Mainstream publishers are hastening to join the digital revolution, with many formatting their digital book content to make it conform to Kindle specifications. Some houses are even making digital book content accessible via Web-enabled cellphones.
Bucking this trend toward digitalizing book content, two independent small presses—Featherproof Books, a Chicago press founded in 2005 by a pair of Time Out Chicago staffers, and Two Dollar Radio, a Granville, Ohio-based press founded by a husband-wife team, also in 2005—insist on pursuing a more tangible aesthetic in book production. Both presses publish primarily fiction and both are adamant that the physical book itself is not just a work of art, but a highly evolved object keyed to a reader's experience—a philosophy that runs counter to the central premise behind digital access.
Featherproof's mission, according to its Web site, is to publish full-length fiction “wrapped in the loveliest of designs,” but it also publishes mini-books—short stories and novellas—that the reader may download for free. Contrary? Not at all. Readers are encouraged to print out and fold up the selections into book form, thus “inviting all 10 fingers to take part in the book-making process.”
“We're interested in the book-making arts,” copublisher Zach Dodson says. “We want to put out books that are idiosyncratic.”
Featherproof's latest release, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring (Sept.) by Zach Plague (Dodson's pseudonym) certainly can be called idiosyncratic. Described by the publisher as a “hybrid typo/graphic novel,” boring is a 273-page (plus endpapers) mélange of different typefaces, photographs and artwork. Featherproof's first print run included 2,500 bound books and another 1,000 posters of the entire novel printed out on a huge sheet of pressed paper.
“You can only see bits and pieces on the pages of the actual book of a larger image you can see on the posters,” Dodson explained. “We make the design harmonize with the text of the book, and the design elements speak to whatever that book is about.”
Featherproof has always been committed to this approach. The press's debut release, Enchanters vs. Sprawlsburg Springs (2006) by Brian Costello, a novel about “a crazy band,” contained a fake band sticker and handwritten graffiti on each cover, actually added by hand to the 1,000 copies Featherproof produced.
“We even regard the cover as part of the art of the book,” Dodson said. “Some publishers are becoming divorced from that.”
For Featherproof's fall 2009 lead title, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, interlinked short stories set in a “post-apocalyptic dreamscape,” Dodson plans on designing both cover and interior “to look like an artifact from the future.”
Two Dollar Radio's Crust by Lawrence Shainberg (Oct.) is a 219-page novel containing 23 images—photographs, illustrations, graphs, and charts—sprinkled throughout, as well as 308 footnotes. Co-publisher Eric Obenauf recalls that when Crust was first submitted to Two Dollar for publication, it was simply text, but that the author and a graphic designer subsequently decided to add images and footnotes.
“In our own naïveté, we encouraged them to run with it,” Obenauf said. “Now I can't imagine the book without the images. They make the book.”
Comparing Crust to Linda Barry's novel, Cruddy (2000), Obenauf argues that, properly done, images “lend texture” to a book and “enhance” it.
“Everything adds to the general texture,” Obenauf declared, “from its cover to chapter headings, to page numbers. Does any of that make a difference to someone on Kindle?”
Obenauf thinks that book content on computer screens is “silly,” predicting that publishers capitalizing on the trend to digitalize will end up with shorter books containing necessarily more mainstream and digestible content (shorter words, simpler plots) in order to accommodate digtital-device attention spans. “No one's going to want to read a 700-page novel on a screen. Pretty soon, you'll have comic strips without the comics,” Obenauf insisted, pointing out that S&S is launching its Global Reader platform for cellphones with Ernest Hemingway's famously succinct novels.
“Books are a tangible object,” Obenauf argued; reducing books to images on a screen “loses the effect it has on a reader.”
Weighing in on the subject, Jim Licht-enberg, president of Lightspeed, LLC, and an expert on the impact of new information technologies on publishing, confirmed the market “seems to be moving away” from the notion of artwork as a necessary component of the book. “But it doesn't need to be either/or,” Lichtenberg noted. “Maybe the future of publishing will be very niche, and one of these niches will be the beautiful book.”