This high-speed history of The Serving Library and its forerunner journal Dot Dot Dot was conceived as a contribution to Distributed (London: Open Editions, 2018), a compilation of texts broadly concerned with publishing. But it was also written as an absurdly long letter to actual Bulletins of The Serving Library subscribers, designed to justify why they would now only receive one issue per year rather than two—the issue was becoming “half as frequent but twice as large.”
Taking a cue from a recent issue of Bulletins of The Serving Library, on Perspective, we, the editors, have been taking stock of our present situation and have resolved to make a few changes. Since launching the journal’s forerunner Dot Dot Dot almost 18 years ago, we have tried to remain alert to the shifting sands of publishing and alter our path accordingly. Here follows a whistle-stop history of the direction to date, ending with our new incarnation as The Serving Library Annual.
Please note that dates and most other bits of information are approximate at best.
2000: The pilot issue of biannual left-field arts magazine Dot Dot Dot is produced and published by four graphic designers with literary leanings: Stuart Bailey, Peter Bilak, Tom Unverzagt and Jürgen X Albrecht. The cover declares itself to be “A magazine in flux / ready to adjust itself to content.” Production is heavily subsidized by a friendly Dutch printing house, along with two Dutch art schools, allowing the price to be kept to a student-friendly €10. The print run is perhaps 2000 copies. We are initially distributed by Idea Books in Amsterdam until they discover we’ve been offloading our own copies to a local bookstore run by friends. We end up working instead with Central Books in London for the UK market and Bruijl & Van der Staaij in Amsterdam for the rest of Europe, supplemented by a Dutch subscriptions service as well as sales via our own rudimentary website. We run out of copies three years later.
2002: On discovering that many stores are charging more than our RRP, we write “Pay no more than 10 Euros” on the spine (an idea stolen from old Billy Bragg records) but they continue to literally stick their inflated prices on top of ours. The German half of the editorial team retires, leaving Stuart and Peter to run the enterprise out of Amsterdam and Den Haag. We successfully apply for a (now defunct) Dutch arts grant and so are finally able to pay contributors, yielding an immediate increase in quality and quantity. The magazine is described by one bystander as “not necessarily about graphic design, but distinctly from it.” It’s not easy to parse what this means, but we understand.
2005: The apex of our reputation and sales: we are regularly printing 2,500–3,000 copies of each issue that take about a decade to sell out (this is relatively quick, say publishing cognoscenti). At the same time, a brief op-ed, headed “Elementary Mathematics” on the back cover of #9 describes an oxymoron of independent publishing: although on paper the journal is now financially self-sufficient, we are forced to remain dependent on the subsidy because we can’t afford a lawyer to extract the money due. The piece then proceeds to list outstanding debtors and their respective debts in red ink, which totals some €14,000, as well as the typical budget required to produce a single issue, which turns out to be precisely the same amount and so inadvertently proves the point. Although such naming and shaming was never really intended to provoke payment, about half the accused distributors, bookstores and advertisers actually cough up. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include the blacklist’s biggest crooks, Actar of Barcelona, who owed €7,000 back then. Taking inflation and interest into account, this must have at least doubled by now. Later the same year, #10 is a ”best-of” of the previous nine issues—partly conceived as an “ideal” collection assembled from the trial and error so far, and partly to buy some fiscal breathing space after the grant evaporates. As part of a project in Tallinn, Estonia, we print the issue there at significantly lower cost than in the Netherlands, then subsequently try a printing house in Vilnius, Lithuania, which is cheaper still. Tallinn also sees the inaugural exhibition of a collection of objects including prints, paintings, Polaroids, record covers, LCD blotter art, and a Ouija board, all of which have appeared as illustrations in the journal at some point. The collection grows as it moves from place to place, setting off a whole other parallel logistics of circulation.
