From the office in her hillside home in Los Angeles, Lisa Pearson, founder and publisher of Siglio Press, muses about the inevitability of her foray into book publishing in 2007 after years spent advocating for the arts.
Her commitment to literature was forged when Pearson moved to Germany for three years in the late 1980s and immersed herself in the fight for creative freedom among the dissidents in East Berlin. Before the wall came down Pearson made daily visits from the West side, frequently being stopped and questioned by the Communist guards. "I got searched so many times, and it was bizarre because basically I was just a 20-year-old American who was into Dada," Pearson said. "But as it sank in that literature was not allowed by the regime, I realized that passing it on is a gift as well as a risk." Returning to the states to get her M.F.A. at the University of Oregon, Pearson then taught creative writing at Pacific University before becoming administrator for the Portland Art Museum's film center. After spending time in the world of nonprofit arts organizations, she formed Siglio to merge literature and visual arts into a single publishing company.
"The world wants to separate artists and writers, but these media are intertwined," Pearson said. "Siglio Press is about a kind of particularity, a merging of the arts." The Nancy Book by artist Joe Brainard was Siglio's first title, released in 2008. Based on the classic Nancy cartoon strip and with essays by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Robert Creeley, and others, the book received critical acclaim in such periodicals as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the London Review of Books. The title put Siglio on the publishing map, and Pearson has been working 12-hour days without benefit of a staff ever since, pleased with the success of her company seven titles later.
"I knew nothing about publishing when I started out. It took a tremendous amount of research to learn my way around the business," she said, adding that she scoured the Web sites of comparable publishers looking for bookstores that might resonate with Siglio's vision. After creating a database, Pearson contacted each store individually to introduce the press and generate orders. "One of the biggest challenges was finding the right customers to market the press to. It's still a work in progress."
Ira Glass, host of NPR's popular This American Life, became a welcome advocate for another Siglio title, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas by Denis Wood. After hearing Glass interview Wood on an episode of his show about cartography, Pearson contacted Wood and signed him for a book. Glass wrote the introduction for Everything Sings and later blogged about it on his Web site. "Siglio's key market is people interested in what comes next—in art, literature, culture, and science," Pearson said. "But I don't have a target demographic, because people of all ages and in all places are buying my books."
The press has been distributed by D.A.P. since January, but Pearson still has limited contacts in the industry. "When I was working on It Is Almost That I wrote cold call letters to every artist in the book to get rights to the stories and images I needed." The book, released last week, is a collection of visionary image and text works by women artists and writers, most of whom gave Pearson free rein with her selections. "Whether this was because of sheer luck or persistence, I don't know," she said.
Pearson, a self-taught designer, applies exceptionally high production standards to her books. She created Siglio Editions, short runs of special limited editions that accompany most of her titles and include original works of art, in part to offset the press's high production costs. Sold to both private collectors and institutions, particularly university libraries, the prices for these works range from $175 to $595. Siglio is also unique in its gift of ephemera packets to customers who place orders directly through the site. These might include whimsical postcards, business cards with eccentric aphorisms, or French metro tickets. Pearson is thinking about how to extend her vision into digital media, explaining that whatever she does in the digital space "will play with the medium rather than treat it simply as an invisible delivery device."
Siglio is close to breaking even, and Pearson hopes to hire a marketing assistant soon. "None of it has been easy," she acknowledged, "but if you have a particular vision, have the stomach for it, have a patient husband and no kids, then it can be done. Siglio is a business, but it's also an art piece—it's a work itself."