Interview with Anna and Britt – Visual Editions, London

Visual Editions, nicknamed VE, is a London-based book publisher, started in early 2009 by Anna and Britt. The idea for VE comes from our joint love of books and a (mischievous) desire to do things differently, so that everything we do translates into a new experience for our readers, and for all the writers and designers we work with. What we do is make sure we turn all that love and mischief into beautifully, lovingly, wonderfully written and crafted books.” (From VE website).

Institute of Network Cultures: Can you introduce yourself and your work?

Britt: The first thing to say is that we are not book designers, we work with many book designers but we don’t design the books ourselves, we publish them.

Anna: We are Anna and Britt. We started Visual Editions about 2 years ago. All the books that we publish – which are both physical and digital – are based around this idea of visual writing, which really ties together everything we do. The core feature of visual writing is looking at writing that uses visuals as a key part of the storytelling.
So everything that we make, or produce rests on this idea of great looking stories, which is our line, but also a different reading experience and way of writing, as well as a different way of making books and of telling stories.

INC: Are you interested in the digital shift in publishing and what is your position?

B: Yes, we are, but we are interested in it not just because it is digital, but because it’s a new opportunity.

Composition No.1, Marc Saporta. Design by Universal Everything

As a publishing house we like exploring different boundaries of storytelling, and we like platforms where you can really play with storytelling in the best possible way, sometimes that’s print and sometimes that’s digital. Digital publishing opens up books to audiences, in a way that it hasn’t been done before.

A: We’ve published our first iPad app for the book in a box called “Composition n°1”. Making an iPad application was not originally in our plans, but the deeper we got into the making of the book, the more we realized that it was also perfect for the screen, as the pages can be read in any order. The iPad app actually forces the user to randomize pages, and you can actually see that there was a reason for it to live on screen and that’s really the question that we always ask ourselves when we make a book.

We are just coming out with a new app called “Thump and other places” that will be launched in the new year. This will be the first time that we release a story on the screen without a physical counterpart. This book, or this app, is quite cinematic and atmospheric, incredibly interactive and very very dark.

INC: How do you develop an editorial project? What do you think are the new features in the publishing process with the digital book? How do they differ from the design of a paper book?

B: There isn’t really a difference between having a print set book project and a digital book project as far as how it’s developed. I suppose we start just by having an idea that we think is exciting, both as a concept and a narrative, and then it’s really all about putting the best talented people together to guide that idea to its most suitable form.

So with a digital book that might mean finding the best program to really get people involved and to make the book animated, and then we make an overall art direction to all these elements. On the other hand with a print book it’s about finding the best in printable design, pushing the boundaries of the paper and of the physical object.

We always develop the stories together with the authors, so we don’t have the sense of being too far removed from the process, as we are very much involved with it. Anna and I orchestrate stuff and test stuff too. We always ask ourselves annoying things like: “Why am I doing that? Is that idea within our scope? Will this create a better reading experience?”, etc.

We always try to keep these questions in mind, to make sure that the reader is really part of the whole, but in a way that also gives space for people to go away and explore and then come back and surprise us.

INC: What is the main difference between a book and an e-book? What about other digital editorial products (iPad applications, digital magazines, devices for reading in the web etc.)? What about calling them all “reading experiences”?

B: I think that reading experience is a great term to use to talk about that concept, we use it a lot ourselves. It can really make a difference in the reading experience whether you are looking at something on screen or if you are holding something in your hand that is physical and printed, or if you are doing a reading in a public space, etc.
For all of these different practices it’s not just a matter of copy and paste, as it could be simple to go from print to screen or from print to screen to real experience, it’s more about thinking of how to produce a particular story in the best way. Its about giving it the best possible life upon the platform that has been chosen to live. So it’s all about pushing the platform towards its special potential, not just replicating something that already exists on another one.

A: The subject of technology is always really interesting to us. Especially when people talk about publishing on the screen, technology always comes out as being quite a big issue, but actually technology is really interesting in the printed book world as well.
So in both cases it’s about using what is available and innovative as much as possible, and making the best of those different platforms. And that’s exactly what we get excited about across the board: making the most of our reading experience in regard to the platform.

