Books In Conversation
JOHNNY TEMPLE with Justin Courter
In 1996, with money from his band’s record deal with a major label, Johnny Temple founded Akashic Books and published The Fuck Up, a novel by Arthur Nersesian. The Rail last interviewed Temple back in 2003 about the transition from the music business to the book business. It’s been almost a decade since then, but don’t think for a second Akashic has mellowed into a more genteel version of its gutsy original incarnation — or forgotten the F-word. Go the Fuck to Sleep, the publisher’s iconoclastic “children’s book for adults,” has been a huge success that, somehow, has left Akashic as uncorrupted, dedicated, and hungry as it was back in 2003.
This summer, Temple talked to t he Rail about the genesis of the hit picture book, the sense that “being an independent publisher is forcing a state of chronic economic recession,” and the joy and excitement that comes from discovering and publishing new books. The conversation took place at Akashic’s one-room office in The Old American Can Factory, a 19th -century industrial complex of publishers, studios, workshops and production companies on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. In the background, Temple’s staff kept their noses to the grindstone.
Justin Courter (Rail): How did Go The Fuck to Sleep come about? How were you approached?
Johnny Temple: At Akashic we have great writers. We love our writers. And we’re friends with a lot of writers who we don’t publish but are people we have admiration for and who support us. Adam Mansbach [the author of Go The Fuck to Sleep]—we’d published some of his short stories, and he’d co-edited a book for us. We’ve never published one of his novels—he’s really a novelist. But he’s someone who in addition to publishing, we became friends with along the way. The project had to do with the fact of a genuine friendship and publishing relationship that just had a good vibe about it.
Rail: Was it his concept?
Temple: Yeah, Adam came up with the idea. It was after a particularly frustrating experience one night trying to put his daughter to sleep. He finally got his daughter to sleep and then he went and posted on Facebook, “Be on the lookout for my forthcoming book, Go the Fuck to Sleep.” And just writing that, and then getting some positive responses from that, he then sat down and wrote it. It’s a very short book. So he knocked it out pretty quickly. And then he got in touch with Ricardo [Cortes], the illustrator, who’s a friend of his—they’ve known each other since high school—and Ricardo’s also an artist Akashic is friendly with.
Rail: How many sales did you anticipate when you first accepted it? How many copies was the first print run?
Temple: The original print run was going to be a very, very ambitious print run for us, which was going to be 10,000 copies, which is much bigger than our average print run. And that was a reflection of the fact that we thought the book had some commercial potential. You know, the heart and soul of Akashic is dark literary fiction—novels. Novels are really hard to sell, and in today’s society it’s hard to sell fiction, but we love it and that’s why we do it. But I could see that this book might be easier to sell than bold literary fiction by lesser known authors, and so that’s what I said to my staff, because I was the only one on staff who had kids. So I wanted to convey—I think this could be something here.
Rail: Were they as excited about it?
Temple: Probably not (laughs). For me, every day of my life for the past seven years has been dealing with the issues in that book. And having two kids complicates things. It’s getting better all the time. But as far as my staff, they got behind it, and they could see it was very funny and had potential. And once we decided we wanted to do it, and made a deal with Adam and Ricardo, very quickly things started coming together, and then one day it exploded.
Rail: So before the book came out a pirated PDF was circulating?
Temple: Yeah, it was a pirated PDF.
Rail: But that turned out to work in your favor, right?
Temple: It’s hard to measure these things, but it sure looks like it did.
Rail: Do you think it’s possible that file sharing could turn out to be a good marketing tool for book publishers whereas it was a terrible thing for music companies?
Temple: It’s hard to say. We’ve never published a book like this before and the whole world reacts to this book differently than to everything else we publish. And so it’s hard to imagine if this could be some trend.
Rail: So even before the initial print run, did you realize you were going to have to do an even larger print run?
Temple: Yeah, what happened was that Adam Mansbach did a reading at a theater with some other artists in Philadelphia, and it was just sort of an opportunity for artists to try new material. The book wasn’t coming out for another six months, and our promotion had not yet kicked in. Akashic was promoting it to the trade, put we weren’t promoting it to the public yet. And at his reading, he projected Ricardo’s images and the pages from the book. As he read along, the audience in this theater just erupted into laughter and he had to wait long pauses between verses because people thought it was the funniest shit they’d ever heard. And I remember because Adam called me up and said, “Oh, man, I just did this reading and you wouldn’t believe the crazy response I got.” And I said, “This is a great sign, you got a great response.” But what neither of us then yet realized was that people had started making little Facebook posts and tweeting about Go the Fuck to Sleep, this forthcoming kid’s book. And then everything went haywire. It went viral, in the true sense of the word—it was just like parents of the world united around this book. Parents loved it so much that when there were naysayers—you can fish out some naysayers, you know; six thousand people pro, one person con—when that one person spoke their mind with any criticism they were just getting shouted down and attacked by the righteous parents who felt so appreciative of Adam and Ricardo for producing this book.
Rail: How many have you printed so far?
