[5 July 2011]
Print-on-demand technology (POD) is reshaping the economics of the book trade and redefining what constitutes a commercially viable book. In this two-part PopMatters feature, I speak to a couple of the most interesting independent POD publishers and investigate how they get their books to readers.
I dabble in the POD game, too. I run an outfit called Sydney Samizdat Press which uses Amazon.com’s CreateSpace service to publish anthologies of classic writing (e.g. Jack London’s San Francisco Stories) as well as my own novellas as small chapbooks. Novellas—something like the literary equivalent of a rock band’s E.P.—are perfect for POD publishing. I like to write one every year. They let me cover pressing subjects I might otherwise store away for never-realized novels.
For my latest novella Sonny’s Guerrillas, I wanted to recreate the exciting milieu I encountered in Greece in 2008. I wanted to write about the political, artistic and erotic adventures of a multi-national twentysomething generation drifting through an unsettled globalized Europe. The story is about a young Australian composer hired to write the soundtrack for an ultra-low budget left-wing movie. The composer joins the cast and crew in a utopian filmmaking commune on the gorgeous Aegean island of Katastari. Their movie is a kind of Hellenic For Whom The Bell Tolls. But nearby Athens is aflame with the riots of 2008 and many in the crew are torn between their commitment to finishing the film and a desire to hit the streets with the protestors. The shoot goes to hell.
I feel about my novellas as Woody Allen does about his annual films—“not an event you make a big deal out of.” One terrific thing about POD technology (and e-books) is that a writer can make any kind of occasional work—novellas and stories, poetry, long-form interviews, diaries, journalism, collected blog posts—available for sale as soon as the work is done.
POD technology is creating entirely new models for quality—and profitable—independent publishing. Matthew Stadler is an author and the co-founder of Portland’s Publication Studio. This outfit produce their books on demand from a digital file using an Instabook POD machine (a device that combines digital printer, guillotine trimmer, and glue-binder). I decided to have a chat to Stadler to learn more about the Studio’s innovative approach to independent publication, distribution and, most importantly, the fostering of a readership.
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Matthew, I was in Amsterdam recently and found a copy of Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha in a bookshop. The book was distinct among the other paperbacks—the cover was a recycled manila folder, the title and your name were stamped in ink. Tell me about this novel set in Mexico and how it wound up for sale in Amsterdam.
I lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, for a year and wrote the book because the place fascinated me. It’s actually a “cover version” of a John Le Carré book (an early George Smiley mystery called A Murder of Quality). For more on that read the book. I’m not sure where you found it in Amsterdam, but a couple dozen stores in Europe carry Publication Studio books. People see the books, are struck by them as you were, and then find us online and order. Most stores carrying us are art books stores, or have that as a special focus, and the others are just general book stores.
You published a number of novels in the 1990s via the traditional route with Harper Collins and Scribner’s. Your entire approach to publishing has obviously changed. Can you tell me how things developed and how your experiences led to the creation of Clear Cut Press and, more recently, Publication Studio?
Well, real readers matter to me, more so than do sales numbers. The bigger houses were good at selling books, but didn’t do much to hook me up with real readers. I’ve always wondered how publishers could do more to cultivate long-term readers and connect writers to them. Clear Cut Press and Publication Studio are both attempts to work out some of those possibilities. Both basically focus (or focused ... Clear Cut is defunct) on the social life of the book, the rich conversations and encounters readers have and the way they share that in public. We host dinners, readings, puppet shows, symposia, bands, or all at once in many, many places, always putting our authors and their books at the center of the conversation. At PS we also print and bind the books ourselves, on-demand. So, every book we make has already been sold. And all of our money can go back in to social events and the conversations around books. Conventional publishers obliged to big (or even “small”) print-runs can’t do that. (1) Whatever they’ve got piles of they’d better sell fast; and (2) they spend so much money printing and shipping (and remaindering and pulping) their books, they can’t invest in the slow, meandering life of literature.
Can you define what kinds of writing Publication Studio publishes?
We publish books we think are great by writers and artists we admire. Dodie Bellamy’s the buddhist, Luisa Valenzuela’s El gato eficaz, Sam Lohmann’s Stand on this picnic bench and look north, Shawn Records’s Owner of this World, Stacy Doris’s The Cake Part, and Lawrence Rinder and Colter Jacobsen’s Tuleyome are a few examples.
What is your approach to finding and editing the material you publish?
We read and keep in touch with friends. Sometimes strangers get in touch and it turns out they’re amazing. We’re open, and just try not to oblige ourselves to so much work it gets sketchy.
