Meet the Small Press Subverting Traditional Publishing With Its Brand

Posted inBranding & Identity Design

When I first heard of a small literary press described as “deliciously subversive,” my curiosity was immediately piqued. Unbound Edition Press, an Atlanta-based independent publisher founded by writer and poet Patrick Davis, is turning some of the traditional publishing dogma on its head, both in style and substance. The press, guided by a mission to elevate emerging, underappreciated, and marginalized authors, already has 15 titles on shelves and 30-plus in development through 2025.

I spoke with Davis about how his philosophy drove the brand and what it means when Davis describes the brand as a “system of intention.”

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You could say that unconventional is foundational for Davis, having worked on his doctoral research with William H. Gass, the founding theorist of metafiction. This self-referential literary form plays with the rules. Davis spent the following two decades as a brand consultant, working for media companies and publishers, including the Big Five. Frustrated by big publishing’s highly commercial focus, Davis saw little room for what he calls “fine literature.”

Davis believes that books saved his life as a young adult, so books became his lifeline after he burned out of his 20-plus-year career. “I wanted to luxuriate in the written word,” Davis said.

Literary dissent from fearless writers.

Bringing everything he learned from his literary, brand, and publishing backgrounds, he founded Unbound Edition Press to publish “literary dissent from fearless writers,” focused primarily on collections (because of how people read today) of essays, poetry, and memoirs in essay form. “I believe personally and politically that there needs to be a place for voices of dissent to be treated with full literary merit, not just as passing rants on the internet,” says Davis.

Every Book, a Beautiful Manifesto

Having worked with some of his designers for 20-plus years, Davis turned to them with a simple brief: “I want every book to look like a beautiful manifesto.” The team took inspiration from old French texts, and Salinger covers from the mid-20th century. Davis wanted to honor notable independent presses of the past, like Grove, Ecco, and David R. Godine. Davis says, “In an age of consumable and disposable content, we wanted to create books that are worth reading and worth keeping.”

The resulting brand is striking. Every book has the same design language centered around color and type. I can’t help but think of walking into my local bookstore and seeing the variety of books on display. On the face of it, every book looks different, but there’s a formula at play that involves a commercial calculus. Davis wanted to turn that formula on its head.

Looking at an Unbound Edition Press book, all I see are possibilities. Because the covers are about color, you absorb the mood and tone that sparks your imagination without, for example, an image of a screaming eagle hitting you over the head. That doesn’t mean the team at Unbound Edition Press doesn’t respect the work of book designers. “There are brilliant book covers designed by talented designers. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that the cover should illustrate the book,” Davis says. “We prefer a simple approach that conveys the book’s tonality, mood, and spirit through text and color.”

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A distinctive half-jacket is another singular Unbound Edition Press book feature. The jackets complement and complete the colorway, utilizing copy that extends from front to back, including the spine. Potential readers notice the spine copy on the shelf, encouraging them to turn the book over and read the jacket copy. You’ll see the jacket color on the endpapers, too.

The color, the type, and the jacket excerpt combine to create a beautiful design object. Design consideration for how the books will retail together has helped the press partner with some of the best independent bookstores, such as Buxton Books in Charleston, South Carolina. Booksellers and customers associate the brand with quality, stimulating literary works. Davis wants people to see an Unbound Edition book and know that “it’s going to be a thoughtfully challenging read.”

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Design-Focused but Author-Centric

The earliest authors had doubts–You want to do what with the cover? But the press takes a highly collaborative approach with their authors, producing a dozen colorways to select from, yet another break from publishing convention.

The author’s first name follows the title on the same line to integrate the author and title. Nodding to how we reference the great authors of the past, like Emerson, Dickinson, and Austen, the author’s last name always stands on its own line.

The trim size is also intentional–to fit in the hand and to be easily portable. While some authors had questions at the beginning, most have come to embrace the brand’s design and approach. 

Despite the specificity of the brand, the team still finds room to play. Their authors are creative on many levels. “We want to include many aspects of the writers’ lives because their creativity is multidisciplinary,” Davis says. See some of those examples below.

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Leah Souffrant is a maker, illustrator, and writer, so the endpapers and chapter dividers for Entanglements (top) include some of her abstract work. Insect Architecture (bottom) by poet Alex Wells Shapiro, whose work deals with the friction of tight spaces like a city, illustrated a cellular-level drawing for his endpapers.
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For Jesse Nathan, a poetry editor at McSweeney’s, the lines of his poetry are long—to cut them off would interfere with reading the work as intended—so Unbound Edition created a special trim size for Nathan’s collection, Eggtooth.
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To help the footnotes in Souffrant’s Entanglements feel less academic, the collective team collaborated to create a footnote font, each a little entangled knot. The book reads like a personal annotated copy, adding another dimension to what it means to be entangled.

It doesn’t cost us anything more to be creative with a blank page.

In a nod to Davis’ literary roots and inspired by William H. Gass’ masterpiece, The Tunnel (the trope is a shuffle of pages), the press has released The Experiment Will Not Be Bound. Packaged in an embossed black box, The Experiment includes 460+ unbound pages–photographs, poetry, slides, and Soundcloud audio (via QR code). “The question posed to the reader,” Davis says, “is what makes an anthology? The binding? The editor? With The Experiment, the reader becomes the editor.” Davis wanted to create a different reading experience through design. The reader enjoys a limitless, interactive experience. No two copies will ever be the same.

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The Experiment Will Not Be Bound has been placed in special collections, including the Newberry Library, and is used as an example of the art of the book in a course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“It’s been a lot of fun building it and seeing the vision come to life,” Davis says. When asked how he sees the brand evolving, he says, “Evolution will happen to be true to the work and the brand. It’s about authentic collaboration between the author and the brand. It’s not about acquiring rights and doing what we want.”

Unbound Edition Press will continue to push with dissenting voices and opinions and put out challenging work. One particular title Davis is excited about is The Bomb Cloud, a memoir by Tyler Mills about discovering her family’s involvement in the bombing of Nagasaki.  

Patrick Davis’ favorite thing to hear from customers is, “Nobody makes books like this anymore.”


Images by Jason Holland.