Temple: Domestically, print edition, we’ve printed 650,000, sold 600,000 of those, and if you count the ebook, which has been very, very successful, which [ebook publisher] Open Road did, which was a really great collaboration… they’ve sold tens of thousands of copies and in due time they will sell hundreds of thousands of copies. If you count the ebooks in the foreign editions—we’ve licensed the book into thirty languages around the world—worldwide we’ve sold over a million copies.
Rail: Another marketing question—how important are book reviews to getting novels sold?
Temple: Book reviews are important. Everything is important. Any attention you can get is important. Book reviews aren’t important on their own. Nothing on its own does very much. If there’s a bunch of different media sources reacting to a book and then you have a charismatic author—a bunch of different things need to line up for a book to be a success. A lot of writers learn the hard way that if you get this big New York Times review that you were hoping for, and if the Times reviews it but no one else really pays attention, you know, it might not catch. But if the Times review is a part of a building snowball, then it can be a great, great thing.
Rail: And what are some of those other parts of that snowball?
Temple: Author events, public engagement, obviously social networking can play a vital role. Book trade. We do a lot of promotion targeted not to the public but to the trade itself.
Rail: The noir series has been a hit too. How was that conceived? And when you were first talking about doing Brooklyn Noir, were you already thinking about this franchise kind of thing, or were you thinking strictly about Brooklyn?
Temple: Tim McLoughlin, a Brooklyn-based writer—born and raised, never lived anywhere other than Brooklyn—we published his debut novel, Heart of the Old Country. It was very early on for Akashic; it was our eleventh book and we were very successful with it. It’s a fantastic novel, South Brooklyn novel, one of my very favorite contemporary Brooklyn novels. So he [McLoughlin] had this idea for a series—and we developed this idea by batting some ideas around—of books highlighting the different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, because Brooklyn has these incredible neighborhoods, and we came up with the idea of an anthology in which each writer picks a different neighborhood in Brooklyn and writes a short story around it. So it was this neighborhood view. And we did it, we did a great job of it, it won awards, got great media attention. You know, it really caught on. And then it was very easy to extrapolate, to take the next step and say, “Hey, this worked with Brooklyn, might it work with Washington DC? Might it work with London? Might it work with Los Angeles?”
Rail: How did you go about contacting authors and putting together the ones for other cities?
Temple: Each book has an editor, someone who either lives in the city, or is from the city, or is closely identified with the city and then it’s their job, because they’re the ones who know the writers on the ground. We know lots of writers as well—some of the books we’re more involved with. With Brooklyn Noir we were close partners with Tim in selecting and inviting the authors, but with San Diego Noir I didn’t have many good ideas, but Maryelizabeth Hart, the editor, had great ideas and knew the city as well.
Rail: Are you in touch with a lot of other indie press publishers and do you exchange ideas?
Temple: Sure, absolutely.
Rail: What’s an example of that?
Temple: I see [publishers] Dennis [Loy Johnson] and Valerie [Merians] from Melville House, which is one of the best publishing companies in the country—indie, or major, or Brooklyn or anywhere else. They live right near me and I’ll see them at BEA [Book Expo America] or around the neighborhood, or out and about. And you know there aren’t very many indie publishers walking around, so when you’re talking to each other it’s like, “Oh, you’re like me!” There are very few people you can have certain conversations with.
Rail: And are those helpful?
Temple: Oh, totally, big-time, because everybody shares information. We talk about trade secrets and other things I won’t say in front of this tape recorder. You know, you don’t have private conversations to then tell reporters.
Rail: In an interview with The Rail in 2003, you said things were going to have to change in order for you to keep the company open, and that you were looking at publishers who have survived ten years and are able to pay people well. Now, almost ten years later, it seems that things have changed a lot. So how do you feel about things now and where might you see Akashic in another ten years?
Temple: There are sort of two responses to that and they complement each other. But I don’t think the situation is any different now. I think independent publishing is inherently perplexing. The sustainability of any independent publishing endeavor, with a couple of exceptions, is suspect at best sometimes. And I think that’s the way it was in 2003 and that’s the way it is now. We were extremely fortunate to have this mega-hit, with Go the Fuck to Sleep, which for the immediate future has resolved that issue. But the heart and soul of Akashic is literary fiction—I think it always will be—though we publish a very diverse list of books. But the success of that book is going to make us smarter as publishers and better at what we do, and maybe able to recognize things that cross our paths, but we’re not going to change—we love the type of books that we love and we’re going to keep publishing them. In our last staff meeting we talked about ideas about how to answer the question of how the hell to keep this going. Again, right now we sit comfortably, in our lavish office environment, but there’s no answer to the question I ask. My staff works super, super, super hard, we’re all underpaid, but last year we were able to give people bonuses.
Rail: It seems that Go the Fuck to Sleep and the Noir series were projects that were fun and you weren’t necessarily looking for big money, but now do you keep an eye out for this kind of thing?
Temple: We are trying to keep an eye out for big money ideas. It’s not an organic endeavor amongst the staff at Akashic Books, so we’re trying to flex some new muscles and be like, “Oh yeah, we could sell a million of those.”
