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Before Katie and I teamed up to found Blue Crow Publishing, I made books the old-fashioned way: through letterpress printing.

a student sets metal type

I first caught the letterpress bug over fifteen years ago, in a little printing studio in St. Louis. I made my first book by hand there, carving linoleum block prints and typesetting the vintage way—with lead type and a composing stick. Since then, I’ve printed small editions of artist books (usually 30-75 in each edition) that are both my own words and collaborations with other writers and artists. These books come in all shapes and sizes, and their structures vary widely. That’s one of the best things about making artist books: you have the freedom to tell a story in any form you can imagine. I’ve made books that open like an accordion, books with hidden pages, pop-up books, tunnel books that stand up like sculptures.

I’m hooked on writing novels, but making artist books will always be my first love. I’m smitten with the tactile nature of them, and how I can geek out over the feel of certain luxe papers, the smell of luscious oil-based ink from a fresh linoleum print, the slight impression that wood and metal type leave on a newly printed page, the labor it takes to roll the drum of a printing press and create the print. Using my hands to build the book from start to finish, from the sewing of the pages to the binding of the cover—this is what makes the process feel magical.

letterpress printing with a Vandercook

With so much production of mass-produced books coupled with the rise of eBooks, it’s easy to forget the painstaking processes that were once required to publish books. Before it was so easy to publish books, you had to love a text to set metal type letter by letter. You had to find a story compelling to illustrate it with wood engravings, to use a platen press with no motor, just your brute upper-body strength to print those images on paper to be shared with readers.

In short, publishing truly was a labor of love. It takes me hundreds of hours to create a book made entirely from hand, but in the end it’s one of the most satisfying ways I can spend my time. There’s a joy in the tactile, in something made by human hands. Joy is also crafting a novel, clacking away at my keyboard—don’t get me wrong—but holding a handmade book in my palms, studying the way an artist created it step by step—it’s a lot like watching an illusionist and trying to sort of the secrets. It’s pure magic.

tunnel book with letterpress printed illustrations