This is the ninth in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our small press database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Interview with Editor Eric Obenauf
How did Two Dollar Radio start?
Two Dollar Radio began in 2005, when I was 23 and didn’t know any better. I started it with my wife, Eliza. At the time, we were living in San Diego, reading back-issues of Punk Planet, a lot of Howard Zinn, and small press publications from Soft Skull and Akashic and Dalkey Archive. Those elements were the kindling.
We were camping in Big Sur with our dogs when we stumbled in the Henry Miller Memorial Library, where we bought a copy of Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books: How International Corporations Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. That was the spark.
Tell us a bit about Two Dollar Radio. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Some influences include Barney Rosset and the old Grove Press, and John Martin of Black Sparrow. I think they both believed in literature and its standing in the larger cultural conversation: that literature possessed the power to inspire or inform culture. Nowadays, especially at the corporate houses, it seems more like they believe that only the inverse can be true because of how slow and methodical the publishing process is.
In terms of steering the Two Dollar Radio ship, I’m much more influenced aesthetically and spiritually by the work of indie record labels. I read publishing news daily, because I maybe should. But publishing news is fucking boring! Indie record labels like Drag City and Jagjaguwar just do want they want, when they want to, which seems to create an extremely liberating environment creatively. I knew when we started the company, that we would eventually expand beyond publishing books, into film and maybe even music. Our first feature film will be released next spring, and we’re scheduled to begin production on the second feature in June.
We aim to champion bold work of literary merit, creative, striking, with a high level of authorial authority. I realize it’s not for everyone, but the last thing the world needs is another publisher releasing work that could just as easily be published by Penguin Little Brown House. And there’s a strong likelihood that if you enjoy one of our books, you’ll dig them all.
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’ve just published the debut novel by Nicholas Rombes, which is a cinephile’s wet-dream. 3:AM Magazine said that “Kafka directed by David Lynch doesn’t even come close,” which I believe sums it up nicely. Rombes wrote it inspired to conjure up films that don’t exist but that he wishes did, told through the lens of a mysterious, eccentric, rare-film librarian. I wish they did, too, because they sound incredible!
This month, we’re out with Binary Star, a novel by Sarah Gerard, that is getting some great buzz. It’s an impassioned, lyrical rumination on stars, addiction, and obsession, by an exceptionally brave and gifted new voice. I hope you’ll hear a lot about this one in the coming months.
In March, we’re publishing the debut novel by highly-regarded rock critic, Carola Dibbell, who a month later turns 70. The Only Ones takes place in a post-pandemic world, and follows Inez, who is strangely immune to disease and makes her living as a test-subject. Mary Harron, Steve Erickson, and Charles Yu have all given us glowing endorsements.
Then, ideally, April/May-ish we’ll be releasing our first feature film, I’m Not Patrick, which I wrote and directed. In many ways it was the guinea pig for our production wing, but only in terms of testing our own limitations and capabilities. I’m very proud of how it turned out. The cast – which consists of neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers – did a killer job. It’s a black comedy about a teenager whose twin brother commits suicide, leaving him to answer the obvious questions and deal with overbearing family and school administrators. The lead actor, Lachlan Lipscomb, who is only 17, is destined for great things.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Indie presses in this country are the primary force pushing our literary culture forward right now. Which is how it should be, I suppose. We have corporations to thank for this, and their expansion and operating procedures in the ’80s to the present. It created a rich environment for us and other indie presses to step up and make an impact.
Most editors you meet from a large press, their introductions are schizophrenic: “I publish [insert name of writer with a smidge of literary credibility], as well as [insert name of writer with mainstream/pop readership].” It’s not the editor’s fault. I’m really thankful to be in the position that I’m in, where I can feel proud of every author and book that I publish. No disclaimers here.
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 Two Dollar Radio?
There’s a lot to this question, so, you know, I’ll try my best.
We now charge a $3 reading fee. I think of it as if you want me to read your manuscript seriously, you need to buy me a cup of coffee. The reading fee isn’t meant to drive profit – it’s meant as a deterrent to writers (and there are hundreds of them) who carpet-bomb any publisher they can find an email address for. We also make agents pay the fee, which I think irks most of them, but whatever.
I don’t think most engaged or aware readers care quite as much about book costs as the popular masses who bargain-shop at Amazon or Wal-Mart. I bartend three nights a week. We have an incredible draft beer selection. I drink more than my share of craft beers, and I don’t mind paying more for craft beer because 1) it generally tastes much better; 2) it’s nice to have diversity. Imagine if every book cost $9.99 and then imagine every book tasting like Budweiser. That’s not a world I want to live in.
We got major distribution in January 2008. In the fall, the economy went to shit. It forced us to be really thrifty and to make every book count because we couldn’t afford for one not to. It toughened us up, and the last two years have been our two best ever, critically and financially. There are no gimmicks or sleight-of-hand. We’re just selling books. And they’re making money. We’re making a modest profit. I hope next year one of us will be able to ditch the other job and work on the company full-time.
In 2015, Two Dollar Radio turns 10 years old and we’ve got big plans. We’ve got a crop of killer new books, our first feature film, and are planning on taking the show on the road with a film tour and attending twice as many book fairs as usual, as well as hosting anniversary parties in several cities.
What does it mean to you to be a “family-run” company?
Eliza works in educational publishing during the day, then comes home and works on Two Dollar Radio at night. I work on Two Dollar Radio during the day, then go to work at the bar every other night. We eat dinner together and talk about what needs to be done and when. It means we’re not afraid to be brutally honest with one another and that we hold each other to high standards. It means our dining room is our office. Our son was running around saying “Two Dolly Radio” before he even knew he had a last name. It’s who we are.
Recent Two Dollar Radio releases:
Two Dollar Radio on Entropy:
Review of The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes
Review of Made To Break by D. Foy
Review of Binary Star by Sarah Gerard
Review of The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell
Notes for an Unfinished Essay on Barbara Browning’s Two Novels
Review of Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen