︎︎︎ Homepage        2020_12_03        Conversation 

Q&A with Makina Books

Alessia Arcuri and Robin Silas Christian discuss how Makina Books set foot into the publishing industry, focusing on the challenges and exciting prospects following their venture into the world of combined images and words.

Named after the Plaubel Makina, a medium format camera popular in the 1980s, Makina Books is an independent publisher based in London, that promotes and celebrates independent voices–with a focus on photography, poetry, fiction and prose.

Intrigued by the body of work promoted by the press, we decided to talk to Robin Silas Christian, founder of Makina Books, about his experiences in the publishing industry, discussing the challenges and exciting prospects since 2017.

AA        Tell us about Makina Books? How it started, and why?

RSC         I started the press in 2017 in Glasgow. I had just moved to a new city and I wanted to reconnect with friends by post. I had a set of images I’d taken at DIY Space For London as part of a Free Portrait Studio initiative made on a medium-format camera called a Plaubel Makina. I edited the portraits with some ‘quieter’ scenes of the building and made them into a small bookwork called ‘A Lamp in a Window’ which I sold online and through my friend's shop, TOME Records. The book quickly sold out and with the encouragement of my friend, Livia I started approaching people whose work I wanted to print and share as a physical object. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was beginning to use publishing, editing and collaboration as my main creative outlet. It's taken me some time to find a path for the press but I think it’s pathway is more defined this year with the launch of the New Words series.

AA        What inspired Makina Books? And, what’s your role within the project?

RSC       As an ardent supporter of the book—particularly as a medium for showing photography—I owe my life to books! I could draw a 22 year lineage from the moment I first saw a copy of Richard Avedon’s ‘In The American West’, aged 13, to publishing my first bookwork, ‘The Lisa and John Slideshow: A Play about Photography’ by David Moore aged 35. The most significant part of this story was starting a fanzine called ‘The Blooding’ at the age of 17 and becoming part of a ‘Do-it-Yourself punk community’ and a postal-led culture that existed outside of my Devon hometown. At 18, I handled a battered library copy of Paul Graham’s ‘A1: The Great North Road’. Inspired by and under the direction of David Chandler (then Director of Photoworks) I began to make work of my own using handmade books as a medium. Aged 20 I saw my first ‘book on the wall’, Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’.

For Makina specifically,  I certainly took inspiration from Clinic Presents who were producing very beautiful poetry pamphlets at the time. Clinic’s books looked so good that I would buy them regardless of whether I knew the work or not. They had a style and the books were amazing. I still think the sense of something being ‘brand-led’ in that way so successfully in publishing is rare and I wanted to try and carve my own corner.

I used to look after the collections of Camerawork – a radical collective based in Bethnal Green in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Handling the material, including mail-order laminate exhibitions and diverse, forward-thinking and accessible output (often made at folding parties and on photocopiers) felt electric. At the time I started Makina, I was also consuming a lot of photography––for which books have always been my preferred medium––but I was turned off by the high prices of ‘art books’ and I didn’t recognise myself or fit in with the collector-culture around them.

Technically my role is Founding Editor but I see myself as more of an arranger. I used to work in exhibitions, often with archival materials and I like structuring a book using the skills I learnt from that. There’s a link between putting work on a wall and sequencing it, avoiding straight lines, grids––and using 'punctuation' or finding a way to hold the reader's hand just enough to bring them into the work(s). Nowadays I work on everything with at least two other people, the designer Patrick Fisher (who has designed our last 7 titles) and publicist Jordan Taylor-Jones. The whole process is further-reaching, more collaborative and more enjoyable.

The good thing about being a small press is you can take risks. If you want to turn a book on its side (like we did for A K Blakemore’s Shia LaBeouf) then you can–and if an author wants you to put six blank pages at the start of a piece and can justify it, sure, you can do that too! I recognise Makina fits somewhere into an ecosystem of smaller presses which is then fed-off by larger publishing houses–but it is here where much of the exciting things are happening and that’s what sustains my enthusiasm. IGNOTA, 3 of Cups, Prototype, Photography For Whom? SPAM and Rough Trade Books have all produced some incredible books this year. I’m in awe of what they do!

AA         Can you please talk us through Makina Books’ growing archive?

RSC      Working with the artist Flo Brooks on his liminal portrait exchange Outskirts was a great learning process––the project of his still has mileage and it's been a joy to watch Flo’s work seen by a larger audience. The book sold out but we were able to take it on tour by literally blowing the pages up to A0 and reassembling it on gallery walls.

I was proud of the book, Max by Patrick Doyle as I finished it with my friend, and his bandmate, Marion after his death. The book made some money for the LA LGBT Center, we held a launch and exhibition at White Cubicle Toilet Gallery and it was acquired by Whitney Museum of American Art. Patrick left the book and some beautiful work and words behind for us and it was important to finish it for him.

