Much of the work we do as designers, publishers, and artists remain mystified to our peers and the community at large. This is especially true in the last year or so, as the pandemic changed the norms of working, making, and living around the world. As a designer and artist myself, and as someone who has been in and out of the realm of independent publishing, I wanted to lift the veil and ask practical questions to independent publishers about how they make it work. I sat with three independent publishers and artists: Be Oakley, the founder of GenderFail in Brooklyn, Sofia Niazi, co-founder and project manager Rabbits Road Press from the UK, and Nihaal Faizal, co-founder and artist who runs Reliable Copy from Bangalore. We discussed how their work has changed since the pandemic, economic considerations publishers must consider, the woes of global distribution, and the pressure of constant production and personal hard work.
How did you enter the publishing space?
Sofia Niazi: We barged in this space with our friends and a magazine we made called OOMK. I don’t think we ever formally entered this “space,” which I assume means “art/design world,” because that implies leaving behind the space that we were in. I feel like we made OOMK from where we were standing and have grown our world from there. There are certain things that marked transitions, doing a talk about OOMK for Stack Magazine’s monthly mag event in the basement of a trendy east London cafe was the first time it felt like we had a serious publishing audience. We’ve put a lot of love and energy into nurturing our own publishing ecosystem over the years with a steady stream of publications, hosting publishing fairs (like DIY Cultures) and setting up a printing press to support others to do the same.
Nihaal Faizal: For me, publishing emerged as a way out of a gap that was steadily widening in the way artistic practice in India was being oriented towards exhibition-making as its sole end-result. While exhibition making, and the situating of works within the exhibition space, continues to be an important premise and context for a certain kind of production, it remains an insufficient avenue for the range of practices that many artists, including myself, engage with. Publishing offered a way towards a wider field of production, and therefore distribution, and this is what led me to start my project Reliable Copy.
Did you have a full-time job before this?
Sofia: Yes, I worked full time as a teacher, and let me tell you, if I’m making art and getting paid for it I find it very hard to complain about anything. Like many young people, I didn’t really know what “the jobs” were when I left school. I made art and books, but it didn’t seem like the kind of activity that could lead to any sort of financial stability. Being a teacher seemed like the best option available since it’s an ancient job, and I genuinely wanted to find out how children learn to read and write. Teaching workloads were intense and the stakes were always high. You have to keep 30 kids alive and also teach lots of subjects. I currently work full-time but on a combination of things including publishing projects—my own art practice and managing Rabbits Road Press. I also still teach part-time but it’s at a university, so I don’t have to worry about lots of kids vomiting on the school coach when we go on trips.
Nihaal: Prior to Reliable Copy, I held programming positions at various arts organizations in Bangalore. I was also freelancing as a graphic designer. I think a crucial break came when I was invited for a fellowship to Beirut at Ashkal Alwan, which gave me a year dedicated to developing my practice. While the idea for Reliable Copy began before my moving to Beirut, it solidified during my time there.
Be Oakley: I haven’t ever worked a full time job before GenderFail. I actually decided to go full time with GenderFail in February 2020, which was challenging but pushed me to make it work in unideal times. Previously I worked at various bookstores around New York City. I’ve worked for Hauser and Wirth Publishers Bookshop, Artbook @ MoMAPS1 (where I spent 10 months as the Magazine Store Manager only making $18 an hour) and also freelanced with Printed Matter as a bookseller only making $15 an hour. We all know the art world relies on unpaid and underpaid labor, which is why I am so excited to see all the unionizing efforts at museums and non-profits in the arts. Solidarity to working class people always and forever.
What is your relationship with your audience? How do they affect the logistical, political, and aesthetic potential of self-publishing?
Be: During the pandemic Instagram has become an unfortunate necessity to sustaining GenderFail. Facebook is destroying so much around us, and I really wish that we, as anti-capitalist, working class artists, could find needed alternatives to the tech boy fuckery we have to deal with. That being said, Instagram has helped me to connect to so many amazing artists, publishers and supporters online. I have had so many genuine online connections with folkx on the platform that have resulted in amazing conversations and interactions. Without having Instagram as a means to share my work, I would be unable to make a living off of GenderFail. I hope to find ways of sustaining GenderFail without this app, but currently I am wholeheartedly dependent on it for financial stability. Before the pandemic, attending artist book fairs was hugely important to fostering community.
Nihaal: A readership is the most important thing to publishing, but it is also important to understand that as a publisher, your readership varies with each title. Of course, there will always be a small group of dedicated readers that follow your work as a larger practice, but otherwise each publication engenders a new audience. This can be a rewarding thing, but also a great challenge. For instance, only one of our books, Flexing Muscles by Ravikumar Kashi, has had a wide readership in parts of Karnataka outside of Bangalore, whereas Still Life –mirrors and windows- by Mario Santanilla has sold more copies internationally than in India and can even be found in the New York State Library.
