The Traditions and Innovations of Beautiful Books: Guest Post by Rhienna Renee Guedry

Currently, small presses and major houses alike have reflected upon the past to make certain decisions about the printed book’s future. With renewed interest in cover design, concept, and the “nuts and bolts” of a book’s production process such as intentional choices with ink and paper, many publishers are releasing books that are, in a word, beautiful. With revived interest in embellishment and ornamentation from book publishing’s past (details such as deckle edges, silk ribbons, colored endpapers), the industry will continue to pursue these features of the book in the future to stay competitive against (and distinct from) the growing world of e-books. Print editions will stay relevant to readers as cultural, collectible artifacts, thus persisting in the future of book publishing for as long as we have some form of the codex and some form of a marketplace in which to purchase them. While these editions will play a notable role in the future of publishing, there is a downside: they run the risk of widening the gap of “collectorship,” and that the category of privileged individuals who collect cultural artifacts will not be a signifier of those who most appreciate beautiful books.

Design Origins

Just a few hundred years ago, book buyers would purchase a title unbound, and binding was an additional step. Thankfully this process has long since been reconciled, and since, notable changes have been made in book design. Writing for the New York Literary World, Herman Melville wrote in 1875 that there was a “sad lack of invention in most of our bookbinders,” and complained, “books should be appropriately appareled. Their bindings should indicate and distinguish their various characters.” In his article “Judging Literary Books by Their Covers,” author Jeffrey D. Groves analyzes the trajectory of the book cover through book history—from a point in time where books were rarely even sold with permanent covers to points in time where a publisher sought to brand its identity by cover design choices. “A book bound for the customer might reveal a great deal about a bookbinder, a book buyer, or the prevailing tastes of a given period, but a binding commissioned and perhaps designed by a nineteenth-century publisher lays open an attempt to feel the pulse of hundreds or thousands of buyers at once, both to perceive and to shape their notion of what “literature” meant and looked like.”

With innovation in design and layout in current and future publishing, specific authors, publishers, and even designers receive acknowledgement and even praise. “When people do beautiful books, they’re noticed more,” said Robert S. Miller, the publisher of Workman Publishing. “It’s like sending a thank-you note written on nice paper when we’re in an era of e-mail correspondence.” By looking at the past, we see an evolution in how readers view a book (and it’s cover) and come to judge its contents by these elements of design. Yet cover design is not the only way in which art and design can impact a title. Current publishers are re-incorporating imagery in books that have not had illustrations for generations. This nod to books of the past revives the tradition of narrative imagery within the pages of a book, a motif that went through decades of obscure and infrequent use. This cyclical return of a notable book motif is now here to stay (e.g., Ask the Fellows Who Cut The Hay, a Full Circle release that includes watercolors and woodcuts) and trends in design will continue to veer towards the incorporation of visual elements in the future. A revived emphasis on cover and interior art and illustration is part of what makes a book a desirable collectable item to book enthusiasts today.

Designers Do It Better

The celebrated independent small press McSweeney’s began as a series of quarterly literary journals in 1998, and is one example of current emphasis on design that has been greeted widely with fanatical dedication and praise from industry insiders and readers alike. The San Francisco-based publisher is, to modern publishing, synonymous with experimental design and unique print editions. Indeed, McSweeney’s released a hardcover coffee table book entitled Art of McSweeney’s in 2010: a 264-page art book “all about the design of books-as-objects, objects to hold and to interact with,” whose introduction begins, “This book is dedicated to readers who love physical books as objects…and also to show young publishers-to-be how much fun can be had while making books, and how available the means of production is to them.”

McSweeney’s is certainly not the only small press doing interesting things in terms of design and production: there are hundreds of small presses tackling a niche market and focused on quality and aesthetics. Visual Editions is recognized for publishing Jonathan Safran Foer’s die-cut erasure work Tree of Codes, as well as re-releasing beautifully designed editions of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Mark Saporta’s Composition No. 1.

