31 March 2010

A Few More Design Awards

Gaspereau Press just got word that it has been awarded five prizes in 28th annual Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada. I designed all of Gaspereau’s winning books, with the exception of one which I co-designed with Robert Bringhurst. All the books were produced here at the printshop by Gary Dunfield and I and our small but able staff. According to the Society’s press release, judges Marian Bantjes, Linda Gustafson, and Peter Koch selected 30 winning titles in eight categories from the 252 entries published in 2009. Gaspereau Press submitted books in three of eight categories and was awarded first place in all three.

You can find out more about the Vancouver-based Alcuin Society and read their full press release by visiting their web site.


Robert Bringhurst’s Selected Poems
(First Prize, Poetry)

I always enjoy working with Robert Bringhurst on design projects. We manage to keep the cross-continental arm wrestling to a minimum, and I think that the only thing either of us like nearly so much as typesetting a book ourselves is watching what typographic solutions the other fellow can come up with. Robert is one of the most able typographers on in the country, and the author of the modern typographer’s bible, The Elements of Typographic Style. On Selected Poems, Robert did the heavy lifting on the text design, setting as he selected and edited the poems, with input from me along the way. I took the lead on the jacket and cover, which are printed letterpress, black and silver ink on black felt-finish paper. It's one of my usual tricks, designing an object that plays with light. You hold the book in your hands in order to get the full effect. A photocopy or photograph won't cut it, nor will Kindle. The main type used in this book was Robert Slimbach’s Arno, issued by Adobe.

Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen’s Lean-To
(Second Prize, Poetry)

Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen’s Lean-To posed some interesting problems, namely that some of the poems set quite wide. I used Rod McDonald’s Laurentian types to set the book, which is narrow without seeming so and reads well between 9 and 10 points. The jacket was printed letterpress on paper that was handmade by the good folks at Saint-Armand in Montreal. I’m always reluctant to introduce ‘pictorial elements’ to collections of stories or poems as I find them too documentary and reductive. Images have a tendency to take over, after all, and only rarely can one image represent a whole book of poems. There is a lazy stock-photo approach to poetry book covers that presently dominates the trade. I’ve written about this tendency in a book about design and literary publishing that I'm slowly putting together, entitled Smoke Proofs (likely release date to be 2012). In this book, I employed a simple tent-shaped triangle as an icon, and a ‘lean-to’ splash of yellow on the title page. The triangle on the jacket is printed in white ink on yellow paper, an unusual move in a world where most printing start with white paper and print the yellow on top of it. This book is also nominated for the Atlantic Poetry Prize.

Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists
(First Prize, Prose Fiction)

Last summer, I found myself reworking the off-the-shelf digital version of Eric Gill’s typeface Joanna, which I intend to use in a letterpress book we’re producing about the artist Alex Colville. Basically, I was reviving some of the elements (like a set of taller capital letters) which were present in Gill’s 1930 foundry version of the type but which were not adopted when the typeface was revised for commercial release by Monotype. I decided to use this tuned-up version of the type in Johanna’s The Sentimentalists. Wesley Bates had met Johanna at our wayzgoose in 2008, and was keen to work on her next book. We printed his pencil drawing on a letterpress using a photopolymer plate, which gives it a really gritty look. The book is set with a ragged right margin, with a nod to Gill’s Essay on Typography. The jacket paper is Neenah Classic Laid Camel Hair.

Anne Simpson’s The Marram Grass
(First Prize, Prose Non-Fiction)

Anne Simpson’s collection of essays, The Marram Grass, is set in a digital version of Fournier. I made a slightly heavier version of the Fournier for use in the footnotes. Anne provided wonderful drawing for the book, which we printed in blue. The one pictured above depicts the cemetery in Great Village, Nova Scotia, near the Elizabeth Bishop house. I designed this book in one of my favorite trim sizes (5 × 8 inches), a size that nestles nicely in the hand, and even fits in some pockets. The jacket was printed letterpress in black and silver ink on Domtar Feltweave Blue paper, which gives the effect of a night scene.