David Moore’s The Lisa and John Slideshow is also another project of which I am proud to have published. The project uses the medium of a book and verbatim theatre to showcase and rework an intimate collection of documentary photographs originally known as ‘Pictures From the Real World’. The book is largely about family history and challenges the notion of ‘ownership’ by allowing its content to be re-edited by the original subjects of the work. Combined with text made during the editing process, I think the book succeeds at forming an intimate connection between Lisa, John, David and the reader.

This year we launched the New Words series at Pages of Cheshire Street. The work focuses on celebrating independent voices–including; Alanna McArdle, Eloise Hendy, Angus Carlyle, A K Blakemore, Middex and most recently, Rebecca Tamás.

“At the time I started Makina, I was also consuming a lot of photography––for which books have always been my preferred medium––but I was turned off by the high prices of ‘art books’ and I didn’t recognise myself or fit in with the collector-culture around them.”

AA         What’s your interpretation of the fil rouge among the genres you focus on, especially photography and poetry?

RSC       I love poetry, photography and reading; and I find putting things into brackets all the time exhausting. I’m lucky that Makina can step across some of these borders and I will take on a project if it's something I like–regardless of the medium. A good example is Angus Carlyle’s book, Night Blooms which is literally made up of one half poetic prose and one half photographic experiments. The book needs both parts to chart the nocturnal journeys and I think we worked on the arrangement of it so that the two mediums become one and the same thing – at least I hope this is what people will take from it.

I always feel like I’m situated somewhere between two worlds––but I am happier in the literary community (including independent booksellers, magazines and podcasters) that I feel part of now and it feels separated from some of the more challenging aspects of the photography world, where support and encouragement sometimes falls short.

This year people have been incredibly generous with sharing their knowledge with me, listening patiently to my very simple questions and giving feedback. I’m happy with how things are going and if I can do anything to dispel myths surrounding publishing then I will.

AA        What are the challenges that an independent publisher face? What suggestions would you give to someone wanting to start a similar path? Or self-publishing?

RSC       The main challenge is time and money. I’ve channelled all of my energy into the press this year and it feels good to utilise my efforts towards something that feels worthwhile. If you want to start a similar path, I would encourage you wholeheartedly to do so! Make sure you are working on things you believe in and be prepared to spend a lot of time on it. It’s important to have a good relationship with booksellers, both in-person and online–there is still a remarkable network of independent bookshops across the globe.

“There’s a link between putting work on a wall and sequencing it, avoiding straight lines, grids––and using 'punctuation' or finding a way to hold the reader's hand just enough to bring them into the work(s)”

AA        At the beginning of the first Lockdown, we hosted a conversation about how to pitch ideas to publishers, what tips can you give to emerging photographers approaching independent publishing houses?

RSC       It’s hard to sell your own work–but if you are sending your own work out then it’s important to be open to  your work being rigorously edited. If you are writing to a publisher make sure you have researched the books they publish and mention why you think your work is a good fit for them. Research pronouns and state your own–don’t write ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. Think about how you could support the publication with accompanying pitches for the press and be realistic about what you are willing to contribute in terms of time and energy to the process. Lastly, it sounds daft, but I’m much more willing to work with someone with an online platform who will help promote their work as well.
AA        Which is one of the collaborations/projects you enjoyed the most, and why?

RSC      I’m going to have to say Strangers by Rebecca Tamás. The reason being I was afforded a lot of time to work on it with the books designer, Patrick Fisher and it was  such an incredible text to respond to. I gasped when I read the first manuscript! With the second printing, it still feels like we are growing the identity of the book and there are plans to do more with it, including (hopefully) a audiowork Although it's been incredibly challenging to publish during the pandemic, the two books I have released since lockdown, Shia LaBeouf by A K Blakemore and Strangers have been so well received by so many people who have found the time to engage with it and respond to them. Seeing the review for Shia LaBeouf in SPAM was a big moment this year.

AA        What are you working on at the moment?

RSC      At this stage my main focus is widening our reach in shops because I’m excited about people encountering our books beyond our online reach. I'm lucky to be working with Cornerhouse Publications who have helped forge a distribution network for our titles. I’m about to do a podcast lunch with the artist, Flo Brooks and Polly Wright, Programme producer of Broghton CCA. Flo has a show on currently called ‘Angletwich’ and I was lucky to choose some books on ‘ruralism’ for The Daily Winds Tourist Information Centre, which forms part of the public programme for the show.

Right now I’m finalising the programme for next year which includes two incredible emerging poets, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal and Emily Cooper. I'm also working with the translator and writer Jen Calleja on an exciting project of weird and wonderful short fiction by the Swiss writer, Michelle Steinbeck. People aren't going to believe how good these books are! Beyond that, I’m taking more photographs and I'm keen to widen our reach with audio, more collaborations and book fairs.

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Alessia Arcuri (Italy, 1991) is a curator and bookseller specialised in Arts and Photography. In her practice, Alessia explores her passion for visual communication and literature.
Robin Silas Christian (England, 1983) is the founder and editor of Makina Books. Robin's professional background includes teaching, archiving, project management and curation. (www.makinabooks.com)