Interview with Christina Ward, Editor of the US publishin house Feral House

Meeting number 7, dedicated to introducing Kathodik readers to those involved in promoting a discourse of music criticism in Italian and international publishing. The first meeting was with Marco Refe of Edizioni Crac in Falconara Marittima (here). The second meeting was with Professor Luca Cerchiari, editor of the ‘Musica Contemporanea’ series of Mimesis Edizioni (here). The third meeting was with Karl Ludwig, Communication Manager of the German wolke verlag (here). The fourth meeting was with Domenico Ferraro, Editorial Director of Squilibri Editore (here). The fifth meeting was with Fabio Ferretti, creator and editor of the series ‘Chorus’, by Edizioni Quodlibet (here). The sixth meeting was with Massimo Roccaforte, editorial curator of Goodfellas Edizioni (here). This time I moved overseas to interview Christina Ward, Editor of the US publishing house Feral House. Brief aside: I first became acquainted with the publishing house when I reviewed Michael Tau‘s volume Extreme Music: Silence to Noise and Everything In Between (here); hence I immediately thought of contacting Feral House for the music publishing column. The very nice Christina Ward told me how it came about, how it is run, and what ‘feral’ books are planned for the next few years in the US, and international, publishing scene (I noticed that some titles in their catalogue are present in Italian translation in my library).

Here you can find the Italian translation

How did the idea of the Feral House on music publishing house come about?

Feral House founder Adam Parfrey came of age during the birth and rise of the LA Punk scene. He was friends or acquainted with many of the artists and musicians who created that vibrant scene. Adam loved music of all styles (we all do!) but was fascinated by lesser-known musicians and “outsider” creators.

Our first “music” title was the 1995 book Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story, which was a deep, insider account of the bands that came to define “grunge.” But the music book that really made its mark was 1998’s Lords of Chaos. Both titles set the template for “Feral” music titles—first-hand stories from creators and deeply researched explorations of under-valued yet significant and influential artists and genres

How do you select the titles for publication?

When I’m assessing queries, I’m looking for a few elements. Does the author have a firm understanding of the topic they’re writing about? Is the topic of interest to us? Does the author have the access and expertise? Does the work have a fresh perspective on the topic? What is the quality of the writing? I have a shorthand for my assessment—is the work Feral?

You may or may not be surprised how many folks send us the absolutely wrong submissions. Pro-tip: unless you are already famous, or at least infamous, in your genre of music, for the love of dogs-DO NOT WRITE A MEMOIR. No one cares what you think about the Merzbow show you saw in 1991. No one cares how [insert favorite band here] “saved” your life. Those are stories to tell your friends at the bar or your therapist.

I also work with writers to develop ideas. I like to plant ideas with people whose writing I admire. This method takes much longer, as books can take years to go from idea to actual book. I think of the process as farming. I work to cultivate writers, musicians, and artists to see what stories they can tell. I also have a short list of musicians I’d love for them to write their memoirs.

Adam Parfrey and his beloved dog Loki. Credit Parfrey Family

I don’t pay attention to popular culture. I don’t care what songs are in the Top Ten and have zero interest in someone writing about the latest K-pop band. I would be interested in someone writing a researched and fact-based history of “manufactured” pop stars since the advent of recorded music. I look for manuscripts that will be relevant longer than six months from the day they’re published. I love writers who devote their time and energy to learning everything about a niche topic and want to tell me that story. I think all of us who see ourselves outside of mainstream culture recognize and respect other outsiders and are interested in learning more.

An excellent example of the kind of book I’m talking about is our 2001 book Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears. Am I a fan of the genre? No. Am I familiar with those late sixties-early seventies radio hits? Of course! Reading a book like Bubblegum Music gives readers a “big picture” understanding of the people who created the music and why. The book made me appreciate those ridiculous songs a little more… It doesn’t mean I’m grooving to “Hang on Sloopy,” but if other readers come away with the same feeling—that they learned something new about a weird thing, then our books are finding a place in the world.

