A different world
Tiny Punk Planet Books becomes a huge success in no time
Dan Sinker shakes his head, laughs and tosses a rope toy to his dog, Lucy. Sinker is feeling understandably lighthearted these days as he talks about the unexpected success of his new Punk Planet Books and its first release, Joe Meno's novel Hairstyles of the Damned.
"Nobody expected it," he says. "I remember thinking that it would be awesome if we sold 10,000 copies in the first year. We're now up to 30,000 since August."
Sinker, 30, sits in the office of Independents' Day Media, the umbrella organization for Punk Planet magazine and the skateboarding magazine Bail. Punk Planet has come a long way since Sinker started publishing it in 1994, winning several design and editorial awards and developing a hefty circulation.
The airy office in a Ravenswood warehouse is the headquarters of a skeleton crew of three or four employees at one time, including associate publisher Anne Elizabeth Moore, author of Hey Kidz! Buy This Book. The office has a relaxed air, but the phone rings often, something Sinker should have thought of before leaving town when Hairstyles went to press.
"I was getting into a car, about to drive for three days and I figured I'd call my voice mail," he says. Good thing he checked: He listened in shock as Barnes & Noble ordered 4,700 copies of the book, 700 more than the entire print run. "We had to change things on the fly, with me standing in the one grass patch in Iowa that had cell-phone reception."
It was an auspicious beginning for a small publisher: Hairstyles is now in its fifth printing. A month later, Sinker released All The Power by Mark Andersen, a nonfiction book that's a blend of memoir, history and call to action. It has sold well, boosted by Andersen's book tour with former Nirvana bassist Kris Novoselic.
"It was great to put out this funny and sad novel and then follow it up with this hard-core political nonfiction book," Sinker says. "It was a way to say, 'This is Punk Planet Books, it's whatever we want it to be.'"
It certainly helps that Punk Planet Books is an imprint of New York indie-publishing stalwart Akashic Books, which publishes politically minded fiction and nonfiction. In 2001, Akashic released a collection of interviews culled from the first seven years of Punk Planet magazine. Publisher Johnny Temple floated the idea of working with Sinker on an imprint, but Sinker didn't want to put out another interview collection.
Once Meno showed Sinker the manuscript for Hairstyles—the two work together on Bail—Sinker called up Temple and forged the partnership. While Punk Planet chooses, edits and designs the books, Akashic pays the publishing costs and helps with publicity and distribution.
"The thing is, Dan Sinker's a bit of a genius," Temple says. "Punk Planet Books has this youthful vitality, but we're seeing that the books are just as popular with 55-year-old ladies as 25-year-old guys."
Both Sinker and Temple are excited about the imprint's third release, Bee Lavender's memoir Lessons in Taxidermy. Lavender, the author of Mamaphonic, was diagnosed with throat cancer at 12 and skin cancer shortly thereafter. And that was just the beginning of her torturous medical history, as dozens of surgeries left hundreds of scars all over her body. Doctors told her more than once that she would likely die, and in high school she was lucky to survive a violent, head-on car crash.
There's little sense of comfort in Taxidermy; it's a brutal story, told with no sense of victimhood or blame. The result is a terrifying tale of a woman trying to live a complete life with a body that fails her in the most horrific ways imaginable. It's the type of book that breaks a reader's heart in the first five pages and repeats the process on each page for the remaining 155. The lone relief comes from knowing Lavender, now relatively healthy, survived it all to write such a stirring memoir.
"We had done a reading with Bee, and she said she was probably going to have to publish the book herself because no one would touch it," Sinker says. "I just thought it was an incredible story, and I felt like I wanted to help make this story be heard."
"I felt like it" in some ways is the operating motto for Sinker, who simply publishes the books he likes. This fall, the imprint will publish an art book, a collection of Jay Ryan's work from Bird Machine, the poster-makers who share an office with Independents' Day. After that, it's another Meno novel in 2006, and possibly a second collection of interviews from Punk Planet.
"I love the fact that in the first two years we'll have published fiction, nonfiction, memoir and an art book," says Sinker, his dog settling in at his feet. "If we're constantly switching genres and mediums, it's always going to be really fun."
Bee Lavender will read from Lessons in Taxidermy ($12.95) at Quimby's Tuesday 12 at 7pm.