Nearly three years ago, the Ace Hotel annexed the former Peacock Cleaners as its special events space. Most hours of most days, the high-ceilinged space sat empty, a glass-walled capsule of cool on the corner of SW 10th Avenue and Stark, anticipating the next hip event or wedding reception.
But since September, Matthew Stadler and Patricia No have been bringing the corner to life every morning, rolling the presses of their industry-changing venture, Publication Studio, from dawn to midday. Stadler likens the business to a neighborhood bakery, opening at six a.m. to create their wares and having them ready to sell by later that morning. But, in this case, they're printing and binding books, not baking scones.
Sometimes it's an assembly line, pumping out copies of books that have already been ordered online. Other days may be spent trying to figure out just one tough bind on a slim edition. Many times, friends and colleagues are sharing the space, discussing vague ideas or concrete plans for a book they'd like to create.
"I'm interested in publication. I want to understand how to do it well," Stadler explains. "This is the most simple, efficient answer to the question of 'What is publication?'"
That simple answer is multi-faceted, however. Publication Studio is many things: a printing and binding service for anyone who wants to repair a tattered novel or package their manuscript; a social space for literary events; a corner book store; and of course, a publisher, building a catalog of books available for sale in their signature "Jank Edition"—a vintage-utilitarian look using file folder covers each hand-stamped with title and the date of its printing.
Stadler describes this aesthetic as an extension of the "frank straightforwardness of our project… In every possible way we're interested in writers and in readers, and we are trying to make what happens between a writer and a reader as easy and as quick and reliable as possible. We want it to be sturdy and robust, whether it's the book itself, the interaction in the public space, or the conversation online."
Or the no-frills machinery that makes it happen. The laser printer, paper trimmer, and binder, nicknamed "Ol' Gluey," are large and clunky, but surprisingly nimble and versatile—they are, after all, rolled out every morning and packed up by afternoon.
This DIY technology has the potential to redefine the publishing industry, just as iTunes did for music. Printing has traditionally been done in large numbers to make it economically feasible. Unable to accurately predict the demand for each title, publishers ship out large numbers to promote a new book, half of which, on average, are returned—spines never cracked, pages never turned—and relegated back to pulp. “I don’t know of any other industry that accepts that 50% of what they make will ultimately be thrown away,” Stadler points out. It is an incredibly wasteful, unsustainable system.
So instead of taking that wishful Field of Dreams approach—print it, and they will come—Publication Studio titles are only made as they are ordered (or in small numbers for sale in-person), which guarantees that their writers are actually reaching readers. A similar concept is being spearheaded by former Random House Editorial Director Jason Epstein on a larger scale: The Espresso Book Machine contains all the same machinery, packaged in a single kiosk that could reside in a bookstore, coffeeshop, or any public space, printing and binding a paperback in less than four minutes after a customer selects a title from a digital catalog. A handful of models are operating in Canada and England. Not only does this potential new system cut down on paper waste, energy use, and shipping costs (financial and environmental), it democratizes the industry, making books cheaper and more accessible on the consumer end, and on the creative, allowing writers who may not have had the big-bucks draw to land a traditional book deal to be published.
This last bit of the revolution gets Stadler very excited. Even when he ran Clear Cut Press, a decidedly indie publisher producing small runs of 2,000-4,000 copies, he still had to say no to certain projects that just wouldn’t make enough to cover the costs. “In the last four years, 99% of the relationships I was having with writers I admire was to say, ‘You are doing great work, and no, I cannot publish you.’ And it was just destroying my optimism,” he tells me. “This is a way for me to encounter talented writers with great work and say, ‘I can publish you. And I can publish you tomorrow—or today if it’s nine o’ clock!’”
This publish-on-demand model is something that Stadler has been exploring since the beginning of the year, first incubated as a six-month experiment at the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts in the White Stag building. When it became clear that a huge catalyst necessary for the process—the public—was missing from that space (the only room for the machinery was hidden in the basement), Stadler partnered with No to create a publishing business that would explore a sustainable production model and build a community around the books created. And the first thing on their agenda: a visible storefront that would draw in passers-by to buy books, watch the process, and encourage collaboration.
The Cleaners location is ideal in more ways than one. Stadler light-heartedly calls it the “golden triangle of the future of publishing,” with Powell’s, Reading Frenzy, Counter Media, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center just a block away. The proximity to the Ace Hotel and Stumptown Coffee means the corner is actually buzzing with people in those early morning hours. Next-door neighbor Clyde Common serves food and drink for the Studio’s events. And those 15-foot-tall windows provide the perfect showcase for all the daily action.