B: It’s not about using technology because you can, it’s about choosing which technology because it’s relevant and only if it makes something into a better experience. There is no point in using technology just because it’s a new innovation if there isn’t a particular improvement in the reading experience.

INC: In which elements of the project do you think your publishing house’s identity reside? How would you manage to keep it – or even change it – in the making of digital book projects?

B: We can say that our identity resides in the concept of visual writing. It’s about storytelling where the visual is just as important as a part of the story, as the writing is.

A: And that, as we said, exists across the board. I’d suppose our role as publisher is mainly about interrogating that process and making sure that along the way there is nothing extraneous or just for the sake of it, and that the visual and the story are really embedded with each other.

INC: The relationship between text and image has always been one of the core matters in visual communication. How has it changed in the digital environment? Do you think this relationship could become something different in digital publishing, and how?

A: I think the relationship between text and image is an issue about interaction, and I also think that the same issue exists with technology. People assume that this kind of user interaction only exists on the screen, but actually it’s something that exists in physical books too. When we talk about different reading experiences it’s about pushing the limitations but also pushing the expectations of that interaction.

“Composition n° 1” is a really good example of that. We worked with the digital design studio called Universal Everything which had never done a book before, but they are really amazing interaction designers. So we told them: “Look, we made a book in a box that readers really are engaging with and responding to. We want to encourage that process and make it happen on the screen as well.”

INC: What about the relationship between content and structure in the layout of a book (indexes, hyperlinks, different ways of visualization etc.)? How does it change with the digital? What about it in digital publishing?

B: I guess we’ve already talked about that as the relationship between form and content: reading is about balance, it’s about making sure that the form and the content, in the same way as the visual and the writing, work together to give the best experience for the reader. It’s also about pushing that experience as far as you can, but without the visual getting in the way of the story and vice versa, or without the platform getting in the way of the whole experience, whichever platform it is.

There are many things that you can actually do: in terms of screen-based experience, you can insert so many different layers, which might work sometimes, but not always.
We are very careful to respect each story and what that story needs. So we are always asking: “Do I need to put another layer to enhance the story or would it actually divert my reading experience and make it worse?”
At the moment there is really so much you can do, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be selective, and I guess that the exciting part is actually trying to find the boundaries of what makes reading into a better experience or what makes it, in a way, a bit painful.

INC: Do you think we are risking an overload of information in publishing, especially in online and digital publishing?

B: It’s not just in publishing, it’s everything. It’s general communication, it’s how we shop, it’s how we live, how we keep in touch and socialize.
I don’t think any industry could ever satisfy the request on how far we can go. But people will find out in the next few years how to set the boundaries, in the sense of what they want and what they don’t want.
For now we are in this crazy phase of exploration as consumers and readers, we are exploring so much by reading digital stuff that at some point we’ll forget what the base of balance in coding is.

INC: Do you think interactivity and media convergence can affect the making of a book? What about the proliferation of different formats (ePub, PDF, iPad etc.)?

B: To people that ask us: “What will be the future of the book?” we always respond with a provocative question: “What do you think will be the future of the apps?”

None of us know what the future will be, everything is changing so fast, and probably the most exciting thing today is not going to be the most exciting thing in two years in time.

A: I think that when you answer those kinds of questions it’s very important to think that any publisher or producer is making things for different reasons, so what we do is not prescriptive, it’s definitely not what we think everybody should be doing, it’s just what we get excited about, what is in our really narrow ambitions: as we said before, everything that fulfils this idea of making great looking stories, whatever platform it is and making the most of telling stories in many different ways.

B: Something that is very important for us, which can sometimes also be a downfall, is that we like to learn by doing: something will work and something will not, but that’s why we like experimenting.
We don’t have the resources or the patience or the skills to look around and see what’s happening before we decide to do something ourselves, because we can’t work all sectors at once, really, however our job is pretty much research too.

INC: What do you think about collaborative practices?

