The 33⅓ series — you know, those iconic pocket-sized books — boasts some of the best music writing of the past decade. They’ve covered the gamut, everything from comprehensive album analyses worthy of academia courses to imaginative works of creative fiction inspired by musical artists and their influential albums. On January 31, Bloomsbury will roll out with an open call submission period where anyone (yes, even you) can pitch proposals for the next 33⅓ book in the collection. We chat with Managing Editor Ally Jane Grossan, the one-woman team behind the series on what submissions have worked, what’s to come, and what she wishes she’d see more of.
First, let’s get a brief history lesson. What’s the origin of the series?
33⅓ was originally published by an independent press called Continuum that was mostly known for continental philosophy books by writers like Adorno and Rancière. At Continuum, [creator] David Barker had set up a series called “Continuum Contemporaries” which were short guides to works of popular fiction like Infinite Jest and Atonement. As a music lover, David thought the same concept could work for albums and so he reached out to writers he admired and drummed up enough interest to get the series going. It really took off and put Continuum on the map as a serious publisher of music writing.
What are your responsibilities as editor of the books?
From selecting the proposals through checking the final proofs I’m responsible for the whole shebang. Writers I deeply admire submit proposals on albums I’ve never heard of and unknown authors shock with brilliant and crazy stories.
I carefully line-edit each manuscript and work with the authors on a few rounds of edits, if needed. Then, the book goes off to production to be typeset and printed. I work with the authors and the rest of the 33⅓ team to promote each book. The absolute best part of my job is seeing the little 33⅓rds displayed in bookstores.
How many books are published in a year, and how many come out of the submission period?
We’re going to hit 100 volumes in September 2014 and it happens to be the tenth anniversary of the series. Since the series began, we’ve published about eight to ten books each year. It varies so much because authors are unpredictable. MANY books have been contracted but have never seen the light of day because the author felt there was nothing more to say or personal circumstances changed.
We will publish 14 books in 2014, most of which came out of the open call for submissions that we did in Spring 2012. We received 471 proposals that time and selected 18. There wasn’t a specific goal in mind, just 18 really promising proposals that stood out. That’s not to say that there were so many close calls and that many potentially brilliant books were overlooked for one reason or another.
What are some bands or albums that you’re surprised haven’t been covered yet? What genres are underrepresented?
Hip-hop for sure. Female artists are also underrepresented in the series as a whole. Here’s a depressing statistic: Of the 100 volumes we’ll publish by the end of next year, only 10 of them will be about female artists. I’m surprised that there isn’t a book on London Calling — in fact several people have been contracted to write it in the past. So that’s up for grabs in the open call.
What are some bands or albums that EVERYONE wants to write about?
It’s actually incredibly varied. You can see the complete submission list on our blog and you’ll notice there is an incredible array of albums and artists. There was certainly a heavy focus on contemporary albums during the last selection period. We picked Biophilia and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, albums that are less than three years old. You can’t make everyone happy…just read the comments on the 33⅓ blog for a sobering dose of angry statements from disappointed music fans. Lots of writers want to talk about hip-hop because it’s recently become mainstream and is even taking shape as its own academic discipline. You can now take courses in “Hip-Hop Studies” at major universities.
Do you find there’s some kind of secret formula to winning proposals?
Sort of. When you are reading over 400 proposals in a short time there’s always something that jumps out at you. How do you tell four different proposals apart that deal with the same album? The first and foremost consideration is the writing itself. Is it immediately engaging? Does it feel like a new voice or is it just copying another writer’s style? The most successful proposals tell a story that hasn’t been told.
What’s the most popular book to come out of the series?
The most commercially successful 33⅓ is Kim Cooper’s book on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. That album was so important for so many people born in the ‘80s and there was so little known about the band and the making of the album at the time because of Jeff Mangum’s reclusiveness. Kim pulls back the curtain and we get this amazing portrait of Mangum and all of the techniques he used to create all the unique sounds on that beloved album.
Tell us about the process of working with notable writers or musicians. How do you work with them to publish a book you’re both happy with?
I find that more notable writers and musicians are often the best professionals and very easy to work with. More often than not, they are familiar with the editing and publishing process and usually open to edits. And often they are very good at meeting deadlines…unlike some of our younger, less established writers. Unfortunately that’s often due to the fact that making a living as a music writer is very difficult, so life gets in the way. I’m sympathetic to that.
What upcoming 33⅓ releases are you most excited about in 2014?
Well, the release date is as yet unconfirmed but Alan Warner, one of my favorite novelists is going to write a 33⅓ on Can’s Tago Mago. I first met Alan Warner in Edinburgh this past spring. I ate haggis, he ordered Champagne…and he sort of agreed to write a 33⅓ at “some point in the future.”
Alan’s writing is daring and stark. His first novel, Morvern Callar tells the story of a girl, Morvern, who has to pick up the pieces after her boyfriend commits suicide in their shared apartment. I’m so excited to see what his 33⅓ will be like. He’s known the surviving members of Can for years so the portrait is likely to be intimate.
Like everyone else and their mother, I’m really into Beyoncé’s new album. Read between the lines and you get this really powerful portrait of a complicated modern woman. Maybe she didn’t write the music or the lyrics, but she’s singing them and owning them. Beyoncé is more than just a pop star, she’s an icon — a beautiful, smiling beacon to young women. It might sound sappy but it’s so hard to find contemporary female celebrities to look up to. I feel like my female heroes are all dead. Beyoncé’s sheer omnipresence in popular culture makes people pay attention to what she’s doing. I feel similarly towards James Franco.
Oh yeah? Tell us about James Franco.
He’s a sex icon to millions of teenage girls. He gets a lot of flack for being a faux intellectual and using his acting success to walk his way into fiction and poetry book deals. He contributed an essay to our forthcoming Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste that addresses his feelings towards art and satire when he appeared as the character Franco on the soap opera General Hospital. Is it a brilliant essay? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly written by a person who is very self aware and understands the way people perceive him. Is that manipulation? Maybe, but at least those millions of girls who love him for his pretty eyes and defined cheek bones will perhaps be inclined to Google “Allen Ginsberg” or “Nora Ephron” if they hear James talk about his literary heroes in an interview. I guess I’m saying that I admire his intellectual commitment and I think it’s great that he wants to make being smart and well-read cool again.
Who else is helping to make being smart cool again?
Well, there are a ton of female music writers who are slowly but surely changing the male-centric nature of the music-writing world. I’ve heard people list Sasha Frere-Jones as one of the strongest female voices, but sorry ladies, Sasha is a dude. In the tradition of Ellen Willis (the first pop music critic for the New Yorker), you’ve got Anne Powers, Daphne Brooks, Kim Cooper, Evie Nagy, just to name a few. I’d like to think I’m contributing to shaking things up a bit by publishing them.
Any closing thoughts?
I’m so looking forward to reading this new batch of proposals so submit away!
Oh, and Bloomsbury will be throwing a big party in New York City to celebrate the series anniversary in September 2014 so stay tuned for details on that.For details on how to submit a proposal, click over to 333sound.com on January 31.