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Mar 11, 2021

The Print on Demand Myth: Hoping for Public Distribution

At first glance, Print on Demand advertises a promise of democracy: Everyone can publish. The Library of Artistic Print on Demand makes a case for the limits of economically driven PoD platforms and how artists subvert them. In conversation with Annette Gilbert and Andreas Bülhoff.

Impossible Library: Which publications were the starting point for your Library of Artistic Print on Demand?

Andreas Bülhoff: I first encountered Print on Demand through a project by Paul Soulellis: The Library of the Printed Web. Some of the books therein were created with Print on Demand technologies. Later, working on my dissertation, I became actively aware, in which among other things I wrote about Astronomical by Mishka Henner. It is a Print on Demand book-set with image material from a space probe. These books were available via the self-publishing platform Lulu but were removed because there was too much black ink on the pages. It seems this book was a losing bargain for Lulu. This made it the initial project for me to understand wherein the possibilities and limitations of Print on Demand lie. Such large projects are produced relatively quickly, and change conceptually—they can be removed just as quickly from the platform. Here, I became conscious of the mode of production inherent in PoD.

Annette Gilbert: I just looked into my old mail account, the first orders are on Lulu and Blurb from 2013. Back then, I searched for institutionally critical publications or those, questioning their processes of production. Thereby, I happened upon books that I could not find in any library. Usually, I first browse books in the library, at fairs, or in bookstores before I decide if I will buy them. With these, I could not review or view them, because they were nowhere to be found. Our library could not order any of the books because they are not available in bookstore distributions, and are only available for order via the respective platform, or directly from the artist.

AB: Here, one sees how little such institutions have such productions on their radar. They are not represented in their system of acquisition at all.

AG: That is why I was forced to find them myself. The first was Black Book by Jean Keller, Blank on Demand by Silvio Lorusso and Giulia Ciliberto, and 56 Broken Kindle Screens by Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg.

Blank on Demand is a double edition: one version exists with the minimum amount of pages on Lulu for 5 Euros—and the other, a maximal version with over 700 pages for 999.999 Euros. Of course, I bought the cheap version. 56 Broken Kindle Screens is a collection of frozen kindle-screens. Supposedly, this happens sometimes when Kindles break.

AB: An important project for our collection was also Variable Formats by AND Publishing. This is a set of 12 books with identical content in different formats. You can then compare how different formats crop the content, how the book’s materials differ. beschneidet.

Courtesy Artistic Print on Demand: https://apod.li/

AG: I am reminded of another project that would burst open any standard library system: Print Wikipedia by Michael Mandiberg. He packed a whole English language Wikipedia with the help of a computer program into over 7000 volumes. He did the same with the German Wikipedia for an exhibition in Berlin and printed and showed like 100 volumes. He asked me, “Where can I put these?” He asked the large German State and Art Libraries, they did not want them. The volumes had too many square meters for them.

IL: How many publications are in your stacks today?

AB: We are at around 125, some in multiple volumes. At the end of the day, it is probably more than 200.

IL: How does the selection in your “library" come about?

AB: There is something one could describe as an intersubjective canon—of authors who have already undergone a kind of canonization and are already a bit well-known in the genre. That is the basis. Then there is an Open Call and many publications were recommended to us via conversations with artists. A lot emerged idiosyncratically from conversations.

AG: Limitations are imposed on us now, they mostly come from the outside. For one, our funds are almost depleted. And some purchases are forbidden because many of these projects have a maximal size like the Print Wikipedia. On the other the peak of artistic Print on Demand is behind us. Wie still made discoveries in the least years, but not that much followed. The experiment’s time seems expired.

IL: Are their overarching themes in your libraries?

AB: Genre-wise many works are about computerization, Internet-culture, and digitalisation. These are the themes that are imminently connected to PoD. How content changes through the re-medialization— for example, from the web into a book and back again. This changes—-what kind of forms of deficit or developments like in the translation between analog and digital —can be deducted from many of the books.

"Print on Demand is perhaps the most fundamental change in print-methods in decades."

IL: How did come to the setting in your research to focus on artistic Print on Demand publications?

AB: One of our theses in our research project is that the methods of production have a strong influence on the book's creation. When a method of production changes fundamentally, the content also changes. Print on Demand is perhaps the most fundamental change in print-methods in decades by which —this is our theses— this dependency becomes particularly apparent.

AG: However, this is not the only theses. I mean risography or mimeography in the 70s function in a similar way. In this regard, it would be a repetition, just with a different specificity. An interplay of method and content. First independency is gained. But in contrast to the Mimeo and the Riso, behind PoD systems their are world-wide distribution systems backing them. It is not only the production, but also the accessibility or at least the hope for a public through distribution. But that is maybe the reason why the hype is abating now.

IL: Where do you see the limitations in Print on Demand processes?

AB: The dependency is shifting. It is possible to escape the book market through self-publishing. However, one is at the mercy of the large companies’ platforms. We have a few examples of artists that quit using PoD platforms because, because the platforms censored them, because the quality was bad, the pricing calculation changed, and so forth.

IL: Is there an example that describes the problem with PoD platforms especially?

AB: Lulu was one of the big protagonists in the Print on Demand processes. While our research project was underway, they suddenly abolished the book-preview function. Before, it was possible to view a section from a book or to click through the whole book on the site. The New York based Troll-Thread-Collektive's whole publication model was essentially based on this function. They used Lulu as a free-of-charge storage and gallery space for their publishing program. The preview and download made their books available free-of-charge, they were not expecting people to really buy them. With the relaunch of Lulu’s new website, this preview model became impossible. Artists become victims to such changes. They have no autonomy over such processes.

