If the current state of the traditional book industry looks uncertain to unhappy—the future of Barnes & Noble is the subject of a brutal tug-of-war, Amazon’s selling more e-books than hardbound ones, a dead Swede and salty-talking senior tenaciously top the bestseller lists—one wouldn’t expect new ventures to arise. But into the precarious breach goes Ecstatic Peace Library, an art and culture press founded by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and visual book editor Eva Prinz.
EPL extends Moore’s cultural patronage beyond his Ecstatic Peace label and poetry journals. Their curatorial sensibility and production approach bear out an ingrained indie ethic that builds on and in some ways rejects Prinz’s editorial experience—they both tend to refer to her former employers, the estimable culture houses Abrams and Rizzoli, as “corporate publishers.” During our discussion, their apparent professional and personal regard for each other seemed to establish another primary working ethic—friendship—which is where my Q+A begins.
Eva Prinz: What we really like about [book distributor] DAP is that they are actually our friends and very involved in the art community. So now we get to work with our friends who are our authors, friends who are designers, our friends in publicity, our friends who print the book—as well as our friends who sell it. So, it’s friendship from beginning to end. That is really important to us.
When you were an editor at your previous jobs, you didn’t feel that level of investment?
EP: You would bring in the artwork and the manuscript and push send—and you give it away and just hope for the best. Then the next thing you see is an advance copy of the book, and you’re on to the next season before you’re even celebrating.
I didn’t even know where it was printed or how it was printed or who printed it. But now we do!
How did you meet and start working together?
TM: This [indicating the book Mix Tape] was a project that Eva was concepting at Rizzoli. Eva solicited Kim to do a book in the early 2000s, and Kim was intrigued but told Eva that I was completely involved with … book lust … and that she should talk to me. Eva had me come up to her office—but I had no interest in doing anything with a corporate publisher. I wanted to do something personalized and DIY, much in the same way I make records. So I didn’t have any aspirations to make a project with a corporate publisher.
I went up to her office with a bunch of arcane projects I was thinking of throwing at her. She said, Before you show me any of that stuff I want you to consider editing this project on mixtape culture. I thought that was such a broad subject, it could go into so many different realms. So I focused it on my Rolodex—these are people I know as artists and musicians who I think will have some kind of affinity to mix-tape culture, and she allowed me to make it as personal as I wanted to … it was really successful and I love how it came out.
EP: That Christmas I got a mixtape from Thurston.
TM: In the book I wrote about a mixtape I made but couldn’t find … in the early ’80s I spent an inordinate amount of time making mix tapes of hardcore 7-inches. I was ensconced in the US hardcore scene of the time. But I eventually found the tape in a box and gifted it to Eva.
We got along really well and had a lot of mutual interests and friends. We next made this book called Punk House. That came to me in the most familial way … somebody I knew mentioned a young a woman [Abby Banks] who traveled around the USA shooting these punk house squats. When I looked at the photographs, I thought it made a really radical architecture survey. And it appealed to Eva too. We started a few projects this way.
TM: Eva led me to another editor at Abrams who edited the CBGB book [Tamar Brazis] who wanted to do a book on No Wave. When Eva told me this, I demanded to meet this editor and pitch myself as the editor of this book along with my confidant Byron Coley, who works with me a little at EPL editing the Ecstatic Peace poetry books. Which is something I’ve done for ten years. They completely reference the history of poetry journals, especially the St. Marks School, which we continue to do with the EPL imprint. They’re really under the wire.
So we have a few things we’re doing: what we hope are high-profile books like the [Crawdaddy! and Village Voice photographer] James Hamilton book [You Should Have Heard Just What I Seen] and certainly this Yoko Ono book [Fly Me].
EP: This is a dummy of the Yoko book. There are these pockets with kites that open and fold out they come with strings—you can actually fly these. They have Yoko-isms on them: Whisper, Shout, Imagine Peace, Kiss …
So how are you approaching the design and production process?
TM: We don’t have a real hard design aesthetic.
EP: From our printer’s perspective, we’ve invented a few formats …
TM: There’s one format with a specific cut size that holds a 7-inch vinyl record that you could look at them as books or look at them as records. We’re doing one with Raymond Pettibon [Front Row Center] that is specifically a record—with a very large insert—since Raymond already has so many books.
EP: We are using all local, North American printers. Thurston tried to convince a woman who has a press near his house [in Northampton, Mass.], right next to the train line to have us print there, get the stock on the train, and set the train down the Northeast corridor to have people pick them up at stops along the way—
TM: —on bicycles! The philosophy is really to employ local manufacturing all down the line, and that utilizes completely earth-conscious materials.
EP: This is all recycled paper.
TM: The expenditure is significant compared to jobbing out to China. But I’d rather ignore the fact that the price differential exists, that you can do something cheaper. And it’s not that much cheaper…
When you put together overseas freight, duties…
EP: And all the mistakes that are made! Through these corporate publishers I worked with Asia a lot. And you’ll see something three times before it’s right. And it’s so sad. But it’s because the person on the other line isn’t my counterpart. It’s a factory. Who knows what’s going on there? I want to know when it goes on to the press. I want to know how much of the sheet is being used and if the remainder can be used for something else. We want to be part of every step of the process. And we’ve been cut out of that in these corporations, so it’s time we’re involved at every stage.
TM: Child labor is not an option for us.
EP: Unless it’s my child! [laughter]
It’s also going back to a tradition in publishing. My favorite people in the publishing world, who taught me the most, were there when the book was printed, when the artist was there to match his art work to the proofs. You can’t do that now with these major art publishers.
And Northampton, Massachusetts is part of a community of printers. And a lot of these printers have retired or closed up shop, and we want to find them again and put them back into business. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be supporting our own community.
How do you divvy up the editorial duties?
TM: She winks I jump. [laughs] Eva runs the ship and I’m the figurehead in some sense but at the same time there’s a lot of discussion about what we’re doing. We both have projects that have been floating around our heads with different artists and authors. Trying to edit that down is the trick. The first season were projects that were stacked up at both Rizzoli and Abrams. The James Hamilton book is something that Eva’s wanted to do for a number of years. I knew James when he shot Sonic Youth in the ’80s, but I wasn’t aware of his huge archive. And then I wanted to bring in something with Kim [Gordon, Thurston’s wife and musical partner] because that would be something really personal and make sense to a lot of people. And work with people I’ve had a long history with creatively, Ray Pettibon, Dave Markey …
I hear you on the point of being able to make projects now that you couldn’t do before. But maybe the point of larger “corporate” publishers’ differences with your list is less of a philosophical difference than one of scale? Every publisher has a printing threshold based on what it thinks it can sell—isn’t it that you’re making it work by embracing projects on a modest enough print run that you are pretty sure will sell through?
EP: I have a plan that also works with Thurston’s sensibility. I think the future is that we make these beautiful art books that exist as art works … the printing process itself is an art form. It works, or it doesn’t work—we have copies sitting in the warehouse or we don’t. We’ll figure that out after the first season.
One thing I know for sure is that the imagery is powerful. People need to see it, they will want to read the text. It might exist digitally as well. At its worst it’s a PDF. At its best it’s an online video game. It might have music with it. It might have something interactive. Because technology is so sophisticated now, because video games are now more like sophisticated satire or French surrealism in terms of how many levels you can go and question existence and time–books can be that interactive in the future. As far as I’m concerned, if people aren’t going to the bookstore to buy books and everyone is downloading it for free, then we don’t have a business, we have an organization—the closest the thing I can compare it to is Abbie Hoffman’s Free Store.
TM: But that’s pure idealism, and I think any real business has to start out with pure idealism. Otherwise it’s just a business. If you can make a business out of your initial idealism, then that’s your success.