This Experimental Publisher Is Rethinking How Design Books Get Made

The idea of crowdfunding books on design is no longer a new concept. Since its inception in 2009, Kickstarter has hosted approximately 3,700 campaigns centered around art books, with an estimated 500 specifically about design. One of the more well-known examples is from 2015 when two graphic designers raised nearly $1 million ($941,966, to be exact, against a now-modest $158,000 goal) in just 34 days for a reissue of NASA Graphics Standard Manual, a spiral-bound guide to the government agency’s graphic identity program from 1975. The incredible feat of pre-selling nearly 9,000 copies of a classic yet relatively obscure tome in just over a month raised a lot of eyebrows in both the publishing and design worlds, including those of publisher and graphic designer Darren Wall and Thames & Hudson editorial director Lucas Dietrich. Inspired by the success designers have found on Kickstarter, Wall and Dietrich co-founded Volume in 2017 as a platform tailored for design-led book projects.

Volume was not Wall’s first brush with crowdfunding: in 2013, he spearheaded a Kickstarter campaign for an art book called Sensible Software 1986–1999 about a much-loved British video game developer, which he published through his newly formed company Read-Only Memory (ROM). “Video games,” according to Wall, were “previously an area that was untouched by publishing; what had been out there was quite broad, and I was doing very specific books…” He then launched and ran several more successful campaigns about various other aspects of video game history, also published under the ROM banner. “They were doing really well and selling in significant numbers,” he told me. That is when he realized there were other “ignored areas of publishing” that he might be able to tap into.

Wall began talking to Dietrich in 2017 and the two conceived of an “experimental” new platform, which Wall described as a place to “play around with different models of publishing.” Dietrich, a veteran of the publishing industry with 25 years of experience at Thames & Hudson, was “keen on cultivating satellite projects” and encouraged Wall to flesh out the idea further. Eventually, Dietrich took an outline to the publishing board and came back with a modest budget to help make their start-up a reality. They spent the next eight months building out Volume, which would operate similar to Kickstarter but be geared more towards design-led book projects. From a visual standpoint, this meant the ability to have full-screen images and photorealistic renders, both of which are not possible on Kickstarter. Having a custom-built platform would allow them control over every aspect of the campaign from marketing to distribution, with the ultimate goal being to create the kind of experience surrounding books that is typically beyond the capacity of traditional publishing.  

“When books come to big publishers, particularly in the current climate, it’s conservative,” Wall said. “People want to know that it’s going to work in different languages, in bookshops, and on Amazon. They want to see books in a similar vein that have been successes.” The understandably cautious approach of big publishers, who need to sell a certain amount of copies of each title in order to cover the cost of overhead, usually translates into broad, mainstream subjects that would appeal to a wide range of people. What this doesn’t account for are certain niche topics—like video game history or identity design—that speak to a very specific but passionate demographic. 

Though not the first publisher to capitalize on crowdfunded design books, Volume is unique in that it has the weight of Thames & Hudson behind it. Decades of editorial, design, and production expertise, relationships with printers, and a trustworthy distribution network are available to Volume, while Thames & Hudson receives the benefits of market research, grassroots advertising, and, in some cases, funding for a trade edition, generally a much simpler version of the book intended for the mass market. With this partnership, Volume’s four-person team can operate independently, deciding to move forward on projects based on a good feeling about an author, bypassing the usually slow machinations of big publishing. “Normally it’s a year to 18 months, which sometimes takes the wind out of the sails of some eager authors,” Wall said. “We can move more quickly than that if we want to.”

In addition to speed, Volume is able to pull out all the stops on production with its limited editions so that its backers are receiving a premium, collectible item A monograph on graphic designer Anthony Burrill, for example, used three-color silkscreen printing on the cover, Bodonina binding, and an option for a clamshell box;­ while a book on typographer Takenobu Igarashi allowed its backers to choose between 26 Igarashi letterforms to create their own custom cover. In traditional publishing practices, custom inks, special materials and binding, and customization options—26 different covers is unheard of—drive up the costs and add significant financial risk. Since Volume raises the money in advance, there’s no longer a question of “will this sell?” and “will we recoup the money?” This allows Volume to collaborate with its authors on a book-as-art object. In this way, Volume offers the best of both worlds: the feel of a big publisher behind it but with the financial flexibility and freedom to create one-of-a-kind, collectible books, which are then followed by a more widely-distributed trade edition. According to Wall, the initial Volume version “doesn’t need to have type on the cover, doesn’t need to fit on the bookshelf, doesn’t need to look good on Amazon: it’s just like an art object.”

After a project has been funded, the details of the campaign help determine how to approach the trade edition, which becomes a Thames & Hudson book at that point. Though Volume’s specialty lies in creating unique and deluxe limited editions, many of its authors are eager to know that eventually there could be a trade version as well. “The fundraising goal is first and foremost focused on covering the costs of the Volume edition,” Wall said. “However, it’s often the case that overfunded projects offset production costs of the trade edition.” Both print at the same time but the Volume backers receive the deluxe edition long before the trade version becomes available. Whether a Volume edition enters the trade or not depends on the book and the wishes of the author. Each project is adjusted accordingly. 

According to Wall, “From Thames & Hudson’s perspective, it’s a project that’s been completely de-risked.” If a project is an unexpected hit on Volume, that gives Thames & Hudson a better idea of how many trade copies it could sell. “It’s a really great way to publish because it takes the gamble out of it.” he continued. “We’ve already spoken to the hardcore fans, given them something they want that’s extra special…the costs are already covered, and then the book has a second life in the trade.”

Volume recently reached its goal on a campaign for a long-overdue 408-page hardcover monograph about mid-century modern graphic designer Rudolph de Harak, which it presents as “the first major publication devoted to this fascinating and significant figure in the history of modern graphic design.” This book highlights the importance of crowdfunding to bring to life projects that big publishers might balk: the book is set to be 408 pages with horizontal half-binding, printed on two paper weights in six colors, while a collector’s edition will offer a fine linen cloth cover and slipcase.“We get to do all these eccentric things, so it’s got this kind of playground feel to it,” Wall said. “People are saying, ‘This is too weird for the trade. Can we do it on Volume?’”

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