By far the book I found most memorable this year was Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. The writing was so deliberate and satisfying, and I love when a writer fully commits to a premise. To wit: early in the book, Celeste Price marks her classroom with her vaginal juices, so she might better seduce one of the unsuspecting boys in her eighth grade class. As I read this scene, I literally gasped because I had never seen anything like it. The premise of Tampa, this chronicle of a relentless predator, is appalling but Nutting makes it possible to be appalled and entertained. Celeste is so consumed by her desire. She is so unapologetic. It’s freeing, as a reader, to engage with a character who does what she must to satisfy her needs. I found myself judging Celeste as much as I was intrigued by what she would do next. I was also impressed by the sly cultural critique Nutting offers throughout the novel, about the pressures and expectations women shoulder. Tampa is just amazing.
Meaty by Samantha Irby, was an outstanding essay collection. The essays are a winning combination of hilarious and tender and sad. Irby is not afraid to show the reader where she hurts and how but she does so with such energy and wit. The writing explores dating, living with Crohn’s Disease, losing both parents at a young age, race and class, and a great deal more, but each of these topics is approached uniquely and without self-pity or aimless recrimination. Irby is one hell of a writer.
I was also enamored by Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. At first, I wasn’t quite sure where the novel was going. The first third is strangely given over to a man and his slippers. More is going on, of course, but it doesn’t make sense until you get much farther into the book. A man has died and his family must return to Ghana to mourn and to reconnect. Along the way, we learn how the family fell apart in the first place, and the price that is paid in leaving one country for another. The power of this novel lies in its completeness and the sweeping energy of the story being told. In the final pages, I found myself crying into the book as I turned each page and when I finished, I simply held the book to my chest.
Kiese Laymon had one hell of a year with two books — Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was such a strange book, but I couldn’t stop reading! Laymon has an audacious imagination and I admire the ambition of his novel and everything he tried to do. There’s so much cleverness, it could make you jealous if the book weren’t so good. His essay collection is hard but necessary reading because he tells the truth about race in America.
Other books I enjoyed include The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, Alone with Other People by Gabby Bess, Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank, The Book of My Lives by Aleksandr Hemon, Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Name of the Nearest River by Alex Taylor, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’m a bit mad about reading Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger because the plot was so ludicrous. The more I read, the angrier I got and by the end, I was, frankly, ready to write a letter. Andi would not make such choices! She just wouldn’t. What can I say? I get attached.
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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.