Johnny Temple is a man of many talents. He's played shows around the world as the bassist for Girls Against Boys, he founded an independent press Akashic Books in 1996, and publishes unsung urban authors. For the past five years, he has helped bring some of the most popular authors to Borough Hall for the Brooklyn Book Festival. This year's book festival, on Sunday September 12, is bigger than ever with two days of "Bookend" events and all-star authors like Salman Rushdie, Naomi Klein, and Gary Shteyngart. We caught up with Temple, chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, to talk about Akashic Books, how music and literature connect, and who he's most excited to see at the festival.
During your time in the music business, you were involved in bands that were very influential in creating, recording, and distributing music by DIY means. The publishing business is starting to see this same shift. How do you think this will change the industry?
I think it already has affected the publishing business. There are major economic hurdles for all the publishers, large and small, but there are also all sorts of opportunities. I think it’s actually a good time to be a small company because small companies are better equipped to try creative solutions and think on our toes when it comes to the challenges presented by contemporary publishing. A lot of great independent companies are really starting to flourish. I think it’s an encouraging time with regards to companies with more of a DIY spirit.
Could you elaborate on the challenges presented by contemporary publishing?
The biggest one is a drop in book sales across the board. There’s also the digitization of literature, as e-books become a new and more popular format. Publishers also have to quickly scramble to figure out how to approach selling our books digitally. But again, for small companies, we can make decisions fast, and we’re not burdened down by large bureaucracy.
How do Akashic's business principles line up with your background in the DIY music scene?
On a very basic level, our relationship with our authors — our royalties structure with our authors — is an unconventional model which I adapted directly from independent record labels like Touch and Go Records and Dischord Records. It’s a profit split model. Instead of a standard small royalty rate, which is what the traditional book publishing contracts offer writers, we split all the profits of our books with our authors so that we are sinking or swimming at exactly the same level. It helps to create a camaraderie between ourselves and our authors. It helps to build a sense of trust. I think a lot of times with authors, with the bigger publishing houses, there’s very little, if any trust. Our model is based on human relationships. It’s based on trust, it’s based on mutual respect. We’re very author-focused, as opposed to the major corporate publishers who are very money-focused.
And that’s something you took from being very musician-focused in the music industry?
Yeah. As a musician, I was very fortunate to record with a couple different record labels that treated their musicians almost like family, and that had a major impact on me and my appreciation of culture businesses like record labels and book companies. So that’s what I was inspired to do: start a company focused on art and artists, instead of focused on the bottom line. Of course, we do have to focus on the bottom line because we have to stay in business in these economically treacherous times, but it’s all about the right balance. There are a lot of wonderful book publishing companies – like Akashic Books, Melville House Publishing, Soft Skull Press, City Lights Books – that I think have a much better balance between art and commerce than the corporations.
Niche publishing companies and smaller publishing houses like yours and those you listed are becoming much more popular. Do you foresee the publishing industry having similar problems as the music industry in its race to the bottom line?
I do. In some ways, I think the problems that the publishing business is going to have will be even worse than the music business had because publishing is a much smaller business. I think the past ten years have really shown how authors do not benefit by working under bottom line obsessed companies. I think that in this economic crisis, it has become apparent that a lot of the big companies have been spending money foolishly. They have all these resources, but they’re not very evenly distributed among writers. Some writers get tons of attention; other writers get very little attention.
But I will say, and this is a very important point, that there are a lot of really wonderful people who work at the major publishing houses. The Brooklyn Book Festival does not discriminate between independent publishers and major corporate publishers. We treat them all equally and with equal respect. The authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival represent publishing companies across the spectrum. I don’t have a blanket anti-corporate perspective; I just think that sometimes authors benefit from a more human oriented system.
Do you think ideas like those behind Akashic and other small publishing companies – i.e. focusing on the authors and not being obsessed with the bottom line – could revolutionize the publishing industry?
I think they can influence it. I don’t think they can revolutionize it. The large corporations just have so much more money. I think that good independent companies can help steer bigger companies in a better direction, but ultimately, the big companies are much more powerful. It would be hard for independent publishing to turn the whole business on its head, but I think that we can have an impact, just not an overwhelming impact at this stage. Maybe in ten or fifteen years things will change.