Rail: Is there any certain kind of book that comes to mind when you’re thinking of those?
Temple: I would go back to what I said before in the 2003 interview with the Rail] which is that we’ll do crazy, nutty things—we’ll publish a cookbook. It somehow has to work for us within the broader framework of Akashic. Go the Fuck to Sleep obviously does—it’s not totally unlike anything else we do—the sensibility, the humor. But we’re definitely stretching ourselves a little bit. I’m all for looking for commercial endeavors, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to us, so that presents its own challenges. Where a lot of other business owners and even publishers are a more commercially focused in terms of their acquisition process, you know, we by and large publish the books that we love that we think there’s going to be an audience for—not an enormous audience, but enough of an audience. If there’s no audience for a book there’s no point in bringing it to the public.
Rail: A lot of big publishing companies have cut out their midlists and there are now a lot of literary fiction writers who don’t have a home. Do you think that independent publishers are picking up the slack?
Temple: There are too few of us to pick up the slack, but the positive way to look at it is that it’s great that these established authors are now coming to indie presses and we publish some of them. But there’s more of them being let go and mistreated than Melville House, and Akashic, and City Lights, and Two Dollar Radio and the other great literary publishers can pick up. It’s a really good time to be an indie publisher. It’s still a chronic uphill battle—always will be. But relatively speaking, I think that the big companies are ailing more than the indie ones.
Rail: Why do you think that is?
Temple: Well, because in independent publishing, we’re always scrappy, we’re always ailing, we’re always financially perplexed, we’re always hustling, working really hard, so when there’s an economic recession, that’s the mode… being an independent publisher is forcing a state of chronic economic recession (laughs). Not chronic, but it is sort of like working in an economic recession. Even in a healthy economy it’s a little bit like that, I think.
Rail: Before big conglomerates bought up literary publishers and they weren’t expected to have a huge profit margin, it was considered more sort of a gentleman’s profession. Does it seem that that’s what it could be going back to by independent presses taking over literary fiction?
Temple: I would never want to go back… There’s a big romanticization of when it was a gentleman’s profession, and I can’t get over the fact of “gentleman” meaning “straight white man.” That’s what it means, you know, and that’s what it was. So there’s nothing appealing to me about that. I’ve been reading a lot about this recently. I just reread The Business of Books by André Schiffrin. He’s been in publishing for his whole life, and his father before him, and so he saw a lot of these changes take place and the corporate sort of infestation of the publishing business. But there’s something about publishing having to survive out of the largesse of the wealthy as a model that I’m just not that keen on. I like how in modern day publishing, because of desktop software and advances in publishing, you don’t have to be rich to publish books. So in a certain sense I see some of the benefits that the free-market economy has brought to publishing; it’s taken publishing potentially away from the rich. Not that it should be taken away from them, but it should be inclusive of other classes. There’s still very little ethnic diversity in book publishing.
Rail: Is that part of Akashic’s mission—to represent voices that might be underrepresented?
Temple: That’s part of our mission, but the point I was making is actually about the publishing business itself. Part of our editorial mission is absolutely about representing lots of different voices and dynamics, an international range of voices.
Rail: Do you publish a lot of international authors?
Temple: We do. We publish a lot of Caribbean writers. We publish some Jamaican writers and Trinidadians, Haitians, Asian writers, Cuban writers and writers from other places. And that’s a major focus for us.
Rail: How do you like to be approached by authors with whom you’re unfamiliar?
Temple: I like to get an email from a friend of theirs who’s also a writer, who knows Akashic and who’s also a buddy of mine, who says, “Johnny, there’s this great writer, you should check them out.”
Rail: What’s a forthcoming Akashic book that you’re excited about and what’s it about?
Temple: Ricardo, the illustrator of Go the Fuck to Sleep, has this really, really fascinating and beautiful book, A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola. Basically, it takes a look at the Coca-Cola Company and it looks at the privileged trade status that Coca-Cola has internationally, which allows Coca-Cola to use the coca leaf in its formula. The coca leaves are brought up to a plant in New Jersey that extracts the cocaine out of them and delivers the leaves, de-cocainized, to Coca-Cola. And this has been reported on in the past, but Ricardo did deep, new research on this, and as an illustrator, he presents the story in the most visually attractive and very interesting way intellectually. The correspondence that’s included, which he has rendered beautifully, through an interesting form of illustration, really lays out the types of interactions going on regarding Coca-Cola obtaining this privileged trade status, which has been there for a long time. The book is not anti-Coca-Cola at all.
Rail: So the obvious question is what do they do with all the cocaine?
Temple: You’re going to have to go to Ricardo’s website to participate in that discussion.
Rail: Anything else you’d like to add?
Temple: In terms of that question about how do you keep an indie publishing company going, one of the things I’m most proud of is just: we’re here. And we’ve been here for a while now and we’ve managed to keep our doors open. And t he Brooklyn Rail has been this incredible inspiration along the way—another independent-thinking, and rebel-spirited, and arts-loving publication. It’s incredible the amount of space t he Rail gives to visual art—it’s like nothing else. I’ve loved what they’ve done from the get-go.