2006: Stuart moves to New York, where regular contributor David Reinfurt gradually supplants Peter as co-editor. Then a stroke of luck: Princeton Architectural Press agrees to distribute the journal, boosting US circulation for a couple of years before the relationship starts to wane. Around 150 boxes of journals (±35 per box = 5,250 back issues) are shipped from Den Haag to Dexter Sinister, a basement space in New York’s Lower East Side that Stuart and David have just established as a “just-in-time workshop and occasional bookstore.” Riding a modest wave of local media attention, the shop proves successful enough to accommodate a range of other publications, which seems perverse at a time when most other small and medium-size bookstores are being forced out of business by the bigger chains’ monopoly and the proliferation of online retail. Within another couple of years, Amazon will have largely decimated those bigger chains too.
2008: While profits from the Saturday shop begin to cover its rent, they don’t stretch to the cost of the journal. After a couple of years of surviving on sales and irregular advertising we are broke again, and the absence of any public funding for the arts in the United States equivalent to that in Europe becomes fully apparent. However, out of nowhere, we start to be invited to participate in large-scale contemporary art exhibitions, usually city biennials or themed group shows in museums. Our reflex proposal is to produce an upcoming issue of the journal in line with the invitation’s premise—and, around this time, production is frequently the premise. The first is #15, made from scratch at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève as part of a Swiss-funded group exhibition on so-called speculative art and design. We secure control of a significant lump sum from the exhibition budget and use it to bring a group of international contributors to work in the gallery over three weeks, and transplant an unusually sophisticated Risograph printing setup from a community center known to us back in the Netherlands. Another advantage: by tapping into the institution’s circulation channels, we have access to a whole other audience. We initially plan to make a series of charts or diagrams that register how the Centre’s money is spent, then slowly realize we’re inhabiting our own de facto infographic: as two monumental stacks of virgin paper gradually diminish, smaller piles of printed pages pop up around us—a living image of input/output. Equally performative setups are contrived for #17, with material first programmed and disseminated live over three nights at Somerset House in London, then written up into a documentary issue; and #19, first released as six editions of a newspaper that reported on the beleaguered state of the news industry for Performa, a performance art festival in New York, then compressed into Dot Dot Dot’s usual B5 format.
2010: Although the journal’s reputation and influence on a certain strain of art publishing continues, actual sales and subsequent print runs decline, falling to 1,500 by the end of the decade. From what little information we can extract from our third-party distributors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get ailing bookshops to stock the journal. We are reportedly “difficult to place,” both in terms of category (book or periodical?) and subject matter (art or design or literature?). The malaise dovetails with a desire to dismantle certain aspects of what the journal has become, namely self-referential, obscure, and somewhat predictable. Stuart moves to Los Angeles. Something has to give.
2011: A busy year. David writes “A Short Account of the Library,” in which former “archiving” and “circulating” paradigms of information dispersion are contrasted with a contemporary “distributing” model. It points out that when documents are made available to retrieve on a digital network, they are no longer merely consulted or borrowed, but instead duplicated—automatically leaving a trace of the duplicator in the process. This precipitates a wholesale recalibration of the Dot Dot Dot setup into a reversible publishing/archiving platform called The Serving Library, which involves a number of moving parts: (1) a new editorial team, with writer and artist Angie Keefer brought in to broaden the journal’s subject matter, temperament, and gender balance; (2) a new publishing mechanism based on an “engine room” website of freely downloadable PDF contributions, or “bulletins,” that are then collected into a printed publication, Bulletins of The Serving Library, continuing the format and trajectory of its predecessor; (3) the dismissal of our existing printers and distributors, replaced by separate operations in Europe and the United States to avoid the increasing headache of the export/import procedures—the former via Sternberg Press in Berlin, the latter via a cheap journal printer in Pennsylvania to be disseminated ourselves; (4) the amalgamation of the collection of objects and an attendant pedagogical programme under the same “Serving Library” umbrella; (5) an application to become a 501(c)3 not-for-profit public institution in the United States, the key contractual text of which is subsequently included as an ”Article of Incorporation” at the back of each new print edition; and (6) a successful crowdfunding campaign that raises $10k to fund it all. The new dual digital/printed format is conspicuously vanilla, designed primarily to be read on a phone, tablet or screen and only secondarily poured into a printed page—each of which includes a time stamp in the bottom left corner that marks the moment it was last saved as a Portable Document Format. An equivalent digital “stamp” in the corner of the website links to a live inventory of every download (= copy), including the downloader’s server address, which to our amazement is soon recording two to three hundred downloads per day. To emphasize the digital bias and otherwise cut costs, the printed publication is based on the astringent aesthetic of the academic art journal October, and against the markedly heterogeneous grain of Dot Dot Dot we begin to loosely theme each issue, starting with Time and Education. The new website offers two types of subscription, two or 12 years (i.e., four or 24 issues), aimed at individuals and institutions respectively. The price of a single issue by now has risen to €15. Five years after opening, it is necessary to terminate the shop’s regular Saturday schedule: Dexter Sinister becomes “open by appointment” instead.
