By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Day writer and translator Jay Rubin walked into the office of Chin Music Press when it was establishing itself in Seattle. The space had not yet taken on the identity of the small local publisher that had, for the last decade, worked to change the face of printed books. Chin Music Press founder Bruce Rutledge was in a casual t-shirt still painting the walls. The carpets had just been torn out.
Rutledge and his wife Yuko Enomoto founded Chin Music Press, a small publishing company, in 2002 while living in Tokyo. Rutledge worked at a copy desk at the Nikkei Weekly and covered events like the Kobe earthquake and served as translator for a journalist covering the Aum Shinrikyo gassing. Enomoto was a financial journalist covering the Asian commodity trade. The two moved Chin Music Press to Seattle, opening their showroom store and office among a row of shops beneath the Pike Place Market where Rubin went to find them.
Rubin is widely known for translating Japanese to English text, and more notably for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels. When it came to his own novel, he could have been published anywhere and by anyone, but instead, he approached Chin Music Press, saying something about wanting to avoid the “nonsense in New York” and expressing his desire to stick with a small local publisher.
Chin Music Press was born at a challenging time for publishing. Bookstores large and small across the country shuttered, e-books emerged as the new kid on the digital stage, and large publishers would begin to feel the pinch that would not soon wane. Some attributed these fast changes to the rise of Internet culture, but it was with the Internet and the lack of opportunities for alternative books to get into print that Rutledge and Enomoto saw potential.
“In the beginning, we were really Japan specific. We knew that through the Internet, we could find all these people. We needed two to three thousand people to buy our books to make a decent business,” said Rutledge.
“Before the Internet, trying to find all those Japanophiles across the world would be so hard. Now we could track and use mailing lists. It was a lot easier to find our readership. It’s weird because publishing was in such tumult, but because of what was happening, we felt like we had an opportunity.”
That was also a time, following the Haruki Murakami fanfare of the 1990s, when many publishers then shifted their attention to books about China. Even as the spotlight on Japan shifted, Rutledge and Enomoto saw merit in the contemporary stories they had access to that hadn’t seen the light of day in mainstream publishing. Chin Music Press’ first book, “Kuhaku”, is an anthology of such stories of life in Japan.
Beautiful as a way in
“Kuhaku” is a jewel box of a book, like other Chin Music books that would follow. Designer and illustrator Craig Mod filled its pages with colorful graphics and illustrations from Japanese artists of scenes from daily life, cartoon figures, and everyday objects. Chin Music Press invites designers and artists to contribute in the publishing process, from the beginning from manuscript to the editing process and publication.
“We’re not the only ones, but I do think our focus on book aesthetics will set us aside. People will always say, ‘Your books are so beautiful.’ What I hope that leads to is that they’ll actually read it and they’ll say, ‘…and they’re so interesting.’ I do see beautiful as a way in. People may pick it up even if it’s an obscure indie author,” said Rutledge.
Never judge a book by its cover, some have said, but with the state of publishing in flux, Rutledge and Mod saw the underrated cover as a vehicle for storytelling, every bit as valuable as the words behind it. They were breaking the rules. Rutledge and Mod decided against having book jackets. Instead, they sought to have a uniquely designed cover for each book. They also used removable obi strips that wrap around the books to include the requisite barcode and price.
Rutledge soon observed that even larger publishers like Penguin Books were following suit: out with the book jackets, in printed covers.
“You realize that if you’re part of this wave of innovation, you can change the way things are made in some small ways.”
A triumphant kick in the pants
The press seeks to elevate the mere book to a “literary object,” one that is as much a pleasure to touch as it is to read or display, with pages that bloom into visual scenes when flipped and stories that transcend geography. Lucia Silva, book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore declared the books at Chin Music Press as “a triumphant kick in the pants for anyone who doubts the future of paper-and-ink books.” But even with popular reception, Rutledge and Enomoto continue to temper their expectations and stay small, sticking to about three books a season.
In the 12 years since they founded Chin Music, Enomoto and Rutledge continue to do freelance editing and translation work on the side for added income. Enomoto also works as a yoga instructor.
“We have our hopes and we’re working hard towards it, but there is a part of us because we know how the industry has crumbled so much that says, ‘Yeah, don’t fool yourself into thinking this will turn into a goldmine,’” said Enomoto.
“Keep chugging away at it because what else are we going to do? We love what we do. We have to temper our expectations, yes, but we have to keep doing it because it’s just too fun. It brings us so much joy even though it’s really hard.”
When sushi chef Shiro Kashiba decided to write a book, what he had hoped was for it to be “a thank you letter to the Seattle area.” He brought the idea to Chin Music Press. Kashiba haphazardly shared stories of his life and experiences in the Pacific Northwest during Enomoto’s regular visits. She ate a lot of sushi and, along with help from designer Josh Powell, compiled a biography that had reached 450 pages. It was clear that they had more than just a “thank you letter” on their hands, but a story of the life of Seattle’s sushi pioneer. It was published in 2011 at a more modest 320 pages.
The storytellers’ stories
“Somebody described us as ‘publishing books that was difficult to categorize,’” Enomoto said, recalling a largely positive review about Chin Music.
Following “Kohaku,” Chin Music Press’ books grew to include poems about pie, an exploration of otaku culture, a photo journey down the Yellow River, and a printed collection from Seattle-based artist Enfu.
When the levees broke in New Orleans, Rutledge directed his attention to stories centered on Hurricane Katrina and recovering regions. Along with Asian-Japanese fiction and nonfiction, Chin Music Press’ list of books grew to include stories from New Orleans and Americana poetry and fiction.
“People can walk in and see what our press is about. This is who we are, these are our books, and we can connect with other publishers and create an ecosystem that supports these kinds of things.” (end)
For more information about Chin Music Press, visit www.chinmusicpress.com.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.