Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 17, 2010

Book Camp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. I: Book as Object

Two of the six sessions I attended at BookCamp T.O. this weekend have given me real meat for thought – a pretty good ratio, I think.  The other four, to give you a quick summary, went down like this:

The EBook in Academia was somewhat hijacked by someone who seemed to have no idea why we were there; meanwhile the “good” discussion mostly concerned open-source movements which, while academically exciting, wasn’t very useful to the thirty publishers in the room.

The Literary Grassroots session was alright, but the absence of Taddle Creek’s representative left a big gap in the discussion.  Lots of handwringing, no real information on how a literary publication might stay viable in this environment.

CBC’s Canada Reads panel featuring JK, Kerry Clare and Steven Beattie was excellent, but there’s not much more to say about it.  Good format, lots of community involvement, we look forward to continuing that involvement!

I also sat in on a discussion on bibliographical metadata, a subject about which I knew nothing.  Well, now I know something!  Not very useful to me as I am not in publishing, but nevertheless gave me something to think about about the costs/challenges small publishers face if they want to be part of this big globalized industry.

The 11:30 talk on “Book as Object”, on the other hand, was fascinating.  What was fascinating was that the room was packed with people. They lined the walls and sat on the floor.  Maybe word got around really quickly that Anstey president Neil Stewart had brought along a free handout, a beautifully bound blank notebook that reads “NICE BOOK CAMP BOOK” on the front cover (this may or may not beat the wine Michael Tamblyn fed his Kobo session).   But more likely I think we were experiencing a bout of nostalgia.  Few of us went into English Lit or Publishing or whatever with the intention of bringing about the obsolescence of the codex, but years of reality checks later that’s what we’re doing for a living.  I think people wanted to hear there’s a future for the object, even if most of us won’t really be working with them.

Certainly, the book-objects Neil Stewart and his partner Aurélie Collings were not the sorts of things most of us could ever create.  Stewart works on commission, producing limited edition fine letterpressed editions which are absolutely works of art.  His bindery employs 18 people, among them printers, sewers, binders and designers.  This is high-end craftwork in addition to publishing.  Stewart told us of a limited run he did of Margaret Atwood’s The Door featuring a relief print “keepsake” done by Atwood “in her kitchen with a spoon”.  Two were auctioned off for charity and fetched, according to Stewart, $1600 (Abebooks.com reports they went for $2000 and $1800).

Aliquando Press's The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy - $65 CDN.

But buying private press books needn’t be that expensive.  Compared to buying art, Collings rightly points out, these books are downright cheap.  Actually, they’re affordable even when compared to frontlist trade books.  Many private presses have books in the $65-$90 range, including Barbarian Press’s Rumour of a Shark by John Carroll ($75), Aliquando Press’s The Quest for the Golden Ingots by Maureen Steuart ($65), or Frog Hollow Press’s The Book of Widows – Contemporary Canadian Poets: Volume 6. New poems by M.Travis Lane (Deluxe Edition) ($60).  This is not appreciably higher than frontlist hardcovers have come to cost – consider that John English’s Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau is $39.95, while I bought the Modern Library’s Adventures of Amir Hamza for $57.00, or the new Library of America Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor at $50.

In fact, the print runs of both a private press book and a non-blockbuster trade book might not be that different.  These days a new Canadian author can consider themselves lucky if they sell as many as 1000 or 1500 copies of their book.  In reality, most Canadian fiction trade books sell 200-500 copies – well within the range of a limited edition run.  This isn’t to say there’s no difference between publishing with a private or craft press and a commercial one – the differences between publishing with a small or large press were discussed at length at That Shakespearean Rag a couple months ago – but buyers who love the book and authors who love to be published in book form need not necessarily panic.  The private press model is almost as accessible, available and affordable as the conventional one.

Of course this doesn’t mean all publishing can be replaced by small or private press work, but it does seem to support Stewart & Collings’ thesis that there is potential for a healthy fine publishing industry in the wake of the digital revolution.  We all still love books.  There are people out there who publish beautiful books (often 100% Canadian content I might add, right down to the paper and cloth).  We don’t necessarily have to pay much more for these books, nor are they any more scarce than most new literature.  All we need is to discover some of the book availability that exists out there beyond Amazon.

Most private presses are just that – private – and you need to make a little effort to seek out their work, but it’s not rocket science.  Most have webpages, however basic.  Trade organizations like the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) keep lists of membership.  And best of all, they go out to trade shows like next month’s Toronto Small Press Book Fair (June 19th 2010) where you can gawk and browse and even (*gasp*) buy to your heart’s content.

Neil Stewart repeated his assertion  that he didn’t want to be “all things to all people”, and I think that’s fantastic.  One of the best things about new reading technology is the diversification of work available: nowadays, there’s something out there for everyone, no matter what your taste.  Private presses fit very well into this new personalized world.  Next time you need to buy a gift, consider a book object that really is irreplaceable.  Your gift-ee will probably just download the latest Ian McEwan or Peter Carey onto their iPhone anyway.  Try something different.

3 thoughts on “Book Camp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. I: Book as Object”

  1. Thank you for this wrap up as I had not gone to see any of the sessions you had mentioned. Great to read what they were about! And I am sorry I missed the “Book as Object” discussion I was busy trying to get acquainted with Publishing on Demand.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Charlotte. Given that the theme of BookCamp 2010 Toronto was digital and e-pub, we had no idea what to expect. But, as you say, the room was packed! We had fun, and especially enjoyed the thoughtful discussion which followed our presentation. It was a wonderful experience all around, and we send our thanks to Hugh McGuire et al for inviting us.

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