Soren Bondrup-Nielsen’s A Sound Like Water Dripping
(Third Prize, Prose Non-Fiction)

Last by not least is Soren Bondrup-Nielsen’s A Sound Like Water Dripping, the story of his adventures search for the Boreal Owl in the woods of Northern Ontario and Alberta when he was a young graduate student. This book was typeset in a digital revival of F.W. Goudy’s Garamont types which was made by my late friend, Jim Rimmer. For me, Goudy’s types are a sort of comfort food, and, when handled carefully, they work every bit as well in the world of offset printing as they do in traditional letterpress printing. The jacket artwork was executed by Wolfville artists and calligrapher Jack McMaster. It was great fun to elbow Jack away from his usual style and see what resulted.

I must admit that I view awards and prizes as a bit of a mug’s game. I don’t put much stock in their importance when we lose, so I ought not put much more stock in them when we win either. However, it’s always gratifying when your peers recognize that the work you are doing has some merit. What the Alcuin Society is saying by running this competition and awarding these prizes is that the design of books can make a significant contribution to our culture, and that’s a statement I can agree with wholeheartedly.


30 March 2010

Ecology and Economy

National Poetry Month is upon us, and the number of books we have to get through the press and out to events, launches and bookstores generally in the next few weeks is a bit overwhelming. We’ve always run a bit of a ‘just in time’ approach to manufacturing, though it sometimes gets the better of us. For small firms, it’s just not really possible to print books months in advance of their release dates (particularly when the big retailers can take months and months to pay for the wares once they get them). We simply can’t tie up the capital, or the labour, too far in advance of the sale. So it’s a constant balancing act.

While all the necessary parts to make a book are usually designed and printed together – sheets, cover, jacket, wrapper – we may only assemble 100 or so books at any one time; whatever is required to meet the demand. The rest of the parts are stored until orders merit producing more books. There are pros and cons to this approach. Every once in a while we get caught with a big order on a backlist book and find ourselves low on salable stock with no openings in the press or bindery schedule for several weeks running.

When this happens, I envy the mainstream publisher who has 1000 finished copies of a book stockpiled in some warehouse outside Toronto, ready to ship in an instant. But that sort of system has problems as well, namely that it is wasteful, expensive, wrongheaded, and, ultimately, destructive.

Think about it like this: A west coast publisher has 2500 copies of a hardcover book printed and bound and ships them to a distributor in the east. The distributor ships them to wholesalers and retail stores all over the country. Over 18 months, perhaps half the copies are sold and the rest are returned to the warehouse. The returned books are often damaged or otherwise unsalable. They may be remaindered and reshipped to retailers to be sold at a lower price. Or they might be stripped of their cases and rebound as paperbacks, or simply pulped. No matter how you look at it, its a wasteful system both economically and ecologically. It relies on high volume to maintain a profit. The only people who seem to do the best by it are the shippers.

These problems are hidden from the consumer, of course, who only knows that they can order a book through a major online storefront and get it quickly. What they don’t understand is that the distribution and wholesale system of mainstream publishing privileges the instant gratification of the consumer over sustainable economics and ecology.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve no interest in thwarting anyone’s desire to purchase a book. I want to get as many books into as many hands as is practicaly possible. But what does it cost society to have millions of books produced and standing at the ready each year, many of which will never be purchased? And what sort of reader will not wait a few weeks for the book he or she truly desires to read?

We are not an assembly line producing consumer goods or a fast-food drive-thru. As literary printers and publishers, we are cultural agents, purveyors of complex, hazardous, and often subversive goods. Our manufacturing process ought match the cultural and intellectual integrity of our wares. Commerce is a by-product of our activities, not its motivating force or guiding principle, and we employ the mechanisms of capitalism where they will assist us in our objectives, and bristle and baulk otherwise.

