting a book, but Temple clarified that really, the activity must be earnest and consistent. It works best, that is, "when it's a two way street or a multi-directional boulevard," not just as a place to try to sell things. "Arthur loves having his Facebook community," Temple said. "He's really cultivated it, but not in any kind of mercenary way. And when he made a personal appeal to his social media world about the book and offered them a discount if they ordered directly from the Akashic site, we got what for us is a very overwhelming response."
While the pandemic has disrupted all parts of the industry, it's pushed digital book events to the fore, making it easier for a small house like Akashic to get authors like Nerserian to connect with patrons at far-flung bookstores to which the house could not necessarily have afforded to send him for in-person events. "We're not normally trying to drive a lot of business to our website," Temple said. "While we're doing all these direct sales ourselves, we are also able to geographically get Arthur out there a lot more than we normally would.... It's a desperate situation, which is sort of why we're conducting business a little differently—but at the same time, we're also setting up bookstore events with with a handful of independent stores," including Skylight in Los Angeles, Book Club in Manhattan, Orca in Olympia, and the Book Cellar in Chicago.
Temple considers the fates of both Akashic and Nerserian to be somewhat intertwined. "Without Arthur Nerserian, I truly believe there would be no Akashic Books," he said. "I started it as a hobby, and had we started with a different book that didn't get received so well, I'm not sure I would have kept pursuing this hobby. Because it's hard to sell books! But the process of publishing The Fuck-up as a brand new publisher was a really, really rewarding one. It's still one of the best books we've published."
Temple also considers Five Books a great work—albeit different from Nerserian's first book. "When people are able to write and really pull off a complicated 1,000- or 1,500-page book and keep the plot both understandable and coherent, but also complex, it's a whole different ball-game than writing a 200-400–page book," he said. "I'm still in some ways a young editor, and it was like I was maturing as an editor during the process of working with Arthur on this book, and doing my own research to help me become a better editor—not just generally speaking, for Akashic, but also specifically for this book, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime beast that we've published. I doubt I'll ever spend 12 years editing something again, and I don't know that I'll ever publish something longer than 1,500 pages again. But I saw Arthur's natural gifts as a storyteller. That was very heartening."
He also believes that the book, despite its focus on New York City history, is applicable to our current cultural moment. The book is rooted in themes of political tyranny and the death of culture and, perhaps most potently, is filled with viruses and social distancing and quarantining. "When Arthur was writing the book 25, 20, 15, 10, five years ago, he had no idea that it would be published in the middle of a quarantine, which is just truly, truly bizarre," Temple said. Nerserian also, of course, could not have predicted the rise of Donald Trump, whose particularly nepotistic and idealogical brand of politics could be seen as dovetailing remarkably with that of Robert Moses, the unelected public official who had perhaps more power in shaping the history of the New York metropolitan area than that of any of its mayors.
"It's a book about political tyranny, and it uses New York and New York mythology as a canvas, but I think that the lawlessness in this book is a very interesting mirror of the lawlessness that Donald Trump aspires toward—a libertarian-inspired erosion of legal protections," Temple said. "It's also a book that shows culture dying of thirst. In this book, so many residents of New York City get shipped out to the desert in Nevada and get stuck out in a sort of refugee city, and because this happens—and it starts in about 1970 in the book—a lot of the people that get shipped out to the desert include people like Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, and Andy Warhol.... It does seem to me to be a great metaphor for the starvation of culture and the erosion of culture."
As for selling a doorstop of a novel—ever a challenge, regardless of global tragedies—Temple believes that it's actually "a great time to be dropping a massive book—because people are stuck at home, and people are reading more, and they're flexing their reading muscles." Sales-wise, it may not be ideal—although "we're finding our way around that," Temple said—but "leaving sales aside, reader attention span–wise, I think it's a great time to be dropping this book on the public."
Correction: Akashic did not publish Dog Run.