10 November 2021 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Public, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Appreciating Smaller Publishers: From Four-Letter Words to Social Justice, The Story of Akashic Books

A publishing house founded by a former punk-rocker is now known for its unusual themes, dark humor and unwavering support for diverse writers

By Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services at ProQuest

Editor’s note: this is the latest blog post in a series by Bob Nardini about the critical role of smaller publishers in bringing diverse content to libraries.

Every story about Akashic Books begins with the story of Johnny Temple. Temple, Akashic’s president and editor-in-chief, once made a living playing in a punk rock band. He made some money on a record deal and started an independent label; then, as a “hobby” with friends, began publishing books. Akashic’s very first book in 1997 – its title containing a four-letter profanity we will leave out of this blog – was a success. Several more followed. By 2001, Temple, “a little burnt out on the music business,” turned to Akashic full-time. Brooklyn, which according to Temple was a “relative boondocks” in that period, has been the home of Akashic – a publisher that operated “with the spirit of rock and roll.”

Temple has often given interviews and taken part in panels, where he’s been a spokesperson not only for Akashic, but also for independent publishers and the role they play in diversifying the larger business of book publishing. One consistent message from him has been to point to an “incredible homogeneity” at the top of big publishing firms, and the resulting “book biz echo chamber.” 

Temple looks as if he could be a catalog model for the smart combination of dark sport coat and open-collar shirt most videos show him wearing; could be a media bureau head in the city where he grew up, Washington, D.C.; could be a professor anywhere. When he speaks, it’s with precision and care, a perfect setup for the impromptu line delivered by Temple, the only white person on a panel entitled “Black Writers in the Marketplace,” who prefaced one observation by saying, “I don’t mean to diss my white people, but…”

Which brought down the house in laughter. It wasn’t deadpan humor, however, that earned Temple his seat on that panel. Instead, it was the strong support for Black writers Akashic has had throughout its history.

Temple tells the story of befriending the novelist Marlon James at a conference in Kingston, Jamaica. James, then an aspiring writer, was discouraged and ready for a different career. Instead, with some success, Akashic published his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil. That was 2005. A decade later, James had moved to the U.S. and in 2015 won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings.

By then, James was with a larger publisher, the same path taken by Bernardine Evaristo, who shared the 2019 Man Booker (with Margaret Atwood) and whose prior novel with Akashic in 2013, Mr. Loverman, was about a wisecracking, rum-drinking elderly Caribbean man who lived closeted in London for decades. “Evaristo,” remarked the Guardian, “says things about modern Britain that no one else does.”       

In 2007 Akashic brought out Tales of the Out & the Gone, a collection by Amiri Baraka, “America’s most provocative literary anti-hero” – a Goodreads phrase – while reissuing several of his earlier books. It was a publishing gamble, as Baraka not long before had lost his post as Poet Laureate of New Jersey over a poem widely considered anti-Semitic. That was one among a lifetime of controversies for the author once known as LeRoi Jones, who a half-century earlier had written a seminal book about African American music, Blues People, and whose poems, plays, and essays had been anthologized and read for decades. “It becomes easy to overlook,” the New York Times review of Akashic’s Tales reminded readers, “that he is first and foremost a writer.”   

The novel Hadriana in All My Dreams, a 2017 Akashic book, was hardly a breakthrough book for its author, René Depestre, a major figure in Haitian literature since the 1940s and an activist exiled from his homeland for most of his career. The book, first published in France, was praised by Le Monde as “a metaphor for all forms of dispossession.” The Akashic translation features a forward by Edwidge Danticat, recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant and herself a Haitian American author of note.     

Not a bad record, this small sampling of Akashic’s Black authors, for a publisher actually better known for other books. In 2004 Akashic published Brooklyn Noir, a collection of hardboiled crime stories set in its home borough. This launched the Noir series, which today stands at over 100 volumes, each a collection of local writers exploring the criminal underside of their own backyard, whether Accra, Boston, Copenhagen, or Dublin; Tampa, Toronto, Venice, or Zagreb. Akashic’s most popular book, however – a New York Times Best Seller in 2011, with more than 2 million copies sold by now – was a humor book for weary parents, a “children’s book for adults” attempting to put their kids to bed. “You probably should not read it to your children,” the Akashic website advises of the book, whose title includes that same profane word.

Successes like these certainly help an indie publisher to gladly bring out books whose modest sales, at a mainstream publisher, would amount to “failure,” notes Akashic’s director of publicity, Susannah Lawrence. We look for certain types of books, says Temple – “it’s not a gambling model.”  In fact, Akashic’s model for author contracts, uncommon for publishers, even independents, is a bit of a gamble.  Once a book’s sales reach the level of the author’s advance and other direct expenses, Akashic and the author begin to split profits 50/50, whether sales are tiny, or are substantial. Aside from this, though, what truly sets Akashic apart, Temple believes, is “irreverence, an attraction to dark themes, and a passion for social justice.” Not to mention, “we’re always scrappy…we’re always hustling.”      

ProQuest is proud to offer Akashic’s print books and ebooks to our customers. Through a new program, libraries can now enjoy a 20% discount off the list price for new Akashic purchases made through March 31, 2022 on our Ebook Central platform. No action is required to receive the discount, which will be applied automatically to orders placed through LibCentral, OASIS, Rialto and GOBI.     

Learn more about building diverse collections with the Every Voice program.