“We move at the speed of chit chat,” Stadler says. “It literally means that what we do is driven by social interactions. It’s driven by who walks in.” That makes Publication Studio a hub of all kinds of possibility. “I want to be involved in a community that manifests its bizarre diversity in the form of bookmaking.”
Although anyone can create a book at the Studio for $15 per bind (plus $5 for trimming and five cents per print), the titles sold at Publication Studio and online are the result of more in-depth relationships with writers and artists. Like Owner of This World, Shawn Records’ book of photos from the set of Where the While Things Are, in which his son Max starred. Or former Whitney Biennale curator Larry Rinder’s salacious peek into the fine art world, Revenge of the Decorated Pigs. Or the 19 more experimental books that Stadler and No commissioned from 24 local artists to display at the Amsterdam Biennale, an ongoing exhibition of the “underground art scene” from 30 cities around the world. Books like photographer Sarah Meadows’ hypnotic gray-scale close-ups of water, Zach Rose’s hefty chronicle of one hour on the Internet, and Israel Lund’s surprisingly tactile photocopies of, well, his laundry. The selections combine Portland’s DIY, literary, and arts cultures, giving the world a glimpse of our city through their pages.
“We’re showing that working one to one with people you know intimately is sufficient for creating global culture,” says Stadler, who hand-delivered the 19 creations to Amsterdam and represented Portland at the opening party on October 24. Back at home, No hosted a simultaneous 11 a.m. party at the Studio with gin, Dutch snacks, and nearly 80 people connected via Skype to both Amsterdam and Beirut. Writers in all three cities collaborated in real-time on a collective text that will now be printed and bound as the 20th book in the Portland Pavilion. A duplicate set of the books shown in Amsterdam are on display at the Studio until December, and several will be added to the catalog for future sale.
This is just one example of the “conversation” around books that Stadler often refers to as the essence of Publication Studio. Instead of expensive media blitzes and book tours, “our way to sell books is just talking about it,” he explains. “It’s an organic process that is slow, but with this kind of printing, one at a time, you can actually make a real economy around a book.” Sometimes that’s just one person sharing a new book with a friend, who tells another friend and another. Other times it means curating a discussion with fellow pros, serving up food and drinks, and inviting the public to dig in.
Stadler has been hosting Back Room events around the city for years—an evening of dinner with flowing wine and lively readings, music, and other inspired dialogue—and brought the first of that model to Publication Studio last Sunday, with a menu by Clyde Common, music from Chervona, and guests of honor, Larry Rinder and San Francisco artist Colter Jacobsen, who created limited edition covers for the novel. It was a rollicking, and by all accounts, successful night that ended with a special edition of the book with pages decorated with wine, charcoal, pencil, wax.
This week also saw the first free monthly “Stay Happy Hour,” which combines Clyde Common’s amazing drink deals ($5.50 cocktails) and snacks with a rambunctious discussion about literary trends and issues. This time around, Semiotexte co-editor Hedi El Khoti and author Bruce Benderson joined Stadler in exploring copyrights, electronic pirating, and bootleg books (Benderson’s may join the other two rogue titles that Publication Studio currently publishes).
And lest you think they’re bootlegging more than books at the Studio, they trade the booze for juice and coffee at family-friendly Rebound Parties. For just seven bucks (less than the usual $20), kids and parents can bring in an old paperback, create their own new cover, and watch Ol’ Gluey in action. The next is scheduled for December 12, but also look for these on sporadic Saturdays, Sundays, or no-school days (check the calendar for all event updates).
In the meantime, Publication Studio is open every weekday, bright and early, creating fresh books hot off the press. Think of it as your literary farmers market, creating a direct link between you and the cultivators of words and ideas. In a world of mass-market, homogenized paperbacks, this is a more nutritious, organic option. Maybe it’s even the place where you learn to do it yourself. After all, as much as a writer may toil in solitude, and a reader gets lost in her own head, it’s ultimately the connections with a community that bring a book to life. And as with so many things these days, it may be that going back to the fundamentals is what leads to a more sustainable future. If anyone is forging ahead to try and figure it out, it’s here.
“Publication is a social endeavor,” Stadler concludes. “We’re involved in a dynamic conversation. We don’t know where that may lead, but we want to be both good listeners and active participants moving it forward.”
Hours: Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-12 p.m.