On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Bloomsbury Academic's line of books about albums, 33 1/3, PW talked to the Publisher at Bloomsbury who oversees the series, Leah Babb-Rosenfeld, about the book line's origins, what makes it unique, and what the lasting mark of these books will be.
When, and how, did the book line launch?
33 1/3 was founded in 2003 by David Barker, at what was then Continuum. He had a simple concept, which was to create a series of short books, each dedicated to a specific album. Some of the first books were on Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, The Smith’s Meat is Murder, and Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and the series was slowly built up from there. Over time, 33 1/3 really took off and developed a loyal cult following, and has seen artists getting increasingly involved via contributions to the books and promotion (recent examples include Duran Duran and The National). 20 years later, the series is approaching 200 books published!
In David’s own words: “Working on the 33 1/3 series right at the start was such a thrill. Continuum, in the early 2000s, allowed its editors a fair amount of freedom, and I was so lucky that my idea for this series was supported, even though it never fit neatly with the other publishing we did. I have such vivid memories of signing up the first six books in the series, and editing those manuscripts when they came in. And then to watch the series take off over the next few years, with the support it received from colleagues, authors, reviewers, bookstores, record stores and librarians, was amazing.”
What sets 33 1/3 titles apart from other books about music?
With so many books in the series, there’s a huge variety of genres and artists covered—everything from Brian Eno, to Janet Jackson, to Madvillain, to Sleater-Kinney—so there’s something for everyone. They’re also very collectible, and many readers tend also to go for books that are outside of their typical music preferences. But what really sets the series apart is the writing. Rather than straightforward overviews, each author takes their own unique approach to the album. One of the best-selling books is on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, which documents the author (Carl Wilson)’s quest to figure out what her fans see and to answer larger questions about how we define “good” music. Another example is John Darnielle’s book on Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality, one of the few fictional takes in the series, written from the perspective of a teenager in a psychiatric institution. The series also includes books on less-expected albums like the soundtracks from Twin Peaks and from Super Mario Bros. The parameters of the series are always growing and changing.
What do you see as the legacy of 33 1/3, for music lovers and readers?
33 1/3 has grown a lot over the last 20 years—and not just in number of books. The series has increasingly expanded to include a diverse range of genres, artists, and authors. While we continue to look for exceptional books in genres like classic rock, recent publications also include books on artists like Minnie Riperton, Wendy Carlos, and k.d. lang. 33 1/3 has developed beyond the original series itself. We partnered with Spotify on The 33 1/3 Podcast; we launched the 33 1/3 Global series, which now has 45+ books and with regional strands covering areas such as South Asia, Africa, and Europe; and last year, we launched our newest series, Genre: A 33 1/3 Series. Part of the success of the 33 1/3 series and brand is this variety in publishing: we’ve seen continued interest throughout changes in technology over the years, changes in the industry, and throughout the pandemic. We view 33 1/3 as always evolving, and our hope is to continue to engage readers through exciting, varied, and surprising avenues.