Artists’ Books

Amid discussions over the future of the printed book and the inevitable transition to digital reading, there runs a current of publishing that centers around the idea of the book as an artistic medium. Artists’ books can be difficult to define: they may be produced as a unique object or as an edition of many; they span a vast range of form and content; and they may push the boundaries of what is considered a book. In essence, though, an artist’s book examines and responds to form and content in equal measure.

Here in Portland, we have some fantastic resources for those interested in making artists’ books: you can learn to make paper at Pulp and Deckle, learn basic typesetting and letterpress printing at the IPRC, and gain access to a full studio of letterpress and bindery equipment at Em Space (they are looking for new members, too!). We even have a dedicated book arts gallery, 23 Sandy. But if you happen to be in the Bay Area this February 8–11, you’ll have the chance to attend the CODEX International Book Fair and Symposium, the largest event of its kind in the world. The event occurs every other year, and brings together leading book artists and fine presses from all parts of the world. Robert Bringhurst, who wrote the typographic bible most of us Oolies read in our book design class, says of the event:

The [biennial] Codex gatherings, held since 2007 on the shores of San Francisco Bay, are the most important symposia in the world for those concerned with the arts of the book. The Book Art Object anthologies—of which there are now two—are the substantial printed records of these occasions. No one who cares about books and their fate in the present world should be without them.

Many of us booklovers are adamant that the printed book is here to stay; but as we move more and more toward ebooks and digital media, it is interesting to consider taking advantage of the physical properties of printed books in a more intentional way, like this take on Dangerous Liasons by Éva Valicsek. (Whether or not this would unduly complicate the reading experience is yet another discussion.) While artists’ books are at the extreme end of formal experimentation, I think we’re going to see a lot more “special edition” books with high-end production values. In much the same way that vinyl records often come in deluxe packaging and include a digital download, I could easily envision an increase of deluxe books bundled with an ebook download.

Although it won’t exactly be a special edition, here at Ooligan we are embarking on our most ambitiously designed book to date: Mastersounds. Since the book will include numerous photos, we will need to put lots of thought into how to lay everything out. And who knows—since jazz in the Pacific Northwest is the subject matter, perhaps we will decide to incorporate some design ideas that reflect the improvisatory nature of the genre.

Write to Publish looks at the IPRC

The search is still on for the perfect event space for Write to Publish 2015. Brandon and I have visited several locations—rain and all.
Last week, I visited the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), located across the Willamette River in Southeast Portland. Tiffany Shelton, a newly appointed member of the Write to Publish team, came along with me. Although both of us had heard about the IPRC, neither of us had visited the center before. The main room resembles a medium-sized warehouse, with garage-like doors open to let in the fresh air and sun (on a good day). There are several letterpress machines, each a different size, laid out on work tables—and a much larger press that the center is currently repairing. We enthusiastically sifted through the piles of ornate plates and wood blocks donated to and purchased by the IPRC over the years, imagining all of the crafts and projects we could complete with their help (letterpress graduation invites anyone?).
The center also has a perfect binding machine and other crafting tools, like button makers. They even have several Mac computers available to those interested in learning how to use publishing software like Adobe InDesign. While we had a fun time touring the center with Polly, the Development & Community Resource Coordinator, the space did not have enough rooms for us to break out into panels and workshops during the conference. However, Polly was very interested in the IPRC having a role in the conference, possibly on a panel or tabling at the event.
Brandon and I also met with both the marketing and social media manager at Ooligan to discuss putting together a short Write to Publish promotional video (or possibly even several videos). At next week’s Executive Meeting, we hope to find others in the program interested in being a part of this video project. In truth, so many of us get caught up with words—we love books. That’s why we decided to join this program. Websites, social media, newsletters, and, heck, even this blog post are great ways to get the news out there, but it’s important to get creative and try new things in order to spread the word about this event if we hope to reach the largest audience possible.
Until next week!

Interning with Sparkplug Comic Books, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tumblr

I knew when I decided to work towards a career in publishing that I would be satisfied with that track. Publishing, after all, would utilize my creativity and language skills, not to mention provide me with a sense of personal satisfaction. However, when I realized that I could choose to work towards a career in comics publishing, I went from feeling merely content with my chosen path to feeling downright charged with excitement. A desire to learn the skills I need to be an asset to the publishing industry led me to the book publishing program at PSU, but I’ve always known that I would need to find a place where I could learn the tricks of the trade that pertain to comics alone.

