Column: Books

by Katie Jean Shinkle

My, My, My, These Fabrications Are Wonderfully Bound
It is safe to say that innovation in books happens in the small press industry the most frequently, where people can and are willing to take risks for their art. Presses can choose, as Les Figues Press says, to “slit their own throats” if they want to, in the name of publishing work that is daring and cutting edge. If we are talking about safety, the small press industry is an industry that is willing to be unsafe. If we are talking about artistic innovation in books, book design, in publishing; if we are talking about books, design, innovation, experimentation—well, there are many presses we could talk about.

Here are four small presses doing extraordinary things:

Les Figues Press is a press based out of Los Angeles who champions work using the trinity of “bawdry, beauty, and belief,” with the goal of creating an aesthetic dialogue with artists, writers, and readers. Each book, therefore, reflects this overall dialogue, both in content and composition, but also design and architecture. Vanessa Place’s A Sentence, for example, is a book composed of one single sentence for 145 pages encapsulated in a thin 9.25 x 4.25-inch volume. By creating a book that is longer in length and thinner in width than a standard industry size text, an entirely new reading experience is possible, allowing the text and the artifact of the book to merge in a way that can be altogether ignored in the arena of the larger presses.

Birds, LLC is an independent poetry press based out of Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and Raleigh, specializing in close collaboration with editors and writers. Every book is carefully designed with stunning covers and comes with limited edition letterpress broadsides with samples of work from the authors they support. Emily Petit’s Goat in the Snow, for instance, is a 6 x 9-inch standard industry size book with a gorgeous, sleek, and simple matte cover designed by Birds, LLC’s in-house designer Joshua Elliot.

Spork Press, out of Tucson, Ariz., crafts books that make you feel like you are holding French new wave cinema and punk rock in your hands at the same time. They are little books that woo you dramatically into fucking them and then never call you again, but still, month later, you still hope for a chance of that phone call coming through. Every book is made of “2-or-more color letterhead raw board cover kraft hinge/spine” and every cover looks like it could be a kind of daguerreotype, albeit a daguerreotype from a colorful, rococo future. Check out Joyelle McSweeney’s The Necropastoral. Basically, these little books are incredible, sexy instances of bad-assery.

New Michigan Press creates chapbooks that look like miniature full-length collections. In fact, the only differentiations between the books New Michigan Press creates and full-length collections are the page count and the size. The company specializes in innovative and experimental literature of established and emerging voices writing in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and hybrid workspaces. Perfectly bound, the 5x7-inch chapbooks are made with both matte and glossy and art and photographic covers. The designs, by Ander Monson, are meticulously crafted and suited to each book. Weston Cutter’s All Black Everything is a collection of poems housed in a colorful yet straightforward matte cover, very much subverting the title’s claim to “everything” being “all black.” But it’s this sort of dynamic—between design and author, text and book—that makes New Michigan Press so compelling.

As more “literature” goes digital—or is housed and experienced solely in digital formats—as more of our experience of what constitutes literature is relegated to the windows and tablets of computing machines (this is where literature will live), the actual, honest stuff of “work” and “craft” and “distance” becomes diluted—or rather, becomes an entirely different experience altogether. It’s one thing to read a piece of prose on a page, and it’s quite another to read it on a screen. The actual lived difference between the two experiences is still being charted and theorized about, but one thing is certain: Digital consumption of literature closes the gap between object and consumption, and slides “literature” more toward the category of “information.” Certain trends in conceptual poetry and art seem to be ironically glamorizing this sea change, while small presses like the above mentioned are able to operate in a newly opened, craft-niche market for book lovers. This isn’t to say these presses don’t have unique and interesting “digital presences”—they do; it’s just to say that they understand that there are various modes of “literary experience” and one shouldn’t be lost in favor of some newer, cheaper more prevalent mode.

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