Nicole Brewer and William Kemp
If bookselling is an increasingly difficult endeavour, the art and business of bookmaking is an even riskier undertaking. Yet, the D.I.Y literary scene continues to survive in various forms, and adapt in various ways, occupying space at fairs, and festivals. One such small press is words(on)pages, run from a basement apartment by a dedicated 2-person team: Nicole Brewer and Will Kemp. They publish and bind all their exquisite chapbooks, and a limited print run of their bi-monthly online literary magazine, (parenthetical).
This interview was conducted over email, and has been edited for clarity and rhythm.
Jasmine Gui: How long does the whole bookmaking process take?
words(on)pages: To make one copy of our literary magazine, from printing to the final edge being trimmed, takes about 10–15 minutes. We get all the papers lined up and trimmed down to size (for us, 8×8 inches), while leaving the outside edge a little bit too long for the time being. We clip the stack together, and use a template to mark where we’ll stab the holes, then either use an awl or a hammer and nail to make said holes. The binding doesn’t take too long, but we also don’t use a very elaborate stitch. We use the most basic Japanese binding stitch, but there are more difficult, beautiful, time-consuming stitches you could use. Once it’s sewn together, we trim that last outside edge, which ensures the pages will be perfectly flush.
One copy of a chapbook takes considerably less time, approximately 5 minutes, as the stack of paper is usually smaller, making it easier to stab holes through, and stitch. We use a simple saddle stitch, which involves folding the stack of papers in half, stabbing 3–5 holes along the crease, and sewing them together. We also trim the outside edge of chapbooks to ensure the edges are flush.
Jasmine Gui: Why did you decide that DIY bookmaking was important to you as a press?
words(on)pages: It started with our appreciation for the small presses—micropresses, really—that we saw at zine fairs and small press fairs like CanZine and the Indie Literary Market. Presses like Ferno House, formerly run by The Puritan’s own Spencer Gordon (and Mat Laporte), and one-person teams like Baseline Press or Thee Hellbox Press were inspiring. We found out that tons of presses were being started and maintained by people in situations similar to our own. They did it in their spare time and in basement apartments, because they loved producing books and broadsides that had amazing content, but looked and felt amazing, too. That really intrigued us. We’ve both loved the tangible nature of books since we were kids. We both really admire awesome book covers. We love collecting books and admiring books for their aesthetic value. So when we started this whole thing, we wanted to make everything we did stand out, and we really value the aesthetic and tangible nature of everything we publish. We not only wanted to make awesome stuff ourselves, but be part of this community.
When we started out as freelance chapbook publishers, we valued the physical nature of our chapbooks because we felt that if we were going to charge someone to put their chapbook together for them, it had better be worth the money we’re charging them. Anyone can go to a print shop and get something whipped up in an hour or two, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if people want to get their work out there. We did the same thing for Will’s first feature spot at Artbar. But, again, people are paying us to not only lay out their chapbook and make it look good on the page, but also soliciting us for something they presumably can’t do: make a chapbook that stands as a “work of art,” independent of its content.
We also pride ourselves on producing awesome literature, but that doesn’t make us wholly unique. There are a lot of amazing literary magazines in Toronto, and Canada. There’s nothing too groundbreaking or “different” about being a good literary magazine in Toronto, yet there’s something a bit different about producing a handbound literary magazine. When we started looking into publishing chapbooks, we wanted to live up to the standard we’d set with (parenthetical). If we’re going to charge people $10-$15 for a book without a spine, they’d better feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.
Jasmine Gui: From the initial Indesign template to binding, you oversee every aspect of the production process. What are some of the advantages of being this involved? What are the pitfalls?
words(on)pages: The number one advantage of overseeing everything is having complete control over the timeline. If we’re running behind on something, it’s our fault alone, and we can stay up late a few nights in a row to catch up on it. Alternatively, we can also spontaneously have a really productive weekend and get an entire issue laid out, tested, and proofread in two days. It’s great for two reasons: we aren’t accountable to anyone but ourselves, and we don’t have to spend time or energy holding anyone else accountable. Control over the creative and editorial aspects is also wonderful, but I’m sure with the right team, it wouldn’t be too hard to sacrifice some of that.
The only pitfall is that it’s a ton of work and money. Some days, this is far heavier than the positive aspects—on days we’re staying up late to catch up, for instance. It’s really stressful and means we’ve made some small mistakes. The day before our chapbook launch, our funds were also almost entirely depleted. Even though it’s an obvious difficulty of overseeing everything, there aren’t really any other negative aspects.
Jasmine Gui: Digitizing books changes their materiality in very literal ways. How do you think this influences a reader’s engagement with the content of a book, and with the reading experience?
words(on)pages: Digitizing a book completely changes how a reader interacts with that text, first and foremost on a physical level. You can no longer “flip” back and forth in the same way, and you don’t have two-page spreads anymore. When you get into the paratextual elements of a book, it can be very hard to recreate it in digital form. A book’s trim size can change how a reader approaches it. For example, a tiny, handmade chapbook with a trim size of 5” x 5” takes on an intimacy that gets lost when it’s just a PDF with a massive amount of white space.
An obvious but effective example of how digitizing books alters our interaction with them is the difference between reading a physical comic book and a digital one. The way you read becomes very different when you physically hold a page and turn to see a massive splash–a scene unfolds very differently when physically holding something compared to taking it in on a screen.
