“The big book companies are getting dumber and dumber all the time,” says Mark Sullivan, a former D.C. punk rocker turned small-press publisher. Trading on the smaller-is-better dictum he learned in his days performing with local bands Kingface and Sevens, Sullivan has stumbled his way into New York’s radical literary culture, which is flourishing in reaction to a perceived decline in quality of mainstream publishing. His fledgling Akashic Books imprint has reaped early and unexpected literary cachet for its first releases, Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up and Yuri Kapralov’s Once There Was a Village. Last week, he was back on home turf in D.C. to promote his own forthcoming novel, Jonah Sees Ghosts, reading to a small crowd of friends and fans wedged into the tiny space at the back
of Atticus Books.
“Indie publishing is in the same kind of place now as indie record labels were 10 years ago,” Sullivan says. He and his partner, Girls Against Boys bassist Johnny Temple, originally founded Akashic as a record label, and Sullivan finds the parallels between the industries remarkable. “Larger publishers have abandoned the work of challenging writers as a frivolous feather-in-cap luxury,” he says, “and the manuscripts that aren’t polished but that really have a unique spark are being sent now to people like us. Mainstream publishers aren’t interested in anything until it’s already a proven success. Sound familiar?”
It does to the crowd assembled at Atticus, including Sullivan’s friend and mentor, Dischord Records’ co-owner Ian MacKaye. Nobody seems surprised to hear that publishing rights to Nersesian’s novel The Fuck-Up already in its third pressing with Akashic have just been bought by a larger publisher. Sullivan says the “filter-feeder” literary agents are beginning to regard small presses like Akashic as risk-free, minor-league farm teams for cultivating talent. With the sale of The Fuck-Up, Sullivan intones, he can’t help feeling as if he’s been screwed in much the same way as he’s seen happen to many of his musician friends.
“I’m learning that this [publishing] business isn’t any easier” than the music industry, says Sullivan. “But I have to say that the writing we get is way better than the demo tapes we get.” —Colin Bane