If you Google Siglio, you’ll get Lisa Pearson’s passion. She has always been very interested in both the literary and the visual arts, in the interdisciplinary, in the things that don’t fit neatly, that spill over, that resist a single definition. So she founded a publishing house called Siglio. She produces books that she says “seem unwieldy to publish” in a traditional way. I am continuously intrigued by publishing entrepreneurs, especially at a time when books are harder to sell than ever. I asked Pearson to tell us about Siglio – how it got started and where its going.
First, what do you publish?
I say that I publish “uncommon books that live at the intersection of art and literature,” but what that really means is that I make a space that dissolves categories, that brings visibility to the overlooked, that is open to contradiction, ambiguity, heterodoxy. There is an extraordinary range of hybrid works that can live and breathe in this space, and I’m most interested in those that play with language and image in unconventional ways, that engage the reader in various and even unfamiliar acts of reading, that have an uncanny combination of wonder, rigor, imagination, and obsession. It made absolute sense to me that this space would take the intimate shape of the book. I’ve written something of a manifesto called “On the Small & the Contrary” that dives in to this a little more. It’s posted on the Siglio blog.
The first Siglio book originated in a letter to the poet Ron Padgett who makes the creative decisions for the estate of Joe Brainard. (I wrote a number of letters at the very beginning, and serendipitously, this was the first that turned into something real.) We met in at the coffee shop at the back the Lithuanian Cultural Center on the Lower East Side and hashed out the idea for The Nancy Book in March 2007. By November, after six months of working on my laptop on my little desk in my bedroom, the book was press-ready. It was released in April 2008.
Where does the name Siglio come from?
When I was naming Siglio, I threw the net far and wide, looking for something to evoke that sense of wonder, the permeability of boundaries, the phenomena of merging, shape-shifting, and cross-pollination. I delved into various mythologies, species names of butterflies, monkeys, and self-luminous animals, the behaviors of bees, categories from Aby Warburg’s Atlas, terms from alchemy, oceanography and botany, etc. Nothing worked—the words didn’t have the right sonic or visual qualities; they were too specific in meaning; or they were unmemorable. So then I used etymologies, letter combinations, a deck of cards, a dictionary, and Oulipian-like constraints to see if the almost-random might bring a new word into existence. Somehow “siglio” evolved from that process. I knew it sounded a little like the Spanish “siglo” for century, and I found out it resembled the Italian “ciglio” (which means “eyelash” or “edge”—a nice dream-like move). If you google “siglio,” our books come up first and pervade most of the pages, but the search is peppered with other things named “siglio”: cigars, knives, music, cars, etc. Siglio could be anything or everything, but it sounds absolutely specific. It’s easy to say, and I liked the way the letters looked: the logo was ready-made. And, because I made up the word, I could also make up its meaning.
I have to ask, how were and are you now capitalized?
Much of what I do is about rethinking or simply ignoring entrenched paradigms about publishing. In the first three years of the press, I worked without distributor by building relationships with independent and museum booksellers who are not easily daunted by a book that can be shelved in any number of places. Many of them truly curate their stores and have customers who are looking for something they may not have heard about anywhere else. I gave them generous discounts on small quantities of non-returnable stock so that they could take a chance and then re-order when the book did well. From the beginning I also began to cultivate a core audience of readers who love editorial vision of the press—not just single books, and who understand that buying books directly from Siglio as well as their word-of-mouth is a very real way to support Siglio. These readers not only anticipate each new title (and expect the unexpected from us), but they are also keen to get the newest edition of ephemera (like the Joe Brainard “If Nancy” cards) which we give away for free whenever anyone orders from the Siglio website (the ephemera is a little nod to Wallace Berman’s Semina.) And because every Siglio book is meant to incite conversation, I market the books as resourcefully as possible—generating substantive editorial coverage by reviewers whose own interests and passions intersect with a particular title. (In other words, I don’t fling the books to the wind and see where a review lands.) So now, in the fourth year, I’ve been able to successfully transition to working with a distributor because many of those relationships (with booksellers, readers, and reviewers) have been forged (and new ones are always in the making), because Siglio’s identity is becoming more established and valued, and because my distributor (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers) not only understands but also appreciates the idiosyncrasy of this vision. And equally key is this, too: we make exquisite limited editions and artists’ multiples that go a long way toward helping us pay the bills on time.
You’ve had your share of renown author/artists, including Nancy Spero and Joe Brainard. How did you lure them into the Siglio web?
I wrote to several artists whose work either influenced my vision for the press or resonated with its mission. I’m not sure I had a “lure” of any kind; rather, in each letter I was aiming to open a real conversation. Other projects that evolved out of those letters including Sophie Calle’s The Address Book which I’m publishing next year and the inclusion of work in the image+text anthology by artists like Louise Bourgeois and Ann Hamilton. That said, I’m interested first and foremost in what the artist/writer makes rather than in the his or her name. I’ve published one book that came in as an unsolicited query—Danielle Dutton’s deadpan comic novel S P R A W L which has something of a cult-following and has won some outstanding critical coverage—and another just out, Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel, a reclusive, uncompromising, and largely unknown artist/writer whose work inspired Siglio from the very beginning. Several of the artists in It Is Almost That are under-appreciated, overlooked, forgotten, or marginalized, i.e. Charlotte Salomon, Unica Zürn, Ketty La Rocca, Cozette de Charmoy, and Hannah Weiner. Each of them is given substantial space for their work to live on the page rather than, as is more typical, a simple mention or a single reproduction.
