Publishing outside of publishing

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to give books away.

I am a designer who sometimes creates book-related artwork. This means that I navigate different content packaging and book-making terrains, trying to make sense of what’s commonly called “publishing.”

For clients, I might advise them on how to bring a publication to market. This could be brand-related work (crafting the right message) or production-based activity (designing a book or magazine or website), or understanding new publishing platforms. I work on behalf of corporate and non-profit clients alike, but in the end it’s always cultural production (making stuff) mounted upon the commercial market (selling stuff). Even as it radically transforms itself, the publishing industry continues to match audience with message via commercial exchange (or some kind of potential for economic gain). Hence, “industry”—the production of goods.

Even when content delivery appears to be non-monetized (e.g., newsletters, blogs), the drive to justify in terms of profitability is strong. We’ve learned to define everything in terms of commodification—even attention, knowledge and personal data (eyeballs, clicks, engagement). As their audiences grow, we expect our favorite blog authors to introduce advertising or sponsorship into the delivery of their content. Writers and artists ask us to fund the creation of their work—in advance. We willingly self-publish on social media platforms that leverage our content for profit. While it can be argued that these are inevitable models of exchange in late-capitalist society, monetizing the creation and delivery of work fundamentally changes the author-audience dynamic, no matter how relevant or elegant the ask.

Our need to commodify content is a consumerist urge, a natural extension of the work of art in the mechanical age of reproduction. As the idea of browsing disappears, along with physical bookstores and all kinds of libraries, the book—as physical object or virtual data—is becoming primarily a purchased experience, a mass-produced (mass-downloadable) work without unique attributes; the purchased book is without aura.

Artist’s books are no exception. Printed Matter, one of the artist book community’s greatest institutions, operates as a retail store. Print-on-demand operations like Blurb or Lulu bring tremendous ease to book production, especially for the artist, but siphon all of our creative output through digital storefronts. Profit potential pervades, but $11,000 books aside, getting rich in self-publishing is extremely rare.

And yet this remains the default position. Screen, paper or otherwise — we sell the stuff we make. Why?

In the last few years I’ve self-published print books that I’ve displayed, exhibited and given away. They’ve never been for sale. That the work exists outside of any commercial art or publishing market isn’t easily reconciled; questions about the work’s economic value (can I buy it? how much is it?) are common. My response that the work isn’t for sale—that is, that my motivation for creating it was completely non-financial—is confusing to some, and even manages, in some contexts, to diminish the work.

It’s more challenging to define value when the work is entirely removed from its economic worth.

What if—in the transfer of book to recipient—we were free to examine other kinds of value exchange? Might it be possible to develop a viable art practice that produces book works outside of financial motivation? Are there alternative positions?

Is it possible to publish outside of publishing?

Recently, I’ve started to think about how my work might function more purely within other kinds of economic systems—mainly, the gift economy.

Last fall I exhibited a limited edition of ten printed books at a gallery at the University of North Carolina. Within a few hours of installing the piece, one of the books had disappeared. I’m not sure if it was willfully stolen or if someone misunderstood the nature of the artwork. Perhaps they thought the books were meant to be taken. My initial reaction was disappointment, of course, but I quickly recovered and began thinking about the missing book’s new life. By introducing indeterminacy into the work, the book’s disappearance subverted whatever market value it had gained while in my possession. The book “escaped.” It was out of my control; if I could release the book, instead of mourning and wishing for its return, the narrative would become richer (i.e., i could imagine that it was taken as an emotional response to the show, or that the new owner wanted to sell it, or simply make trouble, etc.). Its value was opened up, and the new owner became a kind of collaborator in my work of art, helping to extend its meaning outside of my own creative intent.

This was in itself a kind of transaction. The new owner “got” the book from me, and I got a new story, even if imagined. If it had been a cash exchange, the book would have retained its market value, and in my accepting the money, its meaning, for me, would have collapsed into the cash. Instead, the book passed into circulation and I was left with a new, changed artwork—unwillingly so, perhaps—but a new narrative: uncertain, imagined or otherwise.

This was such a revelation for me. So much so that I decided to embrace the taking (or giving) of books for my next project.

In Weymouths, a twelve-volume work commissioned by the b-side Arts Festival and funded by Arts Council England, I created a limited edition of 420 books. None will be sold. Except for a few sets that I will keep for my own records, all of them will be given away in a series of public book encounters designed to encourage a gift-giving transaction, not unlike the kind I discovered in North Carolina. By remaining in circulation, I’m hoping that the book-gifts can take on other, more ephemeral values (emotional, nostalgic, spiritual, souvenir). I won’t know exactly what these values are until the work is “performed.”

I can’t totally deny the work’s entry into a for-profit commercial market (in theory, someone could choose to sell a book that they receive from me), but I can resist this by initially setting the book into motion as a gift.

In Weymouths, the “publishing” of the books is the very act of my giving them away. I would argue that the books themselves are not the finished product; rather, these public book encounters—the event itself—is the work.

My hope, however futile, is to create value by using the books to engage in real-time encounters. At best, I’ll build up a community around the work, and look for a kind of aura released in the artist-audience engagement—something everlasting and unreproducible (Aura—the divine personification of the breeze in Greek and Roman mythology; refreshing, exterior, ephemeral, uncontrolled). At worst, the books will be gone, emptied of meaning, released from my responsibility.

What kind of practice is this? Is it even publishing? If we think of book-giving in terms of these performative gestures, might it be possible to re-imagine publishing more as performance art? I think of Félix Gonzáles-Torres’ endless supplies of posters (ink on paper, printed, “published”), waiting on gallery floors, rolled up by visitors and dispersed.

I yearn for ways to subvert traditional publishing by disrupting all of its assumptions, including its default economic models. I would like to see an art-making practice that encourages the intimacy of in-person, one-on-one exchange, removed from commercial obligation, with all debt carried over in emotional or spiritual terms. I believe in the creation of community wealth via the circulation of the gift.

Someone will say: but who will pay for these books? That there are costs associated with content creation and distribution is undeniable. Sometimes these costs are substantial. Can we look for ways to transfer the financial burden away from the audience? In doing so, can we free up the artist to engage with his audience without framing the work in profit-making terms?

3 Comments

  1. thank you for this Paul

  2. So interesting, especially to read what u wrote on my iPhone. And to be using some app to reply that I do not know or even trust. You are the perfect example of a person w feet in two worlds, balanced by never staying still.

  3. Wonderful piece of writing. If you have not read this already, I recommend Lawrence Weschler’s Boggs: A Comedy of Values. J.S.G. Boggs has worked for decades asking similar questions you pose. As artists, designers and publishers we often struggle with an appropriate approach that honors the content without shackling creation to commerce. Who ultimately determines the value?

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