Once & Future

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

May 26, 2012

Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Subscriptions and the Letterpress

I never quite understood why more Letterpresses and Private Presses don’t do more editions of popular works of literature. It seemed to me, from a new-book bookseller point of view, to be a no-brainer. Customers are forever asking me for “nice” editions of their favourite literary classics, and the texts themselves are open source. How much work can it possibly take to just choose, say, Pride and Prejudice as your next publication?

Well here’s your number: About $20,000 worth of work. Vancouver’s Bowler Press has apparently been thinking what I’m thinking, and unlike me, the ignorant outsider, they know what the hurdle was. It’s all very well for me, a frontline bookseller, to identify a potential market, but it’s quite another thing for a craft bookmaker to find and connect with those customers, most of whom are not your usual Private Press fanatics. So you print a run of a “popular” text for a more mainstream audience – then what? How do you get them into the hands of those buyers?

Kickstarter, that’s how. Indiegogo. The internet seems to have finally come around the an idea that has, in fact, existed in publishing for centuries: the subscription model. You secure your buyers first, then print the work. The model never really went away – I bought an edition of John Crowley’s Little, Big by subscription a few years ago, and Subterranean Press has been printing numbered & lettered editions of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books for years, to name a couple of examples.  But it seems to me that the ability of any given publisher’s ability to really connect with the potential subscribers hadn’t really come into it’s own before now.

A brief history.  In the early 1830s an architect named Owen Jones decided to undertake a publishing venture, a full-colour guide to the Moorish palace, the Alhambra.  At the time, printing technology was insufficiently sophisticated to really do the work justice, so Jones decided to basically invent (or perfect) a new printing technology for the job, chromolithography. Inventing a new technology and then mobilizing it to produce a book which would have, to say the least, a limited audience was going to be expensive work, so Jones appealed to subscribers to fund the project. This was a slow process.  It took Jones more than ten years to get enough money to complete the project, eventually published as the 12-volume Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra. 

A plate from Jones’s Alhambra.

Ten years. By comparison, Bowler Press is going to try to raise their $20,000 in a month and a half. If this works – and it should, if there is any justice in the universe – every Letterpress operator out there should pay close attention. In my humble opinion, this can work, regularly and consistently. I mean look at this: most of Bowler’s contributors aren’t even committing to buying the book itself, they’re buying the ephemera. More and more, regular folks are considering Kickstarter and Indiegogo legitimate shopping destinations. It is becoming more than just a rallying point for fans. I’d just love to see more projects like this out there (and not just because I have a budding Kickstarter problem). Please? It has worked before, and it should work again, better than ever.

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