You’re responsible for bringing musicians to the fest – like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat last year. Why is the co-mingling of music and publishing is important to you at this festival?
Part of my inspiration for being involved with the Brooklyn Book Festival is to help the general public to see that books are not this elitist or obscure art form. Books need to be made very accessible to the general population, and I don’t think that publishing has done a very good job at that. A lot of literature, sort of speaking about literary fiction and nonfiction, is really geared toward the over-educated and the economically prosperous of our country. Yet at the same time, everyone in publishing is always complaining that the business is ailing and no one reads anymore. The publishing companies need to show the world that our books are for everybody. I’m not talking about dumbing down the literature; I’m just talking about presenting it in ways that are compelling to the general population.
I feel like from my experience as a musician, I was able to see how music hits people on a much more immediate level. Rock and roll, hip-hop, jazz – these popular forms of music are for everybody. I feel that the books that I’m publishing are just as exciting as the music that my band was playing. Yet, it was much easier for my band to attract an audience than it is to attract an audience to literary fiction or nonfiction. Music and literature have always majorly influenced each other.
Sometimes people will say to me, ‘Oh you played in rock bands. Did any of your fellow musicians read?’ And I always find that to be a funny question because musicians are more literate than most people. Musicians tend to be — whether they’re hip-hop, classical, rock and roll, jazz, reggae — readers. Literature has always inspired music; music has always inspired literature. There’s a two-way street of influence that I don’t think people always recognize. At the Brooklyn Book Festival, we’re trying to do very dynamic programming to convey how alive literature is in 2010, and one of the ways to do that is to highlight the relationship between music and literature.
This year the festival is bigger than ever with the two days of “Bookend” events. Do you think that as the festival has grown it has a national impact? Is it something that people are talking about in other cities?
Definitely. I would even say an international impact. I go to Europe every year for the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany and the London Book Fair in England, and when I’m over there, people are always asking me about the Brooklyn Book Festival. We have authors coming from all over the world and exhibitors and publishing companies coming from all over the country. We definitely think that in just our short five-year history, we have established the Brooklyn Book Festival pretty solidly as one of the premiere public book events in the whole country.
Greenlight Bookstore is hosting a “Bookend” event that will celebrate Brooklyn's independent presses, including Akashic. How does this event further the mission of the Book Festival?
It expands the breadth of the festival beyond what happens at grounds of Borough Hall plaza on September 12. It gives it more depth. For example, looking at this particular event, there’s nothing at the Brooklyn Book Festival that could quite accommodate something as laid back as a party with DJs. This is going to be a fun, casual affair that will be a way to give more involvement to the various independent publishing companies, as well as Greenlight. Now, it’s not just a one day book festival, it’s really a three day festival. For Akashic, we love to collaborate with our fellow independent publishing companies and literary magazines, so when Greenlight asked us if we’d be interesting in participating, we jumped at the opportunity.
Not only will Akashic be a part of the celebration, but also you are one of two guest DJs for the event. Why did you choose to participate in a musical capacity?
I was happy to take a spin as a DJ because I love music. In some ways, being a book publisher, I’ve often likened it to being a DJ. A DJ gets to select the music that people are going to hear, and as a publisher, you get to select the books that people are going to read. There’s sort of a natural affinity between running a book publishing company or literary magazine and actually being a DJ. And what can I say? I like to play music for people.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?
A new partner for us this year is the New York Public Library, and I’m very excited about that. They have a series of programs called Live From the NYPL, and it’s among the very best, most prestigious, most well-crafted literary programming that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. They are doing a program with Salman Rushdie and a young writer named Tashani Doshi, which will ultimately be one of the most popular programs of the whole day. Another one I’m excited about is a program that will have Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane, two titans of fiction. Connelly is generally associated with the mystery genre and Lehane is a literary writer and a crime fiction writer, so the two of them in conversation should be pretty momentous. It’s definitely going to be our best year yet. I think we have some wonderful authors, and a lot of impressive programming.