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Johnny Temple of Akashic Books on subversion and the future

April 27, 2009 |  7:00 am

Johnny

Johnny Temple, the publisher and co-founder of Akashic Books, was on Sunday’s panel “Publishing: From Keyboard to Bookstore,” and at the independent publisher's booth the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Akashic has published books by Joe Meno and Nina Revoyr, Robert Scheer and, recently, a book of poetry from Ryan Adams called “Infinity Blues.” Temple took a few minutes to speak with us behind the long impromptu Broadway of the festival's exhibitor booths.

Jacket Copy: Are there any ways a smaller publisher can subvert the larger book publishers? To work the currents as a raft in an ocean of big, hulking vessels?

Johnny Temple: It’s nice that we’re not beholden to any corporations or any financial institutions, so the problem of declining book sales is not compounded with any problems in terms of our funding. The challenge for us is to create new kinds of income streams. We’re moving more quickly to digitize our books. We’ve got them in the Kindle format, on Amazon. Finally the digital format is getting traction. We’re looking for ways to do more direct business from our website. We started doing pre-orders for Ryan Adams’ new poetry collection. His fans were really excited that he had a book coming out, so we released a chapbook that was available as a pre-order. We gave a select number of fans something that they could only get from us, and that helped to generate a pretty giant success for us -- at least giant on our scale. With Mike Farrell’s new book, “Of Mule and Man,” we created a limited edition that we’re using not only to make money for Akashic but also as a political fundraising tool for justice organizations like, for example, Death Penalty Focus.

JC: Your “Noir” series has done very well while managing to spout a long chain of localized editions. How did it go from one book to a whole series?

JT: It all started with “Brooklyn Noir.” Tim McLaughlin, the editor of that book, pitched the book to me, and through discussions back and forth, we actually came up with the concept of “Brooklyn Noir:” a bunch of different stories by different authors set in different neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Common wisdom is that anthologies don’t sell, but it sold very well (or well for us) and the concept was easy to then extend to other cities. Every city we went to, we were greeted with open arms. There are now 30 books in print and we’re doing more and more international titles set in Istanbul, Rome, Paris, Copenhagen. In the fall, we’re publishing “Boston Noir” edited by Dennis Lehane, so that’s something I’m really looking forward to. 

JC: Give us the historical-chronology run-down on yourself and Akashic.

JT: It started in 1997 with two friends, Bobby and Mark Sullivan. We were all musicians. I was playing in Girls Against Boys and we were touring the world and putting out albums. After a particularly successful year, we started a record label and a book publishing company. The book publishing company turned out to be a lot more fun. For the first four or five years, my music career subsidized Akashic, and now I’m doing it full-time and the company subsidizes itself.

JC: How many editors and staffers do you guys employ?

JT: About five editors. We have a full-time staff of four people plus interns. Most of us are editors, but there are a few freelance editors we use as well.

JC: It seems that with Kindle and the digitization of material, there is a kind of correlation to what happened with the music industry, although it’s less disastrous for the book folk.

JT: Well, it’s just not as far along.

JC: Do you think it will get to that point, though? I think that Kindle is a good idea and that it works, but only under specific circumstances.

JT: I think you’re wrong. Now, I love the format of the book. I’m not excited about it going away. The digitization of books won’t be as disastrous to the publishing industry as it was with music, but I do think it’s comparable. I think in five years a lot of people who today might have no interest in reading a book on a screen will have turned the corner. Print books will not disappear, but I think that the digital book sales are going to increase on a major level. There’s going to be new book-reading devices that we haven’t even conceived of. The Kindle is still an early version of something to come that will be more sophisticated. The book has been an incredibly stable format for hundreds of years, but it’s important that culture evolves, and I myself want to embrace the idea, not just tolerate it. As a book publisher, I have to do more than just tolerate it. You have to try and see these things as an opportunity.

JC: Tell us what Akashic’s got coming up in the more immediate future.

JT: We’re putting out our first graphic novel by the filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. It’s a graphic novel version of his new film, called “Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy-Footed Mutha.” It’s a beautiful-looking book, and it’s been really rejuvenating to work him. And I like it when working with a 76-year-old is rejuvenating. (laughs) Later in the summer we’re publishing a posthumous novel by John O’Brien, who wrote “Leaving Las Vegas.” After we had a previously unpublished story of his in “Las Vegas Noir,” his family contacted us. They really liked what we were doing and they said, “Well, there is this other novel of his that’s never been published.” I couldn’t believe how good it was and how complete it was. It needed far less editing than the average book we get. It’s a dark and flawed masterpiece.    

-- George Ducker

Photo credit: George Ducker

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