The Self-Made Man: Johnny Temple
At first glance, Johnny Temple looks like your average, boring, early-40s Brooklyn professional. You’d never guess that he grew up on DC hardcore and played bass for Girls Against Boys before starting an independent publishing house known for dark, gritty, often profane books, including an internationally successful Noir series. But that’s exactly who he is, and he’s also an entrepreneur who, in the same spirit as the guys behind Facebook and Spotify, wants to disrupt his chosen industry.
Temple started his press, Akashic Books, in 1996, after his band’s record label bought out their contract and left him with some money and free time. Temple was already used to hustling and making a lot from a little thanks to life on the road, and he eagerly applied those principles to books.
“I had no publishing background, but looking back, I think it gave me a boost,” Temple told Media Beat last year. Without the doomsaying pessimism that comes with experience in the book publishing industry, Temple was free to think big and take chances on guys like Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up, which had been rejected thirty times before Temple got hold of it. Temple also got designers with ties to the punk scene to do book covers for him, which wouldn’t have occurred to other indie presses back then.
Temple’s aim with Akashic Books is to reverse-gentrify literature by publishing minority writers, particularly Jamaican and African writers, and writers whose work reaches beyond the typical lit-nerd audience. He told the New York Times that “literature should be consumed by more than just the well-educated,” and added that “we don’t need to just keep trying to sell books to the same people.”
Recently, he published Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep, which became a huge viral hit that has sold over a million copies when you take print and digital sales into account. Akashic has also published work by Nigerian activist/novelist Chris Abani, Amiri Baraka, LeRoi Jones, and Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos.
Temple is also realistic about how books are changing, and isn’t resisting or tolerating e-books as much as embracing them. Being a musician taught him that people working in culture need multiple income streams to keep the lights on and the rent paid, so he’s much more open to experimenting with social media and digital books than a lot of other small presses, who just like to complain about them endlessly. He also helps writers out with book tours and adopted an indie music royalty structure wherein each writer gets a small advance, but then half of the book’s profit. He hustles, in other words.
Temple’s adaptability and determined optimism have served him well, especially in a field as perpetually down on itself as book publishing is, and he’s got work ethic and ambition to spare, which we like here at TSB. Here’s a clip of him talking about publishing and how the industry has to adapt and remain relevant as the culture around it changes.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.