Persephone Books, a publisher whose focus is reprints of classic works written by women, uses elegant endpapers, and lines their inside covers “with designs matched to each book’s publication date. So Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages comes wrapped in endpapers based on a dress fabric from 1930, while Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery of 1816 is topped and tailed with a pattern drawn from a contemporary piece of block-printed cotton.”

Reviewing the books released by small or independent publishers such as McSweeney’s, Visual Editions, and Persephone Books speaks to a future of print editions that capitalize on aspects of art, design, and materiality as a quality that will come to be expected by book lovers.

Not Just For The Little Guys

Current large publishers are following suit with design and production-heavy print editions. In Kathryn Hughes article for The Guardian, she notes, “publishers have started building their marketing strategies around form rather than content. The Everyman Library for example makes much of its books’ elegant two-color case stamping, silk ribbon markers and “European-style” half-round spines. Faber republished a collection of its classic poetry hardbacks illustrated with exquisite wood and lino cuts by contemporary artists.” Penguin’s series, Penguin Threads does so as well. By dusting off classics from their backlist, the publisher re-issued titles such as Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, and Little Women as paperback editions. The series features a redesigned cover that has been made to look like an embroidery (threads), embossed and textured according to the patterns of the stitching. With a reverse image on the inside front and back cover (showing what you would see if you turned over one of your grandmother’s embroidered wall hangings), the editions also boast French folds and deckle edges. Penguin Threads’ platform is built on the hope that book collectors—who may already own some of these classic titles—will be excited and incited by the attention to design and detail of this series.

Like a Record, Baby

To take an example from recent cultural history—though not from the publishing industry—I want to delve into the parallel of cultural consumption that is often used to contrast the book world: the music industry. Well-designed, collectible, proud-to-sit-on-bookshelf-and-coffee-table-alike relics will both persist and be a fixture in a future publishing model comes in part by observations of music consumption of the past decade. Despite the rise of digital, music-lovers find themselves able to acquire music rapidly, and what is purchased as a “collectible” proves discerning as formats have continued to evolve. Musicians and labels have looked for ways to go to market with a tangible product that will make an impact on their audiences and prove collectable artifacts. In the TIME article by Kristina Dell “Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back,” Dell analyzes the resurgence in records having to do a desire for “vinyl’s different shapes (hearts, triangles) and eye-catching designs (bright colors, sparkles)” as well as desirable photography and album art inset. Most vinyl records come with a coupon for a free audio download, giving the consumer two ways of experiencing the album: digitally (portable, personal) and in analog (often cited as preferred for visceral reasons much like we hear in defense of the scent of a new paperback). Music executives continue to see a slight but steady increase in sales from vinyl year after year, while independent music retailers see an uptick in sales of larger proportion for both vinyl and, incredibly, even cassette tapes. Contrasting what is happening with music as another consumable cultural media, we have evidence that cultural artifacts and collectibles are, and will continue to be, a significant portion of any creative industry.

Versus “E-”

Looking at how the music industry is trying to survive the digital age is a natural transition into thinking about how art books may compare and contrast to the future of publishing that, at least according to many, seems to be ruled by talks of e-books and social reading apps. In “Six Ways to Think about an ‘infinite canvas’,” Peter Meyers talks about the sensation of delight, that “print book lovers wax on about their beloved format’s special talents: the smell, the feel, its nap-friendly weight. But touch screen fans can play that game, too. Recall, for starters, the first time you tapped an iphone or similarly modern touch screen. Admit it: the way it felt to pinch, swipe, flick and spread…those gestures introduce a whole new pleasure palette. Reading and books have heretofore primarily been a visual medium: you look and ponder what’s inside. Now, as we enter the age of touchscreen documents, content becomes a feast for our fingers as much as our eyes. Authors, publishers, and designers are just beginning to appreciate this opportunity, making good examples hard to point to.” While conversations about the future of the book seem to always hinge on technology as being a primary factor, we do best not to assume that new technologies guarantee the replacement of the old.

Considering environmental concerns indicates a tendency for book buyers to be more selective about purchases, giving art books an additional push for existing in the marketplace as a collectible, permanent cultural object, and evidence that e-books may never be able to compete.

By looking at the history of design and how book covers began to influence readerships and indicate content by its design elements, it’s no surprise that we have arrived in a world full of beautiful, unique print-editions of books. Numerous small-press and independent publishers are making waves by creating unique, beautiful, artisan books and able to make a living doing so; even larger publishers such as Penguin that are releasing stylized collectible series of their best love backlist titles. Watching the print marketplace populate with various editions of books sampling from book history techniques—from “fore-edge painting” (see The Cheese Monkeys by renowned book designer Chip Kidd) to hand-drawn typographic covers scattered on any New York Times’ bestseller list.

Where recent history may point us towards what feels like an inevitable trend towards these lovely, well-designed and slightly more expensive art books, looking further back into book history gives us two other noteworthy examples. The first example is the birth of the trade paperback, also referred to by Jason Epstein as the “quality paperback.” Watching this new “third category” of book (something between a drugstore paperback and a hardcover release) emerge and take hold of the publishing industry by offering something collectible, quality, and a notch above paperback books that speak to the desire to own something readers can lend, reread, and display on their shelves with pride. Kathryn Hughes’ insight on the renewed interest in bookmaking in the mid-19th century also gives us an apt perspective about the likelihood of well-designed, artisan books playing a significant role in publishing of the future, as well. Even the music industry’s resurgence in selling vinyl records to music collectors seems to speak to something about our culture, and how our cultural objects may function in the near future, if not already.

We are at a point in time where we have the ability to choose what we wish to invest in, and what we want to be disposable vs. collectible. In this way, vinyl record collections may be growing for a generation who never owned a record player in their youth just as book collectors may not be avid readers, but purveyors of cultural content, art, and design. These books will certainly exist in the future however widen the gap of “collectorship” and the type of people who want cultural artifacts. Art books, or any book wherein the publisher has made a considerable effort to create a collectable and desirable artifact will continue to be a thing of beauty and hold a portion of the book market.

As the publishing industry continues to evolve, those doing something different (whether it be the adoption of an old-fashioned book technique, such as hand-binding and printing on letterpress, or something radically new or revolutionary) will be supported by curious consumers, book lovers, and collectors alike.

#ArtLitPhx: Four Chambers presents Get Lit: The Market

Get Lit Graphic

Inspired by the literary and philosophical salons of 17th century France, Four Chambers presents Get Lit: The Market. Every month, Four Chambers hosts a night of conversation, community, and drinking with Phoenix Poet Laureate and ASU Lecturer of English Rosemarie Dombrowski, PhD.

This month’s event will take place Thursday, December 7th, from 7pm to 8pm. It will be held in the Reading Room inside the Rose Room at Valley Bar (Basement, 130 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004). Valley Bar is located on Monroe St down the alley between Central and 1st Ave. Space is limited, so arrive early to make sure you can get a seat!

This month’s discussion topic is the market. Four Chambers writes, “Are you tired of writing query letters and tracking submissions? What does the publishing industry look like? What kind of pressures or influences does it exert on the artistic process? What are the effects of labeling and packaging for a larger audience? What is the tension or relationship between the artistic and commodity form? What does it mean to market one’s work?”

For more information about the event and to RSVP, head over to the Facebook page. You can also click here to find out more about Four Chambers Press.

Guest Blog Post, Martin Ott: Submission Season

Martin Ott‘Tis the Season

It’s September again, the time of year when thousands of hopeful writers hunch over keyboards with coffee breath and some nervousness, preparing their babies to go out into the world. Some of them will find good homes, but the vast majority will make their way back for some attention and TLC.

For more than twenty years, I have submitted fiction and poetry to magazines, anthologies, and online journals. In that time, I have published more than two dozen short stories and two hundred poems, received valuable feedback, and developed relationships with editors. I have also been rejected time and time again. I’d like to share some advice that might help prepare you for submission season.

Value Rejection

By my best estimate, I have had a submissions acceptance rate of approximately 2% over the past two decades. This means that I have also had more than 10,000 rejections. In my early days of submitting, the rejections filled more than one recycling bin. I used to save handwritten rejections, until even these became too numerous to keep in a drawer.

Success comes with rejection, and writers who take submissions personally are missing the point: readers and tastes evolve constantly at each and every magazine. I have placed work at magazines that have rejected me ten times or more.

Do Your Homework

Even if submitting is a number’s game, there are still things you can do to increase your odds. In any given year, I read twenty or so literary magazines to get an idea of what my peers are doing and to gauge the creative tastes of publications. I read submission guidelines carefully, and look at work on the magazine’s website that the editors have selected as representative work. Then and only then do I submit.

Now for Some Controversial Advice

There’s only one rule I break, something that other writers I know do as well. I occasionally submit work to magazines that don’t accept simultaneous submissions while I am submitting the same work to other places.

At writers’ conferences, I make it a point to talk with literary magazine editors that don’t accept simultaneous submissions. Many of them acknowledge that they know that most writers aren’t following this guideline, and many even privately agree with a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy.

You should still be careful if you take this approach. I place all publications into roughly five tiers. I only send out work a handful at a time to the top tier, and this is the only place I break the rule and send simultaneous submissions to (a few) magazines that have a non-simultaneous submission policy.

Has this approach ever backfired? Yes. One time I missed out on publishing a poem in a top magazine and had to explain that I didn’t follow guidelines. When I weigh this against the high-quality publications I’ve placed my work in by accelerating the submission process, I consider it an acceptable risk. I’m certain that there are writers and editors who will disagree with me on this point.

I also strongly believe that every magazine and publisher should accept simultaneous submissions, particularly from those of us not submitting through our agents or emailing to a friend on staff. Since magazines work in an open marketplace, why not show the same respect to writers?

Define Your Submission Strategy

I tend to be patient with my submissions. I wait for my work to make its rounds from tier to tier, before submitting them more widely to lower tiers. One fiction writer friend has told me that she submits to eleven places at a time. Another poet friend confided that he once sent more than a thousand poetry submissions in a year.

At any given time, my work is in circulation from three to ten places, depending on the tier. In recent years I have stopped submitting to my lowest tier, as the quality of publications is now more important to me than the quantity.

Be Nice to the Editors

When you receive a rejection, don’t freak out and write back to an editor to explain why she or he is wrong. This is doubly true for feedback. Unfortunately, this is a rule that I have broken. It cost me placing a poem once in an anthology, when I didn’t like the edits I was getting, and I shot back a late night discourteous email.

I have received valuable feedback on my work, including on a short story The Policy that I published at Superstition Review. Some of the best comments on the story came from student editors, and their feedback made it better.

It might also not be the smartest idea to harass editors about why they haven’t taken a look at your work yet. Here is a great set of guidelines from Mixer Publishing that made me laugh:

Please wait at least one year before querying about your submission. If you need to withdraw your submission before that, our submission system will notify us of the withdrawal. We no longer respond to queries regularly due to the large amount of submissions we have and due to time restrictions. If we receive multiple queries from you or antagonistic emails, we will put you on an industry blacklist that we share on a secret database with the most powerful writers and editors in the world, who are all usually in a bad mood or hungover.

Tools for Submissions

I have used many tools over the years to manage my submissions. Currently, I use a combination of Duotrope, New Pages, and the CRWROPPS email list:

One of my friends has built a “secret’ weapon that he calls the Database of Doom. It contains a custom-made spreadsheet of publications by tiers and submission windows. He lets me use the Database of Doom, as long as I am mindful of its powers. Talk to your writer friends about submissions and share tips.

When in Doubt, Submit

Many writers disagree about the right time to submit.  I think that a writer should wait until the piece no longer feels like a draft. However, when in doubt, my advice is to submit and submit some more. You may be surprised by the results (publication, feedback) and even rejection may tell you something about the quality of your work.