To reach Archipelago Books, just off the DUMBO waterfront, a guest must squeeze past the team of construction workers in hard hats, goggles, and surgical masks who are drilling the Jay Street entryway one rainy May morning, blanketing the stairwell with a thick layer of dust. Publisher Jill Schoolman warmly welcomes the coughing visitor into a small second-floor office that shares a thin wall with a dance company, which today provides a boisterous repeat-play soundtrack of what sounds like Bollywood-inflected Japanese speed-disco.
Amid these friendly, no-frills environs, Archipelago is enjoying a breakout success with the rapturously reviewed American release of Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury’s Palestinian spin on the Arabian Nights. Devoted to literature in translation, Schoolman’s company is also an important part of Brooklyn’s current literary bloom, which includes the for-profit presses Akashic Books, Soft Skull Press, and Spuyten Duyvil, as well as Archipelago’s fellow nonprofit Ugly Duckling Presse. America’s publishing capital may be identified with the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan, but a century and a half since Walt Whitman anonymously self-published Leaves of Grass in Brooklyn, the borough’s independent presses are fostering a viable alternative for authors too offbeat or “midlist” to find a stable home at one of the main houses.
“In big publishing, the line is that people don’t read, and we’re all competing for the same dwindling pool of readers,” says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic. “That’s not true. We’re going out and finding new readers, and showing people that reading can be provocative and exciting.” Temple is chair of the two-year-old Brooklyn Literary Council, the motor behind the inaugural Brooklyn Book Festival, planned for September.
Against a backdrop of corporate consolidation, indie presses offer the homegrown, highly economical products of a unique vision. Temple started Akashic in 1997 with the money he received after his band, Girls Against Boys, won a major-label deal. Soft Skull originated in 1992 as a self-publishing enterprise, and Spuyten Duyvil is a model of home economics, operated out of Tod Thilleman’s apartment in Park Slope. Dedicated to experimental fiction and poetry, Spuyten Duyvil scored a critical favorite with Tsipi Keller’s Jackpot (2004), a novel of sex and gambling on a Bahamas vacation gone awry, and will publish the second entry in Keller’s planned trilogy, Retelling, in July.
While Spuyten Duyvil is a virtual one-man operation, Ugly Duckling defines itself as a collective, and operates a workshop and letterpress studio in Red Hook. “We emphasize the visual and tactile aspects of books,” says collective member Greg Ford. Ugly Duckling routinely sells out its lovely limited-edition printings of saddle-stitched and hand-bound books; Jen Bervin’s Nets (2004), which strips down and reinterprets Shakespeare’s sonnets, is now in its third printing. “People have contradictory perceptions of poetry as either something that anyone can do or something too abstruse to even bother with,” Ford says. “And that’s OK, because it means we don’t have to live up to anybody’s expectations.”
In terms of commercial expectations, of course, the for-profit ventures have a bit more to worry about. Soft Skull’s diverse palette covers fiction, current events, graphic novels, erotica, and more. Johnny Temple has likewise carved out multiple niches under the Akashic umbrella, including the “Noir” franchise of crime fiction anthologies (including two editions of the flagship Brooklyn Noir), the “Little House on the Bowery” series curated by Dennis Cooper, and a strong line in Caribbean literature. “I know many writers in Jamaica,” Temple says, “but for some reason there aren’t any big publishing companies going down to meet all these great English-speaking authors. It’s not a trend yet—it will be soon.”
Margarita Shalina, the small-press buyer at St. Mark’s Books, concurs that major publishers often take their cues from the upstarts. “Large presses feed on small presses—they don’t take the same kinds of creative chances,” says Shalina. After David Rees’s darkly hilarious series of clip-art strips Get Your War On found cult success in book form for Soft Skull in 2002, Riverhead signed up Rees for a sequel. T Cooper moved to a Penguin imprint after Akashic published her debut, the Lambda Literary Award finalist Some of the Parts (2002), and Akashic’s breakthrough writer, Arthur Nersesian, got a deal with HarperCollins after cult recognition for The Fuck-Up (1997), about a hapless young cinema usher adrift in the ’80s East Village. The Fuck-Up won an MTV Books reprint deal, and a film adaptation directed by Mr. Show‘s Bob Odenkirk is now in the works. “Arthur put Akashic on the map and Akashic put Arthur on the map,” says Temple.
On the map doesn’t necessarily mean in the money. “We’re thriving, we’re doing great, but that’s a creative thing, not a financial thing,” Temple says. ” ‘Thriving’ in the financial sense just means I’m breaking even. But the big companies aren’t making money, either. The corporate model is a gambling method of doing business.” Richard Eoin Nash, publisher at Soft Skull since 2001, agrees. “With a 10th of the advertising budget for one of the major publishers’ blockbusters, I could run our entire operation across 40 books,” Nash reckons.
“It’s a terrible system for great literature that doesn’t have a mass audience,” Temple adds. “For those companies, you’re either hitting it out of the park or you’re failing.” Happily for Akashic, their biggest hitter has decided to stick with the team: They’re planning their largest first printing to date, 15,000 copies, for the September release The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno, author of the company’s all-time bestseller, the 2004 coming-of-age tale Hairstyles of the Damned. Published on Punk Planet magazine’s imprint on Akashic, Hairstyles has sold 60,000 copies and counting.
“We’re much more likely to keep an author if he or she has seen the other side,” says Nash, whose roster boasts a number of big-house alums. Matthew Sharpe had already published two books with Villard, a Random House imprint, before moving to Soft Skull for his second novel, The Sleeping Father (2003), which hit paydirt when it was selected for the Today Show Book Club. Soft Skull will release Sharpe’s next book in a joint deal with Harvest, the paperback imprint of Harcourt.
“One major benefit of working with a small press is the human scale of it,” Sharpe says. “As much as I liked the people at Villard, they would start sentences that went, ‘It was decided that . . . ‘ There’s this mystifying corporate decision-making process, and the novice literary author is often on the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” With Soft Skull, Sharpe explains, “If I want to talk about the cover or marketing or distribution, I just pick up the phone and call Richard Nash. There’s a personal and emotional investment, and a real material investment, in every title that they do.”
And if the author is lucky, even the disadvantages can have their perks. “I got what I’d call an unhealthy four-figure advance for The Sleeping Father, and it’s more of an uphill struggle in terms of distribution and marketing. At the same time, while no publisher can make their book get on the Today show, Richard did absolutely everything he could to put the book on that path. And once the book passed a relatively low sales threshold, I started getting royalty checks,” Sharpe adds. “In corporate publishing, royalties are the equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting.”
The Brooklyn Book Festival takes place Saturday, September 16, at Borough Hall Plaza. The Small Press Center hosts Archipelago Books as the closing event of its “Emerging Voices” series on June 6.