These are the sorts of things you think about when you are putting in a double shift, racing the clock to assemble books in time for the last courier pick-up of the day. I’m not a contrarian or an ideologue. I’m simply interested in understanding how a small literary publisher – manufacturing on a craft level but thinking and marketing on a global one – can evolve business practices that efficiently work within the broader world of commerce without being subsumed by its problems. These questions are every bit as interesting and every bit as tricky to resolve as the ideal proportions of a book page. At least it’s good to know that we did not enter a field where every problem has already been fixed.


17 March 2010

Break-time Cribbage at Gaspereau

In a shocking come-from-behind victory, Laura, Gaspereau Press’s Humber College publishing intern, comes from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, narrowly beating Gary Dunfield with a 17 point hand. When the above footage was captured, victory was far from certain.

Laura displayed the story of her victory on her cribbage score pad while Gary retreated in a blur to his office; all the while, the rivalry intensifies. They’ve been hanging these score sheets around the shop like kill notches on their rifle stocks. The question is, what horrid jobs will Laura the intern be assigned as payback for her for her gutsy trouncing of her host?

In the meantime, back to our regularly scheduled book production panic.


15 March 2010

Spring Books in Production No. 1

Not that things ever gets slow, but we’re kicking into overdrive for the next few weeks as our spring list moves through the presses and bindery in anticipation of the many launches and events planned for April. As usual, we’re running behind, and even with the help of a very able intern from Humber College named Laura (who keeps beating Gary at lunchtime cribbage), it’s going to be the usual race to deliver all our spring books to events and stores on time.

Today I letterpress-printed jackets for Tim Bowling’s new poetry book, The Annotated Bee and Me. We all worked on this book today, actually. Marilyn finished printed the last sheets this morning, and in the afternoon Gary folded these sheets into 8vo signatures which Connie gathered into book blocks ready for Smyth sewing.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the second colour on the jacket and score the folds with a platen press. In the meantime, we’ll sew, bind and trim the first batch of books and enfold them in their jackets for shipping later in the week. Tim is launching the book with a reading at Audrey’s Books in Edmonton on March 23rd.

We’re also putting together Peter Sanger’s epic book on the life and work of Toronto poet Richard Outram, entitled Through Darkling Air. This book is gigantic! At 512 pages, it’s the longest book we’ve ever produced.

We printed this book in January to beat the rush, but we are only binding it now. The binding will be a red cloth over boards with a snazzy jacket made with paper from The Japanese Paper Place in Toronto. These materials were selected to evoke the spirit of the little private press books and broadsides produced by Richard Outram’s own Gauntlet Press in its heyday.

I decided to carry the title information and the other insignias of commerce on a horizontal paper wrapper. This untrimmed book block made a quick test of the idea. The first fifty books are sewn and waiting to be cased later this week. Peter will be launching the book on April 9th at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto.

… and there are three more Gaspereau books coming along fast on the tails of these two. Stay tuned for shop updates (and cribbage scores).


09 March 2010

Drag Race at the Dawson Printshop

“I’m PRINTING something tonight, for Pete’s sake!” I growled when I landed at the Dawson Printshop for the regular Monday night meeting of the Letterpress Gang. The last few meetings had been dominated by admittedly pleasant chit-chat and some productive sorting and organizing of pied type and cuts, but lacked something fundamental. If you never get around to slathering ink on type and slamming some paper into it, what you have is a museum, not a printshop. And after a day teaching the basics of Vandercook cylinder press operation to our intern student back at Gaspereau Press, watching her carefully print a few hundred one-colour invitations from photopolymer plates, I was ready to get my hands dirty.

I jumped in and started cleaning and oiling a rather grumpy and worse-for-wear SP15, leaving the better maintained Universal I for Paul Maher, and everyone aligned themselves with one press or the other. While I revived the press, my crew set a nonsense arrangement of wood type to serve as the background of our poster.

I had an ink that was a mix of half metallic silver and half slate blue. We ran the sheet through twice, spinning it head to tail on the second pass. The opaque ink looked great where it overlapped, and we printed it fast an loose, letting the ink vary and the type distress.

Over this we printed the main text in black, which announced the Letterpress Gang’s weekly meetings. Paul’s crew was printing a two colour poster too. It felt like a race with two Vandercooks cranking out posters.