A: Everything that we do is collaborative. It might sound dumb but we call ourselves an ecosystem and we also have an ecosystem of people we work with depending on the projects, so either animators, programmers, illustrators, or film makers. As a publishing house we are small, you know, it’s only the three of us here at the core so we try to expand and contract, depending on the kinds of projects that we are working on.

It’s actually really nice bringing in fresh and new energy, and working in different ways. I think that collaboration relates more to real life, but, you see, this word is also very overused and it doesn’t mean anything anymore. However, I believe that working with wonderfully talented people is the life and blood of our business.

B: And also with the readers, we are really open and talk to them about new projects and what’s coming out, what works and what doesn’t, so that we have some feedback of what they like and what they don’t about whatever story that we are bringing out at the moment.

A: You see that every project is completely different and that’s also because we bring the designer into the process before there is even a book. So the conversation usually starts between us and the writer and in most cases, especially where a new writer is involved, we also bring the designer into that conversation, in order to develop something really amazing.

INC: Has the traditional book changed? Can we talk about a sort of “paper reaction” to the digital shift in publishing? What do you think about the increase of self-publishing, both on paper and digitally?

B: I think self-publishing has more impact digitally than in print, and I think it’s fantastic as a platform for people that don’t work in publishing to have their work available. Any open platform for people to expose their talent, whatever their talent is, is always welcome. In terms of print, it forces people to really think why they are printing a book in a physical form, which can only be a good thing. People should print books only if they’re relevant, rather than having a stock full of books that don’t sell. Before making a print book you really have to think about what your ambition is for it and also what you can do with it, because if you want you can just have it on screen.
So, self-publishing forces you to think about the making of a book from a commercial point of view, dealing with the resources that you have, as well as with more general thinking from a practical point of view.

INC: What do you think about open source culture? What economic models do we have now in publishing and which do you think will take over in the future?

A: It’s not the way that we publish and produce our books, but we think these models are all great, it’s really exciting that there are so many different conversations about how to make books and other objects in general. However, it’s not part of our business model.

We believe that it’s fantastic that people can produce things that would not otherwise have been produced, also because it creates a sense of open exchange or community, rather than the limited and selective opinions of a dominant group. Open source currently offers many different options, one of them is that it allows everybody independence.

INC: What do you think about the obsolescence of the digital world? Is putting the content back onto paper the only choice that we have to prevent obsolescence? Do you think we could find other solutions?

B: We had a funny chat about that recently with a lovely lady, Allison from “Fantastic Magazine”. She used to do digital publishing and then she switched to print. She said that, as a book editor, the thing that she didn’t like about digital books, was that she felt that everything that she produced in the digital format was not made to last, and that she loved the printed matter because she could show all her work in a printed form in the years to come.

I don’t think this a reaction against the digital format on a mass scale, I think it’s just that some people prefer to have books that they can keep and some people are happy with the content only as an experience and don’t need to have physical books on paper as proof of what they read or produce.

A: Moreover, it’s not a one-size-fits-all model, some content should be archived and some content is meant to be dispersal. Different contents need different ways of living and being safeguarded too. For example, some things need to be filed for cultural or for educational purposes, but other things can happily live, from a journalistic point of view, in a short time span.

INC: We are living in the era of the dissemination of information. Do you think we are lacking concentration?
Do you think that dissemination and concentration can coexist or do we have to choose between one of them?

B: We need to make choices. This reminds me of something that I read from a trend forecaster who was writing about our generation, stating that all this technology and all of this overload of information and constant bombardment in a certain way for us is a novelty, and that’s why we can’t switch it off, because we are constantly faced with everything.

On the other hand, younger generations, our kids generation, they will learn how to deal with this, they will understand much more easily how to switch it off and when different devices are needed for different reasons, so for example when reading a book on the sofa at night is appropriate and when reading the news paper on the iPad is.

B: We both have small kids and sometimes we give them the iPad for reading stories, but they would happily decide to not to read stories on the iPad and chose a printed book.
So it’s not that because they are growing surrounded by technology they have no need for printed matter, there is no one-size-fits-all, it depends on what kind of person you are.

Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Cover design by London-based Jon Gray.
Book design by London-based graphic design studio Sara De Bondt Studio.