As far as the selection of foreign authors is concerned, which school of music criticism is the most referred to? Just to give you an example: are you more interested in English-speaking authors? Or in French-speaking authors? Or other languages?

Feral House publishes books in English for mainly an English-language readership. Our books are distributed worldwide, allowing readers to buy them from many sources, not just from us. To be clear, we’re not interested in music criticism per se, but in music history and biography.

I come from the punk-rock and zine culture where everyone had an opinion and shouted it loudly from the pages of their hand-lettered homemade magazine. There was an element of cruelty that we still see too much—the personal attacks. Suppose you love a band that I don’t, fine. That’s fine; you get to have favorites, but I won’t publicly slag you off because of that. Yet, in the nineties, outsider music criticism was like watching multi-car pileups where “critics” would gang up on someone they disagreed with. It was so childish. Feral House books published during that error have elements of ‘zine culture attitudes. It was of the time and place that is long past.

This long answer is wind-up to your question! Feral House has published several books by European authors; some write in English, and others who don’t. (We work with a translator if a book isn’t in English.) Ye-Ye Girls of 60s French Pop was written by French expert Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe. Blood, Fire, Death: The Story of Swedish Metal was written by Swedish journalist Ika Johannesson. Our recent release, Heroes of the Metal Underground: The Definitive Guide to 1980s American Independent Metal Bands, was written by Greek researcher Alexandros Anesiadis.

I love that Alex obsessively researched and pitched his idea to me. This was the first time anyone had considered compiling a comprehensive compendium on independent metal bands and their records. In doing so, he’s expanded our understanding of metal and its cultural impact. That is a very Feral book!

We also love partnering with independent publishers specializing in other languages. We’ve partnered with European publishers to release editions of our books in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and a few in Russian. I would love to publish books in multiple languages, but that is beyond our capacity. I will also answer a question you didn’t ask: We only work with other publishers to create “foreign-language” editions of our books. We cannot grant readers or enthusiastic fans the right to translate our books.

Here follows a few technical questions: what about the fundraising, the circulation, the promotion and the distribution of a title you choose to publish?

Feral House is a traditional, for-profit publisher. In the United States, that means sales solely generate our revenue. Many independent publishers are “non-profit,” meaning they can apply for grants, government support, corporate foundations, or for direct donations from people to supplement their income. It creates an unfair marketplace as we compete for readers’ attention, but we do it with fewer resources.

We have international distribution via Ingram (US & Asia) and Turnaround (UK & EU). All titles we publish are available for ordering, but a bookstore or other retailer needs to stock them… and that is the retailer’s choice. (Hint: Ask your favorite bookstore if they stock a title. If they don’t, if there is enough interest in a title, they WILL stock it.) In the US, there are approximately 50,000 books published per week! There is a lot of competition for readers.

I work to promote each book in a way that—hopefully—reaches folks interested in the topic! I work with freelance journalists, online and print staff writers for magazines and news outlets, broadcast media journalists, and podcasters. I want to do my best to get our books into the hands of readers.

I attend a few book festivals per year to do in-person sales and was at a local Krampusnacht event a few days ago. A young woman audibly squeaked when she saw a copy of Russ Columbo and the Crooner Mystique on the table. She gasped and said, “I love him so much! He’s like the proto-Emo dude from 100 years before Emo!”

Yes, we’re in the business of publishing books, but we also love the books we publish. That woman finding a book about a somewhat obscure musician she loved brought her so much joy, and her delight is why I publish books. I want all of us weirdos to find each other.

What genres do you prefer to deal with for your publications and why?

Feral House only publishes non-fiction. (With one exception—The Residents wrote a novel, The Brickeaters. And in my mind, if the Residents email you out-of-the-blue and ask if you’d like to publish their novel, the only answer is an emphatic and resounding YES!) I obviously love music topics, but we’re also interested in micro-history, biography, occult, sub-cultures, and “high-weirdness.”

