Literary Labels

Independent record companies turn to publishing books

| May / June 2004

One is round and plays recorded sound; the other is rectangular, conveying words and pictures. Otherwise, records and books can both communicate artistic inspiration, something to which a handful of book-publishing record companies can now attest.

In the 1990s, the record company Ellipsis Arts started publishing books to accompany some of their CDs. Their recorded anthology Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones, which featured music played on invented instruments (plucked bike wheels, bamboo saxophones), cried out for illustration and textual description.

Brooklyn-based Akashic Records took the next logical step -- publishing books without any musical accompaniment -- and actually became Akashic Books in 1997. Founder Johnny Temple, bassist in the band Girls Against Boys, says he 'got enough musical satisfaction as a musician.' His strong political sensibility and eclectic literary tastes have led Temple to publish nearly 40 titles, three-fourths of them novels -- including Arnaldo Correa's Edgar Award-winning mystery, Cold Havana Ground. Noteworthy nonfiction titles include Bandits & Blues Bibles: Convict Literature in Nineteeenth Century America, We Owe You Nothing (interviews from Punk Planet magazine), and The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.

Chicago-based Drag City has struck a balance between making books and making music. As Lisa E. Reardon reports in the weekly Chicago Reader (Dec. 19, 2003), six years after the record company made its publishing debut in 1997 with Victory Chimp (a novel by a musician in one of the label's bands), books accounted for 12 percent of the company's sales. They've published about a book a year, and their best-sellers have been two books by the late guitarist/musicologist John Fahey. Vampire Vultures is a wild ride of self-psychotherapeutic folk tales about 'cat people' and a godlike figure known as 'the great Koonaklaster,' as well as thinly veiled autobiographical accounts of being sexually abused as a child, hyperlucid confessions, and letters, one to a would-be author who slept with Fahey and then ripped him off. How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life is an earlier volume that also blurs that arbitrary line between fiction and nonfiction.



Reardon sees a 'trademark irony' tying together Fahey's words and the music of Drag City recording artists such as Smog. But why, after 33 and a third years of putting out eclectic sounds, representing everything from Colombian cumbia to pop artists Nanci Griffith and George Thorogood, would Rounder Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decide that its publishing debut should consist of three books, two of which concern baseball? Turns out that Rounder co-founder Bill Nowlin is a longtime baseball fan, an author of baseball books, and now co-editor of Rounder's forthcoming The Fenway Project, which looks at a single major league baseball game from the perspective of 61 fans.

Maybe it's all about passion. Nowlin writes that over the years Rounder has released albums 'simply because we like the music and believe in it, not because it looks like a moneymaker.' With a credo like this inspiring these new book publishers, listeners and readers alike may be richly rewarded.