Publishing Focus – Akashic Books

We’ve grown very fond of New York. Since the beginning of our relationship with Macmillan Learning, the city has become a second home for many of the Ribbonfish team. This August, we’re going to be putting a spotlight on the ever-buoyant publishing industry in New York.
In the run-up, we’ll be speaking to various publishers and booksellers based in the city, asking them about what NYC means to them and how it’s shaped what they do and how they do it.
First-off, we were delighted to speak to Managing Editor at Akashic Books, Johanna Ingalls. This popular publishing house is based in the famous borough of Brooklyn, and specialises in urban literary fiction and political nonfiction. I spoke to her about what Akashic is all about, how they got started, and some of the challenges and rewards along the way.
Hi Johanna. Thanks for speaking to us! Firstly, could you tell us about what sets Akashic apart from other publishers?
In a lot of ways we are a pretty traditional publisher with similarities to how we work with both the big houses and our fellow indies. One area that I feel sets us apart is our ongoing commitment to publishing authors from the Caribbean, in addition to African America, African authors, and of course a wide array of authors from across the world.
I remain perplexed that other publishers haven’t noted the wealth of talent in the Caribbean, but also am delighted that we have somewhat cornered this market in the United States at least.
How exactly would you define ‘Urban’ literary fiction?
This term really applied to us more in our early days of publishing than it does now. When we started out, our literary novels were mainly dark, edgy, and for the most part set in cities or urban environments, and I believe our sales were mainly to urban dwellers. We’ve expanded greatly at this point, though we still do love our dark, literary novels set in New York City and other cities around the globe.
How has New York shaped your character as a business?
I believe being based here has been great for us. There is such a wealth of fellow publishers (both big and small), organizations like CLMP, an endless amount of talented authors, literary agents, dedicated interns from the numerous colleges and universities, wonderful independent bookstores, readings series hosted in pubs and parks, and so on. I would guess this is true in other cities like Chicago for example, but my only frame of reference is New York City.
What’s your perspective on the state of publishing in New York?
I think it’s great—especially in the independent world of publishing which we reside in. One thing I love about having worked in independent publishing here for close to two decades is the support we’ve received from the independent literary community and the numerous collaborations we have done over the years with our fellow indies—we launch books and authors together, we share advice, contacts, etc.
As opposed to a feeling of competition, for Akashic at least, there is a wonderful sense of community and I think this speaks to the greater health and well-being of the industry at large.
And how about the wider USA publishing industry?
In recent years, I’ve been really happy to see more publishing houses opening up outside of the city. While my love for this city is clear, I also think it’s important to have perspectives and voices coming from outside of the NYC publishing world. It can only help to expand and diversify literature.
One of my favorite companies (which isn’t new at all!) is Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, TX who publish a ton of bilingual work related to their location on the Texas/Mexico border. Deep Vellum is a wonderful independent based in Dallas, TX that publishes works in translation and recently opened a bookstore as well. Curbside Splendor in Chicago is an exciting and relatively new addition to indie publishing; the west coast has numerous publishers as well—City Lights, another one that isn’t new!, is phenomenal in the work they do as both a publisher and bookstore, and Rare Bird Books in Los Angeles are another worthy of mention.
I could go on and on, but from my perspective there’s lovely growth across the country for presses of all sizes with a variety of different focuses, which I think is a great thing for both authors and readers.
Has the digital revolution affected your work. If so, has this been a positive or negative development?
We have never been anti e-book, so for us it has become another way to reach readers. All of our books are released simultaneously in print and digital, and we have nearly completed digitizing of all our backlist which will mean making some books available that haven’t been for years. We see the world of e-books as a positive as we feel strongly that however a reader wants to read her book we should be providing that to them.
Do you feel it’s important for publishers to diversify or stick to their guns?
I honestly can see value in both. For Akashic, we are always trying out new things and it’s what has worked for us. But, I also greatly respect a publisher knowing what he or she loves, is good at, and wants to support. Not sure if that quite answered the question.
What kind of relationship does Akashic have with its authors?
A very close and collaborative one. We are extremely dedicated to our authors and their books, sometimes to a fault. Authors have full creative control and while we have very strong opinions about editing, cover design, marketing and promotion, etc. we also welcome advice, thoughts, feedback.
At the end of the day, it is the author’s book, and he or she knows it best. Our greatest successes are with the authors who work closely and well with us; authors that respect our advice and feedback and also provide us with wonderful creativity.
What have been your most rewarding and challenging moments of the past few years?
I’ll start with the most challenging moments—staying financially afloat for the first decade-plus as a for-profit, independent company with no investors or backers. We had to survive on book sales, which sounds somewhat obvious to say, but isn’t the case for some other companies who may have investors or receive nonprofit grants, etc. We had one particularly difficult year (2007) where some heavy losses nearly sank the company. I say nearly, and in all honesty, I’m pretty confident that Johnny (Temple, the publisher and owner) wouldn’t have let that happen, but it was very tenuous, to say the least.
The most rewarding moment occurred in 2011 when Akashic had its first, hugely successful, New York Times #1 best seller with the release of Go the F**k to Sleep. This is not to negate or dismiss earlier lovely successes we had on smaller scales including novels like Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned, Nina Revoyr’s Southland, Bernice L. McFadden’s Glorious, the Akashic Noir Series (which has over 70 books in print), and numerous others that were successful on many levels. What Go the F**k to Sleep’s success did for us (and what it continues to do for us), was it allowed us to have financial security for the first time in well over a decade of publishing. It allowed us to take even more risks with smaller novels that might have a limited audience, but to us still a crucial and important one.
What advice would you have to a small startup publishing house in today’s world?
Be patient. Be realistic. Embrace the literary community around you…and, well, don’t expect to become rich from publishing! It can happen, but most of us do it for the pure love of books—whether at a small company or a larger corporate one… But, I would also say, if you want to try it—do so!
A big thanks to Johanna for speaking to Ribbonfish. You can follow Akashic Books on Twitter, or visit their website for more information. If you’d like to be featured in our Publishing Focus series, please do get in touch here.
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