It will think you are crunching bones
In California, at last, the rain has come; a storm is scheduled to hose down the whole northern half of the state this weekend, more precipitation in 48 hours than the past eight months. Here in the Bay Area, our just-ended “water year”, which runs October-September, amounted to about eight inches of rain. This storm, the first of a new water year, could dump five inches on us!
Let me tell you about an uncanny encounter with a publisher.
A while back, I came across Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, by J. Furcifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna. It belongs to one of my favorite genres, which I’ve spoken about before: encyclopedias, glossaries, and dictionaries, particularly those that catalog … well … ghosts, monsters, and demons!
Even so, I was not prepared for how deeply this book captivated me. For weeks, I read it over breakfast and before bed. I carried it everywhere, including into the bathtub, several times. The appeal was manifold: brisk writing; linguistic diversity; genuinely new-to-me mythic imagery; great illustrations!!
If you follow me on Instagram, none of this is news to you, because I was, during those weeks, constantly posting snippets of the book. Here, the saliva of doom:
Here, the flickering aonglamla, what an image:
Here, robot assassins from thousands of years ago!?
And here, perhaps my favorite image in the whole book:
I think Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India is exemplary of what a book can be, how it can operate. It’s a bridge across space, time, and language. As a physical book, it’s innately random-access, great for browsing (although I was so captivated I basically read it straight through). In form and content both, this is the kind of volume that, if you discovered it on a shadowed shelf in a used bookstore, would make you giddy with delight.
Having had such a strong reaction, I decided I ought to properly investigate the book’s publisher, Blaft. Well, its website is great, its offerings totally compelling, sooo of course I bought $200 worth of books. Blaft is in Chennai, so I knew shipping would be slow, and that was fine with me. I love a book order that arrives long after you’ve forgotten about it. “What’s this? Oh, yeah … OH, YEAH!”
A couple of days later, I was heading out to grab lunch. At the precise moment I hopped onto the sidewalk, a figure was approaching the gate; we startled each other. This figure carried a large box, but was not an agent of the USPS. The figure was, in fact, Rakesh Khanna, CO-FOUNDER OF BLAFT–!!!! —
Here’s the best part: I was heading out in the manner that had become customary, which is to say, I had my hat, my phone, my keys … and my copy of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, tucked under my arm. I held it up, waggled the book at its co-author and co-publisher.
The whole encounter was almost more uncanny than charming; almost.
I’ve now dipped into my Blaft haul. The volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction are, as expected, amazing: transects through a vibrant print culture in which the median author seems to have published about 500 books. The biographical sketches are as much fun as the stories, which is saying a lot, because the stories are WILD.
There are so many book publishers out there of exactly this scale and specificity, and they are, to me, the marrow of the medium. I mean “marrow” in the sense of, like, “secret center of production”; or, as Horace Portacio says in Sourdough,
From the Old English mearg, the innermost core. The hidden heart! It makes our blood in its secret chambers. That is Mr. Marrow’s ambition, I believe. The production of new blood.
Discussing the work of publishing with ~internet people~, you often encounter a reflexive belief in the value of disintermediation. The internet person who says “YEAH, we need to finally get rid of those PUBLISHERS” sees them strictly as parasites, slowing and constricting the ideal relationship between author and reader. This person believes the direct link is what everyone involved actually desires. The direct link —
Now, I appreciate a direct link. I have published a ton of things on my own, and here I am, linked to you directly.
But if publishing was only direct links, if it only produced the kinds of books that emerge from that particular relationship —
You’re standing inside of it.
I feel like the people who make the most noise about “liberating” authors from their publishers (and musicians from their labels, etc., etc.) are the ones who … don’t actually enjoy books that much? Any medium-serious reader has their favorite publishers, their reliable fountains of fascination: Belt Publishing, Locked Room, Duke University Press, Paul Dry Books, Heyday, FSG Originals …
Publishers like these don’t just ferry finished work into the marketplace (although they do that, too); they actually summon new work into existence. The idea of Daniel Heath Justice writing a perfect slim volume about badgers on his own is nonsensical. But his Badger is a beautiful book, so I’m very glad Reaktion’s animal series gave him a reason to write it.
I will cede a bit of ground to directness: I think readers (medium-serious and up) really ought to purchase books directly from these small, specific publishers when they’ve identified some as favorites, the way I have. It makes a huge difference financially as well as, I think, emotionally. It’s nice to “see” your customers! I say this with some confidence, based on my Fat Gold experience. We sell a lot of olive oil through retailers, and we are very happy to do so … but I love shipping Fat Gold straight to people’s homes best of all.
And who knows … if you order straight from the publisher, he might show up on the sidewalk in front of your house.
Craig Mod released, just a few days ago, a short documentary detailing the production of his latest book: printing, checking, sewing, binding, shipping. In the video, it’s inspiring to see all these real people —
Some would claim Craig for the direct-link model, but I think he is just a very small publisher with a very specific list 😎
And, OKAY, even if we cede his beautiful book to the direct-linkers: that’s sort of my point. I am delighted to have access to a system of publishing capacious enough to include Craig, Blaft, Belt, FSG, and everything in between. Liberation is not currently required. Now, if you’d like me to tell you about some real problems …
I received a physical copy of Tamara Shopsin’s new novel, published just this week, a perfectly compact and appealing object:
I really loved this book, and if mid-1990s Macintosh computing played any role at all in your life, I am confident you will, too.
Just look at the treasures available at 50 Watts Books, the new online bookstore established by Will Schofield, whose 50 Watts is one of the web’s great troves. Think of the authors behind those books; think, too, of the publishers.
From Oakland, before the storm,