2012: The crowdfunds have run dry so we return to the strategy of binding each issue to an art-institutional request: Bulletins of The Serving Library #3 doubles as a pseudo-catalogue, on Typography, for a language-based group exhibition at MoMA; #4 is conceived as part of a residency project, on Psychedelia, at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen; German-themed #5 is assembled around a programme called “The End(s) of the Library” at the Goethe-Institut in New York—and so on. This blunt opportunism continues to work surprisingly well and often, though we often find ourselves fielding institutional requests or demands that dilute our intentions, and so resolve to reduce our dependence on such relationships.
2015: We make #8, on Mediums, in view of a major exhibition at Tate Liverpool showcasing The Serving Library’s ever-expanding collection of objects. Stuart has recently relocated to the city, and is on the lookout for a permanent physical home for the archive, inventory and pedagogical aspirations after attempts to find a space in the United States have so far fallen short. We file a successful application for a UK Arts Council grant, just as Sternberg announces they are no longer willing to pick up the printing tab, though are willing to carry on distributing the journal if we cover the production costs.
2016: Stuart’s wife Francesca joins the editorial team to propel a new set of ambitions. Through her efforts, we find a space in a remarkable building in Liverpool’s old mercantile district and finally open The Serving Library’s first physical space in July. With a nod back to Dot Dot Dot, Bulletins of The Serving Library #10 samples the best of the previous nine publications. As before, it is partly a means of avoiding one issue’s contributor costs while generally recalibrating. Mindful of bookstores still claiming they don’t know where to place the publication, it shrinks to half its former format, thinking this might suggest we’re more book than periodical and make it easier for them to decide on a shelf. Naturally, this also reduces printing, storage and shipping costs. To compensate, we go full-color and make Color itself the next theme. Remaining copies of any given back issue are still running out about a decade after publication. Ten years after opening, the Dexter Sinister shop closes for good and its website inventory becomes an archive. We ship half the current stockpile from New York to Liverpool (a hundred boxes: approximately 3,500 copies) and plan to start distributing all non-American orders from there.
2017: Having been kicked out of the first space after only nine months by the UK tax office, which is appropriating the entire block, The Serving Library’s physical incarnation moves to the gallery of Exhibition Research Lab, an academic initiative within the John Lennon Art & Design Building at Liverpool John Moores University. It opens on April Fool’s Day, continuing where it left off with a monthly program of Bulletins-related public events. Following a third issue of the reduced-scale edition, and tired of still finding the journal conspicuous by its absence in even the most obvious of bookshops across the world, we decide to terminate the relationship with Sternberg for good and contrive another fresh start. This brings us full circle, back to Amsterdam, where we strike a deal with Roma Publications—and, by proxy, back to their regular distributors Idea Books—who are eager to instigate new energy by once more changing the format and re-asserting its designerly “object quality” after years of austerity. And so we settle on making the journal half as frequent but twice as large, duly changing the name to The Serving Library Annual and the format to a sturdy two hundred pages of A4. Each issue from now on effectively amounts to two of the previous ones, i.e., the same labor and content is now fed into a single publication released each autumn. A two-year subscription therefore now amounts to two issues, and its twelve-year sibling to twelve. Meanwhile, the website continues to operate as before, with each Annual’s component Bulletins immediately uploaded as and when they are complete.
All of which brings us bang up to date. Thanks for bearing with us,