Justin McGuirk:
“Being small and nimble
is an advantage”

16.11.2012, 09:30

Justin McGuirk, publishing director of Strelka Press, tells about Strelka’s diversion at the Book Fair in New York, the crisis of the traditional book publishing and the advantages of publishing without printing infrastructure.

— What is the ideology of Strelka Press that you’ve been promoting at the fair?

— We were invited to exhibit at the Designers & Books Fair partly because we’re a new voice in architecture and design publishing but also because we’re a digital publisher, and that makes us rare in this field. There’s a certain amount of paranoia about digital publishing in that world, dominated as it is by sumptuous illustrated books. And with falling sales there’s an impulse to blame the internet, or just digital culture. Everyone knows that it’s the future, or at least part of the future, but they’re still negotiating it cautiously. My argument was essentially that the medium is not the message – ebooks are not about bits any more than books are about paper. They’re about narrative, or content. And in our case, it just so happens that the best way of distributing our essays, and making them accessible to the widest possible audience, is digitally.

— Which books attracted most attention?

— It didn’t really work that way. In fact, what attracted all the attention was that we didn’t have any “books”. The fair organizers hadn’t thought of that, because they provided each stand with a big bookcase. So we just used the shelves to display the postcards that we always create for each of our book covers. On our table we just had four iPads. One of the visitors came up with a big smile and said “So you’re the anti-Christ!” The fact that we stood out so much from the context felt exciting, and made the audience excited about us too. Indeed one of the things that really struck us at that fair was how little differentiation there is between all these architecture and design publishers. I’m sure they all believe that they have distinct brand values, but you really couldn’t tell. So to arrive there with something so focused and specific also felt strangely subversive.

— There were few public forums at the fair, you participated in two of them. Tell us more about that.

— I was invited to join two panel discussions. The first was a conversation with other critics, including Michael Sorkin and Christopher Hawthorne of the LA Times, about three books that have influenced us. I chose A Critic Writes by Reyner Banham (but really I was just referring to his design writing, not that book specifically), Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski and Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt. I didn’t choose Walter Benjamin, but one of the things that I asked myself early in the inception of Strelka Press was, if Benjamin wanted to publish his essays on Moscow or Berlin today, where would he do that? The other panel discussion was about the future of the book, where I joined Lars Muller and Julius Wiedemann from Taschen, among others. These “future of” discussions always kick off with the idea that there is a “crisis of the book”. I believe that’s a false premise. Really what we’re experiencing is a crisis of the publishing industry, not the book. In fact, the internet has made books better than ever. And the conversation bore this out as it became clear that what publishers now compete over is definitiveness, where once they might have competed over price. In other words if you’re going to publish a book, it has to be the best book on that subject. As a start-up publisher with no print-based infrastructure to protect, Strelka Press is lucky enough to be free from the anxieties plaguing traditional publishers. Being small and nimble is an advantage, and it means we can approach panel discussions like these with a cheeky confidence. I ended the session with an old joke: How do you make a million dollars in publishing? Start with ten million.

— How did the storm affect the fair? If you had some personal experience, please share.

— The fair took place over the weekend, and on the Saturday it was thronging with people. By Sunday, however, anxiety about the coming storm was building and the atmosphere was much more subdued. On our stand we were busily moving our flights forward and in the end we packed up a little early so we could escape New York. But the fair was a great success I must say. I hope it becomes a regular fixture.