Broaden your horizons

Self-publishing brings the freedom to expand a standalone product using complementary Web content to add to the story. Tom Banks reports

A spate of design book authors are self-publishing, citing creative freedom as their motivation, and some are looking beyond the page to explore how digital platforms can broaden a book’s appeal.

‘The book won’t disappear, but it doesn’t need to stand alone,’ says Adrian Shaughnessy, co-founder of Unit Editions – the publishing company he set up recently with Tony Brook of Spin, ‘by designers for designers’.

Unit Editions launched its first book, Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio, at the end of August. It controlled the entire process, aside from distribution, handled by Thames and Hudson, and the fledgling publisher is now looking to offer online content relating to the book.

Studio Culture explores the working practices of 28 design groups, featuring interviews with key personnel, including Fuel co-founder Stephen Sorrell and Pentagram New York partner Paula Scher.

‘Online we’ll duplicate full-length interviews from the book as video, but there will also be entirely new content and interviews – as studios and practices change,’ says Shaughnessy.

Now working on a ‘major release’ for next year, Unit Editions is also planning a separate series of cheaper books that it will take full responsibility for distributing. It will sell the books through its website and at selected locations, including, Shaughnessy suggests, the ICA bookshop and Magma Books.

One of the publisher’s main sales routes will be its website. Shaughnessy claims to have sold 600 copies of Studio Culture through the site alone in the first month. ‘This also allows us to check sales distribution. We’ve even had sales from Romania – it’s astonishing. We couldn’t cope without an Internet presence.’
Like Shaughnessy, Max Fraser had written several books before deciding to publish his own. London Design Guide: 2010 Edition was written, edited and published by Fraser under his company, Spotlight Press.

‘I have a good relationship with my previous publishers – it’s not a reaction against them, but more a desire to escape the system,’ says Fraser.

It can take as much as nine months for a book to be ready for sale following completion, according to Fraser. ‘I couldn’t understand why,’ he says. ‘When the content is topical, as with London Design Guide, that just doesn’t work.’

The book, which launched at the London Design Festival last month, is being sold online through the London Design Guide website and distributed by Central Books.

Fraser is considering giving extra content away online. ‘I’d be dubious about duplicating the book’s content, as then no one will buy a hard copy – but book content can be time-sensitive, transient and subject to change.’

He sees the book itself as ‘a conduit to the readership’ and the Internet as ‘an immediate resource to give readers extra information not available in the book.’
In some cases, a digital presence precedes the publication of a book.

A language experiment showcased at the London Design Festival in September saw a book produced out of a blog. Writing collective 26 and the charity Pen had already explored interpretation and storytelling across languages through the blog, which saw British writers interpret texts in marginal languages that they were unfamiliar with.

Pentagram and All of Us were then commissioned, pro-bono, to create a ‘visual articulation’ in a ‘typographic space’, recording and showing texts in English and other languages on-screen.

A book containing all the translations, created by graphic designer David Carroll, was subsequently created as a ‘permanent record’ to be sold at and after the exhibition, 26 writer John Simmons says. With just one month to create the book, self-publishing was ‘the only way’.

Browns Editions, an off-shoot of consultancy Browns Design, has been publishing niche art and design books since 1998. Its focus has always been entirely on the book as a physical artefact.

Motivated by ‘our love affair with books and the object’, Jonathan Ellery, founder of Browns Design, avows that ‘we’re not trying to compete with the major publishers’.

Many Browns Editions books are written and edited by Ellery himself. ‘In the case of some of my more conceptual pieces, the book is the art,’ he says. He describes the volumes as ‘ambiguous and strange’ and suggests that it would be impossible for a traditional publisher to produce such books.

Self-belief and the prospect of creative freedom was enough to lead Ziggy Hanaor, an ex-publisher at Black Dog, to set up Cicada Books, a publishing outlet for Graphic Europe: An Alternative Guide To 31 European Cities. Conceived by Joana Niemeyer, it was also designed by the studio she founded, April.

Content has been provided by graphics groups from each of the 31 cities in the book, which is published this week. Each contributor provided text, illustrations, graphics and photographs of their favourite hotels, bars, cultural venues, shops and galleries (DW 14 August).

Hanaor says, ‘You lose creative freedom and profits through publishers, which are run according to formulas. There’s an expectation that you need to sell 5000 – and that shouldn’t be the case with art and design books.’

Do it yourself:

  • Unit Editions is planning to release a set of cheaply priced publications and a ‘major release’ next year, according to Adrian Shaughnessy
  • Spotlight Press may follow up the London Design Guide with guides for other cities, according to Max Fraser
  • Cicada Books will follow up Graphic Europe with ‘illustration, art and design’ publications, says Ziggy Hanaor

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