An Interview with Johnny Temple, publisher and editor-in-chief of Akashic Books

By E.A. Aymar

I was greedily reading everything about Baltimore that I could when I came across BALTIMORE NOIR, the eighth book in Akashic’s “City Noir” series. The anthology was a collection of short stories about Baltimore, written by writers familiar with the city. I read stories by writers I’d long admired (Sujata Massey, David Simon, Laura Lippman) and discovered new ones. And the stories didn’t huddle in one section of the city; rather, they spread throughout, showcasing Baltimore’s beauty without sugarcoating it.

It’s fair to say that, outside of those deeply interested in publishing, most people don’t know the publishers behind most books. That’s not the case with Akashic (pronounced aw-caw-shick, I think), even in today’s congested market. Like the stories I savored in BALTIMORE NOIR, their books refuse to pull punches, and there’s a fearlessness in their approach. An easy example: most writers are cautioned against using swears early in a book, for fear of alienating readers. Akashic used the word “fuck” in two of their titles – and those titles were their first release, and then again in their bestselling book.

Akashic was started in the 1990s by the musician Johnny Temple, and he stills runs the company. And he was nice enough to hop on the phone for an interview.

(The following interview was transcribed and edited. Any errors or misstatements are the responsibility of the author.)

How did Akashic Books come about?

It was a whim. A whim gone awry. I’d never intended to become a book publisher. That was never a dream I had. My dream was always to have a record label. I was a full-time musician in the nineties, earning a pretty good living. I signed a big record deal around ninety-six, and had some disposable income for the first time in my life. So I decided to start that record label with two friends, Bobby and Mark Sullivan. And pretty early on it became clear to me that I had enough music in my life, especially since I was actually playing in two bands at that time. And there were thousands of great independent record labels in the nineties, so there wasn’t a need for another one. Mark Sullivan had written a couple of novels that hadn’t been published yet, so that put us in the frame of mind to try to publish a book. So we did, but we didn’t start with his. We published a different book (THE FUCK UP), and succeeded with it. The experience was everything I’d wanted out of a record label, but there was actually a need for it.

It’s not uncommon for independent publishers to come and go. Given that, what’s helped Akashic do so well?

One thing is a trait that I have, which is often negative but sometimes positive: my persistence. I can be pretty focused. Also, for the first few years, Akashic was subsidized by my music career. It would be pretty silly to start a publishing company and expect that, within a year or two, you’d be able to pull an income off of it. A lot of people have a great idea for a publishing company and want to try it, and are often stunned by how hard the work is, and how relentless the work is; just constantly pushing the boulder up the hill. But I love doing it, and I love selling books. What I really want to do is be the DJ, picking the songs. I like that a lot.

Another thing was in 2011 we got lucky with a massive hit, which has helped to stabilize the company.

GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP?

Yes.

My wife and I have that book! We love it!

I have two kids, so I was able to recognize its potential. I was part of its demographic.

When we first published it, the book seemed like an odd fit. But we were very close to the author. And the very first book we published was THE FUCK UP, which was a great novel. So we, as a company, clearly have a special relationship with the word “fuck.”

It seems like your company is a lot of fun for you and the people who work there.

The most fun is reading something and realizing it’s amazing and you might get a chance to publish it. That’s always been the most exciting thing, and still is after twenty years.

But I do feel compelled to point out that our office is not a particularly fun office. I’m a workaholic, and the tone I set is very hardworking. I wish I had more fun on a day-to-day level. Other people in the office bring levity. There’s some fun, but the fun is not predominant. The feeling of tremendous pride is constant, as is the deep fulfillment I get.

I can imagine your staff reading my last question and being surprised.

Yeah, they would give me a lot of shit if I let that stand.

What’s the hardest part about publishing?

Every book that we find has a huge potential audience, but it’s hard to find that audience. Especially with literary fiction, which is our main mission. GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP has a defined audience, as does the noir series. But if you have a beautiful debut literary novel, it’s actually quite elusive to determine the person who will buy that book. I like the digital world, but it’s a crowded environment, and connecting with the right audience is tough.

How did the idea for the city noir series come about?

That grew out of BROOKLYN NOIR, which was just an anthology that wasn’t intended to be a full series. Brooklyn has this incredible mosaic of neighborhoods, and doing an anthology would really showcase those neighborhoods. The common refrain in publishing is that anthologies don’t sell well, but we went into multiple printings, won some awards, and the New York Times did a big feature. So it made sense to continue it in Washington, D.C., in Los Angeles, in Rome. And now we have over eighty books based in series all around the world.

Do you think that success is specifically because of the regional focus?

Not strictly, but it is a key element. A lot of us are really in love with where we live, or have a love-hate relationship, and I personally like that very much. I traveled a lot during my rock and roll career, and cities always fascinated me. A lot of times if you ask authors to write about a city, they’ll write about two or three neighborhoods where they congregate. By pushing writers out into the hidden corners, it becomes fun…even if the books have murder and mayhem in them.

So the success is also because of the way we’ve curated them, and the high editing standards we’ve held. And, of course, we’ve been helped along the way by having bestselling writers sign on to edit the books, like Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Joyce Carol Oates, George Pelecanos, and Lawrence Block. And it’s nice to be part of an engine that’s publishing a lot of short stories, which isn’t often the case.

Any thoughts on future volumes in the same city?

We’ve done about ten or fifteen number two volumes, which we call the classics. The first books are original, the second are historical retrospectives. For Brooklyn, we did a third volume, and those were all true crime stories. But we’re more focused on volume one and international cities.

Why the focus on crime fiction, compared to other genres?

Just personal taste, and the taste of my editorial staff. That said, we just signed a phenomenal, ass-kicking sci-fi novel that we’ll publish in the next year or so.

Crime has fascinated me ever since I was a kid. I’ve known criminals, both petty and otherwise, and it’s something I’m drawn to. And everyone on our staff really likes noir and crime fiction.

What are you excited about in 2017?

We have two really strong crime fiction novels coming out in March. There’s THE PAINTED GUN, by Bradley Spinelli. His writing is so good and so fast-paced. It reads like a really smart mainstream novel set in San Francisco with a good dose of humor.

And we’re also publishing a Mumbai-based novel called THE THIRD SQUAD by a writer named V. Sanjay Kumar. It’s an interesting and disturbing examination of an assassination squad that’s part of the Mumbai police, with some compelling and provocative psychological twists. It’s one of those books you read and then have to read again. Right away.

Thanks so much for your time, Johnny, and wishing you and Akashic continued success!

E.A. Aymar is the managing editor of The Thrill Begins. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of top crime fiction publications. E.A. Aymar is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.

To learn more about E.A. Aymar’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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