A statement: Right now there are more artists’ book publishers/makers and small presses than ever before.
That may be true—the form has had many years to take root in the culture, there are far more academic programs today (than in the 60s), there are various “Center[s] for the Book” around the country, and letterpress printing and other “obsolete” technologies are enjoying a commercial comeback as specialty services.
That may also not be true. There might be fewer small presses, etc. now (there was a great deal of activity, especially in small press publishing, in the 60s on through the 80s), but it might just seem like more, because now, it’s much, much easier for us to know about them.
In the 60s, when the artists’ book (as an idea of its own) was coming into being, and when the Mimeo Revolution was in full swing, getting the word out about what a press/publisher/artist was up to was much more difficult than it is today. There were a few options: word-of-mouth (Hey, look at this thing I got/Hey, look at this thing I made), random distribution (place a stack at a gallery/coffeeshop/bookstore, droplifting), mail distribution (which requires building a list of addresses, and postage for every piece of every mailing), advertising (in other books, magazines, and businesses), and/or through a distributor (Printed Matter, Small Press Distribution, etc.).
But now we have an Internet. An artist/press/publisher can have a website, cheaply (or free, like this one) and easily. (Of course the more sophisticated sites take a great deal of time, money, and knowledge, but one can get pretty far with little of any of those.) And once that site exists, anyone with an Internet connection can find it, read about the press, see the work, and purchase it. When this kind of artwork was developing, that process of finding/reading-viewing/purchasing could have taken weeks, depending on how far away the publisher and reader were from each other (the finding part, well that could take years—we’re still finding little known presses from those days). And that immediacy makes the other distribution methods above that much more effective. Word-of-mouth: a new book or project can go viral through email and blogs. Random Distribution: this strange little publication/sticker/button/object I found has this web address…. Mail distribution: one announcement goes out to many recipients simultaneously at no cost. Advertising: when a reader sees the ad, they don’t have to just rely on that, they can go see the work, and get a much better idea of it.
The idea of, or role of, the distributor becomes problematic.
I don’t think any of the above comes as news to readers of this blog. You are, after all, reading a blog. We all know how much more convenient email is than real mail. And I don’t want to blow the trumpet of technological utopianism. But the communication infrastructure that is now embedded in our daily lives radically changes the relationship of the small press/publisher/artist to their audience. Now, we can actually get the work directly into people’s hands. And that direct relationship has become the most common method of distribution. I can say with confidence that the following is true:
Right now, the multiples made by small presses/publishers/artists are more accessible than ever before.
But are they more “democratic?”