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Print Lives! The Rise Of DIY Publishing And The Revival Of The Printed Word

Nestled beneath an off-white awning on Prince Street, McNally Jackson Books is a staple in its SoHo neighborhood. Inside, the scene bustles with readers, café-scrawlers, and the metal on metal inner workings of an Espresso Book Machine (EBM). Every five minutes or so, a new paperback, freshly pressed and still cooling, slides into its tray. Stacking up at a mere 6’x4’x3’, McNally Jackson’s humble EBM, alongside about 51 others worldwide, is quickly paving the way for independent and self-published authors, artists, and businesses across the globe.

“Some people print five copies of their wife’s draft in book form as an anniversary gift. Others are starting their own small presses and want a place to print and do distribution on a small scale, a place that will fill the web orders for them, [they] are looking at it very professionally. Then, of course, you have the hobbyists who have spent the last thirty years writing manuscripts and just want copies for themselves and family and friends… the machine really runs the gamut,” says Erin Curler, one of two Book Machine operators at McNally Jackson.

The machine itself is something of a Rube Goldberg-style combination of wireless server, scanner, printer, hot glue gun, and a robot. And it’s just a single facet in a much larger mechanism of DIY printmaking that’s rapidly sweeping the globe.

McNally Jackson Books currently averages one new self-published author a day.

True, in an evolutionarily airtight world, print would all but have gone the way of the dodo, and true, practically every publication has at one point or another in the past five years bemoaned the potently quotable impending “death of print.” But in the reality that exists outside of Time magazine and others of its ilk, a growing number of independent and DIY-publishing options, including on demand book printing websites and EBMs, alongside small press startups and a full-scale ‘zine revival are slowly reshaping the world of the written word. These days, it’s never been easier to get published, digitally or on paper, and, provided that your content’s halfway decent, the sprawling reach of the ‘net means it’s never been easier to get your stuff out there.

A prospective publisher fills out the interest form

Despite a sluggish global economic upturn, the past few years have shown an upturn in book sales, along both the e-book and printed fronts. What seems to be a common theme, however, is the increase in user-driven content, over a publisher’s selection. This becomes evident in Fast Company’s recent model, showing the divide between magazines that have gone digital, and online publications that have moved over into print—basically, the stuff people don’t want to read is being forced online, while online content with robust readership seems to find the same success IRL. And while that seems like a no-brainer, putting you in charge of not only what you read but what actually gets published, this new process is wholly reshaping a centuries-old industry.

A few pre-designed book templates for the artistically-challenged author

Started in 2002 by Red Hat co-Founder, Bob Young, Lulu.com is one of many print-on-demand websites in a growing field of online self-publishers. Boasting over 1.1 million titles, Lulu is one of the quickest growing companies in the field, providing full-service book printing, alongside a number of publishing options, from self-publishing to “Published by Lulu.”

Utilizing a fully automated order and formatting system, Lulu.com publishes everything from eBooks to calendars and photo books, all at the click of a mouse—it comes as no surprise that their services report 20,000 new (and finished) titles a month. Clive Thompson, in an aptly titled article on the future of printed books for WIRED writes, “In traditional print publishing, the number of new titles increased by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, rising to 316,000. In contrast, print-on-demand and self-publishing boomed by 169 percent—hitting a stunning 2.8 million unique titles.”

An Espresso-printed culinary guide, literally hot off the press

Larry J Reid, curator of major indie comic and graphic novel publisher, Fantagraphics, has similar things to say about his end of the printmaking game. A veteran in the field of indie printing, Reid claims he’s seen a sharp upturn in print in a market all but entirely separate from the eBook. While many comic publishers remember wistfully the glory days of 32-page “floppies,” sustainability and cost cutting have forced the market to remodel in favor of the fuller, sleeker designed multi-issue format of the graphic novel. “The ‘Great Recession’ forced us to get better with design if anything […] what you’re getting is a better looking book, more sustainable, and cheaper on the shelf. If anything, it’s a better product.,” says Reid. “At the same time, the self-bound ‘zine is definitely on the rebound.”


Larry J Reid, Man in Charge

Fantagraphics, who lay claim to indie mega-titles including Black Hole and Ghost World, has long been a fixture at the forefront of the comics and graphic novels scene. While they currently only stock one book printed off an on demand machine, when EBMs are able to produce higher-quality and hardcovers, they may consider putting their back catalog online and available for print, a move echoed among a number of major and indie publishers.

One thing they’re happy about, though, is that print is definitely sticking around, especially with the rise of what Reid terms, “Gadget fatigue.” “Less people are walking into the store on handhelds the entire time. More people seem to be picking up books. It’s a good thing.”

While it remains, ultimately, an ecosystem heavily dependent on global and surrounding economic conditions, it’s the principal that counts: more written material inherently provides more tangible, lasting record of who and where we are today, especially when compared to digital documentation. So grab your handy dandy Moleskines (and consider holding onto your floppy comics, instead of floppy disks) as we dive into a new world of on-demand books, hyper-handmade zines, sustainable printing, and the neo-textual revolution.

@emersonyeah

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