One of your current titles, It is Almost That is, well forgive me, almost a title but not quite. It is so ambiguous I’m not certain what the book is about. Can you tell me the genesis of the project?
Its subtitle—A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers—provides some clarification, but I did choose It Is Almost That purposefully to convey ambiguity, indeterminancy, mutability. All of the work in the collection is abundant, expansive, uncontainable: nothing fits easily into one genre, one category, one school, one mode of reading. Hence, the title (taken from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s piece in the book) signals the inverse of lack: it’s meant to point to a kind boundlessness. (There’s a lot more about this in my afterword to It Is Almost That which is posted in the Siglio library. As for its genesis, It Is Almost That is really a totemic book for Siglio: it truly makes the space I spoke of before. It is also the first in a series of collections which are not meant to be authoritative guides or to survey any literal and previously defined territory; rather, they’re meant to give readers an opportunity to make connections between things that might not otherwise rub up against each other; to delve into works that might not be given real space on the page to unfold; to find new ways to read what may be familiar and take on the challenge of reading what is not. The collections are about finding new way to see how, where, and why the literary and visual merge and creating that intimate space for the reader to experience altogether new work or familiar work in a new context.
You obviously have a mission with Siglio. It cannot be easy being an independent. What is that goal? And have you come close to achieving it?
I think it must be easier to be independent than not. I’m not looking to publish books that someone says this or that demographic wants to read; I’m not trying to replicate my own or someone else’s previous success with a similar title; I’m not trying to second-guess the next trend; and I’m not trying to sell 25,000 (or 250,000) copies of any title. Perhaps that’s why those of us who make a go of it independently really live the cliché: you do this because you love to do it and you do everything you can to make it work because you have to make it work. And that requires more imagination, more resourcefulness, and a really ferocious tenacity. And I’ve got only one goal that stays the same: do not duplicate the failures or the successes. Make a surprising move with each new title. Thus, every book has its own individual challenges and rewards, often unforeseen. Ultimately, though, I’d like to see a bookcase of Siglio books as richly diverse and strangely illuminating as a wunderkammer: a rigorously eclectic constellation of works that makes both leaps into the in-between and connections between seemingly disparate things. A bookcase, perhaps, with a little nod to Borges’s library of Babel, something of the universe infinitely unfolding. I’ve published eight books now, so clearly I have a very long way to go.
Finally, how do you plan on surviving as a publisher in the current climate? Have you developed the audience you need to sustain your mission?
By “current climate,” you’re referring to the state of the economy, the plummeting numbers of people who actually read (much less buy) books, the clanging death knell for the printed page, the Amazonian march to make the institution of publishing itself obsolete? All of that has everything to do with very large and corporate publishers and (mostly) little to do with Siglio and the innovative, vibrant culture of independent publishing to which it belongs. Not to say it isn’t a Sisyphean task to survive, but Siglio is a process, and each new title is a unique opportunity to further build an audience that appreciates the things that are anathema to corporate publishing: the unexpected, the hard-to-define, the inimitable. While big publishers are chasing a trend, I’m not even trying to start one. My challenge (and delight) is to make books that the big guys would have a difficult time even imagining—in content and form.
For example, the mainstream conversation pits print against digital, but I don’t see them as antagonistic. Siglio’s next release— Between Page & Screen by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse—needs both the printed book (a beautiful, little inscrutable object) and digital technology (a webcam and a quick download) to awaken the language and engage the reader in a playful series of letters between lovers, rife with innuendo and etymological affinities between words as well as with loving attention to the shape and form of letters and language. It takes an almost ecstatic pleasure in language and yet the book itself has no words. Instead there are graphic black and white squares (much more visually appealing than traditional bar or QR codes) on each page. When held up to a webcam (after visiting www.betweenpageandscreen.com to get the download), the reader sees himself reflected in his computer screen, holding the book, from which the words are suddenly conjured: the act of reading can be witnessed, and the language is inextricable from the reader’s body. As each page turns, the language mutates and shape-shifts, living in this space—between page and screen. It’s a wondrous experience. So while the industry is arguing about the viability of the “container,” whether in print or pixels, I’m interested in how artists and writers are playing with, exploiting, and—as in this case—merging those various forms.
Siglio is all about the pleasure of reading something that shakes up the way we see the world, that takes us into unpredictable and often undefined territory, that creates provocative frictions and unexpected connections, that opens up a space for play and the imagination. I’m always searching for ways to connect with the readers for whom this is exciting stuff, but because those readers are curious, intelligent, and open, they’re looking for Siglio, too.
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