A Very Long—and Very Interesting—Interview with Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio

Posted by @ 5:35 pm on March 18th, 2010

Matthew Stadler reading from his new Publication Studio published novel at Smallpressapalooza at Powell's Books.

Spotlit recently on Dennis Cooper’s blog, Portland’s Publication Studio—brainchild of novelist Matthew Stadler and his business partner Patricia No. Using print on demand equipment, PS puts out books by a number of innovative writers—including two of my favorite Seattle authors, Stacey Levine and Matt Briggs—rescues the out of print or in publication limbo, and generally advocates for a more nimble, more author-centric publishing world. I asked Matthew some questions. Matthew answered.

I wanted to know more about the machine you are using to bind the books. Could you tell me about it? Where you found it? Who had it before you? What it was used for?

Yes, we use two machines. The one that got us started, that we call Ol’ Gluey, is the heart of an old Instabook III system that was developed by a man named Victor Celario, a Mexican who started the business in Morelia and Mexico City and expanded it when he moved to Florida. Victor calls Instabook “the Mr. Coffee of portable print-on-demand.” Victor designed and patented his integrated POD system in the late 1990s, aiming for a market of self-publishing authors, the people who now use Lulu or Apple’s iBook or Blurb. The Instabook rig that we have started out at a bookshop in NewJersey in the late 1990s, performing that service (as far as I know) and then migrated to Brooklyn’s Longdash Printing, which became a printing arm of a local cafe called VoxPop. Gabriel Stuart used it there to publish more would-be self-publishers and he might have tried publishing an imprint, I’m not sure. Gabe wanted to change the focus at VoxPop and had been trying to get rid of the Instabook for a year or two when I saw his blogpost offering it at a cheap price. I flew to NYC with my ten-year old, rented a van, and drove it back to Portland last summer. We got a Kyocera FS9130DN duplex B/W printer, Ol Gluey, and an Ideal guillotine trimmer from Gabe (all parts of the Instabook III system) and started to make books in September 2009. Since then we have added a Chinese knock-off of a perfect binder, a rig you can get online for $700 – $900. We do about half the books on that and half on Ol’ Gluey.

I was watching that Vimeo video, and noticed that it’s kind of beautiful to watch the machines work. It’s a little slower than I had imagined. Machines are deliberate because they are machines, but when one moves a little more slowly, it gives them this—sorry for the pathetic fallacy—care and concern that seems sort of, well, admirable. How have they worked out? I’ve seen the books and they seem really durable. The file folder covers, too, feel a lot more durable than, say, the perfect bound covers I’ve handled recently. How did you decide on those?

Publication Studio Makes A Book from Mike Merrill on Vimeo.

Yeah, the machines are super cool to watch and spend the day with. Add the menacing guillotine trimmer to the mix and you get a thrilling day on the factory floor. But I think it’s important to remember that they are machines and we do machine work, mechanical work. We’re not artisans or book arts types. That said, it is hands-on, one at a time, and all machines have quirks and habits. Some days Ol’ Gluey just makes a mess, but usually we can figure it our and adjust what we do. Our goal is steady, accurate production of a simple, durable form.

We can reliably produce 50 or 60 books in a day, but we need to start slow and figure out where the machines are at. Do you cook? It’s like baking, I guess. You test it out a little, see how the oven is baking that day. Every day is different. That’s part of why we stamp date of production on the spine of every book. We guarantee all our book’s spines for a lifetime, and so far we’ve only had to repair three or four.

We used file folders because we were broke. You can get them free, but then we liked the look. It fits our pragmatic, formal aspirations. If they feel more durable it’s only because they’re sort of pre-worn, pre-compromised, so there’s never the drama of the perfect glossy cover becoming damaged or dirty. Our covers are not more durable so much as they just wear well.

Add to the file folder the individual hand stamps, the dates on the spine, and the lack of any of the other familiar trappings of the book cover, and you end up with something that appears both illicit (a dirty book in a plain wrapper) and bureaucratic (stamped officially). Is the look of the books entirely pragmatic?

Yeah, you’re totally right that we go for a particular style, which I think you describe perfectly as “something that appears both illicit (a dirty book in a plain wrapper) and bureaucratic (stamped officially).” Don’t forget the white butcher’s string. The wrapping is very important, all of which Patricia No decided on. But I just meant that the style we go for is a nice clean pragmatic formalism. It is no less an aesthetic choice, but it is formal and pragmatic, kind of like modernism. A machine for reading.

Stacey Levine's PS book, The Girl with Brown Fur. (Cameo appearance by her Clear Cut Press novel Frances Johnson.)

So, can you tell me a little about the books you’ve picked to publish so far? I notice that a couple of them are titles that were first published by Clear Cut Press.

