Corvus Editions: The Mission

Corvus Editions is in the throes of yet another reinvention — something the current book trade makes necessary on a remarkably frequent basis — and this page will soon be updated to cover the movement of the project into the realm of print-on-demand publishing. But, for now, this last reimagining of the project will do nicely as an introduction to its goals and philosophy.

Corvus Editions publishes memorable, if often forgotten, works of literature, history and philosophy, in attractive, sturdy, affordable hand-bound editions, made from recycled and reused materials. It is a micro-publishing enterprise, committed to supporting other microenterprises—particularly those also committed to sustainable materials use, and to the creation, curation and distribution of Real Books.

Corvus Editions is an experiment in what we might call multi-dimensional repurposing. We are surrounded by resources which we are putting to little use, poor and inefficient use, or no use at all. In an economy where the disconnect between the “health of the economy” and the ability of the average person to find outlets for their talents and means of subsistence is now more or less complete, more and more of us are finding ourselves numbered among those neglected resources.

When I found myself—despite advanced degrees and experience in multiple careers—just another unit of “surplus labor,” the choice became one of working cheap for someone else—on their terms, if I could find the work—or finding the means to work cheaply, and efficiently for myself, precisely by combining my “excess” labor with other wasted or under-used resources. For a career bookseller, trained as an intellectual historian, with a background in publishing history and one foot in the DIY world of ‘zine publishing, the most logical outlet was in small-press publishing. Unfortunately, “everyone knows” that we are rocketing at warp speeds out of the Gutenberg Galaxy—and anyone with any knowledge of the world of publishing and bookselling knows that small presses are hardly a blip on the rear-view scanners. Centralization in all phases of the publishing/distribution/bookselling complex have skewed markets in directions that tend to relegate micro-publishing to a realm of bad odds and penny-ante pay-outs.

Still, there comes a point where that penny-ante game doesn’t look so bad alongside the alternatives. With the smart money all betting on “The Death of the Book,” big-box bookstores are spending enormous amounts of cash, and wasting tremendous amounts of resources, in order to tread water a little longer—and employees of those companies can expect, at best, continued precarity. I spent a couple of years in the world of corporate bookstores, after most other doors seemed to have closed, and found that inefficient use of resources and a kind of systematic precarity was the rule. In the book-world, big-box retail is a house of cards, and the “selection” and “efficiency” of operations like Amazon has depended on blurring the lines between publisher, distributor and bookstore—reducing labor and physical product to a bare minimum—and even then e-books, print-on-demand, and marketplace contractor-sellers are needed to provide materials that don’t fit the increasingly narrow criteria for profitability.

What a closer look at the book-industry suggests is that perhaps it is not so much “the book” which is at the heart of the current crisis, as the centralized model itself which is in crisis. Perhaps all the hoopla about “The Death of the Book” comes from the key position still occupied by “the book” in our culture—certainly a more time-honored and central place than that occupied by any of the media forms that surround it. Make no mistake, we are certainly watching a remarkable change in the mediascape, but let’s learn the right lessons from it. Elsewhere I have suggested some of the reasons to believe there might well be some life left in the book trade—if pursued on different models—and laid out some of the reasons that big-box retailing seems less efficient, and ultimately less likely to deliver variety and fair prices, than smaller alternatives. Here—for now, at least—let me just suggest that the current book trade model is home to more than it’s share of wasteful practices.

So what would be a non-wasteful, elegant alternative for an erudite old bookseller stuck in the wrong end of the labor pool? That has been the question that has driven me in developing Corvus Editions. I left big-box bookselling when it became clear my decades of expertise was really just getting in the way of a job that had very little to do with books anymore. That was naturally frustrating in a variety of ways. I think if we had our druthers, most of us would opt for some sort of “attractive industry,” a trade that allowed us to let our talents shine. And the more years you’ve invested in skills that still seem viable, the harder it is to be channeled towards some abstract model of “sales.” At the big-box, it was maddening, being surrounded by books, but being called on to push product selected on the basis of increasingly dubious models. The first step back toward the road of sanity seemed to be a return to “the book” as a focus, and the book-lover—and not just the “reader”—as the audience. If the differences between big-box and mom-‘n’-pop book-traders are largely a matter of degree—if pretty much everywhere you look it is a question of bookstores that can’t afford inventory, publishers that can’t afford printing, printers running up against cost-of-materials constraints, distribution channels constantly constricting, “discount” retail models imposing bizarre price structures, and, despite all kinds of “cost-cutting,” persistent waste of resources at the very heart of the model—and this certainly seems to be the case, then a real reinvention seems necessary. And we have some good clues where to start.

Where Corvus Editions has started—and it is still, in the big picture, just the very beginnings of a start—is with the question of waste. A one-man show can’t make up for a wasteful distribution model by cutting labor costs. There are no economies of scale that can be taken, and there is no venture capital for purchasing the kinds of materials it would take to produce the kind of book one expects to find in a conventional bookstore. But some of the same techniques used by the big operations—on-demand publishing, online outreach and sales, and use of public domain texts in particular—are available to the smallest operations, provided you can find DIY alternatives to things like a $100,000 Espresso printer-binder. If you find those alternatives, you have the advantage of not having to pay for, or mess with, six digits worth of machinery.

With an eagle eye on the question of waste—and particularly to the issue of not wasting my own time, energy and expertise in the kind of soul-killing work environment I had been working in—it gradually became clear that the human-scale alternative to the magic book machine was probably a cheap duplexing printer, a long-reach stapler, recycled paper, and my own collection of cool-but-forgotten texts. Corvus Editions was born as a pamphlet press, with all the text also available free online. But the first phase of Corvus Editions ran up against the fact that even the best designed chapbook is not quite a “book” for trade purposes. It does not fit a bookstore or library shelf, and does not have the solidity and here-to-stay presence of a Real Book. Well-designed ephemera is still ephemeral, and it’s hard to make a statement, let alone an impact, without a little weight behind the move. So Corvus Editions has become a publisher of Real Books, hand-bound hardcover editions, with bindings built largely from reused materials—discarded office supplies, wall-covering and upholstery samples, mat-board, etc.

The change in format has opened a lot of possibilities—above all, a broadening of the catalog, and new connections in the world of sustainable arts and crafts. And those changes have opened other doors—to retail outlets, and the beginnings of a shared-space retail model. This new blog will be the place to keep track of developments.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.