The Busiest Bar in Publishing

Hemingway put the Parisian bar, Harry’s, on the map. Dylan Thomas did the same for Manhattan’s White Horse tavern. This fall, Victor Giron’s Chicago watering hole, Beauty Bar, might prove just as instrumental to independent literature. While a staggering number of publishers are closing up shop or announcing mergers, Giron’s press, Curbside Splendor, is growing at a rate many big New York presses would find inspiring, envy-inducing or both. None of it would have been possible without the Beauty Bar. That, and Giron’s bottomless supply of energy. You get a sense, talking to Victor Giron, that he probably wakes up before you and goes to bed many hours after you. Our interview felt a little like witnessing a plate spinner at the circus. Because, on top of running the Beauty Bar and Curbside Splendor, the optimistic Giron is also a husband, father of two boys, and works a high profile day job as a financial accountant for Jim Beam. “I tend to pick things up and get really into them,” says Giron, squeezing our weekday afternoon chat between several of his other responsibilities. “If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it half-assed.” Half-assed is probably the last thing observers call Curbside Splendor. Especially after its recent jump in production and profile. Curbside previously released only a handful of books per year, but ramped up the release schedule to a whopping dozen this fall. This shift is a direct result of landing a coveted distribution deal with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. In this golden age of the indie book publisher (According to Bookstatistics.com there are currently over 60,000 book publishers), it is tough to get noticed amongst the slosh of other presses. So, aside from a political sex scandal involving one of your authors, solid distribution is the most reliable way to compete with the major New York houses. But should book lovers care about industry talk like distribution? Absolutely. Distribution is the only thing — not the overthrow of Amazon or an e-reader revolution or a self-publishing frenzy — that ensures fresh voices finding readers. A publisher landing a strong distributor is similar to a rock band selling CDs at concerts and then signing with a prominent indie label like Merge Records. Merge has excellent distribution, which gets its albums in stores and online outlets just as well as majors. But distribution doesn’t guarantee success. It does, however, level the playing field between big labels and indies. Merge is an ideal example. Since starting in 1989, the record company has a massive list of artistic high points, but also numerous business victories. This ability to remain independent, yet place its albums in every conceivable retail outlet has given Merge the strength to release a Billboard #1 album, help its bands like Spoon perform to millions of viewers on Saturday Night Live and watch its most popular act, Arcade Fire, earn the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy. Similarly, Curbside’s distribution deal is no guarantee of success. But it opens doors to compete on the literary world’s main stage. The evidence is promising — small publishers with Consortium ties have made serious waves, like Akashic Books mega-selling Go the F**K to Sleep and how Two Dollar Radio’s titles frequently earn raves in the New York Times. Curbside seems poised to make the most of this opportunity. But if it wasn’t for Giron’s bar, none of it would be happening. Three years ago, when Giron started Curbside Splendor to release his own novel, Sophomoric Philosophy, he had next-to-no literary connections. “It seems kind of backward, I guess. I had no idea people did such things as readings at coffee shops or bars, to tell you the truth, until I was invited myself,” he says. “I began meeting other editors and writers around Chicago by hosting readings at my bar. I really didn’t know anyone until I started reaching out on Facebook and in person, really with the interest of getting people to come to the bar and read.” Even Curbside’s distribution deal came because of a chance Beauty Bar meeting. “I had been a big fan of James Greer’s novels, The Failure and Artificial Light,” Giron says. “James came through town when his girlfriend’s band played at my bar. We got to talking and he said ‘You know, I’ve never had a story collection published. I don’t think Akashic, his publisher, is interested in a story collection.’ Long story short that’s one of the books (Everything Flows) coming out this fall.” This relationship with Greer proved invaluable to Curbside’s current growth. “I was kind of honest with James, saying there’s no real distribution for your book. Just so you know. The amount of sales you can expect aren’t going to be much,” says Giron. “And then he suggested we talk to (Publisher) Johnny Temple of Akashic. Originally, Akashic was going to consider sub-distributing James’s book. After our conversation Johnny said we can certainly consider doing this, but it just seems like you have so many great projects that it would be a shame that you not actually try and work with Consortium yourselves. And so he made a personal referral.” Temple’s enthusiasm for Curbside was a massive boost. Giron had already been rejected by several distributors. Temple, however, saw something most distributors didn’t: “While the mainstream New York-based book industry laments the supposed ‘decline’ of the industry, moping ad nauseum about how no one reads anymore,” says Temple. “This creates opportunities for ambitious and creative companies like Curbside to prove them wrong.” From the Akashic referral, things moved swiftly last December. “On Friday [Temple and I] were talking and then the next Tuesday I was on the phone with Consortium’s president and then that Thursday they were like, okay, we can sign the contract. And by the way, we need all of your titles for the fall season by next week.” Where most budding publishers would sprout ulcers at such a radical change, Giron’s energy and optimism took over. “I never really got worried. A big part of my day job is project management, so it comes naturally to me.” The bulk of Curbide’s fall catalog was born in only a few days’ time. Once again, the Beauty Bar and bottomless energy played a big role. Giron quickly rounded up writers and artists he’d befriended from the bar. “I basically got all my people together and said, okay all these great projects we’ve been kicking around, we need to actually put them together now. So we had to come up with cover mocks, come up with one paragraph summary of titles, author bios, marketing plans. Luckily, we had all these projects but over a long weekend we put together the backbones of the twelve books that are now coming out. “Some of these titles were pretty much complete, like James Greer’s book, but ranged to flat out ideas like Samantha Irby’s Meaty. We had known Samantha, who is a performer here in Chicago and has a huge following through her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. We had been loosely talking to her about maybe doing a book together sometime. So, after the meeting with Consortium we were like, Samantha, we really need you to write the book. So then she wrote it.” Beyond Irby’s collection of humor essays, Curbside’s whirlwind effort since December is just now coming to reality. Giron’s press is offering a diversified lineup this fall, ranging from YA lit Zero Fade, to literary leanings like Greer’s collection and The Desert Places by Robert Kloss and Amber Sparks, to Franki Elliot’s Kiss as Many Women as you Can — a poetry collection in postcard form. There is, of course, great risk in Curbside’s gamble for real estate on the literary map. Namely, financial risk. Giron has no business partners or investors in Curbside. He personally funded the costly printing, editing, and marketing expenses for every release this fall. “It’s pretty crazy of me. As a rational business person, this is not a good investment/risk to be taking.” It’s easy to see his energy overshadowing this rationale. “What propels me in this is the idea, the challenge, the belief that there are really great books out there to be made and there is a market of people that are thirsty for innovative, artistically minded, edgy, fresh, spectacular new voices and ideas and beautifully designed books, and so we’re here to try and provide that service.” Not surprisingly, Temple echoes this sentiment. When asked how he saw Curbside impacting the literary landscape after this Fall’s splashdown, he says Curbside is, “Further proof that books matter, that new audiences are still very hungry for books.” While it’s still far too early to begin tossing confetti, Giron’s barroom-born gamble seems to be paying off. Irby’s Meaty is garnering a lot of attention, thanks in part to being named part of Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The book has already sold several thousand more copies than any previous Curbside release. Does that mean Giron will be buying rounds at the Beauty Bar? Probably not. But it might just give this uber-entrepreneur the ability to keep pushing Curbside up through the ranks.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Poets

I never touched a salad until I was 19. Vegetation seemed best suited for rabbits, and vibrant green colors were for apple Jolly Ranchers. While on a first date with a pretty girl named Leah, I choked down that first salad so as not to draw suspicion. By forcing myself to eat lettuce and tomato and some strange potion called balsamic vinaigrette, I learned to love leafy greens. And that woman learned to love me enough to eventually marry me. I was recently reminded of this victory for trying new things while working on a bowl of spinach and croutons. It was fitting this wave of nostalgia came in April, since it is National Poetry Month. You see, I am once again a better person after learning to love something I previously found disgusting: Poets. I was a lifelong literary elitist. In the world of serious letters, fiction writers filled out the top of my pyramid, followed by a massive gap and then everyone else. According to this geometry, poets occupied the same sub-basement level as dudes who type up restaurant menus. I once had a real-life encounter with a poet at four a.m. in a Las Vegas Denny’s. He leaned over the back of his booth, made some awkward introduction, and began reciting lines from a wrinkled paper about the