Talking Shop with Johnny Temple of Akashic Books

Recently on Booklyn we wrote about  Five Indie Publishing Houses to Look Out For.  To follow it up, we’re sitting down with some of the people behind those houses to see what makes them tick, and what keeps them thriving during a tumultuous and unpredictable period in the book business.

As the founder of Akashic Books and host of the Brooklyn Book Festival, Johnny Temple is a well-known figure in the Brooklyn literary world. He’s not the haughty gatekeeper to the publishing world you might expect. He’s a young-at-heart post-punk bassist who spends little time worrying about what is or is not highbrow.

Akashic’s catalogue is dark and on the edge–the edge is the standard, the default.  From Arthur Nersesian to Joe Meno and the Noir Series, Akashic publishes books for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. It’s easy to use “punk” to sum it up, especially since Akashic has published a number of books about punk bands and scenes, but that’s too reductive. The house goes against the grain, but not just for the sake of it.

You play bass for the band Girls Against Boys and were an active member of Washington DC’s famed hardcore/punk scene.  Do you think your experience playing shows and being a part of the DIY scene in general helped ready you for the publishing world?

Yes, I guess it did.  Being a musician you become well trained to fend for yourself. A lot of people who slave away in the punk world, hope for the best from a label but they book gigs and tour anyway. Writers don’t have that financial engine of playing gigs and getting paid, but I’ve often felt that the literary world could use more inspiration from the punk world because it’s all about making your culture independent of the business machinations.

Tell me about your decision to publish your first book, The Fuck Up by Arthur Nersesian.

One of my friends was living a really scrappy existence in the East Village and had this sketchy job working for a weekly paper.  His beat was to go around writing about new local businesses.  So he went into this furniture shop and there was this stack of really crudely produced books.  He started talking to the girl behind the counter about it, who turned out to be Arthur’s girlfriend.  So we all read it and loved it. We all passed around this copy that was falling apart and the ink would come off a bit more every time we read it.

It must be hard running a publishing house. Doesn’t everybody constantly want you to read something or another?  Do you have a slush pile?

Let me show you.

[Takes out a new projects folder and marbled notebook]

This is the slush pile.  There’s a list of the books still being considered. So 1/28/13 is the oldest book that we still have in our slush pile and every week we have meetings about the books in the pile.

Are there any definite do’s or don’ts you can recommend for people who are submitting?

Well, shorter is always better. A lot of us in the literary world are very idiosyncratic.  So it’s hard for me to say, “Never do this,” because it may only apply to me. Some literary agents love it when you go on and on about your platform. It’s helpful to know if someone will bring something to the table on a promotional level but when someone says, “my book will easily sell 10,000 copies,” or “it will be easy to sell this,” I feel snubbed and disrespected because it’s so hard to sell books and most people who don’t sell books don’t know how hard it is. So to say it will be easy to sell 10,000 copies is just pronouncing one’s ignorance of the realities of publishing. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. That’s just a big pet peeve of mine.  Maybe a literary agent would see that as ambition. Whereas we’re very reality based in our relationships with our authors. But some agents and publishing companies want to pump things up bigger than they are.

So the notebook you just showed me included agented and un-agented submissions, right? Does it make a difference to you if a submission came from an agent?

It includes both.  What makes a difference is if the person who submitted makes a personal connection to us.  It might be a writer. Like if Arthur Nersesian says, “I really liked this, you should read this.” Similarly if there’s an agent if who I have a great relationship with, and who knows my taste, then that will have an influence.  But really it’s all the same. Agents have the advantage in that they over time can develop relationships with publishers.  We never set out to do a lot of business with agents but over the course of time I’ve met some really wonderful agents and enveloped cool relationships with them.

What have been some of the most important books in Akashic’s life, milestone books?

The Fuck Up, not just because it was our first book but because it was such a success. There are other books on our list that had we started with them there probably would be no more Akashic. But the success of The Fuck Up gave us this initial momentum. It also defined our fundamental aesthetic, to which we’ve remained true. Of course Go The Fuck to Sleep was the book with which we had unprecedented success. That radically altered our business, so that’s been significant.

Another hugely successful book has been the Amiri Baraka short story collection, Tales of the Out and the Gone, which is just such a beautifully weird story collection from such a hig caliber writer. It was just a huge millstone for us. Southland by Nina Revoyr has been one of our most successful books. It was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and has been widely adopted at universities especially in Southern California. Southland is another book that’s helped to define our aesthetic.

I also have to give credit to Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno because when that came out, it was like Go The Fuck to Sleep. It was hugely influential for us. It’s still the second most successful book we’ve published. We’ve just ordered our 14th printing of the book.

What’s a good thing for aspiring writers to keep in mind?

I think it’s smart to not fool yourself into thinking you’re going to quit your day job. If you get a big book deal then there’s a year where you don’t need it. Obviously there ‘s a handful of best selling writers who have a lucrative income.  Again back to punk rock, nobody was playing it because it was a career path or because there was money to be made, it was an artistic pursuit.  I think if you have dream of quitting your day job your setting yourself up for being perpetually ill at ease with your career path.

As someone that reads a lot, what is the most commonly under-developed aspect of a first novel attempt?

Interesting question. It’s more noticeable in men than in women but some first books come from men between the ages of 20 and 30 and the ridiculously over-charged hubris of male adolescence hasn’t quite smacked into the wall of reality yet. There’s a certain sort of authorial arrogance that I find totally off-putting that I comment on as a general thing I see in first novels from young men.

What’s your outlook on self-publishing for aspiring authors who’ve not yet published and has it changed in recent years?

Generally I advise against it. It’s so much better to have a publisher whether it’s the distribution, the promotion or the editing. In all those major areas you’re going to professionals looking after your work, whether it’s on the business level, the sales level or editorial and creative levels.  Often times people will be strong in one area but not another. They may have superb editing but awful cover design. I think there will always be crazy self -publishing success stories, and I think that’s a great thing.

I’ve read that you weren’t much of a reader when you were younger.

It’s funny you say that now. My mother who lives in Arizona came to town and my two boys who are five and seven, as soon as she walked into the door, they asked “Did he know he wanted to he wanted to be a book publisher when he was a kid?” And my mother truthfully responded “Not at all! He never even came close to mentioning it.”

You’re parents were both attorneys is that right?

Yes.

I know that a low of the writers I’ve met, either went to law school, considered going to law school or are actually working attorneys.  I also know, from having parents that are lawyers myself, that they tend to want their kids to follow in their footsteps.  Do you think your parents like that you do what you do? Do you think they’re proud of you?

I feel very lucky.  My dad passed away a couple years ago, but he was proud.  What was great was that as my father was dying was right as Go the Fuck To Sleep came out and exploded and became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. It happened right when my dad was dying and it was like a light for him as he was going down. So I was always really happy with how that played out because he was really particularly proud in those last moments.  I think my mom is proud of me as well. I have to credit them with allowing me to do what I wanted to do.

Join Akashic as well as Alec MacKaye, punk icon and writer, and Lucian Perkins, photographer, for , a photo book about the DC hardcore scene Thursday, June 20, 7pm, St. Mark’s Bookshop, 31 Third Ave.