April 25, 2012

From a ten-year editor, part 2: My offset fetish

Leadership is stunning and weighted and breathlessly vulnerable. In the ten years leading this mag, I have learned many lessons, crossed many lines, risked friendships and futures, and stretched far beyond what I thought was possible. So in the lead-up to Versal's 10-year anniversary and tenth edition, I would like to share some of what it's been like to be Versal's editor, stories that intersect, inevitably, with the larger conversations out there around editing, writing, publishing, women, and inclusion.

Part 2: My offset fetish

Yesterday, Shayna and I traveled up to Velsen-Noord, a village north of Haarlem with a population of about 5000. According to Wikipedia, it was originally founded by the Romans. Today, it's a steel town -- or a post-steel town, depending. It's also where our printer, Pantheon Drukkers, makes its home.

For an offset printer, Versal is a pretty straightforward job, its layout, design and requirements fitting nicely into the offset mindset. Usually we've only had to check a few plot proofs before the machines start running. But as Versal has evolved and particularly the art choices have become more complex, working with the printer has taken on a more collaborative relationship. This is the first time we've made site visits, in fact. Years of working closely with Milly and René at Pantheon have fine-tuned our processes, and this year, with our top-secret cover, it was clear we needed to travel up there and do some tests. We would also look at high-res proofs of the artwork to make sure the color levels were accurate, and test those on the new paper. Every factor can make a difference in what comes out at the end.

Versal 1 was printed, I'll admit, on a digital printer. We didn't have the resources back then to go offset, and we only printed 150 copies anyway. We received a small "starters grant" from a Dutch literary foundation in 2003 -- the only external funding we've ever received -- and took Versal 2 up a notch, gave it a spine, offset and a print run of 500. Those first offset issues, up until Versal 4 I think, were printed somewhere in Prague. I never knew much about the outfit, just that they were artists and printers, and they gave us a good deal. But problems arose quickly. They didn't speak much English or any Dutch; we had to work with them in broken German. And they would ship the copies over via large and rather creepily empty semi-trucks. What a sight to see that black semi parked outside my small Dutch apartment. Then one year, the truck was stopped at the German border (this was before the Czech Republic entered the EU). It was almost turned around. Somehow, the driver made it through the interrogation and we got our Versals. But for months after that, Annerie and I were finagling with Dutch customs agents, even taking trips out to Schiphol Airport where we left our passports as we entered through "Door 14" and basically paid someone a lot of money to get off our backs.


I love the smell of printers. My uncle owns a printshop in Nashville where my cousin and I would spend summers working for pennies, and I even manned the design desk at Kinkos one year in college. The combined smell of paper, ink, and those massive machines. I freakin' love it.

And though I also love letterpress and handmade, and all the beautiful books coming out of that right now (including mine! soon!) offset is where my heart lies. I'm a child of the 90s desktop revolution, of Quark and Pagemaker, CMYK and Pantone. I like imagining plates of Versals cracking in a recycling landfill somewhere (are they recyclable?). I like reams of paper, the boxes of envelopes with the sample tucking out. And seeing the cover come off the press yesterday, the plate circulating quickly on its roller, the ink still wet to the touch -- yeah, it's a fetish, it's my love of office supply stores, school supply shopping, pens and the smell of new books.

Will I jinx Versal 10 if I say it's my favorite so far? I fell in love with it all over again yesterday. I really hope you'll love it too.

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