Yes, much like Clear Cut the idea here is to work with whomever we most admire. Many who I admire are busy, so the conversations I’ve started might not turn into work or a book for some time. I tend to be author-centric, much more than text- or book-centric. So, I’ll pretty much publish anything Lisa Robertson writes, or, as you note, re-publish it. Soft Architecture has been sold out/out-of-print for a couple of years, ever since the batch Clear Cut sold to Coach House ran out. Ditto Shoot the Buffalo. Any out-of-print text we love we’ll publish, so long as the author wants us to.

On thing to note is that we only ask for non-exclusive rights. We’re happy for the authors to publish the same book with others publishers simultaneously. We encourage it.

We publish the writers that either I or Patricia admire. So far there are no disagreements. When new work comes our way, if we really like it we publish it. The only surprise, to us, has been how many art books we’re making. We’re both writers, first and foremost, but just before we opened up for business, a Dutch culture org called Mediamatic asked us to curate a “Portland pavilion” for the Amsterdam Biennale. We invited 24 artists and writers in Portland to make books with us. That totally skewed our production toward art books, and this has continued to be a mainstay of our business. Current “best sellers” for us include Shawn Records’s photography book, Owner of This World, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s collaboration with the poet Tom Fisher, Convivium, and a catalog for a show by Meiro Koizumi at Open Satellite, in Bellevue, WA. (All details are online, in the “store.”)

One thing I should add is that the POD machines and economy really shifts the focus of publication. We are not focused on this or that specific manuscript or book and the tremendous responsibility of having printed X-thousand copies for distribution and sale. Our primary work, duty, and pleasure is to attend to the conversations we have with writers we admire. We can print and bind anything, easily, and see what it looks like. Sell a copy, or maybe five, and then continue our conversations. The act of publication is no longer such a climax event (requiring great build-up and then release and then endless, exhausting aftermath). Rather, it is an easy part of the ongoing flux of conversation. It happens lightly, appropriately, at whatever scale the conversation around it (also known as “the market”) demands.

Another thing worth noting is that Victor’s Instabook machine, having been engineered and deployed in the late 1990s and early oughts (it’s still being made and marketed today) is available for $1500 – $3000 on the used market. It’s also extremely durable, easy to adapt and use-to-purpose, and in these ways like an old Volkswagen, which could power an irrigation system, washing machine, cement mixer, or your car, etc. The EBM—which is rapidly taking the bookstore market and might make Victor’s original seem obsolete—is a closed, integrated system that leases for $75K or more. The EBM is the perfect instrument for extending the life of the existing publication and distribution system (by shifting production to the stores and eliminating over-printing). That is an awesome thing, as is the EBM’s ability to make local bookstores into publishers and thereby articulate the interests of a community. But the EBM does not play the same catalyzing social/creative role that Victor’s machine can, because it’s not affordable and it’s harder to adapt and screw around with. I’m an advocate of Victor’s machine. Hooray to EBM for rescuing publishing as we have known it. And cheers to Instabook for putting effective tools into the hands of those who might invent new patterns of publication.

Yeah, there are, what, apparently 30-some EBM’s in the world at this point. (One, in fact, in the Seattle bookstore at which I am employed.) More than the ability to print and bind a Google book, it seems the bookstore-as-micro-publisher is the most interesting aspect of it.

I was wondering if you could say anything about Stacey Levine’s book. You refer to it as a “bootleg edition.”

Yes, one of our central concerns has been to innovate and advocate for non-exclusive publishing rights. Our authors all retain control over their texts and may publish the same books with others. We feel that writers should be able to publish their work with anyone at any time and believe that publishers do not need to secure exclusive rights to make their own editions profitable. It’s an antiquated business model. Instead, we encourage simultaneously publication of books.

We also step in to publish writers whose books are unavailable because traditional publishers are holding onto the rights while not printing or distributing the title, and we call these “bootlegs.” Stacey’s bootleg edition came about because her publisher, MacAdam/Cage was dealing with a lot of financial and organizational problems at the time they published The Girl with Brown Fur and did not have books printed for the stores that wanted them. The book’s publication date had come and gone, reviews had come out, and she was on the road doing readings, but copies were scarce, at best. After several conversations with Stacey about this I sent the following to Stacey’s editor at M/C, Pat Walsh:

Dear Pat Walsh.

I run a small printing and binding shop called Publication Studio, with my business partner, Patricia No. Among the services we offer is to print, bind, and circulate books published by writers who we admire during those times when their titles are difficult to find. So many books are officially “in print” and yet, as a practical matter, unavailable. We call this service “bootlegging.”

