V. Vale Interview
Ron Placone Interviews Independent Publisher V. Vale
V. Vale is, to put it simply, a true staple in independent publishing. For nearly three decades he has been operating RE/Search Publications, a San Francisco-based publisher focused on counter-culture and underground literature and ideas.
V. Vale began his publishing career in 1977 upon receiving two gifts of $100 from his old employers at City Lights Books whom you may have heard of. As V. Vale likes to put it: “a fellow by the name Ferlinghetti and a poet friend named Allen Ginsberg.” Hoping to document the blossoming music scene at the time, Vale launched Search & Destroy, which is still successful to this day for providing an outlet for punk rock and other like-minded ethics. Upon Search & Destroy’s success, Vale began RE/Search Publications. Over the years Vale has published and/or collaborated with William S. Burroughs, Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, Billy Childish, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, J.G. Ballard, and many more. In addition to books RE/Search has released albums, DVDs, and various t-shirts. Vale continues to publish cutting-edge content in topics ranging from humor, to politics, to music.
Let’s start off with something basic here, how do you feel about the state of the publishing industry in today’s world?
Well, it’s intimately involved with how people changed their reading and buying and consumer habits. It’s not just book publishing that’s almost in a crisis---I think people have forgotten there’s at least two different ways to read. In my opinion, it’s way different when you’re reading on the internet, very short pieces, you’re very limited. You’re limited to one or two screens, and there’s all these sexy ads blinking every few seconds, it’s just different. You know, it’s been said, I didn’t say it, but we’re in the age of surface, not depth. That’s how George Bush can get away with all these surface promises, because in reality nothing is done to match his promises, but everyone is fooled by the sound and surface and form of it all. There’s no comprehension of any of the consequences either.
People have gotten used to reading as an experience that gives them little sexual shocks and titillations, shocks you get when you imagine violence happening to you instead of someone else, people have gotten used to this and it’s almost become a glandular experience, reading for them. Whereas, the kind of reading I value is where you’re not exposed to any ads whatsoever, you have no ads going, you’re alone in your room, no IPOD going, you’re marking up the book and questioning it, having a lengthy conversation with a writer that may have been dead for many years but had an awful lot to say about the human experience. That’s something you can’t get on the internet. There’s still great content on the internet, but I’ve found it’s mostly on academic sites where they don’t need to have all those ads everywhere. Recently, I found a great article on MIT’s website on New Media.
Here’s the problem with academia in a nutshell, it’s all people with vested interests, talking so they can keep their job. It’s not pure research or pure theorizing, there’s a lot of vested interests. And of course, the corporate world of information is totally about vested interests, i.e. trying to get you to buy something, whether it’s a product or a lifestyle, usually it’s something tangible like a product that they can sell and make a huge profit off. We monetize information, and I don’t think ideas ought to be monetized, people should have discussions. I joke that we live in the United States of Amnesia now, nobody remembers a thing, not even from the last two days’ news.
I think publishing books is part of this whole process of how reading has changed. You can’t just blame publishing, although I do blame publishing because I think we live in a world where certain laws are in tact, one of them being that bad money drives out good. You could say in book publishing bad books drive out good ones. You’ve got to have so much sex and violence these days, I think it’s really distorted. It’s not realistic, and yet this is what people want. This drives out the more thoughtful kind of writing. There’s a lack of “big picture” thought, “big picture” thought has kind of disappeared, in the realm of literature too. You can’t blame the publishers because they’re capitalists, this is what’s wrong with capitalism and knowledge, everything is geared toward selling more products and making more profit. Knowledge shouldn’t be treated that way. I think, for example, bookstores ought to have free rent in every major city and it should be subsidized. That’s how important they are. Because we’ve lost most of our independent book stores and instead we have these horrible chains that are market driven instead of idea driven. Imagine a society more idea driven. It was more like that even 40 or 50 years ago. People were trying to be inventors, that’s where America was at, that was the best place America ever was. That’s why most of the space age technology was done here and not Europe. There was this garage-inventor mentality going on that’s rapidly disappearing now, there’s this brainwashing going on where people are given this idea that it’s ok to completely halt all production in this country and send it over to China. Everyone’s losing all the most basic skills that used to be very common in America. I’m not sure what the fix is for all this….
Wow, that was quite an answer, thank you. You kind of touched on this already but I did want to ask you about your opinion on larger chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders, how are they changing the industry?
