Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Print Is Dead / Long Live Print

The decline of print publishing has been chronicled just about everywhere over the past several years, and while it's always a bummer when good magazines or newspapers shut down or the New York Times seems to shrink a little more every week
, I'm certain that no matter what there will always be creative-minded people who are interested in producing and searching out beautifully tactile, self-contained printed objects. I for one look forward to seeing all the innovative new works that are sure to develop in the void – projects that explore classic printing methods, innovations with new techniques, and radical ideas about what even constitutes a publication.
One of the most promising of these I've seen lately is Abe's Penny, a new "micro-magazine" created by sisters and NYC residents Anna and Tess Knoebel. An issue of Abe's Penny consists of four postcards; subscribers receive one in the mail per week, and taken together, the images and text on those four postcards form a story. Contributors thus far have included photographers Melanie Flood and Tod Seelie and writers Sam Witt and Brandon Johnson; it's been highly enjoyable anticipating another installment of their stories in our mailbox each week. With all of that in mind I thought I'd take a moment to check in with Anna and Tess about how their new micro-magazine idea is coming along.

How did you come up with the idea of starting a publication in postcard form?
Tess: Writing and sending letters was a huge part of our upbringing. We sent letters to our grandparents and cousins who live around the Northeast. Whenever we went on vacation, we would send postcards to people back home. So the idea kind of stems from loving mail, the kind you find in your mailbox, and the very personal relationship that mail affords. We like that it’s so fast. You can finish a card in the time it takes to walk from your mailbox to your front door. We also talked about how, if you were to pare down a magazine to its absolute core, you get images and text.
Anna: It was definitely a while ago that we came up with the idea. 2004, really. But I think the bottom line was that we wanted to create something that didn’t challenge people so much as engage them. So, we were thinking of ways to bring art and writing into a harried world without adding any extra stress, which for me means, I already get the Wall Street Journal everyday, the New Yorker every week, a magazine every month. It’s hard to finish even that much. So we wanted to keep it short.

What's behind the name?
The name, Abe's Penny, came from the penny press, which we were enamored of because making newspapers inexpensive made the spread of information affordable. Using the word penny worked because of what we were saying before about paring down a magazine to its essence, or smallest form. We decided to call it Abe's Penny because it's self-contained and referential, like the postcards. But having said all that, we also liked the way it sounds, and I'm sure we counted the letters just to make sure we didn't get an unlucky number. That's a trick of our Mom's.

Have the two of you collaborated on projects in the past?
Anna: Never so seriously. Then again, we’re sisters and we’re close. For almost anything I’ve ever done, I could think of a way Tess was involved.
Tess: Our first collaboration was a pop-up restaurant in our garage in Elysburg, PA. The first customer was our father. We had a full menu, but every item was 86’d besides green jell-o. Luckily, that’s just what he wanted.

[ volume 1.1 – click to enlarge ]

How do you choose contributors, and how do you decide who to pair up for the words and images?
Tess: For Issue #1 we chose an old friend of mine from Pratt named Tod Seelie. I had always admired his work, so when we thought of Abe’s Penny, I asked him right away. Anna worked with Brandon Johnson, who wrote the poem. We are open for submissions. For me, it’s most important that we present images and words that are honest and true to each other.
Anna: We’re still starting out and trying to spread the word. We’ve been contacting all the artists and writers we know. It’s harder to find the second part. Everyone is enthusiastic to submit work, but no one has approached us saying, “What’s been submitted? I want to create something inspired by someone else.”

What are your thoughts overall on magazines and publishing these days?
Anna: It’s hard to say what will happen, but I’m practical. People get tired of being on their electronic devices. It’s basic human nature. We all want to relax and enjoy what [we] remember as simplicity. What’s more simple than reading the newspaper, reading a magazine, reading a book? We think of PDAs and computers as modern conveniences, but we forget how convenient print is. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but they both have their place. We’ll even out in terms of appreciation.
Tess: It’s a shame that independent printed magazines and newspapers are struggling. There’s plenty of independent thought on the internet, but I find the physicality of holding and reading a magazine or book really important. The world definitely doesn’t need another shopping magazine, but it could use some more distinct voices on paper.

What other magazines or books have you been into lately – what inspires you?
Tess: I’m really inspired by the new administration in the White House. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t feel disillusioned. I see a renewed desire to concentrate on what is fair and right, rather than what is new and shiny. That’s really exciting.
Anna: I always read the New Yorker. The last book I finished was Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. I’m inspired by almost any act of kindness. Like Ellen DeGeneres giving away cars on her show. I read a lot about what’s going on in New York because I edit an event newsletter for zingmagazine. People are still going off in terms of creative pursuits. That inspires me. Considering what’s happening around the world, it’s helpful to be in a creative city. We’re reconfiguring, deciding what’s important and going for it.

[ volume 1.2.1 - click to enlarge ]

A six-month subscription to Abe's Penny is $48 (or, in the parlance of direct marketing for traditional magazines, $2 per week!). Get more info at abespenny.com

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