Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Artisan Publishing

The food industry in the United States is a curious one. Some words that appear on labels, like, “organic,” are carefully regulated and may only be used if the food or the process by which it was produced meets certain requirements. Other words, like, “artisan,” may be used with abandon.

The word, “artisan,” long carried the sense of common practitioner, as opposed to the artist who brought genius and inspiration to the work. But as mass production, and increasingly mass customization, has blessed us with a collective and mostly uniform affluence, artisan has come to signify a means of production where low unit cost and economies of scale are not the primary objective. Artisan bread, for example, is made by hand even though there are bread factories that are far more efficient in purely economic terms.

Why, if we are rational economic actors, would we ever choose a product that is more expensive and less available than a mass-produced equivalent? People who prefer artisan breads may argue in terms of the varieties or flavors available nowhere else, or the virtue of supporting local production, but for most people it simply tastes better.

In response to sandwich chains that have recently began advertising their bread as, “artisan,” people who produce food products that actually deserve the label were asked to define it. Some answered in terms of small production batches and traditional, hand-made methods that invite skilled crafts people, who control the means of production, to take greater care in their work. Others spoke about love, attention to detail, a greater concern with quality than quantity, and integrity.

It was in the particular sense of craftsmanship and pride in the work that I realized what I had set out to do in publishing my series of writers’ guides was best characterized as artisan publishing. It certainly wasn’t about the money. While I hope in time to see a reasonable return on the effort I invested in the project, I have no more illusion that my efforts will lead to a publishing empire than an artisan baker believes they will be the next giant food conglomerate.

Artisan publishing isn’t simply a variation on the theme of doing it yourself. The large, well-stocked home improvement centers dotting our suburban landscape owe their existence more to naivety, false economy, and hubris than to a genuine and supportable conviction that doing it yourself is the best way to get the job done well, right, and in a timely fashion. The path of an artisan publisher begins with having something worth saying and a thorough effort to determine the best way to publish that material. As with our writing, where no character, scene, or sentence is too precious to come under scrutiny, artisan publishing has nothing to do with shortcuts or showing the gatekeepers how wrong they were about your manuscript and everything to do with what is best and right for the project.


Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net