The Punks of Publishing
"I didn't plan on having a literary career," laughs Gary Hustwit, kicking back in the pastel-hued offices of Incommunicado Press, which adjoin the Lower East Side music salon Tonic. In fact, back in college he was so busy booking shows for his friends' bands that he got booted out of San Diego State. Yet now the 34-year-old publisher presides over his own upstart independent press, which he cheekily trademarked "The Last Hope for American Publishing." And this month he's opening a late-night bookstore at Tonic (107 Norfolk Street) to showcase his own brand of "severe literature" along with the collected works of other small presses, zines, and spoken-word CDs. "That's something you can't get at Barnes & Noble," he notes. "They'll carry an indie book for maybe six months and if it doesn't sell, that's it, they'll never carry that book again."
Hustwit's passion for books grew out of an early obsession with music. After college, he landed a job at the punk-indie label SST, where he devised a how-to manual for would-be rockers called Releasing an Independent Record."I xeroxed it and sold it through the back pages of music mags," Hustwit recalls. He got so many orders he quit his job, traded in his 1964 Plymouth Valiant for $1500, and began publishing other how-to manuals for musicians under the moniker Rockpress . In 1994, while promoting his rock books at clubs and festivals, Hustwit tuned in to the growing wave of young poets and musicians who were getting up onstage to rant between acts: "What got me was the purity of it. There were no instruments, no songs, it was just pure expression. I wanted to find a way to document that on the page."
The result was Incommunicado. With slick cover art and edgy titlesranging from User, a heroin-laced techno-noir by novelist Blake Nelson, to the debauched tales of L.A. scenestress Pleasant Gehman, to the Beat-influenced poetry of country singer (and former X guitarist) Dave AlvinIncommunicado hopes to appeal to all those alternarockers and "alliterate slackers" who are supposedly too attention-deficit-
disordered to care about books anymore. "You always hear that people 18 to 35 don't read, but I think that's because the bigger publishers aren't giving them anything worth reading."
Hustwit's transition from rock to lit marks a trend in publishing. It's not just that more musicians are taking to writing (check out Silver Jew lead singer David Berman's
recent poetry opus, actual air, from Open City Books). At a time when the book industry has consolidated into a handful of international behemoths, a new breed of young publishers are emerging from the ranks of alternative
music to buck the status quo, employing the same DIY guerrilla tactics they used to break into the music biz.
"What I can do on the Mac used to take a staff of 25 people," notes Hustwit, who edits, designs, and publicizes all of Incommunicado's books with the help of three staff members, turning around manuscripts in as little as six to eight weeks. "We can make money selling 3000 copies of a book, where a major house would just drop it." This year, Hustwit is releasing 15 new titles, including a batch of so-called "7-inch" readsshort, snappy novellas or poetry selectionsthat Hustwit calls "the literary equivalent of the 7-inch record single."
Just around the corner from Tonic, Sander Hicks presides over Soft Skull Press from the basement of the Suffolk Street tenement where he doubles as super. "Our philosophy is totally punk," says Hicks, who used to front the hardcore band Subterfuge, "but we like to temper it with a bit of enlightened capitalism." Like Hustwit, Hicks got his start with the copy machine. While working at Kinko's back in 1992, he and his business partner, Susan Mitchell, began producing xeroxed chapbooks for fellow punkers and performance artists like John S. Hall (King Missile) and Todd Colby (Drunken Boat). "Everything was so chaotic and stressed and at such a high pitch, it seemed appropriate to sort of even the odds and take back from the shop," he admits.
Interest in the press grew by word of mouth. Hicks published some poems by David Greenberg, who introduced him to Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. That led to Road Movies, Ranaldo's 1994 poetry collection, which remains Soft Skull's biggest seller at 5500 copies. By 1996, the press decided to make the move to offset printing. So to raise funds, they incorporated, issuing limited stock offerings of $1000 to friends and family members.
"Becoming a corporation was kind of a weird move," says Hicks, who still calls himself a Marxist and includes an account of his recent expulsion from the International Socialist Organization on his press's Web page. "But we figured the best way to fight capital was to use it." By the end of 1999, Soft Skull will have 43 books, ranging from a work celebrating alternative-rock hero Daniel Johnston and the haiku poems of Michael Stipe to Flatnessisgod, an ironic take on two-dimensional design by the pop graphic artist Ryan McGuiness.
Admittedly, it's no easy time to be venturing into the book trade. With even established independents like Henry Rollins's 2.13.61 pulling back on new titles, the profit margin for small presses is looking increasingly slim. Though Hicks has had to resort to freelance production work to help with the bills, he still believes that niche markets for the kind of quirky books Soft Skull publishes will grow.
Hicks's idealism is matched by that of Johnny Temple, bass player of the band Girls Against Boys. Two years ago Temple and his business partner Mark Sullivan founded Akashic Books, using the advance Temple received when his band signed with Geffen Records. "Part of what motivated me to start and invest myself in independent publishing was because my band had made this jump from an independent label to a major onea system I have absolutely no respect for," says the 32-year-old rocker. "That gave me the motivation to create a counterbalance by investing myself in independent art."
Not that Akashic hasn't received mainstream recognition. This year, its first title, a reprint of Arthur Nersesian'sThe Fuck-Upwhich chronicles a young man's downfall on the Lower East Sidewas picked up by MTV Books, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster. Akashic's latest offering, Henry Flesh's Massage, a grim tale of an erotic masseur's downward spiral through drugs and AIDS, has also been well received. But Temple believes his press can be more than just a stepping stone for new and underrecognized authors. His goal, he says, is to help foster a viable subculture for alternative publishing, modeled in part after his band's relationship with its former label, Touch and Go Records.
"The corporate publishers have really turned their backs on literary fiction," Temple maintains. "That leaves a real opening for small presses like us. We can't give writers huge advances. But we can give them a huge amount of control over the editing and packaging of the book. It's the same in the world of corporate music. Whether you're a writer or a band, you basically end up feeling like you're just delivering product. We offer an alternative to that."
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