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Profile: The 33 1/3 Book Series

Editor David Barker turns a secret list of favorite albums into a thriving book series

Two titles in the 33 1/3 series: The Kinks and Love

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Thursday, June 30, 2005

By Daphne Carr

Pocket-sized, brightly colored, cute and congruent ? the 33 1/3 book series are almost as much fetish objects as the subjects they cover. Each of the 20 titles in the series address one classic album, but the range of writers and tastes is as different as Aqualung and ABBA Gold.

David Barker, editorial director of Continuum Books, came up with the idea while browsing Barnes & Noble. ?So much music writing seemed to be straightforward, tedious biographies of bands,? he said. ?I thought, 'There's got to be more interesting writing about music that people are doing, or should be doing.'?

After earning his English Ph.D. from Newcastle University, Barker moved from the London office of Cassell Publishing to their U.S. office and took over the music and film lists. He then launched the Continuum Contemporaries, a series of concise readers' guides to new fiction. ?I thought you could do that with albums, too, but I wanted to make it more free form. I didn't really ask anyone if I could do it. That's the clever way as an editor: Don't tell anyone about it, but work really hard and make it look really good. They can't say no because you've already put so much work into it.?

Barker made a ?secret list? of 50 albums that had an impact on him. ?Then I emailed the list out to a bunch of people and nearly all of them ignored my list completely and said, 'Oh, what about this album or that album.' It was really annoying. Some ideas were completely ludicrous from the sales point of view. We're a venture capitalist funded publishing company, and while I don't really care if these books make money or not, I do. I'm interested to know how obscure an album can be for us to still sell 5,000 copies.?

A stellar roster of writers ? musicians (Joe Pernice, Colin Meloy), academics (Daphne Brooks, Franklin Bruno) and journalists (Michaelangelo Matos, Douglas Wolk) ? all vie for top sales. Barker says that the ?rabidity of the album's fans? might make for sales, but not necessarily good writing. ?The more poppy records don't do well. Why is that? Why aren't there as many people who would buy a brilliant book about James Brown as about Joy Division??

Barker looks to distribution for the answer. For a small publishing company, Continuum has little money to buy space in the major retail chains. ?Our sales manager goes to see one person who buys music books for all the Barnes & Noble. Six hundred stores. She can just say, 'Well, we'd like to make room for your lovely little books, but we'd rather sell 50 copies of Anthony Kiedis' biography.'

?The most success we've had with selected independent book stores and independent record stores. They'll go out of their way to make little displays and put them on the counter. These are stores that don't even sell books.? And so, while the 33 1/3 series sells to the rabid Radioheads and Morissey-abes, it still struggles with the racial, gender and age divide in both writing and subject matter. Barker promises another 20 books before he entertains calling it quits. In that second half, let's hope a nation of millions give the series its due in the cute lil' book canon.


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