AG: There is also a form of censorship. We have collected numerous cases where artist books were just deleted or their whole account was terminated from one day to the next. Partly, the reasoning was explicit content, sometimes contentious copyright issues. Partly, the reasoning was not comprehensible. Maybe an Algorithm also did the sorting.
In these cases, the platform’s regulators blocked the productive artistic moment. Therein, is also a kind of disappointment with Print on Demand production.

"An essential argument for our decision making process: the critical interaction with the platforms. A subversive moment."

IL: Die you leave out certain publications? Did some publications not make your criteria for artistic Print on Demand?

AG: Yes, there are a few. Such Publications useing PoD as a form of self-publishing, without entertaining the medium or this new system, those that just use it as a simple distribution channel, this would be too little for our collection.

AB: An essential argument for our decision making process: the critical interaction with the platforms. A subversive moment, in which a reflection on the medium book or the terms of production takes place. If the interaction was not critical then it was less relevant for us.

IL: Who is your library’s audience?

AB: We hope to kindle an interest in the research and this ephemeral phenomenon is made accessible for further research. Another audience is the artists themselves, whose books in Print on Demand formats are rarely if at all archived. There is the case, after account terminations, the books just disappeared. We cannot leave the archival work to the platforms.
We try to find categories for works that actually try to withdraw themselves from any type of categorization.

IL: What is your role and function as Print on Demand-Librarians?

AG: Every day we learn new things how the publications can be archived in the system. There are very few toe-holds in reference to the usual cataloguing rules. We have to consistently invent new categories and terms. Just as an example: The library is supposed to become a part of the state-library in Munich. However, in their cataloguing system there is no terminology for Print on Demand.

IL: Your library will find a home in the State Library in Munich on the other hand, you are also facilitating the archive via your website. Why this divide?

AB: Our own website was necessary, because the library did not have enough categories for our collection. We had to insert an interface to even make the library accessible or analyzable.

IL: Because established library systems have their own rigid structures.

AG: They certainly will not change their cataloguing system for us.

AB: This mode of categorization is a huge part of the work. We try to find categories for works that actually try to withdraw themselves from any type of categorization.
Many of the books have a post-digital in-between status. This makes it hard to classify them with the terminology of classical books. It is also about finding genre-categories for the Print on Demand books. Under “subject” we try to describe what the book’s content is, what its objective is.
And “method” collects the methods of production, the process and the book's concept. With these terms we try to find keywords for our collection.

"In some ways every library cataloging system is burst open."

IL: What kind of challenges have you encountered while sorting and categorizing?

AB: A large part of the work is the book’s graphic documentation. To photograph them as book-objects and to make them available, so you don’t only see the cover or Pdf like on the Print on Demand platforms. The intention is also to document the materiality, for example, the book jacket shimmers in this way.

AG: In addition to some quite formal aspects, many of these books do not have a classic title page or an imprint or page numbers. How does one count the book’s pages? And what is even the correct title? Sometimes the cover differs from the title page or the text on the spine of the book. Or we have something like a decided refusal of copyright on the title page or the imprint. Who do we then list as an author? Or, in the case of authorship of 20 people. In the institutional library’s catalogue that usually means: three names in alphabetical order and then “et al.” (and others). But it is also a statement, when there are 20 people on the list. In some ways every library cataloging system is burst open. To what extent our own homepage can demonstrate this conclusively and how the Bavarian State Library will represent them is surely a tantalizing challenge.

AB: Then there is a Print on Demand phenomenon, regularly printing and binding mistakes appear, so not all books are equal, or for example, a page is missing in the supposedly mistake-free, automatic production process.

The platforms have a kind of quality-check but it is so lax that production mistakes regularly occur. We document this in our library: books, in which the cover is the wrong way round. The pages are not ordered in an ascending fashion, content is cropped, etc.

"We built a— as the artist Michaelis Pichler would say— a respectable Trojan horse."

IL: … this is all a part of the Print on Demand process. Remarkable that you pinpoint the failures and limitations.

AG: Every copy of the one and the same book is different and if I compare the first books from 2013 with those from seven years later, then they look different and are bound differently too. Which perfect binding is used, is dependent on which factory produces it. In Great Britain, printing is differs from the Netherlands. In the last months, I received orders from Poland which also has a completely different printing tradition. We would have to magnify the materiality more, get a professional’s opinion who describes this in-depth.

IL: Your project is demanding. How is it funded?

AB: Our library is a classical research project, third-party financing through the German Research Collective. A quota is co-financed for the acquisition of books. That is why our collection is temporarily defined, when the funds are depleted and the research period is over, then we will close our collection.

IL: How do you view the consequences of your work, producing a Print on Demand canon?

AG: When we speak of canonization, I have a good and a bad feeling. A good one, in the sense, we are trying to make something known that is outside of the canon to make it more accessible. It was hard to even find a library as a partner to cooperate. It was hard to formulate an application—at the end of the day, we are a sub-project of a larger research project. We built a—as the artist, Michaelis Pichler would say—a respectable Trojan horse.
On the other hand, we are creating a canon within the excluded. This is problematic. Preliminary groundwork exists, similar projects, and a few academic contributions—but in principle, we are writing the history down. Implicitly, this comes with a certain responsibility. That is why the Open Call was very important to us. To also say: We don’t know everything and are open to new discoveries.

Website: https://apod.li/about

Images: Courtesy Artistic Print on Demand: https://apod.li/

Virtual Launch Event: March 16, 2021, State Library, Berlin: Schlecht gemachte Bücher. Künstlerische Publikationspraktiken im postdigitalen Zeitalter

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