We digitize (parenthetical), our literary journal, to make it more accessible to people. With contributors from all over the country, and sometimes the world, we want it to be accessible to everyone. We also know, however, that because of our website infrastructure, and non-existent budget, the digital version of our literary journal isn’t ideal. We have to host a non-flash version offsite because we simply can’t afford to host it on our site. That isn’t to say we sacrifice anything when it comes to design or layout for our digital version. We make sure our weird trim size of 8” x 8” is recreated digitally. It’s identical on the inside, but there are a lot of little things about the whole experience that we wish could be better. And even if the digital version was the best it could be, we still don’t feel it would compare to engaging with the physical product in your hands.
Lots of studies have shown that digitized works have a lower perceived value than physical books. It feels like you don’t “have” an e-book, because it can’t exist anywhere other than on an e-reader or digital screen. It only exists on your personal devices, and can’t be shared or admired in a physical way. That decreased value, we believe, affects your engagement with the text because you have no obligation to it. There’s a reason that romance and mystery/thriller novels are the most purchased e-books: there’s always been a “disposability” to these mass-market genres, which is now perfectly suited to the grab-and-go nature of digitized reading.
So digitized versions of works are a great supplement, but the value of a physical book is irreplaceable, because the engagement with a physical book starts even before you open it up to read. People often take a look at our things, pick them up and hopefully appreciate the stitching and the feel of the cover, then take time to engage with the work inside it. That experience can be amplified by the presence of the author, or by meeting the bookmaker—by anything that makes it a more personalized experience. It helps to make the whole thing feel special, really.
Reading is, of course, a selfish thing most of the time. You are reading, and picking out books for your own pleasure. Physical books allow you to create a memory—a tangible reminder of your experience. You get to feel a part of something intimate, special, and communal by engaging with these things at launches and fairs. Then you get to pay it forward: leave it out on coffee tables, or have a shelf dedicated to chapbooks and literary magazines for your friends to check out—they might first appreciate it on that visceral aesthetic level, then start to engage with the work itself. That’s a really cool feeling.
Jasmine Gui: Does this materiality change, between offset print books that can be mass produced versus those that are hand bound?
words(on)pages: This is a really interesting question, because a lot of really beautiful books can be, and are, mass produced: those $100+ coffee table books, McSweeney’s books, or the multi-part book S by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams. These are produced in the thousands, and that process doesn’t diminish their beauty.
In fact, many of these books are probably more beautiful than what we produce: longer, more colourful, with heavier paper, or edgier art design. Yet, when someone picks up a handmade book, they pick it up carefully, look at the stitching, feel the paper, cautiously open it to see how the pages fall open, and how the text looks. It’s the same difference between picking up a glass you bought at IKEA and a glass you bought from a glassblower. Even though one isn’t any less durable than the other, you want to be careful with the one that was made just for you, with its own tiny imperfections that vary from copy to copy.
So yes, the materiality changes because people can pick up a beautiful book from Indigo at the same time as they pick up the newest Nora Roberts, and there’s a safety in knowing that you can return it, or buy another one that’s exactly the same. First and foremost, that book is a book, and not everyone buying a beautiful coffee table book realizes what goes into making it so beautiful. But when people pick up a handbound book, there’s an immediate respect for the item as an item, even before there is a respect for the item as a book.
Jasmine Gui: Do you think the DIY approach impacts your understanding of the value of the book? Do you think this translates for those who buy and possess these books?
words(on)pages: Being involved with DIY publishing has drastically changed our understanding of perceived value compared to actual value.
We have to charge at least $10 for a chapbook to make back the cost of printing, materials, and to compensate us (meagrely) for our time. That cost increases as the page count increases, when there’s colour printing, or if the bookmaking process is more involved or specialized. So we have to charge $15 for (parenthetical), and that barely compensates us for time, because we need to pay the people whose work fills the journal, and outsource our cover printing.
But the best way to discuss value is by talking about really expensive books. Thee Hellbox Press is an artisan press run by a little old man out of Kingston, where he makes paper, does the letterpress printing, and binds books. Some of his books cost upwards of $200 just so he can make back the cost of materials, as well as compensate himself for the time and skills required. We can only imagine how many people balk at the prices on his books, because if you aren’t aware of what goes into making them, you’re liable to question why a 40-page book of poetry costs $200.
Yet, people will walk into Indigo and buy a $100 coffee table book without hassling the clerk about why it costs so much, because the perceived value of that book is much higher. It is a huge, full-colour images on thick, glossy paper with ideal placement in a national book retailer and beautiful cover art on an elegant hardcover casing.
Actually, it’s worth a lot more than $100. It probably costs nearly $100 to produce a single copy. The publishers can afford a list price of $100 because the print run is for hundreds, or thousands, of copies, reducing the unit cost to a more manageable amount. But Thee Hellbox Press, which only produces 10, 20, maybe 50 copies of its books, doesn’t have the liberty of lowering its prices without losing money on every copy it sells.
Buyers often forget to value time when they are deciding whether a product is “worth” the list price, so an Indigo shopper may not understand why a book without a spine could possibly cost $200, or $50, or even $15. DIY bookmakers at a fair don’t have a marketing budget or a bookstore “seal of approval,” they don’t have Heather’s Picks or Staff Picks or Bestsellers stickers to “legitimize” them.
Perhaps the most irritating hurdle in trying to make people understand the value of handmade products is that buyers don’t always realize that the maker’s livelihood depends on their purchase. Yes, almost everyone has a day job, but we’d all like to do this full time—or at least make a little more money than we lose so we can buy coffee or some groceries. Instead people walk by, touch the pretty books, and say, “Wow these are so beautiful!” before walking away.
But people who are heavily involved with the small press scene generally understand the value of handmade products—time, cost of materials, skill set, and so on. Most people who buy these types of handbound books do the same type of work we do, or they started out publishing books without spines, so they appreciate and want to support the whole grassroots, DIY approach to things.