L.A. Indie Book Publishers Are Thriving. How Is That Possible?

Anthony Berryman
Anthony Berryman
Drew Barillas

Starting a book publishing house in today's economic

climate, Anthony Berryman acknowledges, was "insane." He admits, "From a

business perspective, it was never a thought that I was going to be a

book publisher. I'm a high school teacher. That's what I do."

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But

start a publishing house is just what he did. Berryman, who teaches

English and philosophy at Compton High School, founded Mugger Press in

his one-bedroom apartment in Eagle Rock in 2011. He wasn't deterred by

the catastrophic collapse the publishing industry is facing; he wasn't

frightened by the Great Recession. All he wanted was to bring Sam

McPheeters' novel The Loom of Ruin into the world.

Blame

his experience working at Bookfellows in Glendale -- now called Mystery

and Imagination Bookshop. One day, owner Malcolm Bell placed a first

edition of John Fante's Ask the Dust in Berryman's hands. That's when Berryman knew he wanted to publish books.

It wasn't until he came across a draft of The Loom of Ruin

years later that the idea became a reality. McPheeters, co-founder of

the legendary hardcore band Born Against, had an agent shopping the book

to major publishing houses when he asked Berryman, a friend for more

than a decade, to read the draft. Berryman finished the novel in one day

and decided that if it wasn't picked up, he would publish it himself.

"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Berryman says.

Because

of the recession and the way that online commerce, from Amazon to

e-books, is shaking up the book business, larger publishing houses seem

mostly interested in projects they know will sell. They're less likely

to take a chance on a new author with a unique vision or a literary

bent. But that has only created a niche for guys like Berryman.

McPheeters' novel hasn't logged enormous sales, but Berryman remains steadfast in his faith, saying, "I think [The Loom of Ruin] is going to be looked at, 20 to 30 years from now ... as a minor classic" that was overlooked in its day.

As

to the number of books sold, he simply doesn't seem concerned. Like

vinyl records and gourmet pickles, independent book-making is becoming

artisanal, with dedicated entrepreneurs producing small batches and

focusing on quality over profit. When the assembly line isn't an option,

why not make something cool and indie -- a labor of love?

"My goal

is to create a book as an art object," says Mark Dischler, co-founder

of Narrow Books, "so that when someone holds the book, they feel it's a

little bit more than a paperback they get at a grocery store."

Founded

by Dischler and Christopher Lepkowski almost eight years ago, Narrow

Books is an indie press based in Los Angeles. Zines and comics were the

founders' first love. Now they've published such beautiful works as

Travis Millard's Hey Fudge, Joseph Mattson's Eat Hell and literary journal The Rattling Wall, which boasts Joyce Carol Oates as a contributor in its next issue.

But Dischler and Lepkowski still make their living from jobs in technology.

"The

reason why the business model worked, in a weird, twisted way, is

because we were working for free," Dischler explains. "We were putting

in all this extra time because we really wanted to see this thing

finished. We really wanted to create a voice for what we liked and put

it out there."

Of their day jobs, Lepkowski observes,

"[Technology] all has a shelf life. You do an app for someone, usually

commercial stuff ... A month later, who gives a shit anymore? A couple

years, the technology is dead. A book, once it's there, floats around

and has a life of its own. They kind of travel around and have this

existence that goes on endlessly. And ideally, if you make a decent

book, it's still around 50 years from now."

Dischler and Lepkowski

think about every aspect of the book: the design, the paper quality,

the art. They sometimes bring in outside artists to create images

corresponding or adding to the text. Looking through Narrow Books'

publications is like sifting through a record collection: You're looking

not just for content but at the cover, the layout, the overall

presentation. You're searching for an artifact and a distinct voice.

"I'll put Hey Fudge

in their hands," Dischler says, "and they'll look through it one page

at a time. ... That is so fulfilling to me because that was my intention

when I edited it and put it together, that there would be this really

nice flow."

Mugger Press and Narrow Books are just two of L.A.'s

several indie presses: Writ Large Press, A Barnacle Book, Red Hen Press,

Les Figues Press and others also publish small batches of books. All

share one idea: There are writers and artists out there who need to be

read or seen.

While it might be easy to deride these publishers as

fiscally irresponsible idealists, it's probably better to look at them

as pioneers, men and women who are determined to bring quality projects

to the collective consciousness, despite the overwhelming odds of

failure. In fact, the founders of Writ Large Press first started a

literary journal, Wednesday, with failure in mind. That

premise, says its editor and publisher, Chiwan Choi, frees their

creative process. Writ Large now has published five books.

You can

find these indie presses' artifacts in many L.A. bookstores, including

the Last Bookstore, which is starting Indie Shelves, an initiative

spotlighting the presses. But their natural habitats seem to be on the

road or at book festivals, underneath tents, like farmers selling

homemade jam or vinyl collectors hawking Miles Davis' records, hoping

that you'll see art in a medium that's undergoing the biggest change

since the days of Gutenberg.

"There are a lot of amazing writers

in L.A.," Choi says. "Hopefully, all the small presses will do our own

parts to bring [these authors] to market so people can find them."

Follow me on Twitter at @josephalapin, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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