Tales of the Handmade Book
When we think of a handmade book we often think of one-off artist editions, but Tara Books has found a way to produce beautiful, handmade books thousands of times over, in multiple languages and editions. ABDA members and friends in Sydney and Melbourne were recently treated to a presentation by visiting publisher Gita Wolf and her son, Arun. Below we share some insights from Gita, the Tara Books publishing philosophy and making books one-by-one.
You began your recent talks by explaining the philosophy behind Tara Books and your thoughts on the form of a book, could you share this with us?
We’re based in Chennai, India, and our company is owned by the people who run it. We’re a collective of writers, designers and book makers, and generate most of our titles in-house. We also work with creative professionals from all over the world, and are particularly known for our engagement with a range of folk and tribal artists in India.
Experimenting with the form of the book is a particular passion for us, and this goes for content, layout, form, paper and printing. Some of Tara’s books are made completely by hand, printed and bound in our special book making workshop.
The block printing process involved in making The Cloth of the Mother Goddess by Jagdish Chitara
As an enterprise, we favour a working atmosphere based on dialogue and mutuality, doing away with hierarchies as much as possible. Publishing must be a genuinely collaborative process, and a successful book brings together several visions that make it an important cultural object. With our interest in artisanship and tactility, we celebrate the physical book at a time when its obituary is being written. Design plays a very central role in our books – it’s not embellishment which makes a book ‘look better’, but actually determines how the narrative unfolds, it’s one of the voices which create meaning.
How did Tara Books come to be? Who was involved in the beginning and how many people are involved now?
l founded Tara in 1994, with a couple of like-minded friends, to make the kind of book we wanted. I was particularly interested in the relationship between the word and the visual – l come from a background in literature, but was always interested in art, and what we would call ‘design’ today. Back when I was growing up, design as a discipline practically did not exist, at least not in today’s form, and not in my circle.
Some of the Tara Books team including Gita (second row, second from left) and Arun (first row, far left)
Tara has grown organically over the years, as friends from other disciplines joined. We have come a long way, but the core of our vision remains stable. We are interested in the relationship between aesthetics and politics (in a broad ethical sense), the pleasures of reading/ looking, bringing in genuinely new voices and perspectives, and pushing the boundaries of the physical book.
There are fifteen of us in the office, and the main areas in which we work are editorial, design, publicity/marketing, contracts/finance, production and packing/dispatch. Since we ‘create’ most of our titles in house (we rarely receive manuscripts that we can publish just as they are) our major work tends to involve working intensively with artists and our design team. Production is also an important part of our work. We function essentially as a creative enterprise, and would like to strengthen our publicity and marketing efforts.
Part of the team from the Tara Books screen printing workshop
Apart from the people in the office, there are thirty young book making artisans in our handmade book workshop. It’s run on fair trade practices, and functions like a commune, where the workers live and work together.
For the last four years we’ve also had our own bespoke space called Book Building: it houses our offices, a bookstore and gallery, and a small flat for interns and young designers interested in residencies. We regularly host talks, workshops and events at Book Building, so our mandate has extended beyond publishing into cultural work to do with the book and the arts.
Book Building in Chennai, India
You showed a couple of great films at your recent talks, produced by your son Arun, these gave a real insight into the handmade book process and a behind the scenes look at particular projects, how did this collaboration come about?
Arun is my son, and he’s grown-up with Tara, in a way. He trained in the humanities and journalism, deciding to become a film maker. So it seemed natural that we would ask him to make some short films for us. We use the films not only for marketing, but as a medium which extends the scope of our book projects. Film as a medium has a certain immediacy, and it’s a great way to show process and context. His latest work for us is a short film and a music album for our forthcoming book Brer Rabbit Retold.
One of your most famous books, The Night Life of Trees, is a spectacular handmade book printed on black paper. It’s been translated into many languages and reprinted thousands of times, what makes this book so special? How long does it take to make one copy?
