A FEW WEEKS BEFORE he and Patricia No opened Publication Studio—a small, Portland-based print-on-demand publisher—in September, novelist Matthew Stadler said that an author's readership proliferates like a blood disease. Specifically, he continued, it is spread by the person-to-person contact of discussion, debate, and gatherings, such as readings and dinners. In the face of the publishing industry's longstanding approach to marketing and distribution—which includes lengthy promotional book tours and enormous first-edition print runs—such an attitude might sound provincial. But the reorientation in perspective implied by his analogy reveals a deep and nuanced understanding of how the industry fails to connect emerging and experimental writers with receptive audiences. That is, literary enthusiasm travels in the hushed tones of private conversation and the worn, dog-eared copies of loaned books, not the shrapnel-bursts of integrated marketing campaigns and overstocked warehouses.
With Publication Studio, Stadler and No have undertaken a broad re-imagining of how books can be produced and the audiences who read them cultivated. By recalibrating its means of production to a more intimate and human scale, Publication Studio has begun to ask the deceptively facile questions that gird every art-making practice: What is a public? And how can an audience that is engaged and invested be created? As Stadler confessed in August, "The laughing gas of media and sales that creates perceived excitement is not the thing that creates a public."
Since then, Stadler and No have been trying to identify the elusive catalyst that transforms dormant, scattered audiences into a vibrant community. In its first few months, Publication Studio's activities have suggested the answer lies in social exchange, by creating events—from happy hour readings to all-ages rebinding parties—that situate texts within memorable, festive experiences.
To celebrate the launch of first-time novelist Lawrence Rinder's Revenge of the Decorated Pigs, a fictionalized account of his experience as curator of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, Publication Studio partnered with Clyde Common Chef Jason Barwikowski for a dinner party featuring, fittingly, wild boar. After a lively set of punk-inflected klezmer courtesy of Chevrona, Rinder read from his novel and then discussed printed matter's enduring relevance (or lack thereof) with Stadler and San Francisco-based artist Colter Jacobsen. All the while, diners "annotated" loose pages of a copy of Rinder's novel with wine stains, doodles, and whatever else occurred to them, before they were bound at the end of the night, capturing a debauched document of the celebration.
Perhaps Publication Studio's single most important asset is its nervy insistence that, in spite of the solitary nature of reading, all other aspects of literary production are inherently social. Beyond this philosophy, their operation is decidedly threadbare, utilizing a single, all-in-one InstaBook Maker III printing and binding machine and housed in a donated storefront at the Cleaners space owned by the Ace Hotel (and, as necessity occasionally dictates, in Stadler's basement). Their books are similarly austere. They repurpose ordinary office filing folders for covers, which are then rubberstamped with the book's title, author, and, importantly, date produced. If the books—dubbed "Jank Editions" for their "janky," slipshod appearance—sound willfully lo-fi, it's because they are. Stadler and No are far less interested in presenting a polished artifact than in facilitating experiences for literary enthusiasts to connect.
"It's not a victory over something," explains Stadler. "We're just proving this can happen. You could call it publishing degree zero. We're simply trying to prove that we can make a book and we can meet somebody who wants it."
In many ways, the appeal of purchasing books from Publication Studio echoes those responsible for the rise of the regional food movement. Like purchasing locally grown produce at one of Portland's farmers markets, Publication Studio offers readers a chance to invest in a local literary economy by purchasing books from people who live here and prioritize both sustainable and transparent means of production. To reinforce those values, visitors to Publication Studio are greeted by a small, green chalkboard enumerating the day's "specials": those titles freshly printed and bound onsite, like a café or restaurant advertising its seasonal dishes.
In further commitment to fostering community among the city's literary arts professionals, Stadler and No have coordinated a Publication Fair that will bring together a range of participants to exhibit their printed matter on Sunday, December 20.
"We missed the boat on the New York Art Book Fair [in October], so we wanted to create our own version in Portland," explains No, who conceived of the event. "It's a chance to bring all these talented people—who are all doing little pieces of something much larger—into a single room to meet one another and see what's out there."
The exhibitors encompass a cross-section of roles within the city's publishing community, including printers (Pinball Publishing), small presses (Hawthorne Books, Octopus Books, Portland State's Ooligan Press, Marriage Publishing House), periodicals (Plazm, Veneer magazine), and retailers (Reading Frenzy, Stand Up Comedy). Given Publication Studio's particular investment in Portland's visual arts community—through catalogs and artist books, many of which were developed as Portland's contribution to this year's Amsterdam Biennale—it's no surprise to find several institutions (PICA, Reed College's Cooley Gallery), galleries (Fourteen30 Contemporary), and artists (Red76, Sarah Meadows) among the fair's participants. With so many facets of small, independent publishing represented, the fair begins to sketch out a bigger picture of how many small enterprises throughout Portland are working collectively to extend their individual reaches. In other words, Publication Studio may have organized the Publication Fair, but its work to revise the outmoded strategies of the publishing industry is hardly an anomaly. Considering the exhibitors in total, Stadler concedes, "I like to conceive of this small group of people as a single company, who can flourish together by sharing ideas and resources."
In fact, sharing resources is one of the fair's main goals. In addition to showcasing the city's breadth of literary production, the fair will host a series of informal, hour-long sessions addressing material, social, and digital practices. Free and open to the public, these sessions will attempt to aggregate practical ideas, resources, and collaborators to help lean publishing operations stretch their budgets. Participants, both in person and connected through a shared online document, will be able to discuss common problems and the solutions they have discovered, from the best graphic design freeware to suppliers and vendor partners with the most competitive prices.
This open-source approach to business, in which the success of an ostensible competitor is viewed as a victory for the community at large, exposes Publication Studio's ambitions as inclusive in nature. After all, Stadler's analogy of how interest in an author's body of work is spread through socialization could just as easily be applied to the fair's informational sessions, in which professional strategies will be passed on from one individual to another. The result of the Publication Fair, and other events like it, may simply be for the city's disparate publishing undertakings to connect through common goals and an infectious desire to create.
"I'm excited for the public to be able to see all of this at once," Stadler says. "It's inspiring to see all of these participants responding to the same question: How do you create a public and, more specifically, one that is engaged and cares?"
As the Publication Fair wrangles the city's constellated presses and publications into a single space this Sunday, Publication Studio—and its conspirators across the city—may find that they have already answered that question.