Currently we are bootlegging Canadian writer Aaron Peck’s novel, The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis, with the consent of his Toronto publisher, Pedlar Press. Because of his work as an art critic, Aaron has a fairly large readership in Seattle and Portland, where we have our shop. But it is difficult for Pedlar to get books into stores here. So we have reproduced Pedlar’s edition and bound it in our distinctive manila file-folder covers. The book sells for $20 in our storefront and online. Pedlar sees the good sense in this arrangement and is allowing us to simply split our profits 50/50 with Aaron, as we do for the writers that we publish in our Jank Edition series.

We would like to bootleg your edition of Stacey Levine’s The Girl With Brown Fur. Stacey is a superb writer whose work I have published before (at Clear Cut Press), and a large readership in Seattle and Portland is eager to see her book. However, it is unavailable in stores. We propose to print and bind a bootleg edition and sell it in our storefront and online, until your edition is available, or Stacey asks us to stop. We can either work directly from your edition, in which case we are happy to share profits with you. Or, we can set and copy edit our own edition and split profits 50/50 with the writer, as with our Jank Editions.

I know MacAdam/Cage has put an enormous investment into this book and author, so I am happy to consider other ways that our publication of a bootleg edition could help defray your costs. Our goal is simply for the writer and readers to connect easily through a well-made, readily available book, now rather than later. I know this is a new, unusual way to support the writers we admire, and I am eager to do it in a way that helps everyone make a healthy economy around literature, including MacAdam/Cage. Give me a call or email to let me know how I can be sure our bootleg editions are doing exactly that.

Matthew Stadler

In the end we typeset our own edition and printed and sold about 20 books at Stacey’s readings and through Pilot Books. Then Stacey ended her contractual relationship with MacAdam/Cage and we have continued to make the book available. Pat has never taken us up on the offer to send profits to M/C and my impression is that our efforts were an unwanted annoyance during a time when he and M/C were dealing with much bigger problems.

Do you fear any sort of legal reprisal for “bootlegging” these books?

With Aaron Peck and Pedlar certainly not. With M/C, we are sincerely offering this as a service to help the book and author. We believe that by showing our readiness to direct any profit to M/C, and keeping an open conversation going, the result will not be legal reprisal, but intelligent conversation and common purpose. We still have all the money from the small number of sales set aside and ready to give to M/C. Our action is meant to force the issue, not to poach $$ from M/C. The money at issue is negligible. Legally, what we’re doing is similar to squatting. There are risks and we do put ourselves at the mercy of “the landlord,” i.e. the original publisher, but we believe that because we are conducting ourselves in an open and principled, thoughtful way, M/C will choose to deal with us in kind—not through legal reprisals or other punitive means.

Is there a precedent for the non-exclusive publishing rights model? I can’t say that I’m familiar with any other publishing company/concern who has advocated it. Seems author-empowering—the author holds on to her/his work, and can move it around through a series of publishing hubs, printing books where the audience exists. And because we now live in a world where the audience pool is global, and an audience can spontaneously develop around an author almost anywhere. Now, a publisher—a big publisher—will publish books anticipating the audeince for the book, and if it under-anticipates, the desire for the book can flag before the reprint appears, or if it over-anticipates, it creates a situation where the publisher feels less incentive to publish another book by that disappointing author. When will there be a Publication Studio hub in every city in America?

We did this at Clear Cut Press, but I don’t recall any publisher taking us up on our offer to let them make editions of the books we were publishing. In the end it is up to the author. “Non-exclusive” simply means the writer retains the right to choose with whom he or she will work. Our feeling is that we are selling is our edition of a work; and, the audience for our edition is not diminished by the existence of competing editions. In fact, the attention and interest generated by multiple editions might benefit us.

Legally, it is very simple. We ask the writer for the right to print and sell our edition. That’s all. What the author does with others is not our concern. Our focus then becomes making a good edition, adding value by the way we make the books or the conversations we generate around them, so that people become interested in and want to buy our edition. There are so many different markets for good books, we never reach all of them. In fact, PS is an excellent partner for traditional publishers because we do not compete against them; we serve other parts of the market, places they might not reach.

The precedent is in punk rock and independent music. I don’t know of any precedents in book publishing, but there must be some in the zine world. In any case, the circulation of texts has shifted and become multi-form enough that securing exclusive rights is now a losing game. Better, we think, to focus on making good editions and encourage the promiscuous potentials of the author and text, knowing that any energy out into the conversation around a book will be to the benefit of all who trade in that book.

One of our big projects for Spring is to co-publish a better-known author with a bigger traditional publisher using a non-exclusive rights contract, to model how this can work if everyone thoughtfully dedicates their energies to the potentials of promiscuity and non-exclusive rights.


Matthew’s new novel is called Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha. It is a cover of a John Le Carre novel.

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