‘Accidental Publishers’ Markus Sebastian Braun and Josh O’Neill on Making Analog Books in the Age of e-Readers
The publisher of Niggli and the founder of Beehive Books never expected to get into publishing. Now, with four businesses and 11 Kickstarter campaigns between them, they reflect on what got them here.
“My publishing career started with a little criminal act,” says Markus Sebastian Braun. Behind him is a graffiti-spangled sign from a West Berlin checkpoint that reads, “You are now leaving the American sector.” He liberated the artifact when the wall fell in 1989.
Braun is video chatting with Josh O’Neill, the founder of the Philadelphia-based small press Beehive Books. Braun, who is the publisher of the Swiss architecture, design, and photography imprints Braun Publishing AG, Niggli Verlag, and Benteli Verlag, explains how that moment of anarchy inspired his first publishing endeavor: He photographed the sign and sold posters of it at the Brandenburg Gate.
Although he has been a publisher for more than 20 years, Braun is a new face in the Kickstarter Publishing community. At the end of April Niggli launched their first campaign to print The Design Manual of Munich ʼ72, an archive of designer Otl Aicher’s graphic identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics. This summer, they plan to launch a second one for a two-volume manual devoted to the graphic design of the modern Olympic Games from 1896 to the present day.
O’Neill, meanwhile, started Beehive Books just three years ago, but already has 10 Kickstarter campaigns under his belt, including three that predate Beehive Books. O’Neill is planning to launch a new campaign this summer for a second issue of LAAB magazine.
“Someone called publishing ‘the accidental profession,’” O’Neill says. “Nobody sets out when they’re young to be a publisher or an editor.”
O’Neill’s accidental entry into the field began with Locust Moon, the bookstore he founded in 2009. He wanted to showcase the work of the writers, artists, and illustrators who’d passed through its doors and formed a tight-knit community, and began to explore self-publishing and community funding as a way to do it. Locust Moon published three Kickstarter-funded books before shutting down in 2016, when O’Neill decided to devote himself to publishing full-time and founded Beehive Books.
We recently brought these two publishers together to compare notes and talk about what it’s like to put out big, beautiful, analog books in the age of e-readers and shuttering bookstores.
— Rebecca Hiscott
Kickstarter: Markus, tell us a little bit about The Design Manual of Munich ʼ72. What prompted you to launch the project?
Markus Sebastian Braun: We [were planning] to launch another Kickstarter focusing on all Olympic designs since the modern Olympic games [began in] 1896. When I got in contact with the author of this title, I visited him in this tiny village in Switzerland and went to his archive, which is really amazing. It’s one of the biggest archives of Olympic design. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne rents out items from him — the assortment they have is not as good as the one our author has.
In this archive, we found a copy of the [1972 Munich Olympics] manual from Otl Aicher. We thought, why not [publish] this manual as well? So many graphic designers love Otl Aicher. He’s like a superhero in the design field.
Josh, can you tell us about some of the recent Kickstarter campaigns Beehive Books have run?
Josh O’Neill: The last one we did was part of a continuing line called Illuminated Editions. We take the world’s greatest illustrators, cartoonists, and graphic artists and we get them to choose a book that they love, and we do this big, oversized, elaborately designed illustrated edition. It’s about seeing the classics in exciting new ways through the eyes of these amazing artists. The last line involved an edition of Crime and Punishment illustrated by Dave McKean, an edition of Peter Pan illustrated by Brecht Evens, and an edition of The Blazing World illustrated by Rebekka Dunlap.
A big part of our philosophy as a company is that when you work with the best people and let them do the thing that excites them the most, you get even better work out of people who always do great work. When we talk to illustrators or authors or anybody we know we want to work with, the first question we ask is, “What is the craziest idea that you have? What’s the thing that you would love to do but you think is impractical or unfeasible or you don’t think you could find a publisher to work with you on?”
