What: Founder of Rare Bird Lit, a company specializing in book marketing, promotions, and design for authors and publishers; and Rare Bird Books, a PGW-distributed independent publisher that releases thirty-five books per year on its various imprints. He was once the longtime marketing and publicity director of Book Soup bookstore back when it was the CBGBs of independent bookstores, and he has toured extensively around the world playing with hair metal musicians.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I swear this interview is going to be about you—but first I want to hear all about the Chuck Palahniuk vinyl audiobook that Rare Bird Books just put out. How did that project happen?
The Palahniuk vinyl audiobook is something that we’ve been extremely excited about. We had the idea of starting a vinyl audiobook line a few years ago and, until this initial release, have just been consumed with the practical elements of how we might roll vinyl audiobooks out. The most important component we’ve needed to take into consideration is simply how to fit an entire audiobook on so many pieces of vinyl. The first contractual vinyl agreement was for Jerry’s Stahl’s PERMANENT MIDNIGHT—unabridged, read by Jerry, featuring a full 11.5 hours worth of musical accompaniment by The Icarus Line. We did production on that last year, and it’s scheduled for release later this fall/winter. The Stahl project is the one that I originally mentioned to Palahniuk’s people (David Hyde at Superfan and Todd Doughty at Doubleday), which quickly evolved into the vinyl release of EXPEDITION, a 56-minute FIGHT CLUB prequel story read by Chuck with music by Rob Campanella of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. We’re working on others now for release next year and beyond.
Jerry and I have done events together for many years, going back to my days at Book Soup. I pulled him into a Literary Death Match event shortly after leaving the bookstore, and he mentioned that he had a short novel publishing in France but not anywhere else. It was a crazy, 20,000-word novel that he wrote on Hep C medication. I read it, loved it, and he asked if Rare Bird would be interested in putting it out. Since then, Jerry and I have worked on a number of other projects, including his recently released OG DAD collection, marketing his most recent Harper Collins novel, HAPPY MUTANT BABY PILLS, and the current 20th anniversary hardcover of PERMANENT MIDNIGHT featuring a new foreword by Nic Sheff. All of that promotion launches in September with appearances in Seattle at Bumbershoot (9/6-9/7), The Last Bookstore (9/17), Powell’s (9/23), and Book Soup (9/24).
Now that we got that out of the way, tell us how you went from globe-trotting rock musician, to Book Soup marketing and publicity director, to book industry mogul. In your opinion, what’s the common thread?
Well, all of it seems very natural and in-scope to me. I’ve played music since very young, stemming mostly from older step brothers who are professional musicians. In my teens, I played in bands doing regional and national van tours. My first large-scale tour was the 1994 Scooby Don’t/Dillinger Four tour. This was back when Scooby Don’t was growing in popularity after releasing a split 7″ with Boris the Sprinkler and after Aaron Cometbus (Crimpshrine/Pinhead Gunpowder) wrote in Cometbus about a previous tour he’d tagged along on. The 1994 tour featured me playing drums on the west coast and Aaron Cometbus playing drums on the east coast. D4 had just released their debut 7″ EP. After the tour, Scooby Don’t broke up. Our guitar player joined Dillinger Four, then Dillinger Four went on to release many acclaimed albums and tour extensively all over the world.
A few years later, I moved to LA to study ethnography at UCLA/CSUN. In addition to studies, I played in bands with guys from LA Guns, Faster Pussycat, Enuff Z’Nuff, Junkyard, and Roxx Gang. We released records and toured in the US and Japan. Concurrently, I spent about five years or so writing my dissertation on the American newsstand, which led me to Book Soup. From there, it’s just the typical mailroom story—started helping out with events, took over the marketing department, spent nearly a decade working with thousands of authors. When the owner of Book Soup died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, I left and started Rare Bird. The common thread is a continuing drive to creative and push the limits of what can be done with books, music, and whatever else I’m passionate about.
In addition to all that, you are also a co-author (along with Marc Weingarten) on the Rare Bird non-fiction book YES IS THE ANSWER: AND OTHER PROG-ROCK TALES. What’s the story there?
