The Thursday Agitation: Jonathan Messinger

The titles published by Chicago’s Featherproof Books to date have ranged from art-world satire to graphic design showcases to surreal evocations of the South. Their “Light Reading” series of minibooks includes work from Kevin Sampsell, Elizabeth Crane, Patrick Somerville, and Nathaniel Rich (and, full disclosure, me). 2009 finds Featherproof expanding, with both Paper Egg Books‘ line of limited editions set to launch and a digital remix project debuting in conjunction with Blake Butler‘s Scorch Atlas. Co-publishers Jonathan Messinger and Zach Dodson are behind all of this, and earlier this week, I emailed Messinger a handful of questions about Featherproof’s new ventures.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

The Paper Egg site bears the heading “a new old idea from Featherproof”. Where did the idea first come from? And what led to it happening now?
Well, Zach and I have been tossing around various ideas for how to expand our list. We only do two books a year, and some of that is due to time constraints, but a lot of it is financial. Our books sell well, but not so staggeringly well that we can just expand and expand. We just don’t have a lot of cash flexibility. So we just started talking over various other approaches, and a subscription idea came up. It allows us to have a good sense of what our print run should be, and gives us a story of cash to actually make the books. We’ve probably been refining the idea for a year or so, until it seemed like it made sense.

I guess it’s happening now because we’ve finally got our act together. I think with any independent venture that you’re operating as a second job (or in our case, as our third or fourth jobs), there’s a risk of burnout. We’ve both felt that. But I think we’ve both come out of that understanding that the answer to burnout isn’t to stop, but to make things more fun for us. Making these books with Paul Hornschemeier, and working with authors we love, it’s just going to be a lot of fun.

The setup of Paper Egg reminds me more of Sub Pop‘s Singles Club, or Dark Beloved Cloud, than anything specifically happening in publishing today. Were you looking to other forms of media for inspiration?
Sub Pop’s Singles Club is one that’s come up a lot, definitely. We’re always looking to other media for ideas, solutions. Especially when it comes to reaching an audience and dealing with the changes that come with digital media, you have to look elsewhere. Music is a great place, because of all of the enormous screw-ups in that industry, and a lot of the creative solutions, too.

Logistically, will Paper Egg make as many books as there are subscribers? Or are there plans to have something in reserve — if, say, there’s suddenly a sudden demand for The Awful Possibilities in 2011?
Nope. The books are going to be limited, first editions. We’ll print just over the subscriber numbers we have, for press, touring, and to accommodate folks who want the book after they hear about it. But we want to keep the idea of limited editions as a legitimate non-gimmick, you know? I’d hate to say, “Hey everyone, sign up for these limited-edition books” and then just keep churning them out.

When you’re looking at books, what indicates that something will work as a Paper Egg title but not necessarily a Featherproof title?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if we’ve 100-percent nailed that down just yet. We’ve always been very vague about what we like at Featherproof. Zach and I have fairly divergent tastes, and they match up in strange places. I’d really like Paper Egg to be an imprint for work that is typically not given much consideration by press or retail outlets. That means novellas, short-shorts, etc. There’s sort of a different mission, almost a social goal for Paper Egg, that I think I’ve solely imposed on it, without maybe Zach knowing.

I’ve been reading a lot of discussion lately about the book as object in contrast with the digitization of novels, collections, and works of nonfiction. Featherproof’s titles strike me as being memorable for their look and feel, something that seems to be continuing with Paper Egg. What are your feelings on the physical object/digital content debate?
Well, the line we’ve been delivering for a while now is that printed books will, eventually, go the way of vinyl. At some point, digital distribution will be the predominant method, but there will still be those who value and collect print, as people do records now (a fact that, it seems, has created a strong niche market for cool vinyl releases). But I’m not so sure that I completely buy that analogy, as fun as it is to repeat. Really, the debate seems pointless to me. What it always devolves to is one person clinging to what they’ve grown up with and accustomed to-the printed book, this classic, vaunted, untouchable commodity-and self-appointed visionaries who see digital distro as the obvious wave of the future, plowing down the fogies and fuddy-duddies.

If we de-politicize it, it becomes a much more open, interesting discussion. My feeling is that both media offer something that the other doesn’t. So why should one replace the other? What does digital do best? It readily reaches a much broader audience, costs significantly less money, has multimedia capacity. But print does some things better, too: trades in immediacy for longevity, has a tactile, textured component that digital hasn’t been able to replicate. There’s also a great single-mindedness about print that I enjoy. So I don’t worry so much whether print will “die” or “survive,” I’d rather just think about how best to use print creatively-what can it do that nothing else can, what are its limits and how do we test them?

But mostly, I’m interested in how digital and print can interact. That’s why we started our Featherproof Remix series, which releases part of a new book, and invites writers to rewrite and rearrange it. We then publish the best submissions as an ebook, a few weeks before the print book hits bookstores (and, of course, our books are available as ebooks). I guess what I mean is that both are great, and interactivity is much more interesting to me than exclusivity.

This ramble has been brought to you by Jonathan Messinger. Sorry about that.

2 thoughts on “The Thursday Agitation: Jonathan Messinger

  1. Though I provided a somewhat harsh review of Paper Egg on my blog, I actually am somewhat intrigued by the project and I’m excited to see how it pans out. Also, I’m totally in agreement about digital publishing. I want to see someone do something excited with e-books. I think the free mini books at Featherproof are a good start.

  2. Shoot The Messinger | Richard Nash

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