Interview with Astrid Vorstermans and Pia Pol, publishers of Valiz

INC: How do you select what you publish?
Astrid: The program concentrates on contemporary art, linked to social or cultural topics. 80 percent of what we publish is provided by people coming to us. New content often develops from a network of people who link up to what we’re doing. 20 percent or more is initiated by ourselves, and we try to look for people who fit in with these plans. But these are often from the same network, and it’s growing and moving all the time, an organic group of people who fit that subject or not.

I can specify a bit more. Since Valiz started (2003) we have made book monographs with artists, people who we know or meet through galleries and exhibitions, though we’ve made less of these in the last few years. We have a line of books, series, that are on more theoretical subjects. These are international, both the authors and audience. They fit in discourses on art, technology, and society. Lastly we make book deals with individuals, institutes, and schools, sometimes museums, both in the Netherlands and internationally. These always have to fit into our program, and they are dealt with in the same editorial way.

The series each have specific missions. Books such as PhDs are in fact someone’s personal project that investigates theoretical subjects. The series is a combined effort by several people; most are compilations of texts. They’re embedded in a community where others interact with them. Other books are by one individual author or on one specific artist or designer. 80 percent of our books are English, the rest are Dutch. Some are bilingual.

One of our series is called Antennae. Then we are developing other series, one is called ‘Studiolo’, which publishes PhDs on art historical or cultural subjects. Monographs include Rob Voerman , Alexander van Slobbe, Joke Robaard, Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan, Berend Strik Hans Venhuizen and others.
With each book we look for a point of view that is discursive and we try to define its audience quite specifically. With monographs it is a challenge to go beyond the sole representation of the work and explore critical perspectives, open up its meaning.

INC: How long does it usually take to bring a manuscript to published form?
Pia: The shortest period of time is two to three months. The longest is years. I think most are in between, six to eight months. The shortest: I Read Where I Am took two months, or about six to eight weeks.

Astrid: I want to be involved in the concept phase of the book. It’s important to talk about the type of book, the way the content is structured and a target audience in an early stage. When you jump in the middle of something, you don’t have the distance nor space to think about those aspects very hard.

INC: How do finances affect what you select?
Astrid: I think of content first of all, always. When I believe in that, defining an audience and sales strategy follows, but we have to earn a living and need to pay our costs, so that is a part of trying to fit our work into an economic model. We act within the ‘normal’ publishing and bookseller’s industry, but we find other ways to reach an audience and fund books than a normal publisher.

Pia: Lots of things don’t go via bookseller’s sales. We do book presentations, launches, discussions, trips around Amsterdam with an architecture book we have made, lots of events that generate direct sales. It’s about linking communities, and getting people interested in the whole program.

INC: Is book design affected much by marketing strategies?
Astrid: We pay a lot of attention to graphic design, not from the point of view of sales, but we’re trying to be on the cutting edge of what is happening. There are so many over-produced books, you must stand out in a certain way. You can communicate or enhance that content in graphic design. Graphic designers are very much like editors, defining how a book is structured, what type of information to convey.
Each year we receive one or two or three awards for best book design. We’re proud of that, and it would be nice if it influences our sales or development of digital publishing. But we’ll see.
Regarding book design, I don’t think about sales except for the cover, legibility, and I try to have feedback from our distributors and reps.

INC: How do you fund your operation?
Astrid: Most of these books are not feasible without a partner or extra funding. So we look for partners and subsidies and try to enthuse our distributors to sell as many copies as possible. Funding is changing in the Netherlands, so we’ll have to see how this develops. We do projects with schools, in the Netherlands, institutes in Belgium, New York, Paris, in Bristol etc. We’re networking, trying to explain what we do and being transparent about what books cost to produce, and that you might make very little money from it. So a way to convince other people is to say: if you want content developed into a well-made book, distributed within the right network, you must pay for it as well.

INC: How do you distribute and market your books?
Pia: We work with different international distributors, webshops like Amazon and our own, plus Facebook, mailings and events. We have a huge network of people who we try to keep up-to-date by emails, our website, LinkedIn. For the series we give introductions online in pdf format; for other things we provide pictures. We have seven free pdf intros..

INC: Will you make any other content available for free online?
Astrid: It’s not a real policy apart from the series pdfs. The pdfs are several pages that help explain the book and their structure and aim. For other books we are trying to sort out what we can do to make them more open to the public. Sometimes it’s difficult because we’re very much in favor of open source. But take Hans Venhuizen for instance, who writes on architecture and urbanism. If we give his content away it’s harder for him to live on what he does. He has to sell his knowledge to live, so more personal books are more difficult to ‘give away’.