Obviously we can’t do everything, but the excitement of our model is seeing how you can make these wild, quixotic, exciting projects possible. That’s part of why we built our line around crowdfunding, because stuff that can be fatal in the book trade, the things that can make you fail as a publisher using traditional methods can make you succeed in crowdfunding, where people are really drawn to things that are novel, things that are different, things that don’t already exist.
What was the very first Beehive Books project?
O’Neill: Our first one was a monograph about Herbert Crowley, who was this completely unknown, forgotten artist from the early 20th century. He was a cartoonist and a sculptor and an illustrator and a painter. The author, Justin Duerr, did 10 years of insanely detailed research on Crowley. He actually found an old abandoned house that Herbert Crowley once lived in, in 1912. He went there, found the house collapsing into the forest, and crawled inside the ruins and found old filing cabinets full of artwork and correspondence that had raccoons living on top of it.
It seems like both of you create books that bring work from the past to a contemporary audience. Would you say that’s an interest of yours?
Braun: I wouldn’t say it quite like this, because at Niggli we also do books which are really connected to the present. The Otl Aicher manual is something very special. I am proud to put this in the list of Niggli [publications] because we do have [books from] icons from the past in our list, like Grid Systems by [Josef] Müller-Brockmann, [a graphic designer] from the ʼ60s and ʼ70s.
But as Michael Klar says in our Kickstarter video, you could easily take an Otl Aicher manual from the past into the future and it’s still modern. Same with Müller-Brockmann. This title will exist in the future as well; it’s basic literature for everyone who studies graphic design today. Some authors, they don’t die. Keeping them alive is for sure something I love to do, but I do 30 or 40 books a year, and there are also books which are written in the present.
What about you, Josh? Would you say you have an interest in bringing classic works into circulation in a new way?
O’Neill: Yeah. I am very interested in the past and art history, and I do consider publishing to be a form of writing history. Part of what publishing decisions do is they decide a hundred years from now what books will be available in libraries and archives. So I do feel a certain urgency around books [like] the Herbert Crowley book [and the one] about Harrison Cady.
I love comics, I love illustration, and these are fields that do not have a lot of scholarship built up around them. I’m very interested specifically in the early 20th century, which was a golden age of illustration and the dawn of comics, and as time goes by you lose the connection to that era. So I do love the idea of taking forgotten things from the past and saying that it’s important that they not be forgotten, because I think that feeds directly into the present.
For instance, Herbert Crowley’s work is absolutely astonishing. He didn’t do a lot of comics, but in his comics he’s telling stories in this symbolistic, experimental, poetic, flat-perspective style that is completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I believe if his work were better known we would have a whole different category of comics that followed up on what he was doing. My hope for a book like the Herbert Crowley one is that the artists who are working today will read that book and see those comics and be influenced by this stuff from a hundred years ago.
The availability of this material feeds directly into what happens now and what happens in the future. I love thinking about publishing that way, and I do think of Beehive as a project that is engaged with history and is trying to hybridize all of the most modern tools and technologies — including crowdfunding, including printing technologies, including all kinds of digital promotion and design technologies — with all of this stuff from the past.
How has crowdfunding, as a tool, impacted the work that you do?
Braun: What I think is really interesting about Kickstarter and crowdfunding is that I’m starting to be able to know my customers. As a publisher, you sell books to a wholesaler and they give the books to the bookshops, and they even don’t give you the names of the bookshops [they sell to] because that’s their secret. So you really don’t know who buys your books. But Kickstarter and crowdfunding makes you able to see where the orders come from and who are the persons behind these orders, and this really satisfies me and gives me an idea of how the future [of publishing] could be. Also, if you know your customers, you can develop book ideas even better.
O’Neill: Yeah, it’s nice that people talk to you. Publishing can be a bit lonely. There’s so much build-up to releasing a book and then it’s out there. Maybe you do a book release party with the author or something, but it’s sort of like, “Ta-da, it’s done! All right, moving on to the next thing.” It’s very nice to have an engaged audience that is passionate about what you’re doing and wants to learn more about it and wants to talk to you about it. That’s a very valuable thing, and that’s very hard to come by in this field.
What was your work like 10 years ago? What’s changed since then?
Braun: I think 10 years ago I was [just starting to go] international. 2006 or 2007, something like that, was the moment when we started to work with Thames & Hudson in the UK. This was something I had always wanted to do, because before I was focused only the German-speaking market. I was always kind of jealous of these [international] publishers. And then we did 1000x European Architecture: a thousand pages, a thousand architects, a thousand projects, in one book. It was the first book we did in English. And it worked. It was a really big change. And from this moment on we only did books in English and only for international markets.
O’Neill: Ten years ago my life was completely different. I was just starting my bookstore in Philadelphia. I don’t think publishing had occurred to me at all; I was much more interested in writing.
At the time I was writing comics and graphic novels and trying to collaborate with artists — we really stumbled into all of this stuff sideways, and incompetently. We really had no coherent business vision of how to make a bookstore work. It was driven out of a desire to be part of a creative community and make our lives about books and the arts and comics, and have a space that could bring people together.
The publishing [aspect of my career] was born out of being part of this community and going, “Okay, there are all of these brilliant people in Philly, many of whom are not having great success with their careers because it’s a brutal landscape out there.” So our initial publishing projects were just kind of like, “Well, we have all these brilliant people, we’re all struggling. Let’s all do something together. We’ll make this massive book, and it will be undeniable because there will be so much great work in it.”
It was out of that self-publishing [experience] that I really fell in love with the process of publishing books. I started realizing that it was the thing I would get most excited about and charged up by. So at a certain point I transitioned into publishing full-time. That’s when I founded Beehive Books with my partner. It’s been a crazy 10 years. It’s been a lot of transition.
What do you think will change in the publishing landscape in the next 10 years?
Braun: Ten years is a long time. Imagine, it’s only 12 years ago that we got the iPhone. Time is running too fast — better to ask about five years [from now], or even two years.
I think the kind of publishing we do at Niggli or Braun will still exist, but the distribution channels will change dramatically. I think there will be still some people left who like to have analog books, real books, not only e-books. Nevertheless, I think for most people, the distribution channels will change. But 10 years is quite a long time — I’m not really confident that I’m right.
O’Neill: Yeah, I agree. Look at Baker & Taylor just closing — I mean, they’re a distributor that was 180 years old, and as of [a few] weeks ago they no longer exist.
I don’t think the demand for books is going anywhere. If anything, the demand for books is growing, especially the demand for the kinds of books that we both do. As books become less relevant as a pure content delivery mechanism, they become more relevant as art objects and pieces of craft that have their own physical status in the world.
Crowdfunding is one of the only mechanisms that really seems to be working [right now]. [Beehive Books is] very small, and there are a lot of problems with being a publisher that is mainly built on crowdfunding. One of them is that it limits exactly how much stuff you can do. But I’m amazed that more publishers haven’t moved in a crowdfunding direction, because it works, and you can take risks without putting your company on the line.
Mainstream publishing is so conservative, just by its nature. They can’t afford to take a lot of risks because the margins are too low and there’s not enough money there. If you get burned doing something crazy it can ruin your entire year or your entire company. But the big successes are always when someone does something a little crazy. With crowdfunding you can throw stuff at the wall and say, “All right, let’s try this crazy thing, maybe it will work.” And if it doesn’t, you don’t even have to make the book.
Publishing is a very tradition-bound industry that’s [been] a little slow to catch up to the economic changes it’s going through. I don’t know what form those changes are going to take, but I do think some radical rethinking is going to have to happen, and it’s going to be very interesting to watch. And that’s exciting! I don’t mean to be gloomy. I think there’s a lot of possibility in publishing and art-making in general these days. It’s just not in the places where people are used to finding it.