I bought Ed Boxall's book 'The Gardener' at the Handmade and Bound Bookfair in London in November... and it's inspired me to do a series for this blog about people involved in handmade/small press books. Ed agreed to answer some questions about his charming and evocative books, and his Pear Box Press projects.
I'm very interested in why people self-publish, especially when (like you) they obviously work with big publishing houses as well and it's not for lack of success in the traditional publishing world. Why did you first become interested in publishing books yourself?
To be honest it was for ‘lack of success in the traditional publishing world’ that I self publish. I got into self publishing because Walker Books dumped me! My relationship with Walkers was the best thing in the world in that they taught me loads about making books and then by dumping me they gave me the passion to do it alone!
What do you particularly enjoy about it? Are there any downsides?
I can’t bear having bosses. I am allergic to working for other people for more than five minutes! So self publishing suits me very well and gives me a brilliant sense of freedom. I feel like I’m getting away with something. The established publishing world is a great big mountain that you assume you have to climb, but you don’t: you can just walk off and do your own thing. If you make something good, people will buy it. You don’t need an army of editors and marketing people to tell you whether something will sell.
The downside is simply the practicalities of distribution: I only have around 25 retailers, and that’s taken ages to build up as there’s always fifty other more important things to do than send off samples to shops.
Another downside about not having an editor is obvious mistakes and possibilities can be missed. There are spelling mistakes in my books. And ideas that could be taken further. The thing to do is replace editors with a supportive but honest peer group: some kind of self publishing club who can give you feedback. I’m working on this!
Your stories have a wonderful earthy quality, a gentleness and an almost spiritual sense of connection between people and places and the natural world. It seems that you get a lot of inspiration from specific places that you visit. Is that true? And what else inspires you when you make these books?
Thank you so much! That is the kindest thing I’ve ever heard about my work but does get what I’m trying to achieve well. I am very inspired by specific places. ‘The Railway Enthusiast’ absolutely smells of
to me and The Shipwrecked Sailor is set in Wales . When I go somewhere amazing I often feel like I’m only glimpsing the surface. I make books to go much deeper into what these places mean to me. I realise now I find one key image that enchants a place or a thing and makes it’s magic more real for me. Finding the tree in the seashell in ‘The Shell Collector’ enchants what a sea shell is all about, and the moon at the bottom of the sea in ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’ is an image that tries to express the mystery and madness of the ocean. Hastings
I actually think of my books as specific places - I hope they are in no way generic. They are particular places I like to go to. Not very urban, am I?
They also have quite a poignancy and atmosphere... is the mood/feel of the story something that you think about a lot when creating your books?
I hope there’s a melancholy. There’s a feeling of melancholy that feels very real and free. I also hope there’s a real sense of the outdoors- of moonlight, air and weather.
There’s a narrative from image to image but also an atmosphere in the marks and textures that I enjoy in a kind of wordless daydream. I hope other people get this too.
How did the 'Storm Tree Stories' come about?
After spending alot of time chasing what Walker wanted I wanted to do something that was exactly what I wanted. In my heart-of-hearts I wanted to make work that was full of enchantment for the british countryside. Childhood holidays are the starting point but each story opens onto something expansive... a sense of something limitless: the ‘sky full of places to go’ in the shell collector or ‘old Felldun’ in The Railway Enthusiast.
What kind of books did you like when you were a child?
I learnt my letters from John Burningham’s earliest Alphabet, I think from the late 60s or early 70s (see below.) I loved CS Lewis but also Spiderman and then Willard Price’s ‘adventure’ series.
How do your illustrations differ when working for a traditional publishing house or when working for yourself? Do you ask for any feedback from other people when you work on one of your own stories, or do you work very independently?
I can be very playful and personal in how I use markmaking, found imagery and textures working for myself. Things occur to me to put into my Pearbox Press books that I’d probably be very shy about putting to a big publisher. The important thing the big publishers taught me was about covers: how a picture book needs to communicate what it’s about (and be desirable) through the cover in a few seconds. My covers are simple and immediate but then, inside I’m really personal and specific and I hope there’s lots of subtleties.
I work really independently and then, quite late on, I show the books to my wife who is extremely blunt and honest. I also have about 3 or 4 other trusted people I show my unfinished books to. There’s often things they see that can be improved. I am very nervous of feedback and crumble under criticism - a bit pathetic really.
How do you promote your work? What have been the most valuable lessons you've learned about acting as publisher/marketer/vendor of your own books? How do you approach finding channels/venues to sell your books?
Slowly, gently and fairly ineffectually. I’m not a natural business man at all.
I noticed that my copy of The Gardener is a third edition... did you make any changes between editions? Do you print/bind the books yourself?
I didn’t make any changes. I don’t print or bind them myself- a fabulous local printer called GH Graphics does all that. But I write, illustrate and design them myself. My prints are completely handmade by me though!
Printmaking always seems to me to be a natural companion to the making of handmade/small-press books. Have you always been interested in printmaking techniques? You seem to vary your media from project to project, from collage to pencil to paint to printmaking. What informs which media you choose for a particular project?
I absolutely love printmaking and I make prints all the time. In contrast, I’ll make a book or two a year. I love doing both. My prints are for walls: they aim to be graphic and to have impact from a distance but to be involving and subtle on further inspection! In contrast, you hold books up close. It’s an intimate wondering about with your eyes. So, my books are often much more about texture and ‘visual noise’.
What are you working on at the moment?
There are 2 more ‘sky stories’ to go with ‘The Rooftop Garden’ all finished but I need dosh to print them. I also need to re-print all the books that have sold out and I haven’t re-printed yet: ‘The Birdwatcher’, ‘The Railway Enthusiast’ and ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’. So if anyone has a spare £5000...
Also, I am absolutly loving making some large prints for an exhibition at the Craft Centre and Design Gallery in Leeds that opens at the start of March.
You can see more at Ed's website: http://edboxall.co.uk/