Artists’ Self-Publishing, a Legitimate 21st Century Industry

This week, myself and my colleagues made some progress towards a new book, something quite different to the other books that I have written and that we have designed, produced and disseminated together – i.e. with my partner, the artist Bada Song, and various collaborators (editors, designers, illustrators and typographers).

It’s always a surprisingly extended and difficult creative process, but one that I am passionate about, especially that moment when we finally have the edition ready to launch and distribute.

I have always written a lot but I didn’t get around to serious book-writing and book-making until a few years ago. I have an archive of numerous, much older, folds and pamphlets and binds and booklets, but it was by working with Bada that together we came to make some more substantial and considered books.

One thing that prompted me to make books was the fact that I was burning off decades of ideas in lectures and other forms of writing and teaching, and the book form offered a way of consolidating, capturing, recording and drawing attention to all of that activity.

But somehow, I always knew that I wanted to be involved in every aspect of the process. This was primarily because I came to writing through the Fine Art studio and hence always considered writing as a material practice (after years of consideration, writing had become my studio practice of choice), a material prcactice in which the size, proportions, tone, texture, thickness and weight of a page, the choice of font, the kind of binding, etc.  all undeniably influence any message or meaning that the words might want to communicate to the reader. All of this adds up to considering every aspect of a book, holisticaly, imaginatively, inventively, critically, just as one would consider any other work of art.

As now much of my practice and writing emerges in dialogue with a university, I first  looked at publications made by academics, and at the output of academic publishers. But I was quite often disappointed and even dismayed at the relative carelessness that I could see going into books which, despite being written by artists or art researchers, submitted their texts to a harsh economic rationale which, I felt, sometimes appeared to ‘cheapen’ or diminish the ideas, and al of the legacy of passionate periods of research that the books represented. Basically, I felt that beautiful art and ideas, and the beauty of committing a life to art andideas, deserved beautiful books.

I also noted that books produced (proably under the guise of strict accountancy which was not overly concerned with aesthetics) by ‘big’ publishers, could age badly. And sometimes I found that a book form a top-level published could nevertheless featur heinous errors that seemed to point to poor or rushed editing and proof reading (perhaps part of a process of making books to complex corporate deadlines).

Many books form major publishers were of course are excellent too, but the negative examples confirmed to me that when I made a book I wanted to be involved in every aspect of its content and form. I wanted to have a say in every aspect of its production.

The result has been an amazing experience, and I can now write towards a new book, anticipating every creative dimension of it, from choosing the font, to the paper, to the binding and even what will happen at the launch event, which, we soon found, can feature all kinds of exciting contributions and contributors responding to the book’s theme (by contrast, I have been to launches of books by major publishers which are far more modest affairs).

As well as enjoying this near-autonomous freedom and immersion in the entire process, myself and my partner, and our collaborators, have, to some extent also ‘aped’ big publishers, in aiming for the same level of editorial standards that seems to set big publishers up as ‘legitimating’ institutions. I believe that myself and the other experts with whom I work, are qualified and experienced enough (as experienced artists, writers, designers, some of us with doctorates etc.) to uphold and attain those same standards.

I mention this because, occasionally I still sometimes hear people refer to our books (or refer to such books in my presence); i.e. books which can be categorised as ‘artists’ self-publishing’, even though they may be a volume of essays of cultural theory, in a slightly disparaging way, i.e. as if assuming that our books aspired to, but fell short of publication by a ‘big’ established (and therefore legitimating) major publisher. Hopefully, the above, and what follows explains that this was NEVER our intention.

I like to think that, tiny as our own imprint (named ‘eeodo’) is, it is in some way, ultimately in competition with those big publishers, not so much differing in kind but rather differeing in scale.

The words ‘vanity publishing’ once meant something disparaging, prior to the age of the internet and the digital realm, but you rarely hear those words today, because, I think, the digital age has blurred lines between all previously ‘big’ and ‘small’ cultural enterprises, between amateur and professional, mega and micro, democratising all kinds of modern media and representation in ways that have troubled the old structures (the newspaper industry and the brewing industry are prime examples, as are various forms of music production etc).

Today, we are all our own publishers, broadcasters, creatives, critics, designers, authors etc., of varying scale and ambition, and while the old ‘big’ media variously adapt and/or stand their ground, they are clearly in dialogue with, and sometimes at war with, myriad new (and in many cases unprecedented) micro-industries, micro-brands and micro-producers.

So, there are several very good reasons why my own, and our own ideas are not appearing in the pages of books produced by ‘big’ and ‘academic’ publishers.

As well as those reasons listed above, I have also experienced and heard horror stories about the immense length of time, and unwelcome editorial impositions, made by such organisations that personally, I might find  –  and despite my professional appreciation of the editorial role – just too frustrating and de-motivating. We, of course, have complete control over the timing of our design, production, launch etc.

As I have already said, many of the ‘big’ publishers do produce beautifully designed, meticulously and creatively andprofessionally edited, and comprehensively distributed (something we cannot do) and well publicised books, and I would like to experience a successful relationship with one of the big publishers one day. But for now, and for the point of this post, I feel badly misinterpreted when or if people see my books or our books them as ‘mere’ self, or vanity publishing; or when they regard our books as a poor second-best to what they perceive to be more ‘real’,  ‘proper’, or legitimate’ forms of publishing and publisher.

Rather, I believe myself and my colleagues are making truly 21st century books, books that are legitimate and perhaps self-legitimating; that hold up to critical and academic scrutiny, but which are also works of art in which every aspect of their design has been carefully discussed and considered.

They are made to last and to endure, both in terms of their content and their form. And, most of all, they are labours of love, with the joy in making and disseminating them, pervading every page, every word, every image and every stitch.

Finally, it also strikes me that the ‘big’ publisher, with its sense of a legitimating authority (which is not God-given, but derived, in part, merely from its size) is, like every other cultural phenomenon, subject to historical, technolgical and cultural change. And thus the age of the ‘big’ publisher (which of course little ‘eeodo’ may one day yet become) is surely a temporary, modern condition, one which was preceded by, and may be superceded by another, different age, in which books were and will be made more in the way and the spirit in which ‘eeodo‘ are  making our books, and my own books today.


2 thoughts on “Artists’ Self-Publishing, a Legitimate 21st Century Industry

  1. Recently attended the end of year show for Truro & Penwith college Art & Design students. The photography group had each made a book through an online platform. The resultant books were charming in their naive approach to subject matter, friends dancing whilst drunk, mothers, brothers, pets and relatives, but the reasonably high production standards and paper choice lifted the books into a different place and space. Some more serious socially orientated work concerned with homelessness and drug misuse, reminded me of the hay day of Colour supplements in the Sunday papers from the 70s and early 80s. I reflected that when I was a practicing photographer, having a cheap small print run available would have allowed me to experiment in a way I could not, and I felt happy that this is a possibility for contemporary students.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks tim, yes, I wish I had started making books decades ago, as the best solution to franing my joint passions for writing and photography/ Thanks for this lovely description that shows how new technologies are blessing a new generation with this form and this facility.


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