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Punk Planet's Expanding Orbit

The mega-zine teams up with Akashic Books and novelist Joe Meno to take back book publishing.

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It was a search for a skateboarding editor that led Dan Sinker, the 29-year-old editor and publisher of the Chicago-based magazine Punk Planet, to Hairstyles of the Damned, a book that has nothing to do with skateboarding. The novel--the third from local author Joe Meno--will be one of two titles to launch Punk Planet Books, a new publishing imprint funded by New York's Akashic Books, this fall.

Sinker, an Evanston native, started Punk Planet when he was 19 and an undergrad at the School of the Art Institute studying video art. He'd become immersed in the early-90s Chicago punk scene, which he says was changing rapidly, driven largely by the energy and ambition of teenagers. "There was never any 'No, you can't do that, you need to wait till you know what you're doing,'" he recalls. Not so, he found, at art school, but he continued his studies anyway, getting his BFA in 1996. Meanwhile he turned to the punk discussion boards on AOL (which at the time, he points out, "wasn't really what it is today") for the idea sharing and DIY spirit that would ultimately produce Punk Planet. The first issue, which appeared in May 1994, was "ugly and terribly written," Sinker says. The staff, frequently changing but with Sinker always at the helm, has kept up a bimonthly publication schedule since. The magazine has won two Utne Reader Alternative Press Awards and its tenth anniversary issue is on the stands now.

Last September Sinker launched his second magazine, Bail, a skate-culture magazine "for old people"--grown-up skaters, in other words--and started searching for a writer-editor to help him out. He'd heard of Meno over the years--he'd read his books and, "what seems like a lifetime ago," had even judged a battle-of-the-bands contest that Meno's old band, the Phantom Three, won.

"I tried to think of local folks who could write and seemed like they might bring some kind of new approach to the magazine," Sinker says. "For whatever reason, Joe--who I didn't know at all, had never met or spoken to--seemed like the only logical choice. Which is, of course, completely illogical." Meghan Galbraith, a member of Meno's next band, Our Missiles Are, was a barista at Beans & Bagels, a cafe near the Punk Planet office where Sinker says much of his business ends up being conducted. So the next time he stopped in at the cafe, Sinker had a question for Galbraith: did Joe skateboard, by chance?

Galbraith told him no, but several days later she and Meno showed up at Punk Planet's Ravenswood office unannounced. Meno had, in fact, skateboarded all through high school. He wondered why Sinker was asking.

The two men sat down to discuss Bail, and Meno, who won the Tribune's 2003 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction and teaches fiction writing at Columbia College, accepted the editorial job. Talk turned to books. Sinker mentioned the handshake agreement he'd come to a few months earlier with Johnny Temple, founder of Akashic, to begin publishing books under the Punk Planet name.

Sinker and Temple had first teamed up in 2000 to produce We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet, the Collected Interviews, now in its fifth printing and one of Akashic's top three sellers. For that book, there'd been no written contract between Punk Planet and Akashic. Or, rather, Temple sent one, but Sinker never signed it. "It just seemed stupid," Sinker says. "I trusted him, he trusted me, what was the point?" Temple agrees: he was fine with it, having come to book publishing from positive experiences with the independent record labels Touch and Go and Dischord, which operate largely through handshake agreements. (Temple's current band, Girls Against Boys, signed with Geffen in 1995 after putting out albums on Touch and Go; the band eventually left Geffen and signed with Jade Tree, another indie. His previous band, Soul Side, was on Dischord.) "There's a few people who I would be comfortable having a nonwritten agreement with, and Dan is definitely one of them," he says.

After collaborating on We Owe You Nothing, Temple and Sinker stayed in close contact, and last year Temple e-mailed Sinker about doing a second volume of interviews. Sinker didn't feel he had enough new content, but told Temple he'd be into partnering up to do other books. He'd had that in mind "ridiculously early on" in the history of Punk Planet, he says, but "hadn't had the money or time or the want to learn a whole new form of distribution." Temple liked the idea of a Punk Planet imprint, with funding and distribution handled by Akashic, and in April 2003, when he came to town for Columbia College's Story Week Festival, he and Sinker hashed out plans over lunch (at Beans & Bagels, natch). "The original idea was that we'd do a couple of closely focused Punk Planet books"--such as collected articles and essays by columnists--"and then spin off and do tangentially related stuff," Sinker recalls.

