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Strange Books for Strange Times

Phyllida Bluemel

Folded curiosities, postable performances, and pamphlets that speak – we look at some lesser-known publishing species, in an ode to strange books.

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.

Juniper: Ah.

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!”

“my background’s in theatre, it’s the language I know, and it’s how I’ve come to understand writing, publishing and design, the book as a performance area.”

“I do it because I like making a page look perfect,” she confesses. Take the paper: “I wanted to emulate that penguin paperback, the one you bought in a charity shop, took on holiday, and left on the grass – by the sun lounger. It got a bit damp, and there’s a bit of sun-cream on it, so it’s more brittle than it should be, but a warm, delicious colour – not quite yellowing, but it has this luminous quality. Antique’s not quite right. Yet it’s not quite of the time it’s in.” When Brexit and the pandemic cut short the paper supply, Juniper chose to halt production of He Used Thought as a Wife for three weeks, rather than find an immediate replacement. “Tim [eventually] understood that, for me, using the wrong paper was like slashing a whole chapter of the book.”

Juniper’s website reads “Utter & Press offer a paper stage for the spoken word…we publish paper artefacts designed to capture something of that wild magic of theatre.” As the country locked down, and Key’s live comedy work dried up, Utter & Press provided a space for performance, and met an audience craving connection. Early orders of the book came with flouro-inked tickets to the show between the pages. Tiny, totally independent and making it up as they went along, Juniper and Key published fast. “I hate the word agile,” says Juniper, “but I guess that’s what we were able to be, you’re really seeing most ‘lockdown literature’ only coming out now.”

The piece is part verbatim theatre, part meditation on rest, gravity and connection. Expect a rare and intimate audio journey of fragile beauty, just for you. For this experience you will receive a handmade booklet in the post. This includes all you need to carve out a resting space. The experience is conceived as a break from the screen, and an invitation to connect with a small gathering of 21 audience and 21 participants.”

  • From ‘A Crash Course in Cloudspotting’ (2021)

The impulse to wrap performance in paper is something that Lily Green, artist-publisher behind No Bindings understands. No Binding is a Bristol-based press making ‘print-audio’ productions, and in 2021 created a booklet for ‘A Crash Course in Cloud-spotting’ an audio piece produced by MAYK,  adapted for a lockdown audience. The booklet served, in Green’s words, “as a kind of physical anchor for the digital adaptation.”

Visible Fingerprints

From its founding, No Bindings has pushed the definition of what it means to ‘publish’ as a press – with Green coining the term ‘strange books’, for those publications like theirs that are hard to fit into traditional publishing structures and distribution models: the limited edition, the hand-made, those books with many authors, or that spill off the page into sound and video. Like Juniper, Green came into publishing as an artist, with no pre-conceived ideas of what a publication could be, or the places it might go.

Conceived by dance theatre practitioner Raquel Meseguer Zafe, ‘A Crash Course in Cloud-spotting’, was designed as intimate theatre for the home, ‘An invitation to pause. To rest. To Listen.’ The booklets are wrapped in origami squares and threaded with ribbon, the publisher’s hand in every fold. It’s the lack of anonymity that makes work like this feel unique, and important. It’s also a tricky balance to strike if you’re a publisher who’s also a person.

“the gift-like potential of books is one of the factors that’s helped print publishing survive in the face of a digital revolution”

“In creating this book, I learnt that 500 booklets is too many booklets to make by hand, on your own, over the Christmas holidays,” writes Green, of Cloudspotting, “It’s in moments like this, when I’m tired and overworked that I lose confidence in what I do. When I hand make book(let)s, I subconsciously lower their status as literature and my own status as a publisher: ‘this isn’t publishing because these booklets can’t be traded at the London Book Fair and won’t be reviewed in the The Times Literary Supplement’. Yet, when I asked for feedback from the Cloudspotting team on the reception of these booklets, they told me the audiences spoke of the booklets as gifts.”

When Juniper talks about that first edition of playing cards, boxes hand-assembled, stickers hand-stuck – she has a similar memory, more succinctly put – “I had a f***cking breakdown.”

As Utter & Press has grown, some automated compromises have been made for the sake of Juniper’s health (she’s discovered mail merge and address labels, and works alongside a distributor). But the publisher as person – and artist – still runs throughout the press’s productions; quite literally as a character, in the case of Key’s books, but also in hand-scrawled postcards, letterpress-printed tickets and personally penned emails. “the gift-like potential of books is one of the factors that’s helped print publishing survive in the face of a digital revolution,” says Green, and it’s no wonder that both No Bindings and Utter & Press were able to find open-eyed and open-eared audiences when other channels of connection were lost.

A Healthy Ecosystem

There’s a sense among some consumers that “If a book isn’t on Amazon, it doesn’t exist,” Green writes, but it’s the invisible books – the strange books – that are able to squeeze into gaps that others can’t reach, to find alternate ways of connecting to an audience – often in more immediate and less anonymous, ways. Green is a research fellow on the programme ‘Amplified Publishing’, which feels like an fitting name for these fuzzy-edged works, whose words spill beyond the visual and into sound, event and dialogue. And, as with Utter & Press, No Bindings seeks collaboration rather than clients. When you’re small, you have to reach out. “It’s sometimes this network of people that truly says “amplified publishing,” says Green, “The book is actually part of a constellation of contributors and concepts and places and time spent and connections made.”

After Cloudspotting came ‘an/other pastoral’ a collection of eco-poetry by Tjawangwa Dema, one part of a wider project from No Bindings. The project explores blurred boundaries between the human and non-human, speaking to race and belonging and nature through poetry, archive recordings and audio conversations. “Reading about ecosystems while reading about publishing proved a powerful combination”, Green says, “I started to accept and honour what I can do in my capacity as a one person publisher of limited edition print runs and with that how I might disrupt in some way a monopolized marketplace of bookselling to nurture a healthier publishing ecosystem”

Where mainstream success means an inability to take risks, a small-run pamphlet might give vital words a space to be heard. Strange books can work their way into the world via strange routes, in snatches of audio, or woven into radio.

Naturally, making books like this comes with immense challenges, financial and logistical. Both Green and Juniper are experimenting with unusual models of funding and distribution. Utter & Press hopes to run a series of limited ‘studio editions’ modelled on venue-performer relationships (“Like the studio theatre in the basement of the main house – where you can do more experimental work”), to open their doors to greener talents; while No Bindings is playing with a ‘click-and-collect’ model of distribution that circumvents Amazon and relies on the co-operation of independent bookshops.

These as-yet-untested experiments are what artist-publishers do best. They shift and change to make the work work – it’s why their books are hard to shelve and why they came into their own as the world upended. Unsung heroes of the ecosystem, here’s to more strange books.


Lily’s comments are taken from ‘Strange Books’ on Grapevine – An experimental platform for connecting artists and audiences outside the mainstream

Whatsapp the words “strange books” to +44 7380 333721 find out more

Phyllida Bluemel is a writer, artist, designer & Associate Lecturer in Illustration at Falmouth University. She makes publications, collaborating with community groups, organisations, artists and researchers – to bring places, ideas and bodies to research to tactile life.

“Ja Ichcha Tai” or “do whatever you want to”
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