I couple of weeks ago I was asked to give a 10 minute presentation on the future of book publishing. As Yet Untitled, what we make, the people we work with and our audience were the inspiration behind my every word and so i wanted to share it with you all.
THE FUTURE OF BOOK PUBLISHING
IMAGINE. QUESTION. TRY. FAIL. EXPERIMENT. MAKE SOMETHING. IMAGINE AGAIN
The future of book publishing is limited only by our imaginations. As a creative industry its place in the world depends upon our ideas, questions, visions and experiments.
Throughout the history of the industry technological advancements, from movable type through mass paperback publishing to the e-book have triggered conversations and fears about the future of book publishing. Just one example of this was the conviction from mainstream publishing that Allen Lane (Quote) “messing about, would bring the whole structure of British publishing tumbling into ruins”, as Desmond Flower remembered in 1960. These conversations became particularly prevalent once again among academics, journalists, readers and industry professionals alike with the most recent of these advancements, the affordable e-reader. Articles were written and conferences held as experts put forward their opinions on the future of our industry. Many of these opinions expressed the belief that e-books were a death knell for paper book publishing and perhaps even the industry at large.
I read the articles and I attended the conferences and I quickly became bored. As I looked around I came to a realization. This conversation wasn’t new, the fear wasn’t new and neither were the sole property of the publishing industry.
When photography was first invented people said it would be the death of painting. Instead painting from freed from the literal, and we got impressionism, cubism and abstract expressionism.
When digital photography was invented people said it would be the end of film. Yet film photography is still here, holding strong and interest is even increasing once more as students and professionals turn back to it for that unique something it offers.
The music industry has undergone sweeping changes over the last decade. Yet last year vinyl sales reached a 25-year high and in November even outstripped digital downloads.
What came before is not always swept away by what’s new. Instead they can free each other, co-exist, intermingle and provide creators with more tools than ever before.
I come to publishing as an artist, with an arts education and an artists’ eye.
As a sculptor I work with bronze and wax. As a photographer I have stuck steadfastly to film. As a publisher I hand-bind every book I make.
Yet this year I proposed using 3D laser cutting to create a sculpture that was recently long listed for the National Sculpture Prize. I scan and digitally finish all my photographs and every book I publish is designed on InDesign. Because why wouldn’t I? Why not use every tool at my disposal to realize what I am imagining.
As a book artist every aspect of the books design is integral to the creation and expression of meaning. If you make a book that fits into the palm of your hand, with thin delicate pages, it immediately seems precious and jewel like. If you make a book that’s 6 foot tall it is immediately overwhelming and awkward. If the book is unbound, with loose-leaf pages, it spirals out, able to shift unendingly. Before your audience has even gotten to the content they have started imagining what the book is about.
As an artist and publisher it is important to me that my own books look and feel right, that the paper choice and the typeface convey meaning to the eye and to the hand. When we read we read more than the words on a page, we read the object. We read with our hands, with our expectations, and with our imagination. I believe it is our job as publishers to enliven as many senses as we can in our mission to engage with our audience. Whether this is achieved through swiping or turning a page, through augmented reality or traditional cloth cover binding and end paper doesn’t matter. All of these things have a home in the future of publishing.
We face an audience today that is inundated by choice, by self-published books, new imprints, new magazines and endless online publications. But we also have an audience that is, as far as I can see, more aware and more engaged with books than ever before. The same people that are buying vinyl and using film are buying book art, supporting independent publishers and frequenting bookshops. They have an appreciation and thirst for the object, its beauty, its variety and its potential.
The responsibility of engaging this growing appreciation is in the hands of the publishing industry. It is up to us to give ALL books the attention they deserve. It could be producing beautiful editions like Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus (published by Harvill Secker) of Katie Holten’s About Trees (from Broken Damanche Press). And it could be by experimenting with how the books design can affect narrative as with all of Visual Editions catalogue. However we go about it engaging with this growing and discerning audience can only lead somewhere exciting as they demand more from the industry and we ask for more from them.
I look around at small publishers fairs and I see poetry collections, photo-books, humorous pieces about installation proposals that will never make it to the turbine hall at Tate and illustrated pop up books beyond the wildest imaginings of my childhood.
I go to conferences and I hear talks on books about water pollution where the paper is made using water from the very same river the book is about, I hear talks on screen printing, on archives, on live publishing and books that change, coming alive with a simple app.
I frequent crowd funding websites like Kickstarter and Patreon, supporting my contemporaries and embracing the idea of the public as arts patron, commissioning editor, test audience and gatekeepers all rolled into one.
I go to artists’ book fairs and I have conversations with librarians, private collectors and the public about their responses to the sculptural or limited edition, handmade, etched, risograph or digitally printed books before them.
I go to bookshops and search through novels, comics, and non-fiction in the hopes of finding words that will transport me somewhere new.
I do all this and I find myself thrilled, excited, even jubilant about the future of the book publishing. Whatever the book, whoever published and however they made it the ideal result is the same. We want books to express ideas, ask questions, offer answers and tell stories.
One of my favorite theorists Roland Barthes states in an essay that, “The narratives of the world are numberless…” For the publishing industry to remain not only relevant but cutting edge we must find, invent and embrace as many forms of Bookness as there are narratives.
Leading the charge in this are the students, the artists, the designers and the indie publishers. The readers who don’t take the book for granted. The mainstream publisher whose cover design stops you in your tracks. Those willing and able to take risks and make glorious mistakes. Those who work tirelessly to make something new, to revive something old, to reach out and engage their own and others imaginations.
It is here that the future is found. The future is those people that are driven to explore. Those for whom books mean something special, who will let their imaginations run wild and exist without limit. And it is in limitless imagination that the future of book publishing finds fertile ground.