Tyson Cornell is a publisher and marketer and is the founder of Rare Bird Lit and Rare Bird Books. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tyson attended UCLA and California State University, earning his bachelor’s degree in ethnographic writing.
While writing his college thesis on the American newsstand, he worked with authors and publishers, and eventually found his way into the industry, founding Rare Bird in 2010.
Tyson Cornell takes pride in his work blending the world of books with the world of music. Rare Bird operates a private recording studio in Los Angeles in addition to their publishing office, and Tyson works to interweave music with the publishing business. Rare Bird has a unique vinyl audiobook line, mixing exclusive author or celebrity narration with musical accompaniment. These unique marketing formats tend to be fun, interesting, and certainly memorable for the fans.
Why did you decide to create your own business?
Before I became a publisher, I was a marketing director at Book Soup, a legendary independent bookstore on the sunset strip in West Hollywood, California. It’s been a notable literary hangout since the ’70s, not unlike City Lights bookstore in SF, or, on the music side, CBGB’s in New York City. Book Soup was curated by the former owner, Glenn Goldman, in a very interesting way. I started working there when I was in college, at the newsstand first because that aligned with my studies in ethnography, street-corner societies, etc. But then I started helping out with events and began working with authors and publishers on-field sales and marketing.
Who knows what would have happened if Glenn had lived past 2009. It’s possible that some of what we’ve done with Rare Bird would just have been part of a Book Soup imprint.
In 2009, Goldman died of pancreatic disease rather abruptly, and the family sold the store less than a year later. During that time, I put together an initial book publishing project with other Book Soup staff members under Barnacle Books. It was a novel, Empty the Sun by Joseph Mattson, featuring music by an indie new folk group, Six Organs of Admittance. That was never going to be a Book Soup–related project, but when Glenn died and I ended up starting Rare Bird, the spirit of what we were doing at the bookstore ended up trickling over into what was started with the new company.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
One of the aspects I love most is that no matter how big the project, there’s typically only ever a handful of people making the key decisions. That’s attractive to me, especially as somebody who lives in Los Angeles and regularly walks by film sets with hundreds of people on the job. When you’re turning a creative project into a commercial project, having too many people involved can distract from the message and what you’re creating.
What does a typical day consist of for you?
I get up early, usually a couple of hours before the sun comes up. Mostly because I like it, but also because I communicate with people all over the world. I’ll have conversations with people in Europe and the east coast, then I’ll touch base with staff on my end. I try to toggle back and forth between doing creative book work such as design or conceptual editorial work and handling the business side of things. That’s always my biggest challenge on a day-to-day basis, going back and forth like that, toggling the brain. I have to shift from doing business, contracts and financial-related things, to focus on the creative elements of what we’re producing. That’s also a rewarding part of the work, though, being able to do a wide range of tasks.
What keeps you motivated?
Thankfully, the book industry has plenty of things to keep me motivated, plenty of creative ideas. There are often a lot more manuscripts and projects out there than publishers can humanly publish, so there’s never really a shortage of great projects to work on. The problem with that on our end is usually in figuring out what we have to cut out, or what we love but might have a hard time selling.
How do you motivate others?
Well, that’s definitely something that I deal with on a daily basis. Of course, I’m not always perfect as a person who needs to motivate others, but my enthusiasm tends to be my biggest asset in that regard. I’m genuinely very passionate about the work we do and the projects we work on. I spend a lot of time trying to listen to those around me, whether it’s authors, agents, staff, booksellers, or librarians, and try to take everything I can into consideration.
How has your company grown from its early days to now?
We’ve grown dramatically, and growth has definitely been one of the biggest obstacles we’ve faced. In a lot of ways, I never even set out to start a publishing company. We published our first book because of an opportunity that came our way, and it sold through three initial print runs in the first ninety days. We didn’t even have a second book lined up at the time, nor were we even thinking that far. Within a couple of months, there were a number of other people in the book industry asking what we were going to do next. I remember one editor, Sean McDonald, who was with Riverhead Books at the time, asked me that question. It took me by surprise because I hadn’t thought about other books. We didn’t even have actual book distribution at the time, just record distribution with Drag City and Revolver, selling the book and accompanying album through record stores and fans of the band.
We have to regularly take a step back and look at the big picture of what we’re trying to do and focus on where the inevitabilities of our growth are going. Being a relatively small operation, we’re usually on the front lines and in the thick of it every day, and it’s challenging to see the big picture from there, for better or worse.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
From the material. From books, from writers, from the things they’re interested in. From the music that I listen to, and from the films and movies that I watch. I’m inspired by creative people who are driven by the compulsion that’s associated with creating things. A main driving force with creative people is that tug-of-war between what they want to do and what they’re compelled to do. That creative drive, though, is what inspires me the most. That’s what I’m most intrigued by.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
I have a number of people that I look up to as role models, and many of those people are close to me. I have two older stepbrothers that are musicians, and they’ve always been influential in my musical developments and aspirations. One of my favorite authors that I work with, William T. Vollmann, has been an inspiring literary role model. Mostly, though, my core family, partners, musician friends, and authors that I’m around are probably the most important and influential to me. They know me, they keep me in check, and they give me feedback, both positive and negative, on what I’m doing and where I’m going.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
I try to answer the phone as little as possible and make time for my own creative activities, which usually end up being work-related, but start with my own creative interests. Whether it’s writing, making music, listening to music, reading, or learning about things, the meditative aspects that arise from participating in all of those activities are what give me the most balance aside from family life. And on the topic of family life, I make sure that I’m connecting with friends and family and being in their lives as much as they’re doing the same for me.
What traits do you possess that makes a successful leader?
I’m very driven, and I have a particular vision for how I like things to be created. But at the same time, I love collaborating, and I’m open to the flow of how those things are created and to the ideas coming from people involved. Marrying those two elements, the internal drive of my vision mixed with the ability to pivot quickly is probably the biggest asset I have in that regard.
What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?
It’s difficult for anybody to just decide to be a publisher. It’s virtually impossible to be in it for short-term results. At a minimum, if you’re looking to get into this business, you’re looking at a couple of decades. If you’re just looking to “try it out” for four or five years, you’re likely going to be unsuccessful at achieving most of what book publishing has to offer. There’s a lot of ramping up over time.
That’s just looking at the obstacles of starting a publishing company, though. There are a lot of other opportunities associated with this industry, but it’s definitely not the type of industry for someone who isn’t dedicated in the long term.