They said books were dead, they were wrong: Adrian Shaughnessy on a decade of Unit Editions

24 June 2019

Adrian Shaughnessy founded Unit Editions with Tony Brook and Patricia Finegan in 2009. Since then, the studio has become one of the most highly-regarded independent design-oriented publishers around, releasing books on the likes Paula Scher, Herb Lubalin, and Vaughn Oliver. Its latest title is the forthcoming What is Universal Everything, an overview of that studio’s work over the past 15 years.

Ten years ago, when Tony Brook and I decided to set up Unit Editions, we did it for many reasons, but mostly we did it because we both loved books. Back in 2009, though, not everyone shared our confidence. We were told that books were dead. People said that e-books had taken over and printed books were like Betamax tapes, LaserDiscs and 8-track cartridges – an obsolete format.

Even Marc Valli, co-founder of Magma – a mini-chain of shops selling art and design titles – was adamant that publishing physical books for the design world was no longer a smart move. Marc founded Magma in 2000 with Montse Ortuno, after they’d shrewdly spotted a growing appetite for books focused on graphic arts of all kinds. But by 2009, they were ordering fewer and fewer books from the publishing houses. “Why?” I asked. “Google Images,” Marc said.

The ability to find images instantly on Google meant that designers looking for reference material no longer needed to buy armfuls of books. Who needs a reference book when you’re a key-stroke away from more images than there are potholes on British roads?

Google Images wasn’t the only bad guy. There were other forces working against the book. Amazon seemed to spell the end of the bookshop, and Kindle (launched in 2007) promised hassle-free access to all the books in the world; blogging offered instant cost-free publishing; smartphone dependency was beginning to monopolise our eyeballs; and the feeling that the distractions offered by digital media meant that there was no time for old world practices like reading.

Tony and I, and the third Unit Editions co-founder, Patricia Finegan, ignored all this and set up a company dedicated to publishing physical books on graphic design and visual culture. Ten years later we’re still here, so is Magma, and most importantly, so too are physical books.


(Via Unit Editions)

As The Guardian reported in December 2018, “With the British high street in trouble, and retailers preparing for the slowest Christmas sales in a decade, bookshops are, rather surprisingly, a beacon of hope. Nielsen BookScan reported year-on-year growth of £22m, with this year looking like it will best even 2016, when book sales reached £1.59bn, and Britain’s biggest book chain Waterstones made its first profit since the 2008 financial crisis.”

In retrospect, it seems blinkered to have thought that the demise of the physical book was ever likely. Books are near perfect tech. As Umberto Eco noted: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon.”

Besides, if you want the incontrovertible proof that physical books are refusing to go quietly, you should apply the London Tube Test. Recently I’ve noticed that people are reading books again on the Tube. You still see entire carriages filled with people staring into their smartphones, but I also see people reading actual books. There, I told you it was incontrovertible.

Proper academic research is going into comparing reading electronically with reading printed matter. The results appear to favour reading on paper and it seems that retention is better with print and, for many people, print offers a less ephemeral experience than the screen-based equivalent. It’s why Unit Editions puts so much effort into making our books an engaging visual and tactile experience.

I also maintain that art and design subjects are best served by well-designed and properly edited books. Reading the continuous text on a screen is just about acceptable for most people, but the marriage of text and image is rarely satisfying on screen, where text and image are usually locked into a rigid format of unwavering conformity. Think Pinterest. Think blogs with long columns of text interspaced with pictures. Everything is equal. Everything is standardised.


(Via Unit Editions)

But there’s a delicious irony here: Unit Editions could not exist without the internet. When we launched in 2009, we used the book trade’s antiquated distribution channels – another rigid template that publishers get locked into. Books are offered to retailers seasonally and everything revolves around spring and autumn sales catalogues; books have to supplied months in advance; payment is slow; and distributors order more copies than they need, resulting in the return of unsold stock.

It didn’t take us long to work out that we could not survive in this world, or in the ravenous discount-hungry maw of Amazon. But the internet, on the other hand, allowed us to speak to a global audience of graphic design enthusiasts who seemed to like what we did. Ten years down the line, we’ve produced over 40 titles, and pretty much all of our sales have come through online purchases from our website.

This makes it sound easy, and something anyone can do. Well, anyone willing to put in the hours can do it. But it’s hard work. And don’t do it to get rich. As has often been said, the way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large fortune. Today, a successful book for us is one that we are proud to put our name to, and if it covers its costs and makes enough cash to allow us to make more titles, then we’re happy.

As Unit Editions enters its second decade, it looks as if books are here to stay, and the doubters were wrong. But other threats hover overhead. Have we become a species that skims and is averse to long-form texts? Are we turning into a species that has only the attention span necessary to fast scan an Instagram feed? When the “internet of things” takes over, and we can have the internet on our kitchen table, will we still want those slabs of ink, paper and glue that we’ve called books since before Gutenberg?

I have a feeling we will. But there will be a few battles along the way. Bring on the fight!

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Adrian Shaughnessy

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