In a Bind

Matt Werner talks about the politics of hand-binding his book.

Berkeley alumni are a prolific bunch. They all have something to say, and many are moved to put it in writing. What is unusual is to not only publish your own book but to print it yourself, bind it by hand, and cart it to the bookstores on your own. Add in that the author/publisher has a day job at Google, and we think you’ll agree that Matt Werner ’07 is unusual even for a Berkeley grad. We caught up with Matt via email to ask him a few questions about why, and how, he released his book—Oakland in Popular Memory, a collection of interviews with Oakland artists—the hard way.

Why did you—as a Google employee involved in ebook publishing—choose to publish Oakland in Popular Memory as a printed book?

Printing today has now become a political statement, and with my books, I don’t think you get the full experience reading the digital version. By printing and hand-binding the books myself, I want to give people a reason to buy the physical copy. Because I put my sweat into the printed copies—making the individually numbered copies by hand in Berkeley using 100% cotton paper—you get something special and personalized, which is hard to replicate in the digital format. However, with digital publishing you can create more interactive content, like what Push Pop Press did with iBooks. You can have people zoom in and zoom out on images, watch videos, and have a rich media experience while reading the book.

But I don’t think these devices will replace the printed book. People have a special relationship with books as physical objects that can’t currently be replicated in a digital format. This includes marginalia, and large-scale foldouts and visualizations. It’s hard to replicate that experience on a phone or tablet.

How did your background influence your decision to start Thought Publishing and to self-publish your first three books?

I was fortunate as a student at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco to be one of the first students to take writing classes from Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon at 826 Valencia, Eggers’s writing nonprofit. And I was also fortunate as an undergrad studying English at Cal to have Professor Julia Bader sponsor my independent study, where I’d go to McSweeney’s Publishing in the Mission District every Friday and pick up writing and editing assignments for McSweeney’s publications. At that time, the entire publishing house consisted of a tiny room packed with quirky editors. You’d get to it by climbing up a ladder behind the pirate supply store at 826 Valencia Street. This experience with 826 and McSweeney’s gave me skills in editing, design, and layout using Adobe InDesign, and it also showed me that I could run a publishing house on my own. So I took over a high school friend’s small, independent publishing house called Thought Publishing in 2010, and I’ve been publishing a book a year since, outside of my work at Google.

Could you elaborate on the process of printing and hand-binding the book?

When I was an undergrad at Cal, I worked at the Bancroft Library. If we wanted something to last a long time, we printed it on 100% cotton, archival-quality paper. Today the trend in publishing is to mass-produce books as cheaply as possible. However, if you’re printing books on newsprint, you aren’t giving people a good reason to buy the physical book over the digital copy.

I used six cartons of Strathmore Pure Cotton ultra-white paper, similar to what people use to print Ph.D. dissertations or resumes. Because I was able to cut costs by using family resources for printing and binding, paper was the one area where I splurged. I negotiated a great deal for 30,000 sheets of some of the finest paper money can buy, through the Xpedx Paper Store in Berkeley before it closed.

My cousin Sean Kelly spent years remanufacturing toner cartridges, and he currently tests printer cartridges in Sacramento. His warehouse is full of printers. When I went out there, he pulled toner cartridges out of the trash and was able to make a working cartridge out of two or three broken ones. I’d then print as many pages as I could off that cartridge, then give it to my cousin to swap out whatever needed to be fixed for me to keep printing.

After printing the 30,000 sheets on both sides, I then took the boxes of manuscripts to my uncle Jim Kelly’s (who got a bachelor’s in physics at Cal in the late ’60s) book binding shop, Saddle Point Systems on 9th Street in Berkeley. My uncle sells the same binding equipment that many copy shops in Berkeley use to bind course readers. I also used his foil printers to print the covers and spines with silver foil.

How do you sell and promote your books?

I fundraised for my last two books by running successful Kickstarter campaigns. Funds from these campaigns went to pay my editors, illustrator, cover art designer, ebook conversion on oDesk, and to pay for my modest marketing budget. I used Adobe InDesign to do the design and layout for the books. I sell them online through Fulfillment by Amazon, the Google Play Store, and ThoughtPublishing.org. And I also sell quite a few books at local events such as Oakland’s First Friday Art Murmur.

For publicity, I use Eva Zimmerman, Rick Steves’s publicist. I met her at The Albatross in late 2011 at a Berkeley classmate’s birthday party. I asked her if she’d be willing to help publicize Oakland in Popular Memory with a very limited marketing budget. She agreed, and helped me get placement in The Huffington Post, among other publications. I leveraged this publicity to approach Bay Area independent bookstores to take my books on consignment.

Oakland in Popular Memory is now at over a dozen local bookstores, and I warehouse my extra books at my parents’ house near the Claremont Hotel. On weekends, I ride my bike to different stores with books in my backpack, and I check to see if the stores need any restocking. I get great exercise and the opportunity to chat with some of the most knowledgeable people about publishing today—bookstore owners. The danger is, once I collect my royalties in-store, I may be tempted to purchase a book they recommend. They know my book preferences better than Amazon’s recommendations.

What is the political statement you’re making by printing your books?

I’ve self-published my writing because I want to have creative control over it and to distribute it how I like. Currently, my format of choice is the old-fashioned printed book, but I am flexible as I evaluate the best format for my next book, Graduating During the Recession. Given my intended audience of recent college grads, the rich media content in the book, and the proliferation of e-reading devices, I may consider publishing that book straight to digital.

Many trade magazines are mourning the “death of print,” similar to when Nas said “hip hop is dead” in 2006. However, neither print nor hip hop is dead. Yes, they’re undergoing deep transformations, but they are by no means gone. Current publishing models just aren’t effectively meeting many readers’ needs and expectations.

The political statement in my print-first self-publishing model is to reduce the distance between the producer and consumer. I’ve tried to connect directly with my readers by printing and binding my books by hand. In addition, Kickstarter.com has enabled me to do a subscription model, where people donate money to my book project in return for a copy of the book; this helps me gauge interest in the book before I print it.

Where many industries want to scale, replicate, and cut costs in all ways possible, I’ve paradoxically found that by sparing no expense and printing on arguably the most expensive paper money can buy, I’ve given my work value as a handmade object—and unlike many large, corporate publishing houses today, Thought Publishing is profitable.

From the Spring 2013 Growing Up issue of California.
Filed under: Arts + Letters
Image source: Dave Smallen
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