They have these corporate buying laws. They have one buyer in New York City, and in Borders’ case one in Ann Arbor or something like that, wherever Borders is based, and it’s a homogenization process, one buyer decides what every store should get and it’s almost impossible for local stores to deviate from that. You talk to the workers and they don’t have any power to order whatsoever. Sure they’ll get a special order every now and then, and that’s the only time I ever get an order from Borders or Barnes and Noble, when somebody says “I’ll pay for the book, order it from V Vale.” I’m not part of the built-in bribery system in which I take these book buyers out to lunches in New York City, I can’t afford that. Neither can I afford to pay to have my book displayed face out on their shelves. They have all kinds of bribery systems in tact for other publishers. The most ruinous thing that doesn’t exist in any other industry is the policy of unlimited returns regardless of the condition of books. Books are heavy and they’re fragile. They get very easily damaged, and then they send it back to the publisher, me, often at my expense. It’s just a system that’s not very viable, especially for people that want to put out books that aren’t teetering to the antics of sex and violence.
Going on that, what’s been most difficult for you in running RE/Search?
It’s always distribution, always, that’s your biggest problem. Even though we improved our website to a great degree it’s not enough. It’s a ton of work, like rolling a stone up a hill, to try to find those people that want to read your books. Someone like me, who’s never gotten a grant in his life, never kissed up to anybody anywhere, and who just publishes exactly what I think people ought to know about, it’s a challenge to get my books out there because there are so many corporate imposters out there that can claim to tell the truth or be underground or whatever. Really, they’ve had the balls cut off of them , most of them. It’s edited and designed by committee. It’s all for shock value, it’s marketing, it’s not real. You read these books and you’re not inspired. The only reason to read my books or any books is to be inspired, illuminated, enlightened, and want to do something, get some ideas. I mean, why read? That’s why I read, to get inspired. I also have this weird theory that there’s only 1000 interesting people on this planet that I refer to as primary source thinkers. It’s my job to find them. I’m just after something that lasts longer, not “high sugar fluff” as Henry Rollins put it. I want something I don’t get right away. One of my favorite phrases, and I heard this from William Burroughs, is “belief is the enemy of knowledge.” I try to go by that, there’s three huge concepts I want to be rid of. Belief is one. Believe nothing, all knowledge is a work of progress. Get rid of the word belief, get rid of the word religion, which to me is totally a hallucination of literally starving and thirsty mad-men riding around in the desert writing these crazy books, that are unfortunately bringing this planet to doom. So get rid of the word belief, get rid of the word religion, get rid of the word god, I despise that word, get rid of all monotheism. Monotheism is fascism, there’s no getting around it. We live in a capitalist society that tends toward global capitalism and lastly monopoly global capitalism. Last word I’d get rid of is faith. There is no such thing. We live in a case-by-case basis. I mean, faith? Those are four delusional words that I think are bringing this planet to the edge of doom.
So, given this is an election year and we’ve had quite the 8 years with the Bush Administration, how do you feel about politics these days?
There are huge problems in all politics. I’m no expert in politics by choice, you could spend the rest of your life studying this stuff but you’ll never get inside to see all the bribes, all the backroom deals, all the corrupt arrangements, the vested interests, you’ll always be missing some key bits of information. I think the idea of democracy, which by the way is a French idea, is pretty amazing, because before that we basically had fascism. The problem with democracy now is there’s no limit on campaign contributions, for example. The whole idea of lobbying I think ought to be made illegal. I’m expecting this to happen. Let’s say Obama wins, just before the election there’s going to be a huge smear ad just before you go to the polls against Obama, and there won’t be time to refute this ad. This ad will put some horrible imagery in peoples’ minds, and it won’t be refuted. I expect that to happen to Obama.
Last question, what advice would you give to a young writer or publisher?
If I had to do it over again and was starting out now the first thing I would do is learn everything I could on making a great website, take classes if you have to. Books are becoming ancillary products, and it seems like the way to build up a brand, and I hate using that word but I did…Anyway, the best way to build up a brand real fast is through the internet, through your MySpace or Facebook and through a great webpage. This might be contrary to what you thought I would say, but I’m being real here. You’re just nothing without a great website now. Books are just works of art that are niche. Just look at your books as something of yours that is niche that you have to get together. And you can do books now for pretty cheap with print-on-demand. Books are this quality experience for the very few who will take the time and discipline themselves and spend some time alone. Here’s the value of a book, let’s say a fiction novel. As long as the corporations didn’t hack it to death and destroy it, if it’s a book you put out yourself and have 100% control over. As JG Ballard put it, when you read a book, you’re closer to someone, even if you don’t know what they’re really thinking. You’re just really close to another human being, it’s uncensored, and they’re just trying to tell you the truth about something.
Well, thank you so much for doing this, I really appreciate it.
No problem, you know, an interview creates a third mind. Phrases and points of view that come out in an interview, if I was doing this myself I never in a million years would’ve said these things. So value yourself too. That’s how it is in life is what I’m trying to tell you. It’s the third mind theory.
To learn more about V. Vale and RE/Search Publications please visit their website at http://www.researchpubs.com. If you’re interested in a book to start with Vale recommends one of the Pranks! Books, 1 or 2.