An independent book publisher gets a breakout success.
Written by Zack Harold
Photo courtesy of New York Tyrant Books
A few years back, Giancarlo DiTrapano was ready to write off the book business. After bouncing through Colorado, New Orleans, and Italy, the Charleston native moved to New York City in 2002 for a job in the publishing industry. He worked for a major book publisher, then set up his own independent publishing house, New York Tyrant Books. But by 2013, the books weren’t selling and DiTrapano was running out of money. “Things weren’t looking too hot,” he says.
He began sniffing around for a job. Playboy magazine hired him to profile Matthew Johnson, founder of the Mississippi-based independent blues label Fat Possum Records. The story didn’t pan out but Johnson and DiTrapano hit it off. “He knew what position I was in with my business, he liked what I did, and he invested in my company. He saved it.”
Johnson and DiTrapano agreed DiTrapano would continue doing what he did best—finding authors, editing their work, putting together the finished book package— while Fat Possum would handle the financial side of things. “I had some money to go looking for some books,” DiTrapano says. The first person he contacted was novelist Atticus Lish. DiTrapano had done business with Lish in 2012, when Tyrant published a book of the author’s drawings, Life is with People. But what DiTrapano really wanted was to publish some of Lish’s prose. He kept asking, but Lish kept turning him down. “He would say ‘No, I’m not writing anything.’”
Once Fat Possum’s investment put Tyrant on solid footing, he reached out to Lish again. “I said ‘Do you have a novel?’ As soon as he answered the phone he said ‘I do.’” Lish sent a PDF of the book, called Preparation for the Next Life. DiTrapano devoured all 400 pages in a weekend, reading the words from his smartphone. “As soon as I read the last line on my phone, I closed the email app I was reading it in … and dialed Atticus immediately,” he says.
Tyrant’s largest print run up until then was 2,000 books, but DiTrapano wanted to print 3,500 copies of Preparation for the Next Life. He had a good feeling about this one. “A book like that comes around like every 20 years,” he says. “It’s so good you almost feel like it’s all downhill from there.” Tyrant released the book in late October 2014. Just a few weeks later, the New York Times published a glowing review of the novel—written, as chance would have it, by book critic and fellow West Virginia native Dwight Garner. Garner’s review stirred up tremendous interest in New York’s literary scene, and reviews and articles about the novel began appearing in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Review of Books.
Readers quickly snatched up that initial run of 3,500 books, so DiTrapano scrambled and ordered another 30,000 copies. The success of Preparation has paved the way for Tyrant’s next book, Bad Sex by Clancy Martin, which comes out in September. DiTrapano wanted to publish Martin’s book and had been in touch with the author’s agent, but nothing was happening. Then he sent Martin a copy of Lish’s book. “He was like OK, I want to publish with you.” Bad Sex will be Tyrant’s first hardcover book, with an initial run of 10,000 copies and a paperback edition to follow later.
DiTrapano says writers want to work with publishing houses releasing good work, and Lish’s novel has elevated Tyrant’s profile. “They want to be in good company, I think,” he says. “I’m fighting off books at the moment.”
The financial success of Preparation has been great for Tyrant, but DiTrapano says he most enjoys the connection readers have forged with Lish’s work. “There’s a very strong kind of love in that book. To see that spread and see people catch it and feel it—it’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s been the best time of my life.” He does not plan to ramp up Tyrant’s production schedule anytime soon, however.
DiTrapano wants to remain a one-man operation and continue publishing only a few books each year. He’s picky about the authors he chooses to work with. It all goes back to the reason he founded Tyrant in the first place—to highlight writers not getting proper attention from the mainstream publishing world. “I’m attached to all these books in a big way. I really care for every one. If I don’t have that feeling for it, it’s not coming through.”
Surround yourself with talented people
While DiTrapano is always on the lookout for talented writers, talent comes in many forms. He credits his publicist, Lauren Cerand, with much of the success of Preparation for the Next Life, since she helped get the books into the hands of the right people. “That is key. It’s something that took me a while to learn.”
Do things, even if they suck
Artsy people might not always be great with numbers, but DiTrapano says anyone who wants to make a living from their art should know how to do their own books. “It may suck, but something always sucks, so just do it.”
Work without a net
“Don’t have any backup plans. No plan B. Nothing to fall back on. Paint yourself into the corner.”
The golden rules
“Be kind to others, over drinks.”
“Hustle,” DiTrapano says.