Florian Cramer on “The Art of Hybrid Publishing”

Julia Rehfeldt —  September 29, 2014 — 3 Comments

Florian Cramer is an applied research professor and director of Creating 010, the research centre affiliated to Willem de Kooning Academy and Piet Zwart Institute at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. He also works for WORM, a Rotterdam-based venue for DIY avant-garde culture.

Hybrid Publishing Lab: What recent changes do you see within the intersection of DIY culture and hybrid publishing?

Florian Cramer: My colleagues Alessandro Ludovico and Silvio Lorusso would be the better people to ask because they’re much more in touch with contemporary practices and projects in this particular area. What I generally observe is that hardcore DIY publishers go back to print, particularly DIY printmaking including stencil presses, Risographs and silk screening. Experimental hybrid digital/analog publishing seems to be a domain mostly of graphic designers – which no longer means DIY in the narrow sense of the word.

HPL: You developed a toolkit for publishers, can you briefly explain the focus of this project to our readers?

Cramer: It’s not only for publishers, but also for designers, authors and editors. The focus is (a) on e-books and e-book technology, (b) on publishing in the arts, which encompasses everything from theory books to artists’ experimental publications but in most cases means visually oriented publishing. We found that in the field of the arts, there is hardly any existing e-publishing know-how. Yet publishers feel a great urgency to switch from pure paper publishing to hybrid paper and electronic publishing for a whole number of reasons: costs, distribution and outreach, but also new opportunities provided by the electronic publishing; even if they just boil down to a museum offering, instead of one heavy exhibition catalogue, customized e-books with a number of works selected by the individual buyer, or to a publisher selling single poems instead of a poetry volume.

Our toolkit consists of a handbook that gives everyone, regardless their level of previous knowledge, a step-by-step technical and editorial introduction into publishing electronic books. It is meant for small publishers who cannot simply outsource such work to external agencies and focuses on new editorial workflows that make it easier to simultaneously publish in different media (such as paper book, e-book, web site). The handbook covers different typical publication scenarios. Next to this handbook, our Toolkit includes a number of self-written software utilities. Very likely, it will also provide a user-friendly interface for command-line Open Source software that we recommend as a hybrid publishing document processing tool.

The development of this toolkit partly needs to be understood from a Dutch cultural context where Gert Lovink and me work as applied research professors in the system of higher polytechnic education and therefore do hands-on R&D in collaboration with publishers and designers. There is a major crisis of arts publishers in the Netherlands because most of them depended (directly or indirectly) on public arts funding; funding that has recently been slashed by the government. This urges everyone to radically rethink the way they work. Obviously, electronic publishing is not a panacea. Hybrid publishing can even make things more complicated and, in the worst case, more expensive. So we’re looking for pragmatic, working solutions – not snazzy design show-off work that may create wow-effects but will not be a workable model for real life, in an area of publishing where books rarely have editions of more than a few hundred or few thousand. Focus on showcase projects has been the achilles heel of all electronic and multimedia publishing efforts ever since the CD-ROM in the 1990s.

We eventually want to take our project beyond the Dutch context and continue our critical R&D in a wider European context. But the toolkit will be published in English and, by the way of eating our own dog food, made available in different digital and analog formats.

HPL: What was your experience when developing it?

Cramer: We greatly underestimated how little publishers are familiar with computer technology outside the established Microsoft/Adobe toolchain, and what a culture shock it was for them to be confronted with new workflows that have their origin in Open Source, scientific publishing and the World Wide Web (such as, for example, a simplified markup language like Markdown). Many designers, publishers and editors hope that hybrid publishing is an issue that could simply be resolved with an additional export button in InDesign, but this is and will never be the case. We also saw that other comparable projects, often initiated by artists, designers or media researchers, started with bold promises but failed to deliver because they had either underestimated the complexity of the matter, or constrained themselves to solutions that only work on one particular technological platform (such as Apples iPad).

HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?

Cramer: Obviously, George Maciunas’ “Flux Paper Events” (published by Edition Hundertmark in 1976). And, by, implication, all artists’ books, bookworks, design books and visual books for which the medium of paper and the form of the bound codex is indispensable. – On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of thousands of conventional paperback and hardcover text books in my home library and replace them with electronic books, for the pragmatic sake of gaining space, and always having my library with me as searchable files on one USB stick; despite the obvious usability and durability advantages of paper books.

As a matter of fact, the question of analog vs. digital publishing is not one of mutual excluding alternatives; it’s not about “either/or” (as most of the publishing industry still believes) but about “and-and”. This is why our toolkit isn’t called “electronic publishing toolkit” but “hybrid publishing toolkit”. For the same reasons, I’m convinced that we’re living in post-digital times where analog and digital coexist, and get hybridized. Just like true music lovers own their music both in digital and analog form, on vinyl *and* as mp3 files, I would advise publishers to target book lovers who want their reading material on paper *and* as an epub or PDF file. This could, btw., be good business, too.

Our upcoming Conference on Publishing between Open Access, Piracy and Public Spheres is up for registration now. You can read all Interviews here.

Read tomorrow the introduction interview with Gary Hall, co-founder of the open access journal Culture Machine, and co-founder of Open Humanities Press.

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