Bookforum talks with Matthew Stadler

Matthew Stadler

The future of publishing has been the subject of many debates and panels for the past five or so years, but until recently, not a lot was being done about it. That's beginning to change, thanks to newcomers such as OR Books and Cursor, Inc. Perhaps the most innovative and philosophical new independent press is Publication Studio, the brainchild of Portland-based publishers Matthew Stadler and Patricia No. In 2009, Stadler purchased a printer and an unusual perfect binder (christened “Ol Gluey”) and launched Publication Studio as a print-on-demand publisher. Since then, the independent press has honed its approach to selecting books and to delivering them to their audience. Central to the company’s philosophy is an online commons area, a place where readers can gather to read and discuss books.

Stadler is a novelist (his work includes The Sex Offender, a dystopian satire, and his new novel Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, a riff on John Le Carre’s A Murder of Quality). His background as a novelist has provided him with excellent tastes as an editor and publisher. The books he’s worked on include Lisa Robertson’s The Office for Soft Architecture (a contemporary cult favorite) and Dodie Bellamy’s new book, the buddhist, an experimental take on the tell-all memoir. Apparently, Stadler’s work is paying off. Last month, Publication Studio sold its ten-thousandth book. Stadler is about to go on the road to promote his new novel and Publication Studio (details and tickets to the events, sit-down dinners with Stadler, and special edition copies of Chloe, are here). Bookforum recently asked him about Publication Studio’s history—and its future.

How did Publication Studio get started?

It was kind of "publishing degree zero." I finally got sick of how much rigamarole stood between the books I loved and broader publication. I don’t mean the editing, vetting, design, and production of the books. That stuff is essential. I mean the sales meetings, print-runs, warehouses, distributors, and returns. All that rigamarole. I wanted certain books in print, so I found a set of hand-operated machines that print and bind perfect-bound books one at a time, a wonky old rig called an "Instabook" that a guy in Mexico invented in the '90s. Gabe Stewart at Vox Populi in Brooklyn had a used one he was getting rid of. My ten-year old and I flew to New York and drove the thing back to Portland in a rented mini-van.

I was broke and my friend Patricia No was unemployed, so we figured out the machine together and set-up shop in a borrowed storefront and just started making books. The first was a novel by Larry Rinder, the ex-Whitney curator, and we sold a lot of them. We were lucky to know talented people who wanted to make books with us. Dodie Bellamy, Stacy Doris, Luisa Valenzuela, Matt Briggs, Roy McMakin, Rafael Oses, Diana Balmori, Ari Marcopoulos, Ruby Sky Stiler, Chris Johanson and Johanna Jackson, Matt Keegan, Lisa Robertson, David Horvitz, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and Larry, among others. The business model was simply to publish what we love and sell enough books to not go "broker." Eventually we built up enough sales that we were able to move into our own permanent storefront. That took about eight months. By then we had about thirty new titles in print, mostly art books.

Now, two years in, we've published eighty new titles and sold more than ten-thousand books to readers around the globe.

How does print-on-demand fit with Publication Studio’s philosophy?

Key to our method is that we only make a book for someone who wants to buy it. No more waste. Traditional publishing is driven by print runs: You take a guess and invest in a pile of books, then you've got to sell all those books to make back your investment and continue. It's why publishing has seasons and all the drama of launches and release dates and returns and remainders. Books have to sell and get out of the way before the clock turns forward to the next book. That's not the case with print-on-demand. We invest money in the conversations around the book, whenever and wherever they grow. We cultivate the social life of readers and writers. We make our money as the conversation grows and readers want to buy books. With print-on-demand, one book sold equals $5 profit for us, and $5 for the writer. In traditional publishing, even at the smallest scale, one book sold equals a $2000 loss.

How you select and acquire the books you publish?

We publish books we love by writers and artists we admire. Because the process can be profitable with any number of sales—beginning with the first—all of our choices can hew to our sense of excitement about the book and the author. The key is to go at the right pace and attend faithfully to the social life of the book, which can be long and strange. We're just getting our bearings there, learning how to cultivate real, long-term audiences, what we call making a public for a book (i.e., "publication").

You also try to encourage discussions of the books, online and off.

We make money by selling books, and we sell them when people see that the books are great. So, we'll do anything we can to help spread the news, including a "free reading commons," which is something we started in 2009, an online environment where anyone can read and comment on our books for free. Some of our writers opt out, for various reasons, and it’s their prerogative; but most are excited and we believe that the commons stimulate sales rather than undermine them. People buy books because books are an awesome technology. Online reading does not undercut that.

What are some of the other ways you try to make people aware of your books?

We organize dinners, parties, concerts, puppet shows, symposia, an annual Publication Fair, which put our writers and artists at the center of vibrant conversations. We respond to interest and support it, and we get excited when others are excited. That's how a public gets built. A public is more than a market, though it includes that. But building publics is what we do.

How do you see Publication Studio evolving?

The Studio began in a Portland storefront, but now we're in six cities in Canada and the US. The machinery is cheap and user-friendly. When our friends started to see the books we made circulating through other parts of the world, a handful of them went out and got machines like ours. Together we have six imprints, footprints in six scattered places, and they’re all feeding one big organism that is Publication Studio. You see the whole of it on our site. That's the beast all in one body, with its six feet planted all over the continent.

Right now, I’m in the process of taking my new novel to all six Studios, as part of a twelve-city tour. We're serving sit-down dinners, rich sites of conviviality and, I pray, some passion about the work and my book. The books travel to other continents too. About four-dozen bookstores carry us in other countries, and we hope the near future brings our first Publication Studio overseas. I think it might happen soon.

Stadler is blogging about his tour. On July 2 in New York, he will read from his book in front of the former location of six bookstores that have closed. “The tone will not be maudlin or tragic, more a kind of stroll down memory lane. Our subject is the importance of bookstores to writers. I'm sure we'll find new stores to celebrate too.” The reading/walking tour ends at an area restaurant for a sit-down meal at one big table. More information can be found here.