L.A. Indie Book Publishers Are Thriving. How Is That Possible?
Starting a book publishing house in today's economic climate, Anthony Berryman acknowledges, was "insane." He admits, "From a business perspective, it was never a thought that I was going to be a book publisher. I'm a high school teacher. That's what I do."
But start a publishing house is just what he did. Berryman, who teaches English and philosophy at Compton High School, founded Mugger Press in his one-bedroom apartment in Eagle Rock in 2011. He wasn't deterred by the catastrophic collapse the publishing industry is facing; he wasn't frightened by the Great Recession. All he wanted was to bring Sam McPheeters' novel The Loom of Ruin into the world.
Blame his experience working at Bookfellows in Glendale -- now called Mystery and Imagination Bookshop. One day, owner Malcolm Bell placed a first edition of John Fante's Ask the Dust in Berryman's hands. That's when Berryman knew he wanted to publish books.
It wasn't until he came across a draft of The Loom of Ruin years later that the idea became a reality. McPheeters, co-founder of the legendary hardcore band Born Against, had an agent shopping the book to major publishing houses when he asked Berryman, a friend for more than a decade, to read the draft. Berryman finished the novel in one day and decided that if it wasn't picked up, he would publish it himself.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Berryman says.
Because of the recession and the way that online commerce, from Amazon to e-books, is shaking up the book business, larger publishing houses seem mostly interested in projects they know will sell. They're less likely to take a chance on a new author with a unique vision or a literary bent. But that has only created a niche for guys like Berryman.
McPheeters' novel hasn't logged enormous sales, but Berryman remains steadfast in his faith, saying, "I think [The Loom of Ruin] is going to be looked at, 20 to 30 years from now ... as a minor classic" that was overlooked in its day.
As to the number of books sold, he simply doesn't seem concerned. Like vinyl records and gourmet pickles, independent book-making is becoming artisanal, with dedicated entrepreneurs producing small batches and focusing on quality over profit. When the assembly line isn't an option, why not make something cool and indie -- a labor of love?
"My goal is to create a book as an art object," says Mark Dischler, co-founder of Narrow Books, "so that when someone holds the book, they feel it's a little bit more than a paperback they get at a grocery store."
Founded by Dischler and Christopher Lepkowski almost eight years ago, Narrow Books is an indie press based in Los Angeles. Zines and comics were the founders' first love. Now they've published such beautiful works as Travis Millard's Hey Fudge, Joseph Mattson's Eat Hell and literary journal The Rattling Wall, which boasts Joyce Carol Oates as a contributor in its next issue.
But Dischler and Lepkowski still make their living from jobs in technology.
"The reason why the business model worked, in a weird, twisted way, is because we were working for free," Dischler explains. "We were putting in all this extra time because we really wanted to see this thing finished. We really wanted to create a voice for what we liked and put it out there."
Of their day jobs, Lepkowski observes, "[Technology] all has a shelf life. You do an app for someone, usually commercial stuff ... A month later, who gives a shit anymore? A couple years, the technology is dead. A book, once it's there, floats around and has a life of its own. They kind of travel around and have this existence that goes on endlessly. And ideally, if you make a decent book, it's still around 50 years from now."
Dischler and Lepkowski think about every aspect of the book: the design, the paper quality, the art. They sometimes bring in outside artists to create images corresponding or adding to the text. Looking through Narrow Books' publications is like sifting through a record collection: You're looking not just for content but at the cover, the layout, the overall presentation. You're searching for an artifact and a distinct voice.
"I'll put Hey Fudge in their hands," Dischler says, "and they'll look through it one page at a time. ... That is so fulfilling to me because that was my intention when I edited it and put it together, that there would be this really nice flow."
Mugger Press and Narrow Books are just two of L.A.'s several indie presses: Writ Large Press, A Barnacle Book, Red Hen Press, Les Figues Press and others also publish small batches of books. All share one idea: There are writers and artists out there who need to be read or seen.
While it might be easy to deride these publishers as fiscally irresponsible idealists, it's probably better to look at them as pioneers, men and women who are determined to bring quality projects to the collective consciousness, despite the overwhelming odds of failure. In fact, the founders of Writ Large Press first started a literary journal, Wednesday, with failure in mind. That premise, says its editor and publisher, Chiwan Choi, frees their creative process. Writ Large now has published five books.
You can find these indie presses' artifacts in many L.A. bookstores, including the Last Bookstore, which is starting Indie Shelves, an initiative spotlighting the presses. But their natural habitats seem to be on the road or at book festivals, underneath tents, like farmers selling homemade jam or vinyl collectors hawking Miles Davis' records, hoping that you'll see art in a medium that's undergoing the biggest change since the days of Gutenberg.
"There are a lot of amazing writers in L.A.," Choi says. "Hopefully, all the small presses will do our own parts to bring [these authors] to market so people can find them."Follow me on Twitter at @josephalapin, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.