Publisher Q&A2: Valentina Abenavoli and Alex Bocchetto of Akina Books

Last year we posted a "Publisher Q&A" series, featuring 12 short interviews with a range of publishers on their presses and sites and the state of the publishing market (see the site links page for links). It was a popular series, and we've decided to add another 12 entries to the series with more extended questions.

The posts in this second series have come from Éanna de Fréine of The Velvet CellDavid Schoerner of Hassla BooksLuca Desienna of Gomma Magazine Ltd., Hannah Watson of Trolley BooksCurt Holtz, Photography Editor of Prestel PublishingAline Smithson of LenscratchHarsha Vadlamani of Galli MagazineHeidi Romano of Unless you willConor Risch, Senior Editor of Photo District NewsQiana Mestrich of Dodge & Burn and Paul Schiek of TBW Books.

Today we finish the series with Valentina Abenavoli and Alex Bocchetto of Akina Books.

Publication: Akina Books
Location: London
Format: print
Founded: 2012

fototazo: What is the back-story on how Akina formed? Was there a particular need that you saw and sought to fill?

Valentina Abenavoli: Akina was born from the need to re-contextualize photography in the exact moment I had totally lost all my interest in it. I used to be a photographer and a photo-editor for an Italian magazine. Alex, my husband, comes from music and journalism; our first project together was a self-published photobook. During the making of it, we had to learn everything from scratch: editing, design, typography, paper, binding, web-design, the whole lot. We enjoyed the process so much that shortly after we left our day-jobs and we created Akina Books, with no previous experience in publishing. I still don't know if we were brave or totally insane.

We are proudly self-taught and our unorthodox publishing model takes inspiration from the independent music labels publishing limited edition 7" records, the DIY punk scene, the woodcut wordless novels of the early XXth century and its idea of democracy and visual language, French and Japanese nouvelle vogue films, William Burroughs' cut-up, William Blake's model of self-publishing, the artists' book tradition. Once we used Brion Gysin's dream machine for an edit and it was great.

f: What separates Akina from other publishers? What are its particular strengths?

VA: Akina is a publishing house and a Factory at the same time: everything happens under the same roof, in our apartment. We control the whole creative and productive process: the investment in time and skills to printing and hand-binding is conspicuous, but it opens up a lot of space and freedom for experiments. We chose not to have an office because of our weird and long working hours, with our "method" we need to have the work always on hand. Photobook production is part of our daily life, instead of a dishwasher we went shopping for a huge printer, paper guillotines, bone folders and so on. Paper and ink come in the door, books go out.

Most of our editions are hand-made: it's a hell of a lot of work but we think objects retain some of the love and care from their creators. We keep it personal, balancing between extreme care in book production and affordability: every time we price a book I wonder if I would buy it without breaking the piggy. We believe that the book is a democratic medium and we act according to this credo.

f: What is your process for deciding what to publish?

VA: There's no rule, every time is a serendipitous moment. If the project is suitable to be translated in book form, if it is interesting, coherent within itself and to our editorial choices, we go for it. Our personal reading and editing of a work by someone else is always an interesting experiment: we work closely with the authors trying to give a new voice to projects they sometimes have thought about differently. Most of the time a photographer doesn't have clear in their mind the outcome of the book, in this sense our aim as publishers is to convey in the book form what the photographer has seen while creating the photographic project. You know something is right for you when you can already imagine it on a printed page: simple as that, more than a policy or a set of rules we rely on intuition.

f: How would you describe the contemporary publishing landscape in comparison with when you started Akina?

VA: Being our first year it’s hard to say what has changed, if it's the publishing landscape or our perception of it. We can see the great drive of self-publishers and passion everywhere: Spain, Russia and Eastern Europe are being very creative regarding the photobook medium. Japan has always been a huge inspiration for us. The interest in self-published books is getting serious: a good part of the books shortlisted for the Paris Photo/Aperture Awards were self-published.

The market is very quick and with the quantity of photobooks published every year the opinion leaders are becoming more prominent; there's obviously a bubble of market speculation, many people are buying the book of the week because they know tomorrow the price might increase five-fold. I don’t know if this is a momentary effect or if it is here to stay, for sure it will have some repercussions on the way photobooks are marketed. It might sound naïve but we are not interested in exploiting this mechanism, we make books to be read, loved and creased, not to be resold.

A renewed interest in the format and the possibility of digitally printing books in short-runs is drawing more people to investigate the book form and at the same time lowering the minimum entry bet. There's definitely a new burst of creativity coming from the underdogs and new forms of publishing are being experimented with. It's true a lot of sub-par books are being made, but at the same time competition and knowledge are making the standards higher, authors and publishers are stretching the boundaries of the photobook, experimenting with materials, narrative and new ways to present the content. It's an exciting moment.

f: What have you learned through the process of developing Akina that you wish you would have known beforehand or that you would pass along to others interested in publishing?

VA: Everything we know we learnt by doing: the school of hard knocks works. We had no idea about how a publishing house works, we took the independent music label of 7" records as a model. We have the whole production process now and are still constantly learning from other people's work.

f: How has working as an editor influenced your personal work and your aspirations in photography?

VA: I can see pictures only as part of a sequence now. The single picture is not enough.

f: What has been your highlight in working with Akina?

VA: Everytime a book is ready is a high. Also, seeing our First Annual Report with 16 titles, all of which travel and are shown around the world. So far we've been working with artists from different countries and backgrounds: Jože Suhadolnik and Robert Hutinski from Slovenia, Alexander Aksakov from Russia, Alfonso Almendros and Federico Clavarino from Spain, Frank Rodick from Canada, Nemanja Pancic and Marko Risovic from Serbia, Thomas Boivin from France, Salvatore Santoro, Marco Paltrinieri and Mirko Smerdel from Italy: all great people to work with.

f: What are the next steps for the press?

VA: We want to keep experimenting with materials, binding techniques and different subjects and structures of visual narrative. We also created Akina Factory, which is a help we offer to support the self-publishing scene. We create book projects for others and we just had our first workshop in Paris and many others will come shortly. This aspect of Akina is really experimental: we give some tools for editing, sequencing and binding to the ones who want to learn the whole process of book making. In the workshