The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Ellen Lupton


“Ellen Lupton makes this industry smarter. If graphic design has a sense of its own history, an understanding of the theory that drives it and a voice for its continuing discourse, it’s largely because Lupton wrote it, thought it or spoke it.” — Katherine Feo, AIGA

Dedicated to raising design awareness, Ellen Lupton is the Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

A regular columnist  for ReadyMade Magazine, she has contributed to Print, Eye, I.D., and Metropolis, and writes regularly about design at both Design-Your-Life and her own website Design Writing Research.

Her books include the indispensable introduction to typography Thinking with Type, DIY: Design It Yourself, D.I.Y. Kids,  co-authored with her identical twin sister Julia Lupton, and Graphic Design: The New Basics, co-authored with Jennifer Cole Phillips.

Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things , another collaboration with her sister Julia, will be published by St. Martin’s Press later this year.

But, not content with being an  author, curator, designer, and educator, Ellen recently became a publisher, founding  Slush Editions to independently publish the novel Sexy Librarian by artist Julia Weist.

Sexy Librarian also features as a case study in Ellen’s latest book  Indie Publishing— a guide for independent authors written, researched, and designed in collaboration with graduate students at MICA — published in December 2008 by Princeton Architectural Press.

Ellen kindly replied to my questions about design and indie publishing by email.

And for the sake of full disclosure, I should make absolutely clear that several of Ellen’s books are published by New York’s Princeton Architectural Press who are distributed by Raincoast Books in Canada. But, for the record, that only explains why I have her email in my address book, not why I chose to interview her.

I have also interviewed Ellen previously for the Pages bookstore in Toronto.

How would you define ‘indie publishing’?
Indie publishing is author-driven. The traditional publishing industry is controlled by publishing professionals — editors, marketing people, promotional staff, and the publishers in charge. These are all skilled people. In our book, we use the term broadly, to encompass everything from handmade zines to print-on-demand books to offset publications distributed by the authors to small imprints created by design firms who wanted to get into the content business.

How is it different from the traditional publishing industry?
Because it’s author-initiated, indie publishing side-steps the traditional barriers of the publishing industry. It gets beyond the gatekeepers. Now, those gatekeepers act as guardians of quality to some degree, but they also contribute to a homogeneous and profit-driven publishing industry that many authors find hostile and hard to penetrate. Indie publishing often serves niche or local markets that can’t be addressed by mainstream publishing.

What are the benefits of publishing yourself?
If you have had difficulty breaking into the mainstream publishing world, going independent is liberating. If you end up producing a successful book, the profits can be substantial, but this shouldn’t be the main motive to get into publishing. Few authors make substantial bucks on their books — regardless of who publishes them. For most of us, writing and producing books is a labor of love.

What are the risks?
Most forms of indie publishing cost money, and that’s a risk. When you work with a commercial publisher, they foot the printing bill. Publishers also provide essential services like editing, proofreading, design, distribution, and marketing. The indie publisher has to take on all these tasks alone (or find friends to help out). It’s not easy, especially the distribution part. Self-published books are still viewed as less legitimate than commercially published books, although this is starting to change.

Do you see indie publishing as part of a wider D.I.Y. movement?
We are seeing more independent production in all creative fields — music, art, theater, design, etc. Younger creative people are interested in creating new institutions and networks outside the official art world or music/literature establishments. They are comfortable using technology to disseminate their ideas.

How has the internet affected the development of indie publishing?
The internet allows indie publishers to reach potential readers outside the bookstore system. Today, anyone can set up an Amazon Marketplace account or sell publications directly from their web sites. Print-on-demand publishers like Lulu and Blurb produce books when someone buys them, sending the finished book directly to the customer. These technologies are creating new possibilities for authors, especially those whose work is directed at narrower, smaller audiences.

What advice would you give someone publishing their first book?
Love your book. Get advice from lots of people in order to have the best possible content. Consider the different avenues that exist for publishing your work, including mainstream publishing as well as independent ventures.

Think about your audience and the best way to reach them. And think about your own primary goals for publishing a book. For example, an artist having a gallery exhibition might use a print-on-demand book as a tool for building his or her career via grant applications, networking with galleries and curators, securing lecturing and teaching opportunities, and more. A well-designed, carefully authored book has many functions. Selling copies to lots of people is just one of them. You might use a book as professional portfolio for landing a job or attracting clients — maybe all you need is a few copies.

What are some of the common mistakes people make designing books?
It’s important to use good software. The industry standard today is Adobe InDesign, which is available for both Mac and PC and can be easily learned via software manuals or technical workshops. Programs like Microsoft Word or Publisher are extremely cumbersome and will ultimately be frustrating to a person trying to design a refined and elegant book. Choosing a good typeface is also important. Avoid Times Roman, which was originally designed for newspapers and is so widely used as to be banal. Beautiful, high-quality typefaces such as  Garamond often come bundled with layout software and computer operating systems. Keeping your design simple and consistent from page to page is a rule of thumb for any book design. You also need to “unlearn” some habits from high school, such as leaving two spaces between sentences — this is not done in formal typesetting, and it will make your book look amateurish.

What do you look for in good book design?
Beautiful type, elegant margins, consistent pages.

Have you ever bought a book just for its cover?
Of course! Cover design is extremely important. A cover is not only a billboard advertising your book on a shelf, it’s also an online logo for your book that needs to look great at 100 pixels high. Getting help from a good graphic designer on your book cover is a worthwhile investment.

What will be the impact of e-books on publishing?
I believe that e-books are going to be very, very good for authors. By lowering the cost of publishing, e-books will make it easier for more authors to get their work published and to reach specific audiences who want their content. What I’m less sure about is how e-books will affect graphic designers!

Are we finally seeing the ‘End of Print’?
I do believe there is a sea change going on. After decades of unsuccessful attempts at creating electronic book readers, suddenly the time seems right. I don’t think print will disappear, but I think we will see less of it. It remains a tactile, permanent, stable medium that users can feel a personal attachment to.

What role do you think print-on-demand will play in the future?
Print-on-demand is where digital media and print meet. I think we will see a lot more of this as prices go down in the future. Ultimately, it is a more sustainable way to publish and involves less financial risk, but right now, it is too expensive for large-scale endeavors.

How will e-books and print co-exist?
E-books are great for disposable reading — magazines, casual fiction, newspapers. Perhaps every physical book in the future will come with an e-book supplement. I often want to quickly reference a book I read, and e-books would be great for that. Personally, I collect books, but I don’t need to keep the latest Richard Price book on my shelf forever.

As a designer, do you feel an attachment to print?
I am very attached to print. I don’t want to see it disappear in my own lifetime, that’s for sure. I love the tactility, permanence, and scale. But I do find myself reading more and more online.

Thanks very much Ellen!

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  1. This is such a great interview that you’ve posted, I really enjoyed reading it! I’ve just started a series on my blog interviewing artist/authors on their experience getting their books published. I posted a link on my blog to your post because I think that my readers might find it interesting as well! Thanks for such a great post…I’m glad I found your blog…I’ll keep reading!

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  4. thanks for this. lovely interview. i missed it. I like that some of what she says is either coming to light now or being dismissed now in regards to the whole ebook thing. bottom line is I agree very much that e-reading and e-readers etc are for disposable content. but a book is still a book is still a book. We love em and we’ll have them around for a long time. I think the focus on sustainable book production should be in terms of use of recycled papers, less toxic inks, less varnishing and speciality printing. There has to be a way to make readers choose recycled paper books (for new books being published—obviously the whole “used” book culture is strong and alive—at least here in portland). some symbol or mark that means a lot to the consumer just like NO GMO or ORGANIC food labels mean things to consumers. It’s a hard business to mess with. for the most part publishers are not ready to make certain sustainable changes in book production. At least not in any monumental way to actually make the consumer understand the diff. and have that happen by say next year.

    In due time though, I think that stylish e-readers will be developed and seeing a nice cover design in that medium will still be a key method of marketing books.

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