We have to ask more consciously what format will work for each title. As for digital opportunities: we are not a cutting-edge digital publisher, but we try to keep up with what is happening, and what we could do. Opening books up, like we did with I Read Where I Am on the web, is still different than reading the physical book. I don’t think people wouldn’t buy the book anymore just because it’s online.

Pia: In fact even the opposite might happen. Online the book is an extensive preview for the physical book.

INC: What formats might you offer online?
Pia: We’re going for epub format. That’s the most accessible to most people. Our books are well designed – that’s the struggle. How to keep the feel or the intricate design of the books we create in a digital format? The conversion from plain text to epub is not difficult, but to have a suitable digital design, which uses the digital opportunities, is something which still has to be developed.

INC: What licenses do you use?
Astrid: For all of our texts we try to apply Creative Commons non-commercial license. But as soon as pictures from artists are involved, it’s difficult to use Creative Commons. It’s the same as talking about Hans Venhuizen giving his work away for free: we must ask the artists or authors if they agree with Creative Commons, and if they’re already involved in picture rights. You can’t combine Creative Commons with another license or rule.

INC: What do prefer, digital or print?
Astrid: Digital is important, and with an online book you have the internet as a sort of reference or to link to communities. Digital culture influences our way of using information and using books. But if you have a printed book, it’s not important that you have it online also. For me a book is self-sufficient, but online it’s not. Books influence digital developments, but what about the other way around?
The unique selling point of a book is that it’s physical, you can have it in your pocket. It’s autonomous, you don’t need electricity.
I Read Where I Am is trying to translate a database into a book, but it’s old fashioned how it is done. If it were filled with things that pop up and are used in a different way, that would be innovative. But its graphic design is based on a database, and the core idea of the database predates the digital.

INC: How do you interact with your reading public?
Astrid: At events, when we organize discussions. We do that quite a lot, more than other publishers. We’re not linked to a digital system and don’t have message boards. All discussions and book launches are meant for feedback. We could have an online platform where people react to our books, but I feel that with internet people don’t think, but throw things out without inhibition. We’re not comfortable with angry rants, but if someone wants to make a discussion around a book, it’s great. We should develop our website into that direction. We’re interested in the possibility of having small platforms where people are concentrated and interested in a topic, and you know that within that community, this subject is important.

INC: What do you see as the major dangers to the publishing industry?
Astrid: To express a cliche: how people are looking at art and culture in the Netherlands is the biggest danger. It’s this, and it’s a government that doesn’t see any extra value in books or culture, apart from economic value. The book trade used to be something in between economy and culture. That is changing. All these small initiatives that feed the mainstream quite a lot could vanish or suffer. With the commercial model you’re dependent on the market, and the market is about numbers, not about content or countermovements.

Pia: It goes hand in hand with how people are looking to simplify things. Nothing can take much time any more. Food, clothes, it’s all made fast and cheap.

Astrid: The book trade is decreasing and receding. I’m still convinced there are readers, and so we have book launches for discussion, and it’s busy and people buy books there. But if we also have to sell through the normal book trade, booksellers don’t buy our books anymore; you cannot achieve a critical mass with them. The end user doesn’t see certain books any more. The serendipity we had in a bookshop is going away – when you see something and come back to buy it, and subjects influence you to explore other fields and domains. Subject links on the internet are more difficult than the library or bookstore. Browsing on the internet is more superficial and less meaningful. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. In a bookshop you can look at a book and know you’re interested.

Pia: But I’m completely dependent on Amazon. It’s easier to find things online, and I do look at more things, I keep clicking.

INC: What other future plans could you foresee with the digital side of publishing?
Astrid: When I started Valiz, I edited and published books. Now we’re more and more acting as a cultural stage, not just for books but to promote the subjects in our books. It’s a model I like a lot, where we could proceed even more not just as a publishing house of physical books but as a platform doing cultural projects along with books. The content is there, the audience is there, but we need to find other models of funding that.

Pia: We’ll have to explore the digital side that will be in tune with the subjects.

Astrid: It’s difficult to think of how to improve the content with digital techniques. With more discursive books it’s easier to think of as linking to other information, to communities. We are at a starting point, a kindergarten of digital possibilities. It’s not a translation for a book but a new way of diving into it and spreading and condensing things. It’s good to think about digital possibilities as you start a new project, if this is the most suitable medium to publish this subject in now. You start off from a different point of view as you develop content. But sometimes you really need a book.

Pia: I don’t think the book will ever go away.