Third Man Books recently celebrated its first anniversary. And the first few titles were what you’d expect: limited edition, very well-produced rock ‘n’ roll books. But after the Nashville group brought on Chet Weise to start the project in earnest, it’s surprised many with its ability to present lesser-known literary lights whose work is strong and bears little to no connection to the music scene.
Metro Times: How do you know Jack White in the first place?
Chet Weise: My bands, the Quadrajets and Immortal Lee County Killers, crossed paths a few times during that late ’90s Sympathy/Estrus/Crypt Records rock ‘n’ roll scene. I look forward to a VH1 documentary of those days (laughs). It was a real cool time. Lots of great bands traveling all over America in fully unblown throwaway Econolines. We all knew each other.
MT: Whose idea was Third Man Books? How did it come about?
Weise: Third Man Books already existed before I came along. There are two pre-Chet Weise [titles] that are no longer available: Shark Infested Soda Fountain is a photo book by Alison Mosshart documenting Dead Weather’s 2010 tour. Pictures From Elephant by David Swanson is also a photo book and celebrates the 10th anniversary of the White Stripes’ album Elephant. Both were very limited editions for TMR’s subscription series, The Vault. Meanwhile, I curated a reading series in Nashville called “Poetry Sucks!” Both Third Man co-founder Ben Swank and Jack attended the series. Swank even participated. He gave his confession, literally. Somehow, though, it ended with a beer bottle thrown at yours truly. Definitely one of the better nights of the series. I’m serious. It was intense.
When Swank and Jack decided that they wanted to expand the breadth of Third Man Books, they interviewed me for the position of editor based on my work with Poetry Sucks! and the Language Lessons LP and book box set that I conceived out of the series. I wanted to publish an anthology representative of the music and writers who had performed there. Originally, I asked Swank to co-edit the collection with me. Swank came back asking if I would be interested in doing it as Third Man Books. Of course I said yes. Language Lessons was the first literary release on TMB. So I’ve been chief editor since then, and have been more or less guiding this ship. However, I do work very closely with Swank on all of our projects. He’s the co-editor of the press and, ultimately, the main man.
MT: Where are you guys manufacturing? How is distro working? Is there any plan to maybe sometime get your own printing gear, like with the record plants?
Weise: Since I’ve been at the helm of starship TMB, we’ve printed all of our books in Nashville. As far as distribution to bookstores, we teamed with Consortium, an excellent indie from Minneapolis. They work perfectly with us; they answer their own phones and respect what we are doing as a press. Can’t ask for more than that. In addition, we do our own distro to record stores, and we do direct-to-customer sales. The reception and support from the largely music-based audience of Third Man has been beyond positive. As I always suspected/knew, people who have a genuine, engaged taste for music are usually involved in language, too.
MT: What has response been like? How are sales?
Weise: Language Lessons is damn near sold out — very good for a box set of contemporary poetry and fiction retailing for $60. Our first single-author book, The Truth Is We Are Perfect by poet Janaka Stucky, has already entered a second printing. This is under a year since its street date. Frankly, the fact we’re selling these numbers blows my socks off. I always thought Third Man Books would work. Otherwise, I would not have embarked on this adventure. The fact that people have been so open and into it has left me happily humbled. I try not to be so cynical when talking about the human race anymore. I truly believe people do love beauty. In fact I know everyone loves beauty, and that means beautiful writing. As we all know, writing is highly subjective, but the fact that people have been so positive, well, it’s just so incredible. I feel like for many years, media has preached to the masses that writing is dying and that books are done. Thankfully, media was wrong. Just like they were with vinyl!
MT: When I first heard that there is a Third Man Books, I assumed it would be maybe some rock bio-type things or some kind of photo diaries of the White Stripes — I certainly didn't think that there might be solid poetry by people I'd never heard of, for instance.
Weise: Swank and Jack did have a vision for Third Man Books to be a fully independent press from the record label, and much like the label does with music, that the aim of the press would be to publish anything that is good, relevant, meaningful, and beautiful.
MT: What's coming up? What are you most excited about?
Weise: We have more poetry coming, plus we’re publishing a sci-fi/fantasy collection of short stories, a few children’s books, and a rock ‘n’ roll book. I purposefully shied from music-related books at the inception of the press because I knew those kinds of titles would be expected from us by the public. So, I wanted to go in a different direction and establish our identity as our own thing. Eight books of poetry, photography, sci-fi, etc. And now I think the time has come to rock.
MT: How do you think the press fits in with all the rest of the stuff?
Weise: Perfectly different.