In a borrowed storefront in Portland, Ore., Matthew Stadler, author and Clear Cut Press cofounder, and a young writer named Patricia No used an inexpensive, perfect-binding machine to launch Publication Studio in 2009. Their idea: to make books they loved and to host community events that cultivated the social life of those books. Two years later, "sibling" Publication Studios have sprung up in Berkeley, Calif.; Vancouver, B.C.; Minneapolis, Toronto, and, earlier this month, Los Angeles—run by what Stadler calls like-minded "fellow travelers" on the independent publishing trail. "I think of it as the opposite of franchising," said Stadler.
Though operated separately, these sibling-publishing businesses can function either as a joint entity or on their own. Using the same type of binding equipment, the different Publication Studios produce books to support public events in their local communities. Unlike a traditional franchise driven by conformity to a single image, Publication Studio encourages its siblings to retain their community-specific personalities.
To date there have been 200 events held by the Publication Studios, which have published about 90 titles that have sold more than 10,000 copies. The books have ranged from $9 no-frills poetry collections to limited edition art books priced in the hundreds of dollars; most books are priced between $18 and $25. Book profits are split 50/50 with authors.
Each sibling agrees to call itself Publication Studio (but is free to name its own imprints), sign nonexclusive deals with authors, and upload files for sibling studios to use at will. All books can be read for free on Publication Studio's Web site in an annotatable "free reading commons."
Anna Odessa Linzer, winner of the American Book Award for Ghost Dancing (Picador, 1998), published her new novel, The Strong Man, with Publication Studio Portland. She likened the current innovative energy among independent publishers—Publication Studios, Red Lemonade, OR Books, and others—to the 1970s "blossoming" that gave rise to Copper Canyon, Graywolf, and other presses, now staples of the literary landscape. "It's a helluva time," said Linzer. "Yet to have somebody like Matthew, instead of wringing his hands, to breathe new life into something is wonderful."
Publication Studio's business model has not always made it easy to sell books through bookstores, but over the course of the past few months, Publication Studio has been working on that as well. The Strong Man was one of the books Stadler offered Third Place Books in Seattle to test whether indie booksellers and Publication Studios could forge a better working relationship. The house's no-frills, generic covers on its fiction titles would not work at Third Place, according to the store's managing partner Robert Sindelar. But as the owner of an Espresso Book Machine, Third Place created its own edition of Linzer's novel, with a designed cover, at the same $19 price point. "We put it on the front fiction table and it sold a bunch," said Sindelar.
Now, as PS Portland is about to launch Stadler's new novel, Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha, Third Place is once again planning on issuing an Espresso edition. And Sindelar is personally reaching out to booksellers to help make the novel a hot summer read. For his part, Stadler is planning a 12-city tour for Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha this summer, and Stadler is hoping that coordinating with Publication Studio's satellites and working closer with indie booksellers will show that the idea for a nonfranchise franchise publisher can work. The plan is to have about 12 Publication Studios.
"More and more, I'm looking at my store to be able to carry a book that is not seen at Target or Costco," said Sindelar. As an independent retailer rooted in the community, Sindelar said he likes Publication Studio's event-centered approach to building the social life of every book.
"That's what we think publication is," said Stadler. "The creation of a public."