Discover more from ZINE MUNCH
ZINE MUNCH #10: George Plimpton, Merge Records, and Doomscrolling (w/ JC Gabel)
On the golden age of longform and the tyranny of ‘branded content’
JC Gabel is a founder/publisher of Hat & Beard, a Los Angeles-based independent press that publishes “nonfiction books of pop-cultural and historical significance that draw on existing cult audiences,” including books about the music of David Lynch films (produced in collaboraiton with Lynch himself!), the early days of internet radio station dublab, and the ephemera of Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles home. In the past he’s also been an editor for the Pitchfork Review and art book publishers Taschen and Phaidon. As a teenager in Chicago, he founded Stop Smiling, an art and culture zine that published some of the last conversations with Robert Altman, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Plimpton, among others.
I met JC through Josh Glenn, the editor of Hermenaut and first guest on ZINE MUNCH. We meet when I’m home in Los Angeles for a week in June at Stories, a bookstore in Silverlake.
In the midst of talking, someone tries to get JC’s attention. “Excuse me,” they say, “I can’t help overhearing but you are really interesting, can I get your Instagram?” (I have never seen this happen before: when I ask JC, he also says this is a first!) We talk for almost two hours about the golden age of long form and the realities of publishing art books in the age of Amazon.
Attention, longform, and ephemera
JC Gabel: I was just honored to give you something about this stuff. I guess we’re in the third decade of the post-digital age, and the common wisdom is that no one under 35 cares about or ephemera.
Lucas Gelfond: My theory on all of this is that, because we move more quickly now, the stuff that was made more deliberately and with that slowness becomes more valuable. I’m writing something [author’s note: now published! here!] for a print magazine my friends are putting together, and the whole thing is very ‘anti-attention economy’—it is a totally different act to put together a magazine [once a year] when everything else moves so quickly.
JG: I think the short attention span shit has gone too far for anyone who has any intellectual curiosity. We (and I’m sure Josh [Glenn, founding editor of Hermenaut] did too) made a lot of financial decisions that probably weren’t all that sound [in favor of long form] but it’s interesting.
Stop Smiling, a brief history
LG: Did you just start Stop Smiling, when did you…
JG: I was a kid when I started man, I was a punk kid, and I always did zines. The first couple I did with other people but it wasn’t really serious, where everyone gets super excited and would fizzle out after the second issue. [Stop Smiling] was almost like a response to what was becoming the ‘listicle’, or blurb culture. In the mid 90s, it was just beginning, but you could see it.
Maxim was the number one magazine, and it was basically like softcore Playboy but without the good content. At least with Playboy, even if you didn’t agree with [Hugh] Hef[ner]’s weird misogyny, you could still claim you read it for the articles until a certain point, because they’d pay really good people to do interviews. He created the long form interview before Rolling Stone, the Playboy interview, like with Miles Davis in 1962.
I did a [gap] year too because I got a job working at Merge Records [editor’s note: the label behind Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields, Caribou, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Mountain Goats, among others!]. I moved because I was like ‘there’s no way I’m going to get to do this ever again, I should just move to North Carolina for six months.’ The first few issues of the magazine were built on touring around with all these bands in the mid-90s. [...] The magazines I was writing for in the nineties were all dying as the internet was coming out. I was like ‘we have to create something that’s like these things I want to write for, but for ourselves.’ There were other magazines at the time that were doing the same thing at the time that were kindred spirits, Space Age Bachelor, Giant Robot, Tokion, some of them are still going but most or not.
I think what really made Stop Smiling kick was the literati of New York sort of embracing what we were doing. Once Plimpton saw what we were doing and started inviting us to the Paris Review parties then we got to [Norman] Mailer and [Susan] Sontag and [Joan] Didion and [Kurt] Vonnegut and we ended up doing the last long form interviews with most of those people. I remember at the time everyone’s like “how the hell are you getting all these famous people?” and I was like “wrote em a letter.” Not an email, a handwritten letter.
I think at the time they were like, “oh, people in their twenties aren’t dumb as shit and they actually care about things.” I became very close with Kurt Vonnegut in the last maybe five years of his life and we would talk on the phone all the time. I think he liked talking to me because I was young and actually engaged in things. I think a lot of the older generation had assumed that everyone was just a vapid shithead or something, that only cared about pop culture and video games with no intellectual pursuits, lowest common denominator shit.
[...] I always used to say that we were trying to relive the glory days of magazine publishing, which for us was like, the first five years of Rolling Stone, most of the seventies run of National Lampoon, Playboy when you could claim you read it for the articles, sixties and seventies Esquire, the first 10 years of Interview when Andy Warhol was actually running it, where if you had a good story with Tom Waits, you would just run 10,000 words of it because why not, it’s good.