But as summer passed, plans for the imprint "went basically nowhere, because there wasn't a book to rally around. It was just this idea of books," Sinker says. But Bail became a reality, and Meno entered the picture.

MTV Books had expressed strong interest in Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned, but they wanted him to update the book's numerous music references instead of having the characters listen to and obsess over 80s punk and metal. Meno wouldn't accept those terms. "It would have been a completely different thing," he says. He felt particularly protective of the book because it was his most autobiographical yet. He was also dissatisfied with his experiences with two major publishers, St. Martin's and HarperCollins, which published his first and second novels, respectively. Both had dissuaded him from doing reading tours (he'll be doing several for Hairstyles), and both had insisted on publishing his novels (1999's Tender as Hellfire and 2001's How the Hula Girl Sings) in hardback, with no paperback release and very little promotion. Meno began to feel as if his years in indie-rock bands had given him better ideas of how to successfully promote his work than his publishers had. He wanted to go on tour, collaborate with zinesters, and hand out samplers and posters.

"I could put it out," Sinker remembers telling Meno. "I didn't know him all that well and half expected him to be like, 'Yeah, that's cool, well, somebody just offered me a boatload of money, so I'm going with the big-publisher thing,' but he was crazy excited. He dropped off the book at the shop the next day and I read it through and was like, Yes, this is a project that I want to do."

Hairstyles is the story of Brian, a teenage Catholic-school kid from the south side of Chicago who has a secret crush on his best friend, Gretchen, an overweight, pink-haired punk-rock girl. Meno describes the book's structure as similar to a mix tape: it comprises 79 short, scene-based chapters. He can easily pair up disparate chapters for readings; in fact, he wrote the book with live readings in mind. The characters' love for the Ramones, the Clash, the Descendents, Metallica, and AC/DC is a running theme. However, the most punk part of the book, which comes out in September, is the acknowledgments. "You rock it," Meno writes to a list of friends, family, and local supporters. And then, "You suck it: Judith Regan," addressing the president of ReganBooks, a Harper-Collins imprint. "And all you other bad publishing corporations. Be ready, the end is nigh."

"That's how I felt," Meno says. "It is kind of like an act of war, saying, hey, we don't need you."

"That's one of the advantages of working with a company like Akashic or Punk Planet Books," says Temple. "The authors get to say what they want. We're a conduit for him expressing himself."

Temple hopes the new imprint, like Punk Planet magazine, will blend a punk ethos with an interest in politics and culture. "I'm really interested in the relationship between politics and art," he says, "and I think that Punk Planet has explored that nexus more than any other publication has explored it, successfully."

"For me," says Sinker, "the perfect lineup for Punk Planet Books would be a smattering of novels, a smattering of political books, a smattering of art books, and a smattering of 'off the normal path'-type things."

Also coming from Punk Planet this fall is Mark Andersen's second book, All the Power: Revolution Without Illusion, part memoir of Andersen's life as an organizer and activist in D.C., part radical-activism history lesson, part primer for budding activists. Andersen had originally planned to publish the book with AK Press, an Oakland-based collective that specializes in political books with an anarchist bent, but he felt they were dragging their feet. Sinker thought it was perfect for Punk Planet. Putting two very different books out at once also fit his concept of the imprint: "Really eclectic, this almost disconnected collection of books. That's very reflective of the magazine and of my interpretation of what punk is: it's not a single form. You can't pin down what Punk Planet Books is by looking at one book."

The timing, he concedes, has been less than ideal: "With two books at galley at this point, I can say that that was crazy. It was an unbelievable amount of work." While continuing his roles as editor and publisher of Punk Planet and publisher of Bail, Sinker designed and laid out both titles, and edited Hairstyles (Temple edited All the Power). In the future, he says, Punk Planet will publish two titles per year. So far one is slated for 2005: Iraq Fallen, a book of photographs of daily life in Iraq, edited by Punk Planet contributing editor Jeff Guntzel.

Sinker's throwing a launch party and indie-publisher-roundup reading this Friday at Quimby's to coincide with the publishing-industry trade show BookExpo America. On the bill are Meno, Bee Lavender of Hip Mama magazine, Punk Planet associate publisher Anne E. Moore, Megan Stielstra of Sleepwalk magazine (which Meno cofounded), and Todd Dills (full disclosure: my boyfriend), who's just published All Hands On, an anthology of work from his broadsheet zine The2ndHand. Mat Daly and Nick Butcher will spin music.

Friday, June 4, 8 PM, Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North, 773-342-0910. Admission is free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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