Interview with Johanna Ingalls, Managing Editor
How did Akashic Books start?
Akashic started somewhat on a whim when publisher Johnny Temple along with two friends Mark & Bobby Sullivan decided to publish a book (initially the company was started as an indie record label since all three cofounders were musicians)—The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian. Johnny Temple had just signed a lucrative record deal with his band Girls Against Boys and he wanted to use some of his earnings from that to start an independent music and book company, which quickly became solely an independent book publishing company after a few music releases.
Tell us a bit about Akashic. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Because of the strong connection to the music industry—I was the first and for many years only full-time employee, and I too came from a music background, though mine was in music management, not as a musician—a lot of our early influences come from the indie music scene of the 1980s and 90s. Our royalty structure to this day is modeled after great record labels like Dischord Records and not a traditional book publishing royalty agreement. And, while our aesthetics were more influenced in the early days by the indie/punk rock backgrounds Johnny and I both came from, over the years our list has grown to become much more eclectic. Briefly, our mission is to publish great literature, and one of our main focuses is to publish authors who are under-represented in mainstream publishing in the United States. We focus a lot on the Caribbean—Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, etc., as well as African American authors and authors from the greater African Diaspora. More recently, editor Ibrahim Ahmad (who has been at the company nearly as long as I have, beginning at age 16 when he was an intern) has focused on publishing authors from the Middle East, including Iranian author Salar Abdoh and volumes in our Noir Series like Beirut Noir, Tehran Noir, Tel Aviv Noir, etc.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We have an exciting 2016 coming up. We’re launching a new sports imprint curated by Dave Zirin which launches in April 2016 with an incredibly cool, unique memoir by Anthony Ervin—an Olympic Gold Medalist in swimming who has a fascinating story. The book, Chasing Water, comes out in April, just months before the Rio Olympics which Ervin is currently training for. We also have new novels by some of our favorite literary authors including Bernice L. McFadden, Elizabeth Nunez, and Hirsh Sawhney (all authors we’ve published in the past and love working with!). And, we are beyond honored and privileged to be publishing a brand-new memoir by the American hero Ron Kovic (author of Born on the Fourth of July)—Hurricane Street which will be published alongside a 40th-year anniversary edition of the antiwar classic, Born on the Fourth of July! There will be more Noir Series releases and some new children’s picture books later in the year as well.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I think what’s always been exciting/appealing to me. We have much more flexibility to try new things and experiment than it seems is possible in corporate publishing. We can be more adventurous and this is what I find exciting about being at a small, indie company. There’s not a board who has to approve what we publish…It’s literally four of us sitting around a coffee table making decisions—good and bad ones, of course!
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Akashic Books?
Quite simply, Akashic copes because of our hit, Go the F**k to Sleep. Before that phenomenal success we struggled month to month. We are trying to continue to be smart about printing costs and discuss different models that rely more on e-books with smaller print runs when the book seems to warrant that type of publishing. I can’t imagine a scenario when we would ever charge reading fees, but we are always looking for ways to keep our costs down…Which is the way we’ve always operated. So we’re always hyper aware of keeping expenses as low as possible while trying our best not to increase, too much, the cost to consumers. When I first started in the late 90s, most of our paperback novels were priced at $14.95; today in 2015, nearly all are at $15.95, so not a huge jump to consumers over the years which I think is important. It’s on us, I believe, to continue to find cost-effective ways to bring literature into the world while keeping costs as reasonable as possible to the consumer. Easier said than done, but it’s what we aim to do.
Can you say a little more about what it was like for the press to have that “phenomenal success” with Go the F**k to Sleep?
Sure. The success of Go the F**k to Sleep was incredibly exciting and incredibly stressful for the company. We’d never experienced a best seller of this magnitude so we had to scramble quickly to order reprints, hire outside publicists to assist us, and figure out how to stay on top of the overwhelming mountain of emails, phone calls, etc. A huge amount of this was handled by my colleague Ibrahim Ahmad who definitely aged about 10 years in the process (finally making us nearly the same age which I appreciated), but all of us, including the author and illustrator, worked around the clock to meet the demand and I think we did a pretty great job. The company was a full-time staff of 4 at the time and amidst it all we had to also focus on other books we were publishing at that time as well. It was the type of success that can and has overwhelmed small indies to the point of collapse so I’m incredibly proud that we somehow made it through the insanely busy time and continue to reap the benefits from this book (it’s currently #15 on the extended New York Times best seller list). I also want to reiterate how wonderful both Adam Mansbach and the illustrator Ricardo Cortes were to work with throughout it all. They were incredibly loyal to us and trusted us and I will always appreciate that and will be proud of Akashic for stepping up and deserving their loyalty and trust. We learned a ton along the way as well and it has made the company stronger and more stable.