Sofia: OOMK has become less and less active online over the past few years, and I think part of the reason is that we like to get feedback and be in dialogue with people to understand how our work is received, what our peers do and say, and to inform what we can make next. We get a better sense of our audience and the community we are part of through doing projects with people and live events (like DIY Cultures Festival and the other fairs we host and co-host). Our approach with Rabbits Road Press, a community RISO press we run in East London, is a bit different. Since so much work is made there, we use the Instagram account more as a gallery/shop front but also hope it entices people to come to the press. The press feels like a place of real community where friendship lives and new art is made in a way that online can not really offer. Our collective publishing practice emerged alongside a thriving self publishing scene, so we’ve always been influenced by what was happening at zine fairs and in design more widely.
What kinds of creative intelligences does Independent publishing demand?
Be: An insistence on embracing imperfections, creative spontaneity, and taking note of the tools and resources at your fingertips.
Sofia: I think publishing requires a lot of trust between the people involved, and for it to be as painless as possible, good communication and the ability to negotiate. There are airy fairy dreamy stages, problem solving stages, and 300dpi solid stages—publishing demands a lot of different types of approaches at different stages, especially for the type of self-initiated and commissioned projects we’ve worked on.
How did you feel prepared to handle the business side of things? How have things changed or shifted since the pandemic?
Nihaal: The business side of things has been a challenge, and each year is an attempt to try and come closer to a functional and sustainable model. Currently we work as a partnership between a nonprofit trust and a firm, with one focusing on the educational and public access side of things, and the other focusing on sales, services, and logistics. Roles and responsibilities have definitely shifted because of the pandemic, and it has been a very uncertain time. Some months we would have no sales at all, and some months saw us at the post office almost every day. What we did realize though, is that publishing remained a model suited to the shifts in production and distribution that the pandemic demanded, and us still being here is a testament to that.
Sofia: Money never came from where we thought it would. Instead of sales and printing charges, our money comes from grants, talks, and workshops. We each have our own practices and other jobs that contribute a lot more to our incomes than self-publishing or selling art. Publishing during a pandemic has felt very different. In the beginning it was clear that it wasn’t important or essential, but once lockdowns started lifting, a lot of us started printing more personal/local projects with smaller print runs. For the first time it actually dawned on us that we have our own printing press and means of production; we could just go in and print and distribute stuff. It felt quite exciting.
Be: Working with bookstores has been an extremely important aspect of sustaining GenderFail as a business. Over time, wholesale orders have become about half of the income I may receive from sales of books and other merchandise. During the pandemic there was a huge uptick in online orders, and in 2020 I made more money than I ever had in my life. Without accounting for expenses, taxes, and artist payouts, GenderFail (and my other artist related income) totaled $81,349.
How did restrictions of the pandemic alter your publishing practice?
Sofia: Although there was no solid or full-time business attached to OOMK or Rabbits Road Press (it’s more of a project than a business), we have felt the impact of Covid financially since we had to cancel lots of workshops. I have a home studio, so if anything, my studio time increased. We’re heading to a farm next week with our other friends from Rabbits Road Press to spend some quality time together outdoors with sheep and one goat that we learned to milk last year.
Be: At the beginning of the pandemic I worked on various projects that helped propel GenderFail during this unreal time. Deciding to go full time with GenderFail the month before the pandemic left me feeling very uncertain about my ability to sustain myself during the shutdown. In 2020, since many people were not spending money traveling or going out, people bought more stuff including art. With so many people losing work and suffering during that period, I feel extremely lucky to have worked hard to be in this position where I could safely work from home, only needing to leave drop off packages at the post office. I suffer from a panic and anxiety disorder that often leaves me unable to leave my apartment due to my agoraphobia. These Covid restrictions were not that radically different in terms of time spent outside. I worked extremely hard during lockdown to make GenderFail sustainable and never experience or let myself slow down during this time. I feel that my mental health has suffered due to the decision to prioritize making money during this period rather than dealing with the magnitude of the crisis.
It’s interesting to think about how staying small and independent is another type of business model. Do you feel comfortable with where you’re at financially? What criticisms do you have of this space?
Nihaal: I don’t believe that there is such a thing as independent. I like to think of us instead as co-dependent. We are constantly dependent on our readership and their support, on grants, on client projects outside of Reliable Copy, on our partner institutions, and on the artists, authors, designers, editors, interns, and assistants that we work with. Currently our business model is a juggling act that doesn’t leave much room for comfort, but we are driven by the belief in what we are doing. The criticism is that it is tiring and often we are overworked and understaffed, But at the end of the day we are happy that the decisions of what we publish, when, and how, are all entirely ours to make.
Sofia: I think it’s very difficult to combine a space that was intended for dreaming and making friends with one that is intended for generating profit. Our way around this is to keep OOMK very bare bones; we have enough to keep going, but no one is reliant on OOMK money to pay their bills. We are very flexible, so we can apply for grants to take on larger projects or commissions—this alleviates any strain and prevents us from becoming a bloated admin-heavy arts institution. We want the focus to be on art and collaboration, so we’ve tried to go with a way of working that suits that. If we want to become a serious profit making business at some point, we’ll probably choose a different focus. I don’t think it can be done through independent publishing since we don’t want to rely on advertising.
Be: Currently I live a middle class lifestyle and feel more comfortable financially than I ever have in my life. I make the majority of my income from GenderFail and my artist practice. To do this, I need to do almost everything myself, including designing, printing, binding, and distributing all my books, merch and other works. GenderFail receives no funding and is exclusively sustained by online and in-person sales, wholesale orders, honorariums, and visiting artist fees. I would say about 60 percent of my time is spent finding money through wholesale orders, online sales, and reaching out to institutional and library collections. When I publish work with individual artists, I give 25 percent of all money made from books sold from the first copy. Generally artists publishing with me will make $750 to $1,000 from an edition of 200 books, which is our standard edition size.
I also recently started teaching at School of the Museum of Fine Art at Tufts University, where I am paid a fair wage due to the strong union for part-time professors (for context my pay is $10,888 per course, per semester). Starting next year I will be teaching two classes per semester which will put less stress on needing to make money through GenderFail. I’m hoping this will allow me to hire someone paying $25 to $30 an hour for ongoing part time work. So far this year, I’ve made $64,400 from GenderFail ( without accounting for taxes, expenses and artist payouts) and $10,724 from teaching (after taxes). As a white person, I think it’s paramount to be 100 percent transparent about the money we make and how we make it. I think other white artists and artistic laborers should share their salaries whenever asked. I also have listed all my income since 2019 on the GenderFail website and will be adding expenses for 2020 and 2021 at some point to get a full picture of what my final income was for each year.
How do you feel about distribution, shipping, and marketing? Have your tactics had to change over time?
Sofia: Definitely. We used to put a lot of time and effort into marketing and distribution, but now we just do a few posts here and there. We don’t do subscriptions and work on a broad range of publishing projects—many are externally distributed. When we do distribution ourselves we’re often very lucky to be in a position where all the costs are covered by art institutions/partners/grants so the publications are free; we just charge for postage and distribute via our online shop in one push over a few days.
Nihaal: We have been lucky to have partners in crime when it comes to distribution—other publishers and bookstores with whom we exchange titles—making sure that their titles are available to our readers, and ours to theirs. Having said that though, there is still a great deal of work to be done and maybe conversations such as this one can be starting points for further exchanges.
Be: Our online store and working with bookstores is critical to our availability to stay afloat during the ongoing pandemic. I was surprised and happy with how many stores continued to stock our books during 2020 and into 2021. Last year I shipped more than 1,000 packages, and USPS became a large part of my working life. I only use USPS, regardless of the price, to support this needed service.
How important was deciding what city your practice would be located in?
Sofia: It wasn’t a decision in the beginning. We all lived in London, and it was a brilliant place to start OOMK because it felt like a real center for everything that was great but also messed up about the wider world we were growing up in. It was easy to find other people who had the same passions and concerns. A few of us in OOMK had been to art schools in London, and we knew our way around the city, enough to be able to organize events and grow a little art community. It’s also a center for independent publishing and there are lots of zine/comics/book fairs to visit and table at with OOMK. In terms of practice, I had the opportunity to move out of London a few years ago and jumped on it because the downsides to the city were starting to get to me, namely the rapid pace and pressure on constant output. I was struggling to develop the type of art practice I wanted; one that I knew needed a bigger and more reliable space, silence, and the opportunity to make things without consequence.
Nihaal: It was a question of logistics, of access, and of comfort. The city of Bangalore has been important to me for the community here—one that comes from my having lived here for the last nine years—a community that is familiar, welcoming, and supportive of extended practices. The familiarity helps in finding alternative ways of doing something, whether with printing, distribution, shipping, or otherwise; in discovering loopholes, in quickly turning corners, and in navigating the challenges that come our way.
Be: Living In Brooklyn has become really important in both establishing GenderFail as a project and also being in community with so many amazing projects. I am lucky to be in walking distance of, or a short train ride away, from the studios of various small presses including TXTbooks, Secret Riso Club, Irrelevant Press, Small Editions, Hyperlink Press, Endless Editions, Lucky Risograph, Raw Meat Collective, Radix Media and many more. More importantly, New York City has so many incredible bookstores and spaces that sell small press publishing. Some of my favorites include Bluestockings, Printed Matter, Miriam Gallery, Molasses Books, Topos Bookstore, Bureau of General Services Queer Divistion, Playground Annex, Human Relations, and so many others.
What guidance or advice would you have for someone starting an independent publishing practice?
Sofia: Find some friends or people to do it with and see it as a learning process.
Nihaal: I do not know how to answer this, except to say that trusting in the process has worked out fairly well for me so far.
Be: Focus on projects that you have the means to practically produce with the resources you can get your hands on. Focus on making the most creative version of your project with the tools at your disposal. Start by making work you can actually afford to buy yourself rather than putting all your resources into expenses and unsustainable publishing projects. This, of course, may not be good advice for all, but it’s worth thinking about especially if you don’t come from financial privilege.