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[BKARTS] Reflections on bookart and commerce

I am puzzling through a technical problem that I guess really goes under
marketing. It's a little complicated, so bear with me as I try to explain
what's on my mind.

I am very close to finishing a book called "Mad Laughter, Fragments of a
Life in Progress," <http://www.cafecancun.com/download/laughter.pdf> (2.7
mb), which I've mentioned here before. A prominent dealer has agreed to take
ten copies (and could take more), but because he believes that his clients
judge value primarily on the basis of craftsmanship, he'd like me to do them
in hard cover, as richly produced and bound as possible.

This presents a problem for me because the book is really a very subtle
exercise in what I guess would best be called conceptual art. It's a
home-made version of a trade paperback. The books will be printed on a
Docutech in a friend's copy shop. Other than cutting and trimming, which are
done in a local print shop, I bind them at home using minimal binding
technology and methods. When finished they are indistinguishable from a
standard trade paperback -- and that's my point.

It's an exercise in what I might call the cult of the ordinary, which goes
back to the Dadaists, and in our time was exemplified by Andy Warhol's
Campbell Soup Can. Here's a common object, the trade paperback, that is the
result of great personal love in even the most commercial version. People
who make books love books, no matter how lowly the instance. Start with the
author and then take it all the way through the myriad steps that go into
producing a book. Consider the intense discussions on this list on what
outsiders would consider arcana, such as the use of methyl cellulose in
binding adhesives.

So what's different about Mad Laughter? Something absolutely basic. It is
the work of one person, whereas the trade paperback is a communal project
involving many other individuals. If I wanted to go to the expense, I could
rent or purchase the appropriate laser printer and buy a paper cutter and
make these books myself. Each book would then be the exact equivalent of a
serial work of art such as a serigraph or an edition of photographic prints.
Even so, my books are more mine, I think, than Escher's works were his own,
as they were executed by end-grain wood engravers, and hence are really

Producing them in other people's shops is still infinitely more individual
than all but the most individual self-published print-on-demand book, as
these are usually designed according to strict rules laid down by the
printer. And, of course, the author is very far away from the printing
process itself, whereas I am right there watching those pages roll out. My
worst fear comes when they are cut. A worker in the print shop ruined a book
a few months ago because he had just sharpened the knife and failed to clean
the cutting oil, which stained the cover. At first I decided, well, that's
what makes it an individual work of art, right? Then I removed the cover and
very carefully cut a new one and glued it and trimmed it by hand.

Mad Laughter, in a sense, goes directly from my mind to the printed page.
I'm not unique in that regard. Many others on this list are doing similar
projects. But I think that most are much more deeply involved in the William
Blake's idea of the book as a work of hand craftsmanship with a history
rooted in the illuminated manuscript going all the way back to the Egyptian
papyrus. Their inspiration -- to me -- seems to come from the mediaeval idea
of the book as a great treasure. Hence the elaborate bindings, the pearls
and gold fittings and so on.

I consider the book as a modern technological object. It's cheap. It's
industrial. It has the machined precision of brushed stainless steel, or
Saran-wrap. Until recently, achieving that precision required cooperating
with the industrial system in a way that was often very damaging to the
creative process. Corporate political policies combine with the technical
requirements of the distribution system to shape the product in ways that
cause great pain. I don't want to go into the details of my own experiences,
which have been quite heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that Mad Laughter is
my attempt to escape what I perceive to be a spiritual prison.

Nonetheless, the value of my book does not lie in its physical
craftsmanship, but in the way the sophistication of its content reflects the
author's individuality. Those who have downloaded the pdf will, I'm sure,
appreciate what I am saying. I'm still refining the typography and layout,
but they aim at the look of the museum catalog or the best of the university
press. The text and photographs adhere to the highest modern commercial
standards. The effect is very deliberately the opposite of Kelmscott. The
physical instance -- the book that you hold in your hands, however -- is
humble. It's just any trade paperback. That's my point.

I can do a hardcover, and it will be beautiful, but much more rustic,
because I am not a technically accomplished bookbinder. There are a couple
of bookbinders in Cancun, so I'm sure that if I worked with one of them we
could come up with a book that would faithfully mirror a standard trade
binding, which would be closer to my concept of the book as an ordinary
industrial object (especially if glued rather than sewn). Something in me is
resisting this; yet I want this dealer to take my work. He's very
influential. It could be exactly the break I need right now.

I understand his argument fully. All other factors aside, he can probably
get, say, up to $350 each for a hardcover book in an edition of ten copies,
but would be hard-pressed to get $50 each for a trade paperback. Ideally,
he'd like me to do an edition of 200-300 copies, beautifully bound and
cased. But even an edition that large of a trade paperback would be quite a
challenge for me. I am capable of producing tiny quantities of technically
modest books. That's all I really want to do for now. Ultimately, this book
will find a mainstream publisher who will give it the larger audience I
think it deserves. Right now, all I am trying to do is finance the search
for that publisher by selling my hand-made copies.

To me, the dealer is missing the point. The collector is not buying the
frame but the painting. If you look at this from the point of view of
someone who collects first editions or bound galleys (a very important genre
these days), the value of my book lies not in its physical glory, but in how
rare it is: first printing, first edition, not merely signed by the author
but made by him. It's a lottery ticket. If the concept connects, this tiny
first edition could be very valuable indeed one day.


So what do you think? I am being hopelessly impractical? I would especially
be interested in the opinions of the curators and collectors. Should I just
go along with his idea? Or is there anything that I can say to him that
might get him to go along with mine. Remember that this is a very
conservative and busy person, who is one of the leaders in his field, and I
don't want to blow him away by being a pest. Also, maybe he's right.

Any help will be deeply appreciated.


JULES SIEGEL http://www.cafecancun.com/bookarts/times.htm
Apdo 1764 77501-Cancun Q. Roo Mexico 1[52-998]883-3629

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