Publication Studio seems to be at the forefront of innovative marketing approaches for books; your methods are completely outside the traditional process. Perhaps “marketing” is the wrong expression to use. You say you “attend to the social life of the book. This is publication in the fullest sense—the creation of a public”. Where did these ideas come from?
The ideas are all pretty simple, literal, and self-interested. I’m a writer and I want a public. It seems clear to me other writers are after that, more so than they are after high sales numbers, per se. The two are not mutually exclusive, but to focus on making a public, making public space, making lasting relationships ... that just makes sense. It is, literally, publication. The economy grows out of this primary focus; by making books one-at-a-time on demand, we can devote all our attention to cultivating the conversation and the interest around a writer, then provide books as they are wanted. Print-on-demand turns the business on its head. It puts readers, writers, and relationships first, completing a sale second.
Does Publication Studio do audiobooks, podcasts, video promotions, and so on?
Sure, if and when we can. We often call PS the “maker and destroyer of books” because we use any means possible to connect reader and writer. We also make e-books and let you read (and comment on or annotate) all our books online in our “free reading commons.”
Tell me the rationale behind the “free reading commons”.
We grow publics. The books we publish are great, so the more people who get to see/read them, the bigger the reading public will become. Our faith is that this growth stimulates sale of books rather than undermining it. So far we are right.
What kind of budget do you work with? Where does that money come from? Do you work with any public funding or grants? Is the project financially viable?
Glad you asked. This is the heart of the project and our greatest accomplishment. We did all of this nearly broke. We found cheap, widely-available machines. We paid for them by selling books. Now we pay the rent and our authors and our upkeep by selling books. There is no subsidy, just a commitment to sell books by cultivating these relationships and building up real, enduring publics for our authors. Many people are circulating books by applying for subsidies and then spending them. This is common in art book and literary publishing. Those publishers all too often don’t care if they sell their books or how the books are valued once they have been made. Selling the books is the last thing they think about. We care a lot; we have to. If the books aren’t bought we go broke. We’ve now launched more than 80 new titles and sold more than 10,000 books. So, yes, it is working.
Has Publication Studio cracked the corporate press, the traditional newspaper book review? Is this achievable with your publication approach and is it necessary?
An odd question. We regard anyone who reads and shares their thoughts on it pretty much equivalently. Some have bigger amplifiers (say, a columnist for the New York Times or an NPR host), but there’s no easy line between “corporate/traditional” and whatever is not those things. There are just book lovers and their means of amplifying what they have to say. We’re interested in them all. In fact, HTMLGiant or The Millions might reach scads more real readers than Fresh Air. I don’t know; it just depends on the book/writer and the potential public. So, our stance is always interested! If you or anyone is interested in a book we publish, we are interested in you. The flip-side of this is that we don’t push or pester where there is no interest. It’s not a priority to get the books mentioned in X newspaper or on X show. We respond to interest, like a flower to the sun.
Is POD the future of print books in general?
Yes. It is untenable to make large print runs and ship them around when books can be made to order when and where they are wanted. POD is as inevitable as digital-distribution of movies or music. It can be done well or poorly (the technologies are getting better by leaps and bounds even as they get cheaper) and it can be centrally controlled or widely-available. We like the latter, and that’s our business model.
What are your opinions on successful POD outfits such as CreateSpace and Lulu? Are there frustrating aspects of publishing with these services?
I can’t say how those services are. We’d prefer to see a hundred storefronts with printing and binding machinery. It could happen, and it would be great. I have much more interesting relationships with my local print-shops than I do with Lulu.
How does Publication Studio fit into the Portland scene?
We’re one of a few score great, small culture-making projects that rewrite the economics of culture-making. They’re almost all start-up businesses by DIY ex-punks. We don’t ask for subsidies or charity. Charity is not social change. We make a better economy and profit from it. I think Portland is a good place for this kind of project because there’s high unemployment and people live well here on less (a key part of the better economy we are making).
Anything you want to add?
I want to add one more thing about PS’s choice to make the books ourselves, one-at-a-time in the storefronts. There are a number of excellent new projects that attend to the social life of reading and writers, as I have described PS doing. Red Lemonade for one, and OR Books. But in those projects the material production of books, their availability and movement through the world, is left to remote, invisible systems. It’s a big omission. At PS material practice is an integrated part of the social life of the book. We make the books in response to “demand,” i.e. someone’s desire, right in front of you if you come buy at the storefront. I think this integration of material practice is essential for PS, and it certainly marks a radical difference between our project and other new socially-driven book economies.
Matthew Asprey is the author of the novellas Sonny's Guerrillas and Red Hills of Africa and the editor of Jack London: San Francisco Stories. Check out www.matthewasprey.com and Matthew's blog, Honey for the Bears.