Hand-Bound From Cover to Cover
By Malarie Gokey
Books at Ugly Duckling Presse are not manufactured or mass-produced; they are born. The small non-profit publishing company inhabits a single room in the basement of an old tin can factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The innards of future books line the walls; stacks of paper, thick and thin, in a variety of colors sit in carefully labeled cardboard boxes. An antique printing press stands in the back half of the room beside an imposing paper cutter nick-named “The Guillotine.”
The books range in style and content from foreign language translation to wildly experimental avant garde poetry. Matvei Yankelevich, 37, is one of the co-founders of UDP and a member of the editorial collective. He edits the Eastern European Poets Series. “Our main objective is to publish new work by American poets, poetry in translation, experimental non-fiction, books by artists, and non commercial works of literature,” he said, “Things that might be difficult to place in a commercial context.”
Ugly Duckling Presse prints chapbooks, obscure art books, 6×6 the literary magazine, and full-length poetry books; the creative cousins of the ordinary tomes found in bookstores. Each copy is unique; a hand made product of the editorial collective’s imagination. “If you judge a book by its cover, you’ll fall in love with all of our books,” said Ming Feron, 21, an intern at UDP, “It takes a lot of artistry.”
The most basic book produced at UDP, the chapbook, is entirely hand bound. The process begins with a cover, printed on a semi-electric, mostly manual, Italian printing press from the 1960’s. The centerfold of every cover must be perfect; in this factory, not a scrap of paper goes to waste. The three interns collate the pages and trim the excess with the “Guillotine.” The pages are folded into the cover, punctured by an awl, and sewn together. Iris Cushing, 28, an intern at UDP since January, is inspired by the beauty of hand bound books. “The same way that poets make poems, or artists make paintings,” she said, “A publisher can make a book.”
The Presse is run by an editorial collective of eight to 12 people and depends on the help of three interns and a number of volunteers. Each editor takes on three to five projects a year. The process is entirely hands-on and labor intensive. “As an editor, when you take on a project, you follow it through the whole process,” Yankelevich said, “From editing and production, to publishing, and publicity.”
Every book is a labor of love for the editors. “We’re still doing this because it’s fun for us,” he said, “It’s important that our editors aren’t overwhelmed.” The 30 books UDP planned to print in 2011 have proved to be a stretch. Next year the editors have scaled the number down to 25. “Our sustainability is based on the sanity of our editors,” Yankelevich said.
As a non-profit press, UDP operates on 25 percent funding from grants and about 60 percent from sales, which is “a lot for a small press,” Yankelevich said. Every member of the editorial collective contributes to the grant writing effort. “It’s hard to get grants for small presses,” he said, “There’s still this idea that publishing is about selling books because you must be making money to be a business.”
UDP sells through distribution, making the majority of its profits online. They also run a subscription service. Subscriber rates range from $50 for the most basic package to $1,000 for the collectors’ package. The collectors’ subscription includes all UDP titles including 6×6 magazine, invitation to all author events, special editions, ephemera, and a limited edition artist book. The Presse also has relationships with libraries all over the country including Yale and Harvard.
UDP has forged partnerships with a variety of bookstores around the country. St. Mark’s Bookshop has one of the largest selections of poetry in New York. Ugly Duckling books are nestled into each of the eight shelves, bright hand bound gems in rows of mass-produced books. The bookstore ordered books at UDP from the start and has been one of their partner stores for “about four years,” said Margarita Shalina, 37, the buyer for St. Mark’s Bookshop. “We like to maintain a huge indie and small press stock,” she said, “The book industry is changing so rapidly. The things that are going to last are books that are beautiful and the ephemera that are not as disposable and not right for the e-book model.”
In the modern world of publishing, the sustainability of print depends on the publisher’s ability to market traditional print in a new way to a consumer market entranced by e-books. According to a report by the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales grew 202.3 percent between February 2010 and February 2011. Ugly Duckling Presse contends that the legacy of print will endure. “Because the book occupies a complicated place in history, I think the book that has longevity now is the book that visually adds to the reading experience,” said Yankelevich.
The books made at UDP are novelties; there are only 400 to 1,000 copies printed and each book carries the distinction of being handmade from start, to finish. Garth Graeper, 33, began volunteering at UDP in 2004, and has been there ever since. He travels between the two extremes of modern publishing: the exclusively hand bound books of Ugly Duckling Presse and the computerized e-books at Random House Publishing. “There’s a surprising amount of overlap. The same issues of formatting and marketing apply,” he said. Graeper is not worried about the future of small presses. “The small press community is growing. There’s always a new small press opening up,” he said.
Dottie Lasky, 33, a Queens based poet, was featured in Ugly Duckling’s 6×6 magazine. UDP published her chapbook, Poetry Is Not a Project, in 2010. From start to finish, the soft blue hand bound tome, which features illustrations by Sarah Glidden, was created in only “a few months,” Lasky said. “There was great love and care, as they make the books by hand. So there is a lot of care about both the words I chose and the book as an art object.”
Lasky believes that Ugly Duckling is a valuable resource to the poetry community. “I think UDP has a immense influence that is growing in New York and elsewhere,” she said, “They have wide appeal and I wouldn’t be surprised if they acquire funds soon that will allow them to grow their incredible vision large scale.”
Standing beside an industrial printer, Yankelevich paused mid paper shuffle. “Print is important; the way a book looks and feels is important,” he said.