We lucked out in that we got in on that last bastion of money before YouTube and Facebook came out. That was the final nail in the coffin for print advertising, because it was so much easier to measure your dollar spent in experiential marketing and internet marketing than you could in a print mag where it was very hard to see “are we getting anything for this $10,000 back cover or whatever it cost.”
That was our model. We stood out to the advertisers because everything was becoming listicles and blurb culture. For a while they were supportive of it because i twas this outlier, but in the end the branded content stuff was just so sexy—if you can get a return on your investment, why would you care about Stop Smiling and an issue about auteur theory?
The tyranny of advertisers
JG: I’m a total social butterfly, and I like doing events, but the print advertisers started to use events as bait. It was like, ‘hey, we want to do a party at Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ house,’ and we basically became party planners. It was more about capitalizing on the audience of the magazine and tapping into the ‘hipster pyramid’ of that demographic than actually supporting the writing and work we were doing. It just got disheartening because it was like half of the week having a rooftop party in Manhattan instead of actually doing the magazine.
I was like ‘dude, we didn’t sign up for this shit.’ There’s always a certain amount of marketing things but it almost became a quid pro quo, ‘we’ll give you guys $50,000 next year but you have to do like X amount of parties’ and all of this stuff. All of the stuff would take so much time that, whatever we were charging, we should’ve charged them double, you know?
[...] I’d like to do one publication a year or at least one every nine months where it’s a look back at a publication. I think it was the 20th century, early aughts, before the internet just came and crushed all of this stuff as a business. The most depressing stuff to me was the rise of so-called ‘branded content,’ the idea that you could have complete collusion with advertisers.
I think it completely backfired. There’s this notion that young people like yourself can’t tell the difference between branded content and real content. I think you can probably see it better than older people because you’ve been marketed to you since you’ve been born.
LG: Yeah, everyone knows what a promotion looks like.
JG: I think the rise of the art book fairs—besides the two that Printed Matter hosts in New York and LA, they’ve all started up semi-autonomously—it’s proof positive that shitloads of Gen Z and millenials like print stuff. They’re not like ‘all I care about is the internet and doomscrolling.’
Independent publishing in the age of Amazon
JG: I’ve been going out of my way to make sure that [Hat and Beard] isn’t a day job, if only because we can keep the expenses low enough, where we can keep making really high quality stuff, pay three times the royalty rates of the bigger publishers, and avoid most of what is loosely called ‘late capitalism’ but I call it ‘the late capitalist shitshow of loss’ which is that all book distribution and magazine distribution is run through one company now. They are 100 percent in bed with Amazon, the whole thing is rigged, and they’re taking 75 percent of the sale.
The store gets a 50 percent discount, free shipping, a hundred days to pay. It’s not even a real business model anymore, it’s just a joke. What you see in stores is kind of window dressing—the stores make twice as much off the book as the author and publisher do.
No one likes to talk about this because it’s all the same endless debate of ‘Amazon ruined everything and the indie stores need to survive;’ the indie stores are getting double what they got 20 years ago from each sale. I obviously love indie stores and come to them all the time, we’re at one right now, but I think, at a certain point, if you make it impossible for the publishers to make books, there isn’t going to be anything to sell in the indie stores.
If you look around, anything that’s been started since 2000 has basically been started with someone’s immense family wealth. The one example that’s kind of well-known is Catapult Publishing which now owns Soft Skull Press and Counterpoint—that’s the Koch Brothers’ ‘black sheep’ sister; she also bankrolled bookshop.org.
LG: Holy shit, that’s nuts. Isn’t Soft Skull like, left anarchist-y?
JG: Yeah, but she’s the black sheep sister, man. Elizabeth Koch, man, god bless her for fucking, just writing checks. [Editor’s (unfortunate) note: Soft Skull’s parent organization, Catapult, shuttered its online magazine and writing classes yesterday.]
[...] I was obsessed with trying to make an actual business model that other people could replicate if you didn’t have rich parents. Everything can’t be, ‘be born with rich parents or you can’t work in the arts,’ we’re going back to a second gilded age if we allow that to happen, where the arts are just for people who don’t really need jobs.
There’s a great book actually that I’ve been trying to turn into, maybe not a documentary but a limited series. It's about a professor from Yale who a number of my friends had, he’s since quit academia, his name is William Deresiewicz.
LG: He’s the Excellent Sheep guy!
JG: Yeah, he wrote the [The Disadvantages an Elite Education] first and his most recent book is called The Death of the Artists: How Creators Are Surviving in an Age of Billionaires and Big Tech. The book is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown about how the whole thing is a great shitshow. You can’t make any money as a musician anymore. You can’t make any money as an author because all of the mid-list stuff is kind of profitless, the bookstores make no money for the authors. You get ‘fuzzy math’ statements because everything’s being sold on Amazon, something like 75 percent of all books.
