The best introduction to Akashic Books, a small, seven-year-old press based in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, may be the cover of its fall catalogue. Under the publisher's cheeky slogan, "Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World," is a funky line drawing of King Kong scaling the Empire State Building with an Akashic book in hand.
Akashic was founded in 1996 by Johnny Temple, bassist in the rock band Girls Against Boys, with the money from his first big record deal. The press offers an unusual blend of unconventional genre titles, experimental fiction, a number of veteran midlist authors and serious nonfiction, including titles by political activists.
The press's upcoming list features Cold Havana Ground by Arnaldo Correa, the latest in Akashic's award-winning series of contemporary Cuban mystery fiction; three-time Pulitzer nominee William Heffernan's new novel Cityside; two novels by Kaylie Jones, daughter of author James Jones and an acclaimed novelist in her own right; and Phat Death by Norman Kelley, a new hip-hop—influenced mystery novel featuring Nina Halligan, Kelley's popular black private eye.
This year the house will publish 20 books, most as trade paperbacks; the house also publishes four or five hardcover titles each year. It has a backlist of about 25 titles, which are distributed by Consortium Books. Temple expects to break even for the first time "and maybe even make a little money" this year. The press now has two full-time employees (Temple and managing editor Johanna Ingalls), two regular freelance designers and another five to six freelance editors working on the house's growing list.
Akashic's titles are published under four imprints—RDV Books, Little House on the Bowery, Akashic Urban Surreal and Akashic Rural Surreal—that also reflect Temple's wide-ranging relationships in music and publishing. RDV Books, for instance, focuses on nonfiction and is directed by music executive and former head of Warner Records Danny Goldberg, his son Victor and filmmaker Robert Greenwald. The Little House on the Bowery series is directed by novelist Dennis Cooper and specializes in experimental fiction and the Urban and Rural Surreal imprints offer magic realist fiction set in either the city or the country.
Prominent authors such as Cooper, Jones and Heffernan, with track records at larger publishers, have offered Temple all kinds of assistance. They have referred a number of young writers to Akashic, said Temple, but they have also offered Akashic their own new novels as well as older works to reprint—sacrificing larger advances for individual attention to their titles. Temple tried to talk Jones out of publishing her newest novel Speak Now with Akashic. "We can't compete with larger houses in getting out books quickly," said Temple, "but Kaylie wanted to be on a list where she would be the priority."
Recently published novels like Nina Revoyr's Southland (10,000 copies sold; see Book News, July 14), Heffernan's Beulah Hill (10,000) and the Edgar Award—winning Adios Muchachos (15,000 copies) by Daniel Chavarria, part of Akashic's Cuban noir series, have generated review support and sold solid numbers for a small press. RDV's upcoming September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a book by a nonprofit group of 9/11 families protesting the war in Iraq, is projected to sell 10,000 copies.
Fort Greene is a majority-black Brooklyn neighborhood with a notable literary history and has provided the publisher with a community base to host book-related events and panels. "We have a neighborhood relationship," said Temple, who praised Indigo Books Cafe, the local bookstore where Akashic has sponsored panels on Richard Wright, Caribbean literature and on black music. "We've had great discussions at these events," said Temple. "That's what we mean by the reverse gentrification of the publishing world."