Two Dollar Radio is a boutique publisher who functions on a no-wasted bullets policy. You won’t find jokebooks or bathroom readers camouflaged in their lists. In the work they publish, they value ambition above all, and believe that none of their books crimp to convention when it comes to storytelling or voice. Ideally, that contributes to a liberating reading experience. Their primary interest lies with what they would characterize as bold literary fiction: subversive, original, and highly creative.
The name has its origins in a San Diego bar, when the bartender/publisher was ignoring a belligerent old man who blurted out, “Don’t mind me, I make more noise than a two-dollar radio.”
Below is an interview with Eric Obenauf, Publisher and Editor in Chief.
Why did you decide to get into publishing?
I studied dramatic writing in college, but the more I learned about the film industry the less I wanted anything to do with it. I got into fiction writing because I believed it was pure – an art produced by one person and in turn consumed by one person – that could provide this incredible personal connection that you feel in the grip of your favorite authors. My wife and I took a road trip to Big Sur and picked up a copy of Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which burst my bubble about the publishing industry. I was definitely inspired enough to act.
What are some of the challenges specific to being a small publisher?
It’s probably most difficult to deal with the long-lead sales seasons that are dictated by the large publishers. As a small press, it’s hard to fork over an advance for a book that won’t earn money for another two years.
In a recent Boston Review article a number of publishers, small and large, talked about the pressure Amazon puts on them. What has your experience with Amazon been like?
Ummm... We don’t have any direct interaction with Amazon as that all takes place through our distributor, but you still feel the squeeze. It’s also knowing how they conduct themselves as a business, as well as the impact they have on our society that is especially disturbing. In the recent past it seemed as though we may have been entering a new age of corporate responsibility, which has proven to be a stupidly optimistic pipe-dream. Clearly change won’t happen thanks to any sort of responsible accounting enacted on our behalf by our state or federal governments (although, big ups to California!), so we try to let people know – visitors to our website, friends, family, acquaintances – about what goes on. As an outfit that sports its idealism on its sleeve, I’m genuinely embarrassed by our interaction with Amazon.
How about some of the advantages to being a small publisher?
Oh man, I love everything about the position we’re in, it makes me giddy. It’s easier to establish credibility with readers and reviewers as a small press because you have a carefully curated list, especially starting out as it’s organized by just one editor. I had this conversation with Gavin Grant of Small Beer at BEA, where at a small press you’re never publishing anything that you would classify as good – it has to be great. And hopefully that passion for your work translates and is evident to readers and booksellers.
There are a lot of restrictions to being a small press, but then that forces you to get creative with your problem solving, which can be really thrilling. A good example of that is Featherproof, who publishes three or so books a year, but they’re super-creative and have things like Storygami, their mini-books, and I’ve heard a really stunning app. That’s how you stand out with little-to-no budget.
There’s also an incredibly strong support group in the indie publishing community. First and foremost, support from indie bookstores, which provides the very backbone of our existence as most of our sales go through them. In starting out, a number of individuals, such as Johnny Temple, Richard Nash, and Pat Walsh, as well as the truly kind people at Consortium (our distributor), have given us invaluable advice.
What’s the most exciting thing about the work that you do? What keeps you getting up and going to the office?
Most days I work from home, so I can’t really avoid it. In all seriousness, it’s immensely gratifying work, especially now that we’re solvent. You can probably sense my enthusiasm from some of my other responses, but I never want to do anything else. Eliza and I tattooed our logo on our wrists, so it’s very much embedded in who we are. And now, one of our authors, Joshua Mohr, tattooed the radio on his arm, as did Emily Pullen, who started working with us. The other night we were walking down our street and my daughter was riding her bike, when out of nowhere she turns to us and says, ‘when I grow up I want to work on Two Dollar Radio,’ and it choked me up.
It has been really satisfying to witness such a bold and brave artistic statement being rewarded, and not just by the fringe but by the mainstream. It was all Grace. She wrote the most courageous book that I’ve read in years. Most first novels that are submitted to us read like they’ve been workshopped to death, where they’re formulaic and conventional. It was evident that Grace held herself to her own very high creative standards. Eliza and I spent many summer nights sitting on our front porch talking about the book, peeling back the layers. It has that pull for readers, that you want to talk about it, debate it, tell your friends to read it, and it became apparent early on, even before the book came out that it had a special glow about it.
Steve Erickson’s intro still gives me goosebumps. I think to have a writer of Steve’s stature flattering Grace and her writing in the way that he did definitely piqued interest. There were some places like HTML Giant that started singing its praises very early on that helped it to gather steam. But the ‘5 Under 35’ thing, it wasn’t a committee decision, but one very esteemed writer, Scott Spencer, singling the book out. I’m sure he didn’t make the most obvious choice. And I’m fairly certain he received a cocked eyebrow or two when he proposed going to bat for a book that mentioned slutty teenage hobo vampire junkies in the synopsis. Which is a testament to the power of Grace’s writing.
I like to imagine that in a lot of ways it’s what readers nowadays are seeking. I know I am. I was asked recently by a reporter what the appeal of an artist like Rudy Wurlitzer has for our generation, so this has been on my mind a lot. I don’t think it’s generational in any way but emblematic of where we are as a culture. Rudy and Grace, I believe to be singular. As artists, as writers, they have remained true to their own voice and vision, while also not caving to the commercial demands of the economy. There’s a purity and authenticity to the approach that feels absolutely vital. It’s what we’re lacking with our medication, sleek gadgets, and everything-on-demand. There’s a swagger to it that feels too rare in our lemonade-stand culture of literature. What’s really inspiring to me both as a publisher and a reader is witnessing a new crop of young writers, some of whom I’ve had the good fortune to publish, and others like Joshua Cohen and Blake Butler, who appear beholden solely to themselves. They never compromised their voice in order to be published or to succeed, which marks them in my mind as the torchbearers who will impart a renewed sense of value upon our future literary world.
What does it mean for a book to be “subversive, original, and highly creative?”
Ideally that’s identifiable in some or all of our books.
What are a publisher’s responsibilities to the world of readers?
As someone with a platform in the arts, however limited, I believe you have a responsibility to contribute something to our culture. Which may sound self-righteous, but whatevs. This was actually a big point of Schiffrin’s book, where he talked about corporate publishing becoming homogenized, with five publishers essentially dominating eighty percent of book sales in the country, which is dangerous for any self-proclaimed democracy in addition to being exceptionally boring. It appears to be cyclical, so I’m actually indebted to the corporate takeover which has enabled this incredibly vibrant and fertile time that we’re living in now. It has enabled our very existence and that of countless other indie presses. It’s a new golden age.
Hopefully we’re providing a service for readers that they wouldn’t find elsewhere; that’s our goal and we know it’s not for everybody. Our families, for instance, have gotten pretty good at feigning interest. But the last thing the world needs is a small press releasing books about a boy’s relationship with his dog.
What are you reading now?
We just returned from Book Expo America in New York, so I have a stack that I picked up in stores and at the show that I’m excited about and am reading simultaneously: Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, and The Ask by Sam Lipsyte.