For informational purposes only
The end of a publisher for the paranoid, the cranky, and the morbidly curious
Note: I wrote this in 2005 when I heard that Loompanics Unlimited was going out of business. I’d never bought one of its titles, but had been fascinated by its website and its lengthy catalog of reading material aimed at would-be Walter Whites and other misfits who’d opted out of the social contract. Regrettably, this article never got published and I’d forgotten about it…until now.
Loompanics Unlimited occupies a niche of the publishing world that might be described as “extreme self-help.” Its current catalog includes titles on health (Drink As Much As You Want and Live Longer), leisure (How to Sneak Into the Movies), cooking (Backyard Meat Production), careers (How to Make Crime Pay) and personal growth (How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found). Not surprisingly, a number of Loompanics’ authors have extensive first-hand experience with the criminal justice system. As its writer’s guidelines put it, “If you think there’s a chance that Random House would publish it, there’s probably no chance we would.”
Speaking from his office in Port Townsend, Washington, Loompanics founder and president Mike Hoy recently reflected on some of the nearly 300 titles he’s published as America’s premier purveyor of literature for the lunatic fringe. “Our all-time bestsellers were the Complete Guide to Lock Picking, Secrets of a Super Hacker, and Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture,” Hoy said. “Another was How to Live Without Electricity and Like It. That was especially popular before Y2K.”
In January, Hoy announced that, after 30 years in the business, he was calling it quits. Sales were sagging and the press had gone from releasing 15 new titles a year to five or less. Hoy chalked up Loompanics’ demise as another casualty of the Google era. “A lot of our information, which was kind of secret stuff, is now on the internet, without it costing anything,” he said. A soft-spoken 60-year-old who ran his company on the idea that the public’s right to know is paramount, Hoy wasn’t upset. “I’m very glad that has happened. If I were a different guy I’d have shifted Loompanics to take advantage of it. But I’m out of ideas.”
During its heyday, Loompanics was nothing if not a source of provocative ideas. Unbound by good taste, political correctness, or nervous corporate lawyers, its books attracted the morbidly curious, the paranoid, the antisocial, and the odd book critic. (The New York Times once ran a positive, if brief, review of Hunting Humans, a coffee-table book on serial killers.) Its releases did become somewhat tamer in recent years: the DIY manuals for aspiring hit men were replaced by post-September 11 titles like Protect Yourself Against Terrorism. But its most recent catalog still has plenty to please armchair outlaws: Amid cranky screeds against Big Brother, its guides to taboo topics such as “tax avoision” promise a life of fantastic personal liberty interrupted only by the occasional interstate manhunt.
Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, possibly Loompanics’ most infamous release, was first published in 1980. “It pretty much came over the transom,” Hoy recalled. “One time the DEA bought just about every drug book we have in the catalog.”“At the time the author was serving time in prison and wrote the book almost from memory. About half the manuscript was typed single-space on a manual typewriter with a green ribbon on onionskin paper. It was an editorial nightmare. I had to typeset it letter by letter. But there was no other book like it out there.” The book went through seven editions and sold 60,000 copies—“good sales for a tiny company like us”—and made its pseudonymous author, one Uncle Fester, an underground legend.
Hoy said one of his favorites was Ace Backwords’ Surviving on the Streets, “an intelligent look at homeless life” that mixed tips on dumpster diving with an Ayn Randian emphasis on self-reliance. “The single most important thing is to get a good pair of shoes,” Hoy explained.
“Sold for informational purposes only!” was the standard disclaimer on many a Loompanics book. Of course, not all readers followed this advice, such as the California man charged with federal securities fraud who was found with a copy of How to Launder Money. Though his books often crossed the line between shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre and taking a flamethrower to the curtains, Hoy said he never had any legal trouble. In fact, law enforcement agencies were regular customers. “One time the DEA bought just about every drug book we have in the catalog,” he said before running off to retrieve the order, which he’d posted in his bathroom with other “hate mail.” “They spent a little over $300,” he reported. “And they gave us instructions not to rent their name.”
Since he announced his going out of business sale, Hoy and his five remaining employees have been working overtime to fulfill last-minute orders from customers eager to learn how to counterfeit IDs, start their own country, or survive federal prison. “It reminds me of the old days,” he said. “That’s the way things used to be in the ’80s and ’90s. It makes me nostalgic.” Hoy admitted a few regrets about some of the books he’d published, but only because they had failed to sell, “not because they caused little children to become addicted to heroin or anything like that.” He said Loompanics would stay open “until we’ve run out of books”—another month or so, by his estimate. “Don’t forget to mention that everything is half off.”