I’m looking at the landscape from my window. I see bluebells, an oak tree, a magpie. Distinguishable species, familiar names. The big hitters, from the front of the field guide. But lichen’s clinging to the oak, the bluebell’s hitched to mycelium, and the magpie’s got mites on its back. Every ecosystem needs its unsung heroes, its fuzzy-edged hybrids, doing things at a different scale; backwards, sideways or underground; keeping the whole place alive – especially when conditions get harsh. Publishing’s no different.
The Accidental Publisher
In 2019, Falmouth-based Emily Juniper (polymathic illustrator, playwright, designer and bookbinder) approached Tim Key (prolific comedian and poet), to ask if he’d thought about translating his performances to print.
Juniper: Hiya Tim!
Key: My emails getting through?
Juniper: Erm, I think –
Key: I think I’ve sent four, so far, this week.
Key: Ah. Any of them make it through?
Juniper: Yes, I think –
Key: About making a pack of playing cards.
Juniper: Oh yeah, maybe.
Key: With my poems on.
Juniper: It’s quite labour intensive, that’s all.
Key: To open an email?
- From Tim Key’s Poetical Playing Cards
On stage, Key’s known for delivering his absurdist observational poetry from playing cards. It turned out he’d long wanted to produce a deck of his own, printed with poems, in place of a pamphlet. “When he spoke to his comedy agent they’d say ‘ah’, it sounds like a literary thing,” Juniper explains, “and when he spoke to his literary agent they’d say “‘ah’ it sounds like a comedy thing.” Ping-ponged between professionals, told ‘too expensive’, ‘too difficult’, and ‘too un-categorisable to market’, Key turned to Juniper, with her small traditional book-making studio and her own big ideas. Juniper said “Alright, I’ll do it,” – admitting – “I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.”
Designing, producing and ultimately hand-assembling 700 packs of cards, Juniper became a publisher overnight. Designed to sell at shows, the pair decided, off the cuff, to also make the cards available online. They sold out within 20 minutes of the website’s hasty launch, and ‘Utter & Press’ was born.
In 2020, as the world shut down, Key and Juniper began to talk about their first book together: He Used Thought as a Wife, a book of poems and fictional lockdown conversations (including a running dialogue with semi-fictional Juniper) that led reviews to dub Key ‘the Pepys of the pandemic.’ Printed by Calverts in London, the first edition of 3000 was almost entirely hand-addressed, packaged and distributed by Juniper.
As Key did the pre-launch publicity rounds, Juniper’s design was commented on again and again – an ‘objet d’art’, in the words of Frank Skinner, design ‘genius’, from the mouth of Lauren Laverne. Un-restrained by publicist contracts (notably no photo of Tim’s ‘as-seen-on’ TV face on the cover) and, as Juniper admits, with unrealistic ideas as to what was possible, they’d managed to create something unique: set like a play-script and shot through with neon orange; with borders that wander and poems footnoted by Juniper and Key’s fictional process; it feels like an artefact from a world just one step to the side of ours. It’s Key’s ‘bonkers naturalism’ (Juniper’s coining) – perfectly staged.
The Paper Stage
First and foremost, Juniper is a visual artist, who publishes to stay in control. For her, it’s best understood in terms of putting on a show, “my background’s in theatre, it’s the language I know”, she says, “and it’s how I’ve come to understand writing, publishing and design, the book as a performance area.”
When does a person, or people, become a publisher? When you hit the national press? When one book’s photocopied to become two? When you find a distributor? When you buy an ISBN? Since that first edition, He Used Thought as a Wife has been followed by its sequel Here we Go Round the Mulberry Bush. Both books have ended up on the Times Bestseller List, and won multiple awards, but Utter & Press is still a one-woman operation. “I try to hold two things true in my head, in this weird quantum relationship,” Juniper says, “one is that Utter & Press is a totally legitimate and professional publishing house; and the other is that it’s me in a room, designing and illustrating and production-managing and customer-servicing and toilet-cleaning. When people email ‘Utter & Press’ to say “Hi, I haven’t got my order” – I don’t want to break the illusion it’s ‘real’, but I also have to say – “Hi, hold on, it’s just me!”