This summer, my light class load gave me time to explore the possibility of an internship with a comics publisher in town. After extensive searching online, I narrowed my options down to a few companies: Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, Top Shelf Productions, and Sparkplug Comic Books. Dark Horse wasn’t offering any internships at the time of my inquiry; Top Shelf wasn’t offering any internships at all, ever. I applied for an internship with Oni Press and was told that I had just missed the application deadline. My heart began to sink; I knew that Sparkplug was a long shot, since they were a very small operation and had just undergone a significant structural change (their founder and owner had recently passed away, and official ownership had just been transferred to a longtime employee). That being said, I also felt like Sparkplug could potentially benefit the most from an intern’s help. So, crossing my fingers, I sent Virginia Paine (the new owner and publisher) an email and hoped for the best.

To my surprise and delight, Virginia emailed me back quickly, saying that she had just been considering an intern. It was perfect timing! We met for coffee the next week and spoke about what I might be able to help out with; since I had just finished working within Ooligan’s marketing department, we decided that I would be of most use in that capacity. I was a little disappointed to learn that there weren’t any major projects in need of editing coming up in the near future, but figured that any experience with comics would be good experience. When she offered me the position, I gladly accepted it.

So, for the past five months or so, I’ve been working with Virginia at the Sparkplug office twice a week. Though I have been able to help proof a few upcoming comics, the majority of my time has been spent working online. Sparkplug is not only a publisher, but also a distributor of self-published/small press comics and zines, so I have been learning a lot about updating and maintaining an online store. While writing marketing copy and creating product pages don’t necessarily provide electrifying excitement, these mundane tasks (among others) are imperative to the success of a press, and it’s good to have the opportunity to hone my skills in these areas. I’ve also had the opportunity to handle some of Sparkplug’s retailer relations and have learned of more small publishers, comic shops, zine distros, and independent bookstores across the country than I ever probably would have on my own.

As I’ve been getting the hang of running an efficient and easy-to-navigate webstore, I’ve also been concentrating on increasing Sparkplug’s online presence. When I arrived, Sparkplug had Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts and a blog. Virginia spent a fair amount of energy on the Facebook page, writing frequent posts that mixed personal interest pieces with business news. The blog had regular posts, though they were mostly informational. The Twitter and Tumblr accounts were used relatively rarely. I decided to take a good look at how many people were looking at Sparkplug’s posts (and where) and found that the blog received steady traffic (though people rarely commented on posts), which was heartening. During my time here, I have been writing all of the blog posts, trying to to be more creative in how I present information and more upbeat and excited in my general tone. These updates are then cross-posted to Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook and interspersed amongst those sites’ respective content so that we can reach our maximum audience across these platforms.

I should interject here that I’m not a big social media fan. I quit Facebook in 2010; I don’t blog anymore, and I’ve never tweeted or tumbled (which I can only hope is the verb for posting on Tumblr) about my life. I’m the asshole in groups who kills the mood by asking people to please not post my picture on their digital walls. I retch at articles suggesting that people without an online presence should be viewed with suspicion, I have to physically restrain myself from throwing the phones of friends who can’t stop updating their various streams into an actual stream, and I’m consistently horrified by new stories about social media harassment, online social justice crusades gone wrong, and relationship catastrophes (both personal and professional) created or exacerbated by the Internet allowing someone to see or say something they shouldn’t have.

In-person networking at the IPRC

I prefer to do my networking in person (for instance, here I am at Content: A Publication Party at the IPRC for Design Week Portland)

That’s why it came as a surprise when I found that Tumblr, particularly, is actually awesome for small publishers—Sparkplug in particular. For anyone else late the the Millennial party, let me tell you: there are a lot of people on Tumblr. Not surprisingly, a huge chunk of those people are into comics, art, combating forms of oppression, and supporting local artists and businesses, which means there’s a huge audience there just waiting to fall in love with a comic or zine from Sparkplug. Since I began posting on Tumblr (tumbling?!) more frequently and reblogging posts from like-minded artists, writers, and publishers, Sparkplug has gained multiple new followers a week and received dozens—sometimes hundreds—of views, likes, and reblogs every day. Publishers all agree that a recommendation from a friend or trusted source is still people’s preferred way of learning about new books, and word of mouth travels fast and widely on Tumblr. The people our posts are reaching are all potential customers, contributors, fans, and spokespeople for Sparkplug, and I feel confident that maintaining our presence in this corner of the Internet will pay off with a better, further-reaching reputation and—hopefully—financial profits.


Thanks, Tumblr.

While I’m still not likely to start posting about my lunch, my thoughts on sexism in popular television shows, and my turtle (perhaps another sign of how ill-suited to the Internet I am—no cat!) on a personal profile anytime soon, I am glad I’ve taken over as the de facto social media manager for Sparkplug. Understanding how to network and connect with an audience via Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr is invaluable in the modern publishing industry, and you can bet I’ll be talking about my social media skills in future interviews. Let’s just hope my interviewer doesn’t ask if they can friend me.