Music, book publishing worlds finding common ground

Categories: Chicago Tribune

MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

To his fans, rock musician Jack White is the guy who just broke the record for having the biggest-selling vinyl record of the last 20 years. The success of his latest album, “Lazaretto,” which just beat out Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” as the biggest vinyl seller since 1994, will no doubt shed light on White’s latest venture: book publishing. His record label in Nashville, Third Man Records (which releases all his music plus that of artists such as Beck, Dex Romweber and the Black Lips), just announced a book line starting with “Language Lessons: Volume I.” It will be a 321-page hardbound book of contemporary poetry and prose accompanied by two vinyl music records and five art prints that mesh certain poems with illustrations.

“A big part of what Jack and I talk about all the time is art is music, music is poetry, poetry is music, they’re all the same, and the lines are constantly blurred, so let’s do a project where they are blurred,” says Ben Swank, a founding partner at Third Man who spearheaded the publishing line and who is a co-editor of the project. “It’s all about the love of language.”

As more entertainment retailing goes digital, small record labels have thrived by generating new excitement in physical products that are tailored to a hungry global audience of buyers who have come to view these boutique operations as reliable curators of taste. Not only have these labels discovered that any experiment is worth exploring — Third Man has released oddball singles from Carl Sagan and Stephen Colbert — they are now turning to other media, such as book publishing, to extend their brand. From the start, they have some advantages over conventional publishing houses: They are nimble and already have a built-in audience invested in their products, and while most books are available in traditional stores, they can directly market and sell their titles themselves.

“You already have a fan base, you already have a subscription model, now when you bring a book to market, the economics are totally different. It’s your money,” says Chris Lederer, a principal at PwC in New York City who works as a consultant with the publishing industry. He says advances in the self-publishing world have empowered nontraditional publishers to create their own titles with legitimacy.

“All the barriers that used to exist around producing a book or distributing a book don’t exist anymore,” Lederer says.

“Language Lessons” will have a relatively short first run: An initial printing of 2,500 copies, with subsequent printings at the ready. Third Man expects to start out with about three titles a year, which Swank says is meant to help the label feel out this new venture. “We’re being cautious,” he says.

Recording labels say they have fewer overhead costs to worry about and can get books to market more swiftly than large publishing houses. They also are catering to a different kind of reader: themselves.

“I’m a record collector and I’m a book collector — I love both,” says Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, a record label in Atlanta that releases elaborate box sets of unearthed early 20th century gospel, blues and country music, as well as archival music from Southeast Asia and Africa, much of it focusing on formerly lost sounds and ephemera from the pre-digital era.

The majority of Dust-to-Digital’s catalog involves meticulously researched text material and accompanying music in one set. This fall the label will release “Making Pictures: Three for a Dime,” its first book-only release, a collection of photographs from the Massengill family, a group of itinerant photographers working in rural Arkansas between 1937 and 1941. After that, the label will start jointly releasing books with several university presses, including an inaugural release with the University of Wisconsin Press that collects early 20th century field recordings from the Midwest between 1937 and 1946. The book, released early next year, will include five CDs, one DVD and a book written by folklorist Jim Leary.

Ledbetter says that because he and his wife, April, are the only full-time employees, and first printings average 2,000 copies, his label can afford testing the waters with such projects, many of which enter third and fourth printings. Word counts? He has the luxury to make them variable, he says.

“We run it lean and mean. If it’s good writing and if it’s good information, there is no limit, as long as we contribute to the knowledge bank of music,” he says.

Much of what Dust-to-Digital does can be traced back to its first release in 2003: “Goodbye Babylon,” a collection of early gospel recordings and sermons, primarily by unknown artists. The project was so meticulously crafted — it includes a full-length book annotating the history of each song, plus a tuft of cotton tucked inside the pine box meant to “serve as a transport to the music” — that it created “a standard to uphold for future releases,” Ledbetter says. That is, a combined history, music and art product documenting the often obscure, troubled people behind the recordings who “would be proud to know somebody really cared” about their lives.

Oftentimes, the books record labels publish are related to music, but sometimes they are not. Drag City, a long-running indie rock label in Chicago, has about 20 book titles in its catalog, including fiction, poetry, and other musings by musicians including songwriter Bill Callahan and the late guitarist and musicologist John Fahey. Rian Murphy, head of sales, says the label will not automatically publish a book just because it was written by a musician they admire, and, in fact, it has rejected a few.

“The primary reason to do a book is because the reading of the book is awesome and we see a potential for people who read books to enjoy it, and if there is a tie-in for a musical audience, that’s great as far as the marketing and publicity is concerned, but the bottom line is it’s a good read,” Murphy says.

Drag City publishes about one book title per year, and some of the books go into second and third printings because their appeal goes beyond music buyers. Titles such as “Victory Chimp,” a science-fiction novel by former Royal Trux rocker Neil Hagerty, have found readers interested in off-kilter fiction, and others have been used in college classrooms.

“In terms of week-in and week-out sales, selling to the choir will certainly do, but I do believe these books are meant to sit on a shelf with all other books that might be considered by anyone perusing the shelves” in a bookstore or library, he says.

The labels say they have already proved that they can be nimble in their marketing and sales strategies in ways that larger operations can’t afford. Drag City, for example, has built relationships with influential writers and alternative media outlets over the years, plus they can get the books into specialty shops, independent record stores. And, like most labels, they do a robust wholesale business on their website.

“With the collapse of these 20th century industries like the recording and book publishing (worlds), writers are looking for ways of doing things that are outside the box,” Murphy says. “And that’s all that we are. We are not existing in a publishing box, so we are only capable of doing things differently. Some people would argue there’s a value to that because of all the failures of the standard channels. Someone coming from a different direction may actually be able to get more notice, and sales even.”

But outside the mechanics of publishing, record labels say their take on the literary arts world provides a new kind of creative freedom that is inherently good for its health. The Third Man project originated from a weekly poetry series in Nashville that attracted both ends of the poetry spectrum — established national award winners (Pulitzer Prize nominees Dale Ray Phillips and Adrian Matejka) and complete unknowns such as local bartenders, teachers and even a mortician. Both are side-by-side in the book for a purpose.

“Doing something like this on a rock-and-roll label, by nature, is going to remove the assumed pretense” often associated with poetry, Swank says. “There is a stigma about poetry that it’s academic. What we are trying to present is that a lot of this poetry is from the gut. It’s beautiful language, but it is not complex to get through. We approached this as what we really like and what we really love and said, ‘let’s bring this to new people.'”




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