Last Friday, amongst brown paper boxes and piles of tissue paper, I helped San Francisco's The Thing Quarterly celebrate its one year anniversary by wrapping Issue 5, the first issue of their second subscription cycle.
So far it's been one success after another for The Thing, starting with a residency at Southern Exposure and a profile in Frieze magazine. Over the course of the last year, the periodical has been able to fully cover production costs via subscription sales, provide comparatively decent compensation to its contributors, and garner positive press from a diversity of publications, including The San Francisco Chronicle, Marie Claire, NPR's Marketplace and Design Observer. Given the difficulties inherent in independent publishing, all of this left yours truly very curious as to what magic formula they happened to be following.
First and foremost, it's obvious that The Thing offers a unique product. Its founders and editors, John Herschend and Will Rogan, invite four guest artists a year to design an issue, which takes the form of an everyday object -- coaster, baseball hat, doorstop -- that somehow incorporates text. Issue One, for example, featured a vinyl window shade designed by the artist Miranda July with the text "If this shade is down I'm not who you think I am" screenprinted in July's recognizable black handwriting.
This is definitely part of the formula: The Thing offers collectibility. Even though Herschend and Rogan don't consider the issues to be limited editions, once an issue is sold out, anyone interested in acquiring old stock is at the mercy of eBay and the cultural capital market. Buying at the current subscription rate ($35 a thing) is an incredibly good deal, considering the quality of the artists and writers involved. The current subscription cycle, for example, includes Lucy Pullen, Trevor Paglen, Jonathan Lethem, and the collaborative Allora & Calzadilla, as well as a few surprise projects.
Beyond the collectibility of the contributors, however, The Thing rolls into one all of the trends that I see flourishing in independent publishing right now: good design, specialty-packaging, and quality craftsmanship. In other words, the most successful offline publishing projects over the last decade have paid as much attention to their own object-hood as they have their content (San Francisco's McSweeney's being a prime example, as well as magazines like Cabinet, which is offset-printed in Belgium at a shop that still feeds its sheets by hand).
Take Issue 5, by artist Lucy Pullen. While I don't want to give away what Pullen's thing actually is, I will say that special knives had to be made at the Westwind Hardwood factory in British Columbia in order for Travis Hebert to manufacture it, that the text had to be applied "just so" by Val Kasvin at Sputnik Models, and that a special box had to be created by Julian at Arrow Paper to shield it from the US Postal Service.
All of this is actually the norm in the world of consumer-thing-making. What is not normal are small runs (less than 1000) and end credits. Each thing comes with an insert that describes the production process in detail, narrating every company and person involved and blurring the lines between mass-produced consumer product and hand-crafted art object.
The Thing's packaging process functions in the same way. So far, all its issues have been communally launched via a series of wrapping parties held at locations on both the west and east coasts, including galleries, book publishing houses, museums, and at least one art book fair. That is, an email is sent out, or notice is posted in the blogosphere, and people (mostly art people) show up, fold boxes, stamp logos, and stuff tissue. Tens, if not hundreds of hands, put each issue to bed. Plus eat pizza. Which is what I was doing on Friday night.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, it actually costs The Thing money to do its packaging this way. These wrapping parties however, along with The Thing's predilection for detailing everyone and everything involved in the production, are the final part of the formula.
It's not just the collectibility of the artists involved, or an awareness of quality craftsmanship, or incredible identity design, or even the accrual of lots of personalized hands. What publications like The Thing and McSweeney's offer is something I'm beginning to think of as the patina of language, if you will: all the ways in which a narrative or back story can affect an object (even another text) and give it value. In my mind, The Thing manages to succeed so beautifully because they have merged this concept with their format through every step of their process, down to the things themselves. Even a single piece of text can serve as a suggestive pointer towards a different understanding of an everyday object. Which is the whole point.