This is the eighteenth in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Submission Guidelines: “We’re not currently accepting new work at this time, but check the website for a future call.”
Interview with Stephanie Sauer, Founding Editor
How did Copilot Press start?
Copilot Press began when General Esteban Villa of the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF) delivered parcel post a box of 508 original sketches to a Chicago apartment in early 2008, with signed permission to publish as desired. I was studying under Sally Alatalo of Sarah Ranchouse Publishing at the time, and she urged me to bump the edition size of this hand-bound artist book up to three hundred. 300! My fingers bled and I lost a lot of sleep, but by the time The Noun Painter was released at Quimby’s I was hooked.
Copilot was named in homage to the RCAF, on whose lore I was writing my own book (forthcoming Spring 2016, University of Texas Press). The name has since come to refer to the kind of collaborations that happen between artists, authors and a small team that consists of myself, editor-designer-woodland sprite Jon Alston and printmaking lioness, Kylie Duthie. In alternating ways, we create one-of-a-kind books designed to let the content pour out into your hands as you touch, read and interact.
Tell us a bit about Copilot. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Once upon a time humans handled books. We actually touched them. Books were made for us to play with and reading was tactile. Then we grew up, which meant no more pictures, no more furry felt animals or scratch & sniff treasures awaiting us at the turn of the page. But at Copilot, our books are made to be touched. We are still thinking of readers when we consider how a book fits in a hand, how a paper’s texture corresponds to the writing, how the eyes might move across or inside a narrative, and how a page turns.
I grew up in a region of the Sierra Nevada foothills permeated by proud craftspeople and back-to-the-land activists, and I consider it an honor to continue in the traditions of independent publishing that have grown out of the Arts & Crafts Movement and guerrilla publishing practices of the Feminist, Chicano, Civil Rights and American Indian Movements. From 2002-2004, I worked as lead archivist for one of the nation’s first Chicano-Indigenous centros and spent many hours in the basement vault analyzing printed ephemera by hand—original silkscreen posters urging boycotts on Gallo and Safeway and support for the United Farm Workers Union, fiesta and ceremonia announcements, handbills for the One More Canto reading series, mimeographed reports, Xeroxed magazines, booklets, pamphlets, postcards. I began studying muralism and oral history, and found all of it to be a means of independent publishing.
Later I was introduced to places like Printed Matter and the playful distribution practices of Fluxus artists, Coracle Press and Brazil’s Literatura de Cordel (String Literature) tradition, to zine culture, and to the incredible creativity of contemporary book artists all over the world.
Copilot’s mission? Make interesting work and know when to make silences. (This is very distinct from being silenced.) There is so much output in our culture right now that it becomes crucial to know when to be still and listen, to let fallow and let die. I value cycles over productivity for the sake of itself.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
Right now Kylie Duthie and I are finishing up linocut bookmarks for the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here international artist response project, and I’m collaborating on an upcoming artist book with Tia Blassingame of Primrose Press. I recently returned from Brazil where A Bolha Editora, the in-translation press I co-founded with writer Rachel Gontijo Araujo, just released a stunning book of illustrations by Kammal João called, O tempo sem tempo.
Copilot is also working on a hand-stitched collection of essays called The Book of Making, a series of interviews with cultural producers from all over the world, and a photographic meditation on the growing worldwide sameness in food supply and health epidemics. We’re binding that last one with strips of plastic grocery bags and calling it Mundial. Also on the horizon is a possible partnership with UC Davis’ Taller de Arte del Nuevo Amanecer (TANA) to produce an interactive print journal that combines socially-engaged art and writing from across the Americas. And if I had my way, I’d also be publishing works by Anna Joy Springer, Laurie Ann Guerrero, João Sánchez, Bhanu Kapil (though we’ve already published her work in Portuguese), Lynda Barry (a girl can dream), Enrique Chagoya, and Rachel Gontijo Araujo’s first full-length book in English. But there are only so many dollars in the budget at the moment and only so many muscles in our so few bodies.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
The work that is being produced right now is very exciting to me. I’m knee deep in and loving eohippus lab’s Acts + Encounters and Les Figues Press’ Feminaissance, as well as recent releases from Dorothy, a publishing project, Semiotext(e), editora par(ent)esis, Drawn & Quarterly, Graywolf Press, La Silueta, Nightboat Books, Corpo Editorial, Jaded Ibis Productions, PM Press, Meli-Melo, The Carbon Based Mistake and countless artist-publishers. Independent publishers and even some academic presses are taking incredible risks to bring work that matters into the world—work that doesn’t necessarily turn a profit or even pay for its own production. Literature, historically, would not exist were it not for these kinds of risks. That the independent market continues to thrive, particularly throughout the last fifteen years, is a very healthy sign. It’s become so robust, in fact, that major commercial presses are co-opting these peripheral aesthetics to mass-produce classic texts (the safest things in the world to publish) with raw letterpress covers, exposed bindings and artwork by graphic novelists. But that’s an old story.
But what really juices me about small press publishing right now is the growth of the artist-publisher, the array of interdisciplinary collaborations, and the proliferation of independent fairs that are creating these vital global networks and tactile means of sharing. Over the past several years, I’ve been fortunate enough to not only attend Printed Matter’s New York Artist Book Fair and Chicago’s famous Printers Row Lit Fest, but to also participate in large and intimate gatherings like São Paulo’s Feira Plana, Vancouver’s Artist Book Fair, Los Angeles’ Open Press, the &NOW Festival of New Writing, Rio de Janeiro’s PÃODEFORMA, San Francisco’s Roadworks Steamroller Printing Festival, the Brooklyn Book Festival, and Brazil’s Turnê circuit. So much creativity and new growth develops as a result of these encounters. The human-to-human contact, the touching of actual books and exchange of ideas in real time seems obvious, but is so vital to a strong publishing culture because so much of what we do isolates us or happens online. And in places like Rio and L.A., these informal movements are blurring the lines between public festival and intimate exchange—exactly the impetus that lies at the heart of artist publishing as cultural critique and intervention.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Copilot Press?
Honestly, I have to step away from production for a bit and focus on distribution, my own arts practice and freelance work after each book is released to avoid burnout and to withstand the financial hit. Copilot is lucky to have finally begun to break even on many of our books. We’ve stayed alive largely through out-of-pocket investments, grants, crowdfunding campaigns and by offering book art workshops, in addition to the modest income generated through sales. And, like most small presses and some incredibly large presses, we rely heavily on our authors to promote their books. Distribution has really become an extension of this more collaborative way of publishing throughout the independent market.
Many readers, I have noticed, do not understand the real costs involved in producing a book or running a press. I’m not sure if it’s easy access to cheap used and bargain books online or the influence of open source tech culture or some outworn Romantic notion that art requires starvation, but putting an honest cover price on a book seems to be offensive to some people. And while I value accessibly priced books and the gift economy when it’s possible, we still have bills to pay just like everyone else. I respect book artists and zine makers who are not afraid to charge the honest price of their work. I also respect readers who pay that honest price when they can, knowing full well that others contribute to the sustaining of this culture in less visible ways. Right now is a strange time for economies of all kinds, so we’re continuing to juggle several of them.