An as-told-to interview with a Chicago publishing whiz, for our Spring Books issue.
Drag City cofounder Dan Koretzky and I went to high school together. After college, there was an idea of putting a band together, and there was also the idea of doing a zine. We did an issue of a fanzine called Travelin' Fist. At the time, he was working at an independent distributor in Des Plaines called Kaleidoscope. He met Dan Osborn while they were both working at Kaleidoscope, which was a real who's who of local indie rockers—David Yow was in the warehouse, and Rick Rizzo, and guys like that. They came away from that experience with the idea of putting together a label. I was stuffing singles from the very beginning.
I think '99 was when we did the Fahey book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, but Royal Trux guitarist and singer Neil Hagerty's book Victory Chimp came out in '96 or '97. That was actually the first attempt at publishing. Victory Chimp was a spur off of Twin Infinitives—one of the early Drag City records and one of our favorites, even to this day. At that time, Royal Trux were on Virgin. Virgin did not want anything to do with the book, so it gave us an opportunity to continue to work with them. It was this insane book that was beyond our understanding of what William S. Burroughs was as far as being really far out. We were up for it.
Jim O'Rourke was associating with John Fahey, and like many people who associated with Fahey, he ended up in Fahey's hotel room where there was paper all over the place. A lot of it had texts that he said he'd written. Jim was able to get away with a shoebox full of material, which led to us putting out the Fahey book. Victory Chimp had been fun and we had sold it to record stores, but with the Fahey book, we were able to get distribution and get into bookstores.
Over the past couple of years, we have gone after a few things that we've wanted to do. We wanted to reissue Rudolph Wurlitzer's Slow Fade, and in the process, make an audiobook out of it that was read by Will Oldham. That was a case of, "We love this author, let's go after him. Let's try and do something that's a little bit outside of ourselves to see how the book business suits us." The book business is just as on its knees as the record business. You measure success differently than you might have in the past.
It's a tiny little niche. There have been years where we don't have a print work. It has to be something that makes sense to us and sort of fits in whatever zany way it can. We wouldn't call it a vanity thing. The goal is to make it work so that it ends up making money, or at least doesn't lose money. That goes for books as well as records. We just know better how to do that with records. Everything we do has to relate to us in some way. That's where the naturalness of expression comes from. We don't do it for pure profit, or like, "Hey, rap music is in this year, let's do rap music."
Alan Licht's book An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn was another early effort that came right after Fahey. It's the kind of thing you can teach in a class about the indie-rock shift in the 80s and 90s. People now use Ian Svenonius's The Psychic Soviet in classes, and the Fahey book has also been used as a text.
We have something on deck for next year that involves the author Don Carpenter. He's sort of an obscure name but his stuff is really fantastic. We're gonna reissue one of his books and probably do an audiobook. We're trying to get better at it every time so we're more integrated with whatever in the world the book industry is anymore.
Let's say five years ago, a book would have sold 5,000, and this year, that same book project being assembled from scratch is gonna sell 1,000. We have to approach it differently. It doesn't mean we don't want to approach it. We still want to sell the thousand if we can. There are fewer and fewer people willing to invest in the making of books, or in the making of records in the way we would like to see them made.
As it stands, we've probably got a dozen titles that we're selling on an annual basis. Ranging from Fahey and Svenonius, which are our biggest sellers, and the Bill Callahan book Letters to Emma Bowlcut. That book has attracted a little interest from straight-book sort of people, and it sells a lot to Callahan fans.
The farther along we've gotten with this thing—on the book side and the record side—the more we've realized what is possible. In the beginning, you're like, "To work with so-and-so would be such an amazing thing," and then you realize that you're not actually that separated from how it happens. It is literally just reaching out for it, and then doing right by it.