The poster my crew typeset was a long way from a polished piece of letterpress printing, but it was striking and spoke to the informality and fun of the letterpress evenings. I pointed out the upsidedown and backward characters, but the crew decided to let ’er stand. Yahoo!

Of course, I couldn’t mind my p’s and q’s. Someone picked up my camera and caught me in the act of pointing my blue-gloved fingers into Paul’s press, blathering on about the inking system on that press and how it works.

If you’re in Halifax and you’re interested in letterpress printing, you should come and check out the Letterpress Gang. We’re in the printshop at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design most Monday evenings during the school term.


07 March 2010

Beauty in Saint John, New Brunswick

Last Friday I travelled up to Saint John, New Brunswick, with my friend and frequent coconspirator, Thaddeus Holownia. We had been invited to give a talk at In Print, the University of New Brunswick’s downtown bookstore in Saint John. In Print is an excellent bookstore, housed in a stunning heritage building near the waterfront on King Street. The talk was well attended, thanks to the efforts of Anne Compton and Pat Joas, and the crowd seemed genuinely interested in the dog-and-pony show that Thaddeus and I put on.

One of the highlights of any trip to Saint John is the architecture, particularly the grand brick and stone facades of the downtown. But typically, while I had a camera in my pocket I didn’t snap a single picture. It’s more fun to watch Thaddeus making pictures than to make them myself.

I had the same problem when Thaddeus, Harry Thurston and I were working on our last book project, Silver Ghost, a book about the rivers and the habitat of the Atlantic Salmon. So when I went to put together slides for this talk, I discovered that I lacked illustrations for many steps in the process. I decided simply to draw a few ink-wash cartoons to fill the gaps. (In my adolescence, I dreamed of a career as a political cartoonist, and was appointed cartoonist on my junior high school newspaper on the strength of my collection of rejection letters for Newsweek and Time; no one else had been rejected by such prestigious publications.) The illustration above depicts one of the many lunch meetings Thaddeus and I had while working out the details on the Silver Ghost project. That’s me on the right, sort of. And Harry Thurston below.

We also had the pleasure of hanging out with one of the Passamaquoddy region’s great cultural trailblazers and international impresarios, Hugh French. Hugh has been one of the prime movers behind the Tides Institute & Museum of Art in Eastport, Maine, and instrumental in fostering exchanges between the cultural communities in New England and the Maritimes. In 2005, the Tides Institute installed a Vandercook No. 4 on the third floor of their building and has been slowly developing a small studio for printmaking and letterpress printing. Over supper, we discussed a number of beautiful ideas for various collaborative projects, and I left with the distinct impression that it was high time I invested in a passport.

Although the talk we delivered in Saint John was largely a show-and-tell about the making of Silver Ghost, one of the ideas I tried to stress was that beauty is not simply a question of aesthetics. In the talk, I made these three observations:

1. Making a beautiful book is a cultural act, and therefore necessarily a collaborative act. That is, making a beautiful book requires a community. This community might be as small as the writer and the reader, but is often much larger.

2. A beautiful book, though global in reach, is the product of a local economy where decisions are made within a community about the allocation of that community’s own resources. That is, making a beautiful book is a sort of economic act.

3. A beautiful book thrives where there are shared concerns and a shared sense of responsibility. That is, beauty is also a sort of ecology.


04 March 2010

Gunvaldsen Klaassen nominated for the Atlantic Poetry Prize

Gaspereau Press is pleased to announce that Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen’s poetry collection, Lean-To, has been nominated for the Atlantic Poetry Prize.

The Atlantic Poetry Prize is awarded to the best collection of poetry written by an Atlantic Canadian and published for the first time in the current calendar year. The winner of the award will be announced at the 2010 Atlantic Book Awards celebration on Wednesday, April 14 at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth, N.S.

The 2010 Atlantic Books Awards and Festival runs from April 10 to April 18 with literary events taking place in all four Atlantic provinces. For more information, or to find out where you can hear Tonja read from Lean-to, check the festival website.