Above all else, I’m a progressive rock nut. I have a Yes tattoo, and it’s a lifestyle that I’ve been drawn to since an early age. The YITA book came about simply because Marc and I kept finding authors that shared our passion. We felt that the genre was highly undervalued in the book marketplace, and it just came together quickly after that. We announced the book, officially, in November 2012 by having a Prog Angeles show at The Echo in Los Angeles and putting together two prog bands: one doing three suites from the Yes and King Crimson catalogues; the other featuring 75% of Incubus doing all Pink Floyd songs. The event was sold out, with lots of rain in LA that night. Marc and I played in the Yes/Crimson band, alongside Scott Shriner (Weezer) and Billy Sherwood (Yes), rehearsing for twelve weeks leading up to the performance. Live videos are online. We had a blast doing it, but it was extremely taxing on everyone. I have an enormous amount of respect for musicians who can do that and keep it up for any period of time.
Rare Bird is, technically, two companies: one that publishes 30-35 books per year; and another that performs marketing, publicity, and design services for Big Five publishers, large independents, and authors. The two are separate, but they criss-cross often creatively. Having the two companies side by side is definitely unique, but it’s effective since our publishing operation has a diverse perspective and our services operation has a broader insight into day-to-day publishing. We have every intention of continuing with this interplay between companies, and it’s an interesting way to move through the industry. The first three imprints (Rare Bird, Barnacle, and Vireo) were set up individually for, mostly, marketing reasons. Barnacle tends to publish more controversial books, and we originally ran into problems with mainstream titles being directly associated with those. It was more of a problem when we had fewer titles on our lists. Now that we’ve had more years to build and grow, it isn’t so much of an issue.
We’ll, most likely, continue with these imprints as series, but it’s possible that we’ll consolidate that catalogue into being just Rare Bird in the future. As for Archer and California Coldblood, those are both imprints that we’ve partnered with other folks on. Archer’s founder, Lisa Weinert, formerly of Vintage/Anchor and Open Road, and I have worked together on projects for years. When the opportunity came to start an imprint, it seemed like a natural partnership to publish and distribute under Rare Bird. Similar with California Coldblood and it’s founder, Robert Peterson. He had the drive to start a science fiction/fantasy imprint. We hadn’t really delved into that realm yet, even though we had been interested in doing so for a while. The partnership was a nice dovetail, and it seems to be working out nicely. The in-house staff at our downtown Los Angeles office is six people, a network of subcontractors, and a rotating group of interns from major school nationwide.
I don’t necessarily have a personal preference. Storytelling is storytelling, though I’m known for being a true crime guy. We’re about to announce that Steve Hodel’s sequel to MOST EVIL will be coming out on our list this fall. For those not familiar, MOST EVIL II continues Hodel’s exploration into his father’s life after discovering evidence that connects him with the Black Dahlia murder investigation. The MOST EVIL books continue into more crimes that George Hodel appears to be involved in. Aside from that, we have a new water crisis book releasing soon from Marc Weingarten called THIRSTY: WILLIAM MULHOLLAND, CALIFORNIA WATER, AND THE REAL CHINATOWN. We also have a debut novel, SCALE, from Keith Buckley, the lead singer of the band Every Time I Die, coming out in November. That will have an enhanced audiobook featuring music by Joe Trohman from Fall Out Boy. Lots of great stuff. We’re all very excited about developments.
I saw you speak on a panel at the California Crime Writers Conference in June and you were pretty clear that Rare Bird is not open to unsolicited submissions. For all the hungry new authors out there, can you explain why?
That is correct. We’re a company that definitely appreciates relationships. It isn’t just about what’s on the page that matters for us, it’s who an author is and what kind of relationship we’re going to have with them. I’d happily pass on the best manuscript in the world if the caveat was that we’d have to deal with a personality that isn’t compatible. The best way to explore the possibility of pitching something to our publishing side is to get to know us or get to know our authors. The rest will fall into place if the project is right.
If you could pick a dream project for Rare Bird, who and what would it be?
Well, my current professional goal is to acquire a monster of a title that would take me and my family to northern Finland—full immersion—to edit, design, and develop. The other would be for Rare Bird to publish a William T. Vollmann title that’s too out there or non-commercial for Viking or Ecco to publish. Another would be to reissue a deluxe version of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. by Gerald Petievich. Other than those, I’m heavily immersed in some amazing books right now and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
S.W. Lauden’s short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published by Rare Bird Books in October 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.