A Growing Tsunami

Starting with Ken Babbs’ newest work, Tsunami Books is venturing into the publishing business

An Irish fiddle plays over the radio as Tsunami Books owner Scott Landfield talks about his recent venture into the publishing industry. Surrounded by counterculture books, poems and works from the Beatnik Generation, he’s talking with me atop the bookstore’s stage. 

“This stage needs to produce books,” he says. 

The stage he’s talking about is where writers and musicians once performed regularly before the pandemic. Landfield’s original plan for the stage when he built it was it would be a place for him to sit and write books, but keeping the store alive became a full time job. 

Landfield has found another way to keep Tsunami afloat — the bookstore is now on its way to publishing books. 

Founded in 2021, Tsunami Press came to fruition after several things happened. Landfield recently hired bookstore employees with editing experience, and the business has been in good financial shape despite the pandemic-caused economic recession. And the first book that the publisher is releasing has been a learning opportunity that Landfield says will be applied to future Tsunami releases of books that deserve recognition. 

“Our idea is that there are so many talented writers right here in Lane County,” Landfield says. “But there’s not a major press for people who could get a thousand books sold, who deserve statewide distribution and preferably national. We’re looking at it like: Can we break even selling 1,000 copies? Our numbers look like we can.” 

During the pandemic, Tsunami Books applied for and received $35,000 from the federal government Payroll Protection Program. Right after receiving that money, Landfield says, the bookstore boomed. “For the first time ever, we were a few dollars ahead,” he says. “We decided to go for it.” 

With a little bit of money and employees with experience as book editors — Steve Ellerhoff and Valerie Ihsan — Landfield says he took forming Tsunami Press more seriously. Landfied says he and Ellerhoff talked about which book they’d have to kick off the publishing company. 

“There’s one we knew that would sell, and that’s the one written by Ken Babbs” he says of the Merry Prankster whose best friend and previous co-author was Ken Kesey. 

Babbs’ early draft needed a lot of work, Landfield says, and no publishing company wanted to deal with an 83-year-old author via Zoom. So Babbs came to Tsunami, Landfield says, and Tsunami Press was formed in July 2021. 

“It helped at first to have a former Marine Corps captain pushing us,” he says of Babbs. “He would come in here to lecture me, fire me up.”

Babbs’ Cronies: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, gave Tsunami Press a learning experience as a publisher, Landfield says, as it dealt with copyright issues, publicity and finding a distributor.  

Landfield and Ellerhoff read Babbs’ book eight to 10 times, he says. But publishing the book also meant dealing with copyrights. Tsunami had to secure rights from the Grateful Dead, the estate of Hunter S. Thompson, the estate of local photographer John Bauguess, as well as one person who didn’t communicate through technology: writer and poet Wendell Berry. 

In Cronies, Babbs used Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” for a chapter where he and Berry explore Lane County. Landfield says he told Babbs they needed permission to run the poem, but first they had to contact Berry, who is in his 80s and doesn’t communicate through electronic means. 

Babbs sent him a letter with a stamped postcard enclosed. A week later, Berry sent the postcard to Tsunami, saying he consented to Babbs using his poem. Of course, Tsunami still had to go to Berry’s publisher to get permission, but the postcard with Berry’s signature is posted at the bookstore’s checkout desk. 

Working with Babbs also allowed Tsunami Press to pay its inaugural author no money up front. Paying an advance is the norm for most publisher-author deals, Landfield says. Babbs will be paid royalties from the book. “We were very fortunate that we were able to afford it,” he says. “It’s the first time that we have been able to.” 

According to Landfield, publishing the book cost $40,000, which includes printing, publicity and distribution. The first run of the book is about 4,500 hardcover books, and before the book hits shelves, Tsunami Press will do a second printing, which will likely cost another $20,000. 

Babbs’ book hits major bookstores in January, but will be available at Tsunami during December. And Landfield and Ellerhoff are already looking to the next books. There are thousands of books that writers in Lane County have published through print-on-demand services like Amazon. 

 Landfield says the company has ideas for upcoming books that could be released in 2022. “There are so many unpublished writers in Lane County right now, and that’s exciting,” he says. “We could keep it as local as humanly possible and produce something really rare for the people.” 

When Landfield talks about the future of Tsunami Press and the bookstore, it’s fitting that he’s describing it near the Beatnik section. The San Francisco bookstore and publisher City Lights, which published Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, is a sort of model for how the two businesses could operate, he says. At the famous San Francisco bookstore founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Landfield says, the bookstore employee who’s helping you find a book of poetry also works for the publishing company. 

“We have three highly skilled editors here, and we’re all writers,” Landfield says. “We see that personal side bookstore and publisher as a natural fit.” 

Read a review of Babbs’ book in this week’s Winter Reading issue. The book is available through pre-order at Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette Street and online at TsunamiBooks.org. 

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