19 in 2021 by Nat Pyper. Courtesy Nat Pyper.

Spurred by the economic crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and social upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movement, independent publishers are rethinking what publishing is and can be. The pandemic has deeply shaken the publishing industry — mainstream book sales are up, but the cultural institutions and book fairs that supported independent art and design publishers have been decimated. Meanwhile, the groundswell of activism on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement and increased concern about racist systems of oppression has made more space for people with marginalized voices to publish their stories.

With the global proliferation of book fairs in recent years, independent publishing flourished. The pandemic revealed the fragility of this distribution network. Bay Area graphic designers Christopher Hamamoto and Jon Sueda regularly collaborate on self-initiated publications that primarily sell at book fairs. When the pandemic hit, Hamamoto and Sueda were working on On Publishing, a collection of interviews with graphic designers who publish. Initially conceived  as a small print edition to sell at book fairs, the pandemic forced them to reimagine it as a web publication with print-on-demand capabilities. In the publication’s introduction, Sueda laments how the pandemic put a “huge wrench” in the production and distribution channels on which his practice depends. Alternatively, Hamamoto hopes the pandemic might present a healthy challenge to traditional publishing, musing, “In my opinion it would be great if this spurred more designers and publishers to embrace the web as a publishing platform.” 

Hamamoto also finds hope in the “new ways designers and publishers are engaging in activism today,” like offering free services to support the Black Lives Matter movement and BIPOC-owned businesses. Homie House Press, a publishing studio run by Adriana Monsalve and Caterina Ragg, experienced a dramatic whipsaw effect from the slowdown of the pandemic and the urgency of the summer uprisings. According to its website, Homie House is a “space founded in community,” committed to rewriting history by “putting black and brown storytellers on the page.” “We had all our collaborations lined up for 2020. Then, when the pandemic started, everyone was like nevermind, I don’t wanna do it anymore,” Monsalve said. “And then the uprisings happened, and we were inundated with people wanting to hear our opinion. It’s definitely put a spotlight on us in different ways, and it’s a spotlight that honestly should have been there for a long time.”

In the United States, most independent publishers lack the governmental, institutional, or large donor funding seen in other countries. They have always struggled to be self-sustaining, and the pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. For some, this means embracing alternative economic models. Homie House’s model is based on redistributing resources—Monsalve and Ragg have a three-tiered fee structure for the artists who work with them. The Holy Guacamole is the most expensive tier, full-price is charged to established artists and white artists. Homie House’s midrange, the Personal Pizza, is for artists, primarily QTPOC, who have started to make a name for themselves but still need some support. The Peanutbutter & Jelly is completely free and is reserved for students and others without the means to pay, for this tier, Homie House is able to provide everything for free. “It’s a way to put money back into the spaces and the voices that we want to hear more of,” explains Monsalve.

While Homie House uses publishing to redistribute resources, Ramon Tejada, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at RISD, views publishing as a means of sharing resources. In 2018, Tejada published The decolonizing or puncturing, or de-Westernizing design Reader V4: An in-progress, collaborative project as a shared Google Doc. The Reader lists hundreds of resources including books, articles, talks, and videos, and it’s constantly expanding. In a time when the design field is waking up to the need for inclusive resources, its value is obvious. But Tejada has resisted monetizing the project. “I don’t need money,” he said. “Money for what? Like the $2 I would get? I think it’s this whole idea of gift economy. It’s just like a little gift. It’s just me sharing something I made.” 

Tejada’s use of a Google Doc as a publishing format exemplifies his interest in radically re-imagining publishing. Like most graphic designers, he loves books, but he wonders, “Once you put it in that form, and you bind it, and you put it in the bookshelf, is that canonized?” He is wary of committing a text to a bound book and inadvertently creating a new canon. Any canon—even a progressive one—is exclusive, elitist, and limited. Tejada is often asked about publishing his Reader as a book. For him, it doesn’t make sense. The Reader is constantly changing and growing. Its content is too urgently needed to wait for the printing process. 

“Once you put it in that form, and you bind it, and you put it in the bookshelf, is that canonized?”

Vivian Sming, an artist who experiments with books as art, discourse, exhibition, and archive through her publishing studio Sming Sming Books, says books maintain their relevance because of—not despite—their permanence. The continuous editability of the internet can be slippery, and Sming thinks of publishing a book as “fixing an idea or thought in time.” She explains, “Once something is published, you are accountable to that idea or thought, whether or not you disavow it or amend it later.” 

Sming believes in the value of books as a publishing platform, but she doesn’t view publishing as exclusive to print. “We are publishing all the time—every hour, every day—through the variety of platforms made available through the internet,” she said. “Everyone engages in some form of publishing today,” adds designer, publisher, and educator Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab. Gallab takes an expansive view of publishing, citing personal websites, social networks, blogs, emails, forums, newsletters, shared documents, screenshots, printed ribbons, and embroidered patches as publishing platforms. Her headgear.pw project started as a series of emails, was re-published as a website, and again as an exhibition.

Gallab is more focused on publishing’s effect than its medium. She explains, “I am interested in better understanding how my visibility as a person of color, woman, and immigrant takes shape when my work is published.” This suggests that to publish is to make visible—to illuminate and give attention. Mindy Seu, a designer and researcher whose work focuses on public engagement with digital archives, shares Gallab’s broad perspective on publishing. When we talked, she momentarily struggled to come up with an example of something that wasn’t publishing. Eventually, she offered, “A conversation like this is not publishing. Once we close Zoom, it’s gone. You have to have some sort of visible mark in order for something to be published. There needs to be a trace.” 

Nat Pyper is an alphabet artist whose diverse practice includes writing sci-fi and researching queer publishing histories. Their urge to write and publish affirms Seu’s notion of the trace, and extends it beyond the visible. “I write because if I don’t put it down, I’ll forget it. You yell something into a well, it’ll echo for a few seconds, but then it’s gone,” said Pyper. “If you transcribe it into text, you can share it, and then it’s there.” Printed matter is often referred to as ephemera, but for Pyper, unpublished words and ideas are much more fleeting and insubstantial than any page.

Pyper holds a simple vision of publishing, describing it as “the abolition of distance between people.”

Pyper holds a simple vision of publishing, describing it as “the abolition of distance between people.” Yet one of the greatest challenges of the last year has been the personal distance the pandemic requires. Our efforts to maintain safe physical space have led to acute social isolation. The frenzy of in-person book fairs has been replaced by solitary screen experiences, yet hope can be found in an expanded notion of publishing. Caterina Ragg reports that Homie House is “circulating stories around the world, and bringing the stories into the community, even though the community is not located in the same place.” An increasing number and diversity of people are finding opportunities to share, connect, and leave a trace. Rather than viewing publishing as another victim of the pandemic, perhaps it can help save us from it.