February 10, 2015

An interview with the editor of The Improbable, where independent booksellers review books from independent publishers


Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 7.02.54 PMIn January, L.A.’s Siglio Press launched The Improbable, “a highly curated, monthly collection of short reviews written by booksellers for booksellers about unusual and wondrous books that live at the intersection of art and literature.”

Lisa Pearson, the publisher of Siglio and editor of The Improbable, answered a few questions for us just as the second issue of reviews went live, on February 8th. On Tuesday, February 10th, she’ll join editors and publishers from Phaidon, Yale University Press, David Zwirner Books, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a free panel on trends in art book publishing at the New York Public Library.

Where did this idea come from? Why these books? Why you?

The kinds of books reviewed in The Improbable defy categorization. They straddle the literary and visual in surprising ways (none are “illustrated” or coffee table books, traditional artist monographs or museum catalogs, or works that fit neatly in any genre). And thus they are challenging to shelve in a bookstore or position in relation to more popular, recognizable titles. In other words, they need a little (a lot?) more loving care—and they often inspire real passion and instigate real conversations, but mostly far outside the mainstream.

This could also describe every title I publish at Siglio, which is an independent press dedicated to books that live at the intersection of art and literature. I saw that there were numerous other presses I greatly admire who are also venturing occasionally into this territory—so I knew their books, like mine, were often flying low under the radar.

And here’s the last piece of the puzzle: Siglio is a tiny operation, so when I signed up with a distributor (D.A.P./Artbook), I happily turned over all of the work with trade customers (bookstores) to them—as I barely had time to do everything else on my plate. But since then, I began to realize how much I valued the relationships with booksellers I had in the earliest days—learning what they’re excited about, how they envision and shape the curated space of their stores, how they cultivate passion among their customers for particular books.

The Improbable brings all of this together—the booksellers and the publishers and the artist/writers so that their books can find the readership they deserve.

You’ve now published two issues of The Improbable and with them a wide range of reviews: Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op Bookstore reviews Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; San Francisco’s Green Apple Books reviews Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars; WORD, Brooklyn reviews Karen Green’s Bough Down. Where did these lists come from?  

I made a list of literary-visual hybrids that I loved (front and back list). For example: all the works by W.G. Sebald (who will likely get a dedicated issue down the road), a slew of books published by Christine Burgin who has exquisite and unusual taste, and quite hybrid titles from a variety of more literary-minded publishers like Julio Cortazar’s Cosmonauts of the Autoroute (Archipelago), Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse), Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (Graywolf), and Amarnath Ravva’s American Canyon (Kaya). I’m also particularly interested in Fluxus artists and reprints like Bern Porter’s Found Poems (republished by Nightboat) and several Primary Information titles such as the forthcoming reprint of Fantastic Architecture, edited by Dick Higgins and Wolf Vostell. I also wrote individually to publishers and booksellers I admire and asked for their recommendations to expand the list, and then I gave that list to booksellers who had signed up to review. Ultimately, it’s those booksellers who shaped the first issue by simply choosing the books they wanted to engage and write about.

How are books that “live at the intersection of art and literature” different from what we think of as “illustrated books”?

I think it’s really important to distinguish between illustrated books and books in which the artist/writer is working in some particularly hybrid mode—that asks the reader to engage in the inextricably intertwined acts of looking and reading. There are all kinds of easily categorized channels for coffee table and illustrated volumes, for museum catalogs and artist monographs. While they might be underserved sometimes in terms of being specifically reviewed, they get lots of other kinds of attention—exhibitions with plenty of press, stacks on gift tables at stores, best picks on Amazon, etc. The books reviewed in The Improbable are something very different.

Do you see The Improbable focusing primarily on print books, or can you envision reviews of more formally versatile digital-only books? Do you want to (or not want to) see more books that are either published only in digital format or that differ in their digital and print editions? 

As a publisher I’m interested in artists and writers for whom the book—whether print or digital—is not simply a transparent delivery device. I have published a digital-print hybrid (Between Page and Screen by Amaranth Borsuk) and am open to other projects which really play with any form. For both The Improbable and for Siglio, the particular criteria is that the work is truly a literary-visual hybrid, whatever form that takes.

Who do you think is publishing the best reviews at the moment? 

I think the best writing and the most interesting range of books are covered in Hyperallergic and Bookforum. I also pay close attention to the Los Angeles Review of Books and as many of the usual suspects as I have time for (Harper’s, The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, etc.). But I’m also partial to the underground, the off-the-beaten, the let’s-do-it-differently reviews. The Art Book Review out of LA is particularly great in the latter regards: most of the reviews are written by artists rather than critics. It changes the terms of engagement—and I think that’s interesting for readers.

I can’t help it: what are you reading and loving right now? 

I just read Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (and there’s a fantastic two-page exegesis on the publishing world that is written into a scene in which live baby octopi are being consumed—insanely apropos). Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces and the Rough Guide to the Dordogne are on the top of the pile.

If you’re in New York, drop by the panel tonight to say hello to Lisa. And no matter where you are, sign up for the next installment of The Improbable here. And 10:04 is, indeed, terrific. 


Taylor Sperry is an editor at Melville House.