I want to elaborate on the topic of memoirs. Do we publish memoirs? We do, but only certain kinds. The life lived has to be so extraordinary to warrant being published. Too many writers send us their navel-gazing stories of their own “struggles.” Here’s my unpopular opinion: unless you’ve been lying face-down in a ditch, starving, bleeding out, then maybe you’re pretty lucky. In the States, there’s been a trend—even in our outsider culture—to think all sadness is suffering. It isn’t, and it’s a boring topic to write about, yet nearly 75% of the submissions we get are “memoirs” about how shitty someone’s life is or was. I’m glad everyone has overcome their “trauma,” but I don’t want to read about it; it’s boring.

What is the most interesting title that has been published to date and why?

You’re asking me to pick my favorite child! I’ll point out a few that have stuck with me over the past decades. Our first true Feral House book, Adam’s Apocalypse Culture, will always be important to us and many others. In the internet beforetimes, the book became a touchstone for outsider culture and influential to so many types of media that came after (for good and ill).

I miss the genius of Mel Gordon every single day. His books for us, Voluptuous Panic, Horizontal Collaboration, The Grand Guignol (aka Theatre of Fear and Death), Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant, and The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity told an entirely different story of Europe during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Mel sadly died in 2018, a few months before Adam passed.

And finally, our Extreme Metal series of books made me appreciate the genre in ways I never previously considered. As mentioned, I grew up in punk culture, and metal was often regarded as antithetical to punk. In reading our books (and the manuscripts that will be published in the next few years), I came to appreciate the genre. Those books also made me see the similarities in punk and metal culture. I look at us all as the same family of outsiders. You like Realm, and I like The Frogs, fantastic, let’s both read about Moondog!

Do you think co-production between publishers for selected releases is possible, as it happens between microlabels in music?

I do! In fact, we’ve co-produced several books. We’ve done a series of late 1800s-early 1900s “drug” books in coordination with Dr. Ron Siegel. We partnered with the Anja Offensive to publish the ‘Process Church’ magazine collection. We partnered with Sacred Bones to publish a monograph on the art of Lee Brown Coye.

Collaboration is a fantastic crucible for distilling the best ideas. Each creator brings their unique ideas and aesthetic to make something incredible.

Does the USA state help publishers with publishing?

Ha! No. I mentioned earlier that some US publishers are “non-profit.” That is a business designation in the States that allows a business, as long as they can document that they provide cultural and/or educational value to the community, special status. Then, they don’t have to pay taxes and can apply for government and corporate foundation grants. But to get that status, you must be approved by the federal government.

We don’t want to answer to anyone but our fans and readers.

In addition to books, are you thinking of other forms of publication? For example documentaries, movies, podcasts?

I started the Feral House podcast about five years ago but stopped due to the limits of the clock! There is only so much we can do.

We don’t produce our own documentaries or scripted films, but we work with producers to license those books. We get asked to “option” books all the time, but we pay close attention to the details because it’s more important to us that whoever uses our source material does it in a way that honors the original author’s vision and work. We’ve turned down larger monetary offers that weren’t right for the material.

Are there any forthcoming titles worth mentioning?

We’ve just released Eugene Robinson’s memoir, A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight into Murder’s Row. (Eugene’s life is worth a memoir!) Murder Ballads Old & New: A Dark and Bloody Record has just been released. 2024 will see The Gits written by The Gits drummer Steve Moriarity. I’m nearly done editing that book…it’s good!

Cold Glitter: The Untold Story of Canadian Glam may catch people by surprise. I know, the first reaction is, ‘What? Canadian Glam music?’ But this a very Feral book in which author Robert Dayton tells the story of all these bands, most of whom never got famous, who embraced Glam culture in the seventies for various reasons. It’s a story of outsiders kicking against the pricks of mainstream culture. One of the fun elements for non-Canadian readers will be finding out how many recognizable musicians who gained success in other genres began their careers with Canadian Glam bands. It’s a roster of all the “secret Canadians.”

You may read that and think you have zero interest in Glam Music or Canada, but a well-told story about people and an unfamiliar cultural scene is universal.

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