haunting sound wind makes or some nonsense. This encounter gave me an acute poet-phobia that lasted for years. Understandably, my skepticism was on Orange Alert after I was invited to be the only fiction writer performing at a couple different poetry readings last month. But, to my shock, I discovered that poets are human beings like you and me! Even more incredible, I liked poets. In fact, I liked them more than fiction writers. I still don’t fully understand their art form, but poets get a gold medal in my book. If I knew what iambic pentameter was, I’d compose one of those deep, rhymeless poem-things in their honor. Instead, the best I can offer is an anthropological study regarding poets and fiction writers. Here were my findings after playing Jane Goodall amidst the poetry jungle. Poets are Well Groomed: While observing them, I noted several nice haircuts, many sharp dressers, and an overall pleasant aroma in the room. Fiction writers, on the other hand, have been known to go several weeks without shaving. You can imagine what that kind of hygiene scheduling means for our shower routine. Poets are Friendly: My anthropological research discovered a community of poets discussing plans to hang out later, attend parties (“Wait,” I said, “you guys have poet parties? Wow!”) and even go bowling with one another. Either there is some amazing antidepressant that comes packaged along with the collected works of John Ashbery or poets generally find camaraderie in their passion for the written word. They also seem mostly sober. Meanwhile, fiction writers tend to avoid other fictioneers like a bill stamped: FINAL NOTICE. Most novelists and short story writers practice serious isolationism. We are usually too busy to fraternize since we are sitting in a small room, muttering to ourselves. When I have spent time with other novelists, we are usually drunk. Our gatherings almost always include a few rounds of “Have you ever read X?” followed by long, silent sipping breaks. Poets are Courteous: While studying poets in their natural habitat (One reading was at a coffee shop and the other at a university), I noted that all eyes were focused when the featured poets spoke. Even more stunning, the poets gave open mic readers the same level of attention. Fiction writers (yours truly included) usually sketch doodles or think about time travel while everyone else reads. There is a look in our eyes that suggests severe head trauma. Poets Enjoy Writing: Two different poets said they don’t begin writing without first cracking open a beer. They talked about the act of writing with a smile. There seemed to be an aura of fun around their process. Fiction writers have been known to feel guilty if they are not miserable and muttering. Somewhere, we have been told this makes great art. Especially the muttering. Poets Share: On several occasions, I overheard poets happily agreeing to take a look at one another’s work and give feedback. In fiction circles it is a well-known fact that when someone asks, “Hey, will you take a look at my manuscript?” the only acceptable response is the look of horror, the look of discomfort, or muttering. Poets are Confident: Poets appear eager to read aloud their new work. At one reading even the featured poet -- a guy with a couple of collections released by highly respected poetry presses (One month ago I didn’t even know those four words existed side-by-side!) -- read from fresh, unpublished material. Later, while taking part in a roundtable discussion at the university, several poets told me they always want to read untested poems to see how they work. During that same discussion the poets all seemed mildly saddened that I couldn’t imagine reading anything in public that I haven’t chipped away at for years. Poets Smile: I wish I’d taken pictures as proof. Trust me, it’s true. While studying these fascinating creatures I spotted several happy poets. Many amused poets. Even an enthusiastic one. Most fiction writers have only been known to display teeth while battling indigestion or growling at roommates for making too much noise. So, what were my anthropological conclusions? Will I start wearing a turtleneck and composing couplets with a fountain pen? (While I never saw either turtlenecks or fountain pens in use, some part of my brain still says that’s what poets do in private.) Was I inspired to ask my local librarian to point me toward the mildewed corner where they keep all the poetry? Will I at least stop muttering to myself in a dark room? The answer to all these questions is a firm: “Eh, probably not.” Like I said, I frankly still have a difficult time wrapping my mind around poetry. But that does not mean these Neruda-loving weirdoes don’t have something to teach me. Fiction writers would be better off by embracing the poet’s mentality. The world of fiction would be a saner place by utilizing radical ideas like enjoying other writers and their work. By spending time together. By listening. That is why I am not only declaring my love for the men and women of poetry, but vowing to spend more time with them. Maybe one day -- much like Jane Goodall learning to peel a banana with her feet -- I, too, will behave more like my subjects. More like a poet. Image Credit: Wikipedia