Printing when convenient
Moving outward, back towards the material world from the depths of cyberspace, my second volume is a ‘real’ book, able to be held in the hand: Nightswim, by Justin Lowe. It’s a Blurb book, which means that its layout files started in computer space, then were spat out in an offshore mystery printery. Like pretty much every book published today, it is ‘perfect bound’, a complete misnomer for a binding that is cheap, flawed and frustrating. I can tell from the cover design that it’s been composed by someone who isn’t a designer. Don’t get me wrong: the cover is perfectly presentable, with a gorgeous script font for the title and a deep-hued, enigmatic image. It’s the little things that only a designer would notice: everything centred, discordant font sizes. This very slight discordance follows through into the pages: the content is following book convention to the letter, but the typography is not at ease. For example: on page 58 there is a new font, just for one stanza, which may be a shift in voice, but they are two similar typographic ‘voices’, with not enough difference to make the shift, so it looks more like a screen-based mistake – very easy to do when testing fonts for your text. There are lots of books out there that have this slight sense of discomfort, like a child wearing a lovingly hand-knitted but scratchy woolen jumper.
Blurb and its ilk are print-on-demand service providers, an innovation that has finally completed the utopian dream of a completely independent production/publication cycle and obliterated the need to store boxes of unsold books under your bed. There are many points of convenience: you don’t have to leave the comfort of your laptop environment, and akin to a Starbucks menu, all your options are laid out for you, ready to choose with mouse-clicks. There are helpful plug-ins for your software of choice, or you can rely on their in-house design formats. Decisions that used to be made by large teams of trained professionals are now offered to you with absolutely no judgment or criticism. People can buy your books directly from the site, saving you the chore of handling and postage.
There are also downsides: the materiality of the production is missing. There are no paper samples to fondle, colours are a wild hit or miss, and it’s very hard to gauge the effectiveness of fonts and type size onscreen. If you want to see a sample of the book, you have to buy it at full cost (well, wholesale cost, but certainly not any kind of ‘proof’ concession), and wait for the postman. It’s slow and frustrating, but at the end, you get … a book. A ‘real’ book: holding all the authority that a stapled-up, double-spaced Word document does not, something that sits on a shelf, or on a table at a poetry reading, with your name on it. And by making it, you’ve avoided rejection letters, awkward phone-calls to printers and agents, and it might even make you some money.
This particular book says on the cover that it is published by Bluepepper. Bluepepper is geographically based in the Blue Mountains, and it turns out to belong to Lowe. He has been actively publishing online since 2005 with his Bluepepper blog, welcoming submissions by new and established poets, and energetic in his advocation of the poets and the promotion of these blog entries on social media. He’s also been self-publishing books with Blurb since 2008, also under the name Bluepepper. Despite the united name, he keeps the two strands of publishing separate, with only perfunctory mentions of his own books on the Bluepepper blog, and a separate shop blog for sales and orders.
From what I can glean of his career, Lowe has worked with publishers in the past, and it feels like he uses Blurb and blogs in a quest to be a truly independent publisher, not beholden to anyone in particular. His six Blurb books use the same design formula: respectable, nothing out of place, but no special consideration: utilitarian. I know what’s happening here, and it’s common to publishers larger than Bluepepper but smaller than the Big Names: the poetry is what matters most. It’s a religious hangover: a preference for substance over style, a confidence in the words that brings to mind a lesser-quoted line from Beatrice Warde’s iconic Crystal Goblet speech: ‘only your wildest ingenuity can stop people from reading a really interesting text’ (Warde, 1955). Warde’s most-quoted notion is that design should be like ‘crystal’ rather than clay or metal so that it is invisible and allows the writing/ideas to be clearly seen without interference. I don’t believe it, because we’re living in a society that is ALL style over substance. Gone are the days when you could publish poems via a university press in a plain manila chapbook and be taken seriously. All our publishing choices now involve whiter than white ultra-smooth papers, a multitude of easily reproduced colours, and heavily varnished gloss. There are other kinds of glossing at work: the page layout doesn’t matter, as long as the words are in the right order, the font will work as long as there’s a serif font to denote classicism (or a sans serif font if you’re hip), and the cover is fine as long as you’ve curated the right image to show off your visual smarts.
I’m not really frothing at the mouth, and definitely not pointing all this at Lowe, whose poetry shows that he has the inner visuality essential to a good poet. Lowe has at least been consistent in his choices, hence branding his books so that they are instantly recognisable as Bluepepper output, which is a good thing, and very important.
Style and substance
I’m going to out myself with the next book: Cathoel Jorss, comb the sky with satellites, it’s still a wilderness. I follow her blog, I talk to her on Facebook, and when she was thinking about self-publishing this book, she got in touch to talk about options. She wasn’t (as many people do) contacting me to see if I would do the work for her at mate’s rates, or to pitch that I handset her words in lead type and print them for the same price as a blurb book; she wanted to talk about paper, and bindings, and printers. She wanted the book to look and feel like a quality publication, and was prepared to do the legwork to make it so. She wanted it to have ‘toothy’ book paper, a matte text stock with slight texture that was commonplace in the days of offset printing, but becoming increasingly scarce today as paper companies discontinue whole ranges of lightly tinted, textured stock in favour of the smooth, glossy white sheets that are the only substance that can slide through fussy digital printers. It’s one of those situations where, by the time we realise what we’ve lost, the production equipment will have been retired, and no-one will commit to reviving a supply line in the face of ‘the death of paper’. It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I advised her to visit a printery or two, to find a sales rep who was prepared to talk to her, show her what is still on the ‘back shelf’ and to take the time to feel the samples. She obviously found one, and was not deterred by price nor doom-saying. The result, totally project-managed by herself, is solid in the hand, not too big, with firm card covers (‘full colour one side’) designed by someone who is not her, and pages that are a delight to turn: slightly creamy, slightly toothy. It has an ISBN, a logo that looks like a publishing house, and has the look of money (well) spent on it. Yet there are still touches of the self-published in the page design: the words are a little too small (probably to compensate for some very long lines, always a quandary with poetry layout), and there is no ‘architecture’ for the pages: the poems don’t consistently hang from a top margin, or sit on a bottom margin. They seem to float in page space, which echoes the free-spirited lifestyle that Jorss cultivates, and the blessing is that there is no hint of a ‘free-spirited’ font, like Papyrus, or Comic Sans. It’s been given the care and attention that is usually devoted to a fine press book, and similarly, it has been printed in a limited first edition of 100 copies, each signed and numbered, but sold at a very reasonable price, probably with very little profit. I notice on her House of Lovers website that it’s about to have a second print run, and that there is also an e-version. Another small thing that places it in a fine press convention is that the copyright page is at the end of the book, colophon-style. She’s done a fair share of book design homework, and it shows.
Just like Durrant, comb the sky includes images, which earns my respect if Jorss has completely self-funded the printing with no subsidies. The printing costs would have halved without the images, but she obviously sees them as integral to the creative offering. This ekphrastic text-image dynamic is quite common in self-publishing, because larger publishers tend to balk at the additional cost. I wonder if a publisher would have also preferred Jorss to try a shorter title. (‘Not all publishers’, judging by the title of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2014 winner, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith, published by Pitt Street Poetry). The best part about self-publishing is, of course, the freedom to follow your desires.