Digital Be Damned: Publication Studio Sells 10,000 Handmade Books

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Focusing on handmade books, Publication Studio has launched nearly 90 original works, sold 10,000 books and expanded to five cities.

Editorial by Patrick Philips, Publication Studio

PORTLAND: Mass-producing books for an ambivalent market has led to fears of the death of publication. With Kindles, tablets, and e-books thriving, what place remains for the physical book? How can it be treated properly as an object that we read, talk about, and hand along to our friends? How do we attend to the social life of the book, maintaining the book’s power as a kind of shared public space, in and of itself?

One answer emerged in 2009, when Matthew Stadler (author, co-founder of Clear Cut Press, and former literary editor of Nest magazine) and a young writer named Patricia No founded Publication Studio in a borrowed storefront in Portland, Oregon. They were broke, but found cheap means to make perfect-bound books, one at a time. The idea was simple: to use any means possible to make books by artists and authors they admired and sell them to an interested public. When curator Jans Possel asked the duo to make 20 books from Portland for the 2009 Amsterdam Biennale, Stadler and No called the nearby friends they admired most — Chris Johanson, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, M. Blash, and Kristan Kennedy, among them. The artists agreed to make books, producing 19 beautifully diverse publications. Publication Studio hit the ground running and never stopped.

Building a Community Around Handmade Books

Two years later, Publication Studio is still growing. Six sibling studios have sprung up across North America (Berkeley, CA; Vancouver, BC; Minneapolis, MN; and Toronto, Ont., and Los Angeles, CA), each using the same inexpensive machinery to make perfect-bound books “fresh each day,” by hand. Together, the six-headed hydra that is Publication Studio has launched nearly 90 original works and sold over 10,000 handmade books. Our books defy pre-conceived notions of what a book can be –- just look to the indefinable art-flipbook experience of Blush by Philip Iosca. We call ourselves a “maker and destroyer of books.” Despite our uncanny methods, the success of Publication Studio lies in a shared sentiment –- that publication is not just the manufacturing of books, but the production of a public.

Unlike a market, a public is difficult to quantify. It is impossible to chart on a graph or contain in a spreadsheet. The public that is Publication Studio -– our network of sibling studios, collaborators, libraries, book stores and readers -– is the result of pre-existing connections, friendships, a modest web-presence and word of mouth. The initial reach out to 20 artists in 2009 was not a cold call. Each artist had some connection to Stadler or No.

For example, when Stadler emailed friend and photographer Ari Marcopolis asking about making a book, Marcopolis replied 40 minutes later with a print-ready PDF of his book, The Round Up. Books are not always hatched with this speed. Seattle artist Vic Haven’s first book, Hit the North, was conceived a full year before it’s publication during a casual conversation at Stadler’s home. The book was then released in tandem with a two-city art show, complete with a limited run of artist editions.

What is Publication? A talk by Matthew Stadler from Publication Studio on Vimeo.

Collaboration is the Key

I was first introduced to Publication Studio the same way as many others before me: by word of mouth. My friend, Sam Korman and I were walking in downtown Portland and he offered to show me Publication Studio. He told me they were publishing his first book, Notes from a Young Curator, a collection of catalogs from Korman’s yearlong curatorial project, Car Hole Gallery. When we entered the tiny Portland storefront, Patricia No was already hard at work trimming and glue-binding Korman’s book. I was amazed to witness the birth of a book, a book that would never be published without Publication Studio. The release of Notes from a Young Curator coincided with the 12th and final Car Hole show.

The events at Car Hole included critical power-point presentations on Seinfeld, beer sculptures, scathing roasts, and raucous rock concerts. I think it is a sign from God that the cops never showed up. Every show was accompanied by a catalog that included an essay written by Korman. The catalogs were made cheaply: printed in black and white with Xeroxed images and bound together with brass brads. He heard of Publication Studio through friends -– Car Hole artists and Publication Studio makers Israel Lund and Alex Felton –- and started using the studio’s printers. Stadler and No, compelled by Korman’s endeavor with Car Hole because his devil-may-care, straight-forward approach, meshed well with the spirit and practice of Publication Studio. Stadler and No and approached him about making an anthology out of the catalogs and Notes from a Young Curator was born.

This is a case study of how Publication Studio collaborates with exciting artists and writers -– sometimes unheard of and unpublished -– through a network of friends, a public. Notes From a Young Curator exemplifies how a book functions as a public-space. While the spectacle of Car Hole Gallery fades into the past, the experience lives on through the book. The attendees of Car Hole events, like myself, find a common ground in Notes From a Young Curator to relive those days along with those who were absent. All are allowed to join in the conversation and experience of Car Hole in the book’s public commons.

This summer you have the chance to meet Publication Studio on Matthew Stadler’s 12-city NAFTA Tour (which started yesterday, June 21, and runs through July 7) in support of his new novel Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha. Visit for details and tickets.

DISCUSS: In the Age of Digital, Does the Print Book Become More Valuable?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.