Gaspereau Press editor and print master Andrew Steeves shares ideas from his new essay collection on publishing and typography
The name Gaspereau Press is synonymous with beautiful Smyth-sewn books and letterpress-printed jackets that still reflect their makers’ handiwork.
Andrew Steeves, co-founder of the Nova Scotia literary press, is an outspoken advocate of quality print books. In his new collection, Smoke Proofs: Essays on Literary Publishing, Printing and Typography, Steeves offers an introductory lesson on the history of print publishing that doubles as a CanLit call to arms, urging both publishers and readers to expect the best from each other.
Here, Steeves shares some philosophical ideas discussed in the book (which he also designed and typeset).
On writing for both typographic professionals and laypersons:
It’s asking to be kicked in the head – you have the potential to lose both ends of the audience when you go down the middle and write a book that addresses the subject for a general audience, but it’s worth the risk. If we really want to see change, and if we really want to see improvement, then we need to expect more of each other. If the architects only talked to other architects, no one is going to care about architecture. If we want people to care about how books are made, we have to introduce them to the elements and speak with the expectation that they will find it interesting.
On consumers versus readers:
There are all sorts of areas in life where we’re simply consumers. I may sleep every night, but I’m not very passionate about bed sheets – I’m a consumer of bed sheets. There are people who are more engaged and dedicated to process and community – we’re seeing this with farms and wineries. There are people who just want a beer, and then there are people who actually want a connection and to understand the process of how that beer is made. I think a healthy economy has both, and not every consumer has to be a reader.
On poorly bound airport paperbacks:
You don’t expect those books to be around in 10 years. It’s entertainment. You read it on the subway and then it goes to the Salvation Army. No one should get mad at the phonebook for not being the Gutenberg Bible. But what’s happened is that the techniques and economic rationale from the commercial world have seeped into the literary-reader side. It shuts down our critical faculties and we just accept whatever’s offered.
Digital publishing is still in its early days. We don’t know what shape it’s going to take or how useful it’s going to be, or what effect it’s going to have on the cultural ecosystem. We’ve seen some effects on independent booksellers and how we read and retain information. My criticism is more about our gullibility. We’re so willing to drop a perfectly good tool and walk across the street toward the shiny new thing without being critical of what it will do.
I love print and physical books. I’m arguably good at making them; I’m going to be doing this for the next 40 years – not figuring out how to make an ebook awesome. Someone else needs to figure out how to do that.
On the future of ebook design:
I think publishers are ripping off consumers by selling them material engineered for one format, dumping it clumsily into another format, and pretending it’s special. It’s a con. The tool itself is incredibly savvy and can be made to be something much better, but it’s going to take that 18 or 20 year old, or someone coming out of Humber College, to do it and find a way that will advance the culture. My responsibility is this acre I’m working right now. I hope that the excellence I’m working to bring to the physical book can inspire that 20 year old to bring the same to the digital one.
This story originally appeared in the December 2014 print edition