We’ve been experimenting from day one where at most a half but at least a quarter of the copies go to a wholesaler, and we sell all the rest of the copies ourselves. It creates a lot more work for us, but it’s how we can make 2,000 copies of Josh’s book and still have an outcome where they get royalties in a year or two and we make money together. It comes down to the old-school grassroots of hand sellings.
A lot of people have said recently ‘I don’t understand how Hat and Beard is set up, it doesn’t function like any other publisher,’ and I think that’s kind of true. We all come from the music industry in the nineties, before the internet. At the indie labels of yore—I mean, if you were on an indie label in the nineties and sold 50,000 records, you could buy a house. There was an alternative system before the internet, there was an artist friendly way to do a lot of stuff.
Independent publishing before Amazon was a totally different animal too. A lot of [mass consolidation] can be traced back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which I only probably remember because I was in journalism school at the time and it was such a big deal. It allowed Rupert Murdoch and these people to buy everything. That’s why I think people love that show Succession, because it’s about one of these oligarchal families with a bunch of terrible children running this media empire into the ground or whatever.
It kind of lifted the cap off of everything, that's why there used to be ten big publishers and now there’s five, and it might be four because Simon and Schuster just fended off the corporate takeover from Penguin Random House and the government just shut it down. Usually when they push it through the second or third time, it goes through, because whatever the government stops for antitrust purposes, the lawyers figure out a way around. This is with every industry, not just publishing.
LG: It’s nuts.
JG: I don’t know anyone in publishing that thinks one of the two biggest publishers buying the third biggest publisher is a good idea. I don’t know anybody, not any author, even people who sell tons of books, they’re like ‘that’s going to suck for everyone, there’s going to be a ton of people laid off, and it’s also going to create this boogeyman that will make Penguin Random House so much bigger.’
Even when Penguin and Random House merged it was like cats and dogs living together, because those people had been competitors for 75 years, like bloodsport competitors. I remember reading it and thinking ‘really?’ I guess the bean counters over there probably just did the math and were like, ‘look, Amazon’s got this big chunk, if we join forces we have a better shot.’
I think we’re going to end up in bed with one of the big five for distribution, Ingram being a monopoly themselves now, because they bought the last three or four independent booksellers in the last five years and consolidated power. If you had told me five years ago ‘the only way you’re ever going to make money off what's left in stores is to get in bed with Random House’ [I would have been shocked], but that’s what’s happening. I mean: powerHouse and Prestel are distributed by Random House, Thames and Hudson is distributed by WW Norton, David Zwirner Gallery is distributed by Simon and Shuster, so we’ll probably be distributed by one of the majors to what’s left of stores, and they’ll protect our product from the deep discounting of Amazon better than Ingram, because, although [the big five publishers] are a wholesaler, at least it’s another publisher and they see the diminishing returns of books being sold as a loss leader.
It also is just kind of heart-wrenching, too. When we first started, we had a regular distributor, and it was the Slash book that was the early wake up call. That was the third book. It cost $60 and Amazon was selling it for like $33.50. We were like ‘okay, we’re going to have to pull out of this,’ because once it’s for sale for that little, nobody is going to pay the real price. We pulled out, and it was a lot of work, but I think it’s kind of been worth it.
We’re moving everything to a book club model, because I’m more comfortable with the subscription models anyways, coming from magazines. I also think it’s a great conversation piece—in the next couple of months, we’re going to make the story more about us. I don’t really like the story to be about me or Sybil or the other principals, but we almost have to tell the origin story of why we’re doing the book club. Everyone is like—why are you doing these book clubs? It’s because the whole system is profitless if we don’t do this, there’s no way it’s sustainable. There’s these guys in Denver that do this record thing called Vinyl Me Please…
LG: Yeah, Vinyl Me Please is awesome!
JG: They’re acquaintances of ours [and we really like their model]. We’re not going to do monthly, it’s gonna be quarterly, and we’re starting with three genres—the California artist books, the pop culture books, we have a thing called the Midwest Initiative which is books about stuff I’m finding in the basements of museums and galleries that frankly, if they had been found on the coasts, would have come out 20 years ago, and we’ll have a UK series later this year and probably eventually have a New York series.
[...] I think COVID has been a real game changer, because I think people started to see during COVID how real creators were getting hurt really bad by not being able to go on book tours, and now is the time to recalibrate people’s mentality about how to support a publisher like us. It’s not buying individual copies at stores where we make no money—people come up to me all the time like, “I bought this at Skylight [Books]” and I never have the heart to tell them “It doesn’t matter if you bought it at any store or Amazon, we make no money through this old system, you have to buy it through us.”
You can subscribe to Hat and Beard’s book club here!