At 4:45 a.m., Ibrahim Ahmad’s alarm clock began pouring out the first bars of Leonard Cohen’s “Lullaby”—“Sleep, baby, sleep. The day’s on the run. The wind in the trees is talking in tongues…” With this bit of counterintuitive programming, another long day in the life of an independent publisher had begun.
After a quick breakfast and an industrial-strength quadruple espresso, Ahmad and his wife, Cassie Carothers, left their home in exurban Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and boarded a train that would carry them from the northern fringe of Cheever country to Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. For many of their fellow commuters, the next hour would be torture or drooling nap time, but for Ahmad, the editorial director at Akashic Books, it was a precious opportunity to focus on his twin passions without interruption: reading and editing. On this Friday morning, he was making a first pass through the manuscript of a debut novel that had landed on the Akashic slush pile.
Husband and wife parted ways at Grand Central—Carothers works for a nonprofit in downtown Manhattan, and Ahmad boarded a subway for Brooklyn. Another precious 45 minutes of reading. By 8 a.m. he was settled at his desk in the Akashic office, a largish room in a repurposed American Can factory, hard by that network of toxic sludge known as the Gowanus Canal. It was time for Ahmad to change hats. For the next eight hours, art would take a back seat to commerce. First, of course, there was the endless river of emails to wade through, which today yielded a pleasant surprise: two Akashic titles had been named finalists for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, which honor writers of color. That merited a full-throated blast on social media. There were also licensing contracts from publishers in Poland and Turkey, a translator’s contract to finalize, overdue invoices to chase down, promotional contacts to consider for the upcoming addition to Akashic’s eclectic, globe-spanning noir series: 90 titles that range from Atlanta Noir to Zagreb Noir. Coming this summer is Baghdad Noir, which has a special place in Ahmad’s heart because he has been nursing this new collection of Iraqi crime fiction toward publication for nearly a decade. There were no scheduled meetings on this particular Friday, but on other weekdays there are regular staff meetings to discuss current and imminent releases, editorial meetings to talk over recent submissions and map out the publishing calendar, and a monthly marketing meeting to plot publicity campaigns. Everyone on the small staff was busy—it’s not the sort of shop where people hang out talking about the World Cup or their weekend at the Hamptons.
When a reporter showed up to interview him, Ahmad happily fixed coffees and repaired to the comfortable chairs in the corner of the office. A person can answer only so many emails without taking a break. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves that contain every book published by Akashic in its 21-year history, Ahmad talked, in rapid-fire bursts, about the perils, challenges and rewards of being a small independent in a publishing world dominated by a handful of conglomerates on the other side of the East River. In 2013, book publishing’s Big Six became the Big Five when the giants Penguin and Random House merged.
Akashic’s answer to this trend is spelled out on the cover of its current catalog: “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” That philosophy is amplified on the catalog’s first page: “Akashic Books is an award-winning independent company dedicated to publishing literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.”
As he sipped his coffee, Ahmad was thinking less grandiose thoughts. “Day to day in the office,” he said, “most of us are working to keep a small business running. Most of what we do is trying to get attention for our books. Should I call NPR for this title? The Wall Street Journal? I have to be thoughtful and selective, but the onus is on us to make sure we’re covering all the bases. The goal is to get the broadest coverage possible, but we have unique marketing plans tailored to every book. The noir series has overt markets, and they’re a great way for us to promote literature in translation that’s underrepresented. Right now for Baghdad Noir, for example, I’m putting together a list of Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities.”
This task was a natural one for Ahmad, the son a Pakistani father and Iranian mother who was born in England, moved to Washington, D.C., at the age of 5, then attended the University of Chicago, where he studied Near Eastern Languages. He already had contacts in mind, some forged during his college years, who might help promote Baghdad Noir.
As Ahmad spoke, the two summer interns, Rachel Page and Abigail Schott-Rosenfield, were doing the glamorous work of putting review copies in envelopes, taping them shut, affixing address labels. Susannah Lawrence and Alice Wertheimer were at their desks, working to expand the mailing list of reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. Impossible to say for sure what Johanna Ingalls, the foreign rights editor, was doing because she works out of her home in Ireland. Aaron Petrovich, the production manager, was at his computer noodling with layouts and cover art for a new children’s book, Party: A Mystery, by Jamaica Kincaid, with illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. Watching them work, Ahmad observed, “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Akashic is our stability as a staff. Our publisher Johnny Temple, Johanna, Aaron and I have all been here for upwards of 15 years. Susannah and Alice started out as interns. That’s so rare. One of the biggest challenges of independent publishing is keeping people for the long term and getting them invested in the company’s vision.” That cohesion and dedication go a long way toward explaining how a small staff can produce 40 quality books a year.
Just then the door opened and in walked Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher and co-founder, dressed in a Brooklyn Book Festival T-shirt, an event he helped establish a dozen years ago. Settling into one of the comfortable chairs, Temple ticked off three things—“irreverence, an attraction to dark themes, a passion for social justice”—that shape Akashic’s aesthetic and set it apart from the Big Five. He added that, growing up in Washington, D.C., he was attracted to African-American authors, including Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Black writers, both from the U.S. and the Caribbean, remain a staple at Akashic, as do first novels and music-infused books. “We’re doing similar work [to the Big Five],” Temple went on, “but our values are different. With global corporations, it’s all about the bottom line. In the arts, you struggle to find a balance that doesn’t let culture get sublimated to the dollar bill. We want to make money, but I think the big corporations are out of whack. Most novels only sell a few thousand copies, and at a big house those writers wind up feeling like a failure. One of the advantages we have is that given our low overhead, it’s much easier for us to have a success. The money our authors earn is the money the book earns. It’s not a gambling model. We don’t throw things against the wall and hope something sticks.”
Yet Akashic has enjoyed some major successes—artistic and financial. The house’s very first release in 1997, The Fuck-Up, Arthur Nersesian’s grungy picaresque novel set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, went through three printings. Other solid sellers include Amiri Baraka’s story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone, Nina Revoyr’s novel Southland, and Joe Meno’s punk novel Hairstyles of the Damned. But no Akashic title can touch the sales of Adam Mansbach’s twisted sympathy card to the exhausted parents of young children, Go the Fuck to Sleep. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2011, and promoting it consumed Ahmad’s life for two years. It’s still the house’s top perennial moneymaker, and the steady income gives the Akashic staff the breathing room to experiment and take chances. It also helps fund the fun stuff—annual trips by staffers to book festivals and conventions, including the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, the Winter Institute gathering of indie booksellers, and of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Later, over a leisurely outdoor lunch at a Park Slope café, Ahmad expanded on the business model that sets Akashic apart from other publishers, including many independents. While Akashic author advances are predictably modest—usually under $5,000, rarely more than $10,000—once all project-related expenses are recouped, the author and publisher split profits 50-50, a sharp departure from most publishing contracts. This “profit-split” royalty model was used by Temple’s record label in the 1990s, when he was playing bass with the D.C.-based post-punk band Girls Against Boys (the band still plays occasional gigs). It was then that Temple and Ahmad first met, and soon afterward, Akashic was founded on that music-industry model. Taking the music analogy a step further, Temple said, “Being an independent publisher is like being a deejay spinning the records that people dance to.”
“If a book sells more than 5,000 copies,” Ahmad added, “you start to see the profit accelerate. We stay in business simply by selling books.” He made the point that the enduring success of Go the Fuck to Sleep will be forever cherished by the staff, but it was more a happy accident than the point of the enterprise.
Walking back to the office, Ahmad appeared to be feeling the effects of his post-lunch double espresso. “I have the best fucking job in the world,” he said. “I can do whatever I want, and I’m accountable only to my authors and the people in that office. That’s what it means to be an independent publisher—you’re free to make your own decisions.”
He was ready to spend the rest of the afternoon dealing with the commerce end of the business—emails and contracts and authors and publicity. Then it would be back on the subway with that manuscript from the slush pile, back on the Metro North train, and home to Cheever country, where Ahmad would spend the evening and the weekend doing what he loves most, reading and editing. Then, at precisely 4:45 on Monday morning, Leonard Cohen’s voice would start bubbling out of Ahmad’s alarm clock, and another long day in the life of an independent publisher would begin.