The tactility and luminosity of each page makes the book really special. It’s very organic – the narrative is about a cosmos, in a sense, a way of looking at the world through the relationship of human beings to the natural world. The text, art, design and production are all part of the way the story is told. Trees are a universal subject, and I think this unusual and beautiful take on them resonates with readers around the world. I have some impressive figures on this book: The Night Life of Trees has so far been published in eight languages (French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korea, Portuguese and Spanish) with a worldwide print run of 84,000 copies. It takes approximately three months to print an edition of 3000 copies of the book.
Details from The Night Life of Trees, including foreign editions
In a more general sense, we’re possibly the only publisher in the world to create such artists’ books in large enough numbers to make them affordable to the average book lover. It’s astonishing, but we’ve just calculated that our handmade-book workshop has so far printed more than 340,000 books. We create 27,000 books each year, on average. That works out to about 90 books per day and 75 impressions (separate screen-printed colours) per book, so that makes for a grand total of 2 million and 25,000 impressions a year!
I’d also like to mention that the royalties from the sale of each book support the artists as well as the artisans.
Tara Books screen printing workshop
Creation: Making a Handmade Book short film by Arun Wolf
You only publish a few titles a year, how do you go about choosing the books to publish and the artists to collaborate with? Are you able to keep all your backlist in print?
We should love to keep our entire backlist in print, but like most small independent publishers, we can’t afford to, unfortunately. We need to make careful decisions on which books to reprint, and these decisions are based not only on the rate of sale, but also because we’d like some key titles to remain in print, even if they sell slowly.
As to how we decide on what to publish: we go by what speaks to us, and what we’re excited by. This has more to do with the intrinsic worth of the project, rather than on market potential. In a sense, we see ourselves as creators of a market. Book projects (and collaborators) are sparked in different ways: an idea, an image, or a piece of text. We then go on to match the project to an artist, or sometimes the other way around: we look at what the artist does best and try to find a project that fits her skill and imagination.
Tara Books also utilise traditional offset printing in India. God of Money is an accordion book illustrated by Spanish artist, Maguma
Tara Books is a very unique publishing enterprise, what do you think makes you successful? What kinds of challenges do you face?
I think our greatest asset is the team we’ve built up over the years, all of whom have different strengths – so our books have strong concepts, are well executed, and beautifully produced. It takes a group of people to achieve that. We’re also unafraid to take risks, and follow ideas and inspiration without undue commercial consideration. Some projects have been very successful, others less so, but like with other publishers, it all evens out. I also think that we’ve made a choice about the business model we’d like to follow, that we need to have a ceiling on growth.
Challenges: the usual ones that face small publishers – the lack of a marketing budget, and the struggle for exposure in bookstores. We could potentially sell many more books than we do. We just about break even – but I guess that’s still an achievement in today’s world.
Pages from the risograph printed Hic! by Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper
In your recent Australian talks you mentioned you might be returning next year to work on a project with indigenous artists, can you tell us anything about this?
We’ve been engaged with the rich diversity of Indian folk and tribal art for over 15 years, and have brought many of these traditions into the book for the first time, by combining them with contemporary design and fine production. These books have become well known not just because of their production quality, but also because of their content, a result of how we generate the material, and the way we take it forward editorially.
We’ve evolved effective workshop and curatorial methods over the years, which we’ve been asked to share internationally, including workshops with indigenous artists in Mexico, and designers in Japan. We’re aware that there are several excellent initiatives in Australia: what we’d like to offer are our particular bookmaking skills to community groups and arts centers working with indigenous people, to create books. We take our cue from Indian indigenous artists who want to be in conversation with the modern world while remaining rooted to their tradition.
Some of the folk and tribal artists Tara Books have collaborated with
There is a great deal in common between community art traditions in India and Australia, even though the histories and life situations of people are quite different. So we see this as a collaborative effort, and even though our basic workshop methods are effective, we don’t know enough about local contexts. We’re looking to work with local community groups not only in order to understand the histories and lived realities of particular communities, but also to collaborate in coming up with suitable themes, and be part of the process. We’re also talking to Australian publishers interested in the project, to co-publish the books with us. The plan is to travel through Australia early next year on an exploratory trip, while we make contacts and firm up projects.
What do you hope the future holds for Tara Books?
More exciting directions to explore, and financial stability.