Books are back – except not in the ways you think. On the eve of the Tucson Festival of Books, we meet three companies who are putting their own unique twist on the printed word. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Spork Press
The business that Paul Allen built
Ask him to tell you the best bit about his job and Jacob Deatherage can’t make up his mind. There are too many good things.
There’s the fact that he gets to hunt for vintage books for a living (for this book lover and former book scout, that’s a dream.) There’s what he does to them: taking them apart, re-using the covers, inserting a spiral spine and loose-leaf blank pages to turn them into journals. And then there’s what customers do with them. “Having people say the journals have impacted their life, that’s really meaningful and touching and nice. We all want to have a meaningful life and have some value with what we do,” says Jacob.
Then ask him to tell you the worst bit about what he does. “I’m poor and that sucks.”
It was one of the world’s richest men who helped start Jacob’s company, Ex Libris Anonymous. In 2000 Jacob was renting an apartment in a building in Seattle owned by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, when Allen decided to sell. The tenants were offered $5000 to leave within 30 days. Jacob used the money to invest in book binding equipment, which he modified for his own purposes.
Years of working as a bookseller – sourcing books at garage sales and thrift stores – meant Jacob already had the knowledge and the contacts, as well as ready-made inventory. “I had a lot of good-looking books that had no intrinsic value.” So he started selling his handmade journals for $14 each at craft fairs and moved up to wholesale orders. Today he sells in about 200 locations around the USA, including MAST in Tucson. He sells online and has a storefront in Portland, Oregon, although he describes that as more a workshop than a store.
Jacob’s quest for a journal-worthy book, through sales and book dealer contacts, can be laborious. For one thing, most books are plain or unadorned, their visual appeal lying only in the book sleeves that cover them. Jacob estimates that for every one he buys, he looks at 400 to 500 books.
What makes a good journal candidate? “A good-looking book. It has to have something compelling,” he says. That could be the font, a photo, the title or other words that appear on the cover. He then selects single pages from the original book to re-use inside the journal.
Jacob abhors Kindle and still writes lists on paper (his iPhone is used for lists too, but he says paper lists are “more therapeutic”). He recognizes he is doing his bit to save the traditional book, albeit a bit that is minute. “If I worked 24 hours a day and extended my life by six thousand years I would never be able to get through the millions of books destroyed every day by the pulp industry.”
Clever writing, literary fun
Spork Press is many things. It’s a printing press where books of fiction and poetry are handmade and bound. It’s the producer of mix tapes of music, customized portable cassette players and podcasts. It’s an online collection of authors’ work. It’s a place of not just writing but literary experiments, inventiveness, fun.
Take, for example, Simon Jacobs’ Saturn, in which David Bowie reflects on his life or, rather, lives – the characters he has created throughout his musical career. Or the time Spork put together a collection of ‘middles’, asking authors to write the middle of a novel, something entirely new that would leave readers disoriented and unsatisfied. Or Sunblind Almost Motorcrash, a book of fake album reviews by Daniel Mahoney, due for release this April along with an audio cassette of real bands playing the fake albums.
Spork Press began in 2001 when Drew Burk and Richard Siken – friends since working night shifts at Tucson’s Grill diner/restaurant – started what was to be a quarterly literary magazine. Drew was writing “really naive and horrible stuff” and frustrated by the idea that he and other writers were at the mercy of editors and agents. “Other people got to decide what would happen to my work and I felt like maybe they didn’t care enough,” says Drew.
The quarterly magazine tailed off into something less than quarterly (although it still continues) and Spork started making books using an old German letterpress machine, waxed Irish linen thread to sew the pages together, and lots of Elmer’s glue. The team has grown from two to five. Drew is a chef and Spork’s fiction editor and book binder. Richard, now a nationally recognized poet (his debut poetry book Crush won awards, his second collection, War of the Foxes, is imminent), is Spork’s poetry editor. The art director is Andrew Shuta, University of Arizona graduate student, teacher, graphic designer and D.J. Fiction editor is Joel Smith, an English lecturer and Masters student at the UA. Jake Levine, a PhD student living in South Korea, is poetry editor.
Last year Spork Press sold around 1400 books. Sales are doubling each year, so much so that they are busting out of their current offices – a guest house at the back of Drew’s home. When 3 Story visited recently, staff, volunteers and an intern were spilling out onto tables set up in front of the guest house. They were gluing spines, securing pages and fitting the 5″ by 7″ books onto clamps to hold them in place.
The five staff members are not paying themselves a salary yet, but business is good enough that they are planning to rent a bigger space, in downtown Tucson. They have their eyes on a basement that would serve as three things: a printing press, a book store and a bar.
The key to Spork’s success? “We’ve stuck around,” says Drew. “We’ve been around for 15 years. We make good quality product and there’s no marketing. It’s word of mouth, so we’re more trustworthy.” Their process is to publish on demand, which means there’s also no waste.
And there’s one last thing that drives them: a pure love of books. “I like books a lot, I enjoy making them and it’s a fun to hang out together and make the books. There are always people who are willing to learn, and we like to teach.”
So far so busy, says Drew, who just cut back on his chef hours to devote more time to Spork. The back orders are piling up and Spork has been struggling to keep up with demand.
* Find Spork Press books (and other fun stuff) online and in bookstores around the USA, including Powell’s in Portland and McNally Jackson in New York.
Pop-up books for grown-ups
Pop-up books are usually associated with kids’ stories and for many years they were tame. Thanks to the paper engineering skills of people like Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda – widely regarded as the rock stars of pop-up books (Star Wars pop-ups, Winter’s Tale) – they have become much more elaborate.
One designer in Florida is taking a different approach altogether: creating pop-up books for adults. Rosston Meyer, owner of web and design firm Rosstamicah Design, has a love for the pop-up book and not much interest in kids’ stories.
After designing a website for artist and comic book creator Jim Mahfood, Rosston sold Jim on the idea of publishing a pop-up book of Jim’s art. Rosston and his brother Marc hand made a hundred copies of Pop Up Funk and sold them for $250 each.
Rosston launched Poposition Press and a Kickstarter campaign to fund his latest project: a pop-up art book featuring Jim and five other contemporary American artists. Rosston’s fundraising target was $15,000. He raised $22,000.
“I’ve had this idea for 20 years. I knew I wanted to make a pop-up book since high school, I just didn’t know what for,” says Rosston, 35. He approached his favorite artists and all of them said yes. He is now in pre-production on The Pop-Up Art Book, which should be on sale in May with a print run of 900. The books will sell for $59.99 each and there will also be single pages of pop-up art for sale at $12 to $15 each.
Translating the artists’ work into 3-D paper sculptures is more than deconstructing artwork, however. Making part of a painting pop out of a scene inevitably means more painting. Either the original art needs a few extra elements to help it pop, or more painting has to be done to fill in the background that’s left after part of the painting turns 3D. The fill-in work was done by the artists and by Rosston.
In the world of book publishing, it’s usually Goliath that beats David. But Rosston, like Jacob and Spork Press, seems to be proving that small can be influential, and trailblazing. Rosston says he sees a slowing down in the pop-up books genre generally. He believes that has to do with their cost and complexity. “The fact that [the printers] would even consider doing mine says a lot. A run of 1000 or 2500 copies would have been unheard of ten years ago,” he says. “There are so few people making pop ups, and then so few publishers putting them out, that any action in that area does seem to help. I think all pop up books help the traditional book.”
* Find out more about The Pop-Up Art Book at popositionpress.com
* For more books – a whole weekend of them – visit the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend, March 14-15. More at tucsonfestivalofbooks.org