It takes a certain kind of personality to be an independent publisher. A passion for books is an important part of it, but beyond that there almost always needs to be a balance of tenacity and obsession, business cunning and marketing prowess. The need for those attributes is likely one explanation why a significant number of artists, particularly musicians, have found their way into the world of letters.
Johnny Temple toured and performed with different bands until the post-hardcore quintet Girls Against Boys reached financial and critical success, and he used the royalties from his work with the band to create Akashic Books in 1997, to be both a record label and book publisher. After Akashic’s resounding success with The Fuckup by Arthur Nersesian, the publisher’s focus on literature was set.
At the height of the White Stripes’ success, lead singer Jack White founded Third Man Records in 2001. Soon thereafter, he opened Third Man Books to publish poetry and avant-garde literature.
“I think it’s just that willingness to pound the pavement,” said Temple, who is publisher and editor-in-chief of Akashic Books, when asked why he started the press. “When we published our first book, The Fuckup, I would just get a backpack full of books and go around to bookstores and meet people, handselling the book.” He described the DIY act as something he learned through being a touring musician. “You get out there and do your thing or you’re never going to get anywhere,” he added.
The same drive that leads to a musical project is what inspired Chet Weise, editor at Third Man Books, to assist White in cultivating a successful independent publishing house. “My band Alabama and I ended up traveling the world, and I’m not saying that’s because of talent either—it’s because of just pure unrelenting energy, just making a habit.” That drive to publish and edit is like the habit of making music.
Coming at the convergence of music and publishing from the opposite end, Christoph Paul had music in his veins from before his writing days, yet it wasn’t until after becoming managing editor at Clash Books that he found music calling to him. “Honestly, you need a stress reliever—you need something outside of publishing that you feel passionate about to survive publishing,” he said. To satisfy his music passion, Paul formed a band, the Dionysus Effect, specializing in stripped down rock, with several songs based on Clash Books titles, including “Darryl,” drawn from the book of the same name by Jackie Ess.
Lessons from the road
Musicians cut their chops learning how to balance artistic collaboration and marketing their work. Even the most popular artists act as their own publicists, making sure to put on the best marketing performance and don the best persona for the brand of music they play. This approach is especially needed in indie publishing, yet its not so well appreciated there.
“You can’t really be shy [as a musician],” Paul said. “You have
to get out there, play shows, get head counts.” Paul and Clash editor-in-chief Leza Cantoral took this
lesson to heart early
on and generated a touring schedule to make sure the press attended all the major conventions and writer conferences. Getting out in the market really helped spread the word about Clash.
Temple has taken his experience as a full-time musician to heart as an indie publisher. “My experience as a musician helps me as a publisher on whole different levels,” he explained. Touring the world, talking with so many different musicians and promoters, he learned how to communicate a message—a skill he uses with authors. “There’s a lot of mutual respect, and when it comes to the promotional side of things, I’m there helping them deal with bad reviews, good reviews, the challenges of maybe having to travel somewhere for a reading and maybe having very few people show up.”
Weise said of his music touring days, “I don’t know how many times I almost ended up on the side of the road.” He doesn’t regret that effort, though, even when the pay for a gig for the entire band barely bought a single beer. He has taken that love for the art into publishing. “When I look at a book for possible Third Man Books publication, and everyone is on board and feels good about it, we run with it,” he said. The entire staff at Third Man, from Weise and White to cofounder Ben Blackwell, learned to trust that gut feeling from all those years in bands, and it still keeps them excited and willing to feed off that energy.
“Books are easy to sell, man,” Weise said, noting that the hard thing is getting a person to read a book. That’s when the hard-learned act of being one’s own marketer and self-promoter becomes so valuable. “Back in the day, I was involved with all the marketing in the band, be it layout or merch,” he explained. “It has helped me see how an author can package both themselves and their books, from cover to live reading.”
It also showed Weise how all aspects of publishing impact the success of a book. “Being available to do readings is important,” he said. “Nothing’s the same as being in the same room, hearing someone read those words.”
For Temple, those days in music, especially early on, informed how important it is for all artists, including authors, to be open-minded about doing such things as networking and forming lasting professional relationships with journalists, media, and industry professionals. “We really understood how a band has a relationship with media and being comfortable with being talked about in the media, no matter the tone,” he said. It’s an important lesson to learn for authors, too—especially when those one-star Goodreads reviews roll in.
And since publishing, like the music business, can be insular, another lesson Temple stresses is to be kind. “If you’re an asshole, a lot of people aren’t going to care if your book sells.”
“My first rule is to stay in business,” Paul said. “Musicians have that ingrained in them, because if you don’t have
an audience, you don’t have a show.” There’s also an added importance to understanding that publishing, like shows, are collaborative in nature: “You have to support other people.”
The bottom line, for Clash Books, is to impart that willingness to take chances, to stay in business, and to stay passionate; the same can be said for Akashic, Third Man, and all the artist-driven indie presses seeking to publish books that fuel their passion, make them excited, and, above all, do something different.
“If the publishing business were a bit less white, a bit less upper middle class, a bit less refined, with fewer rules,” said Temple, “publishing might be as exciting as maybe music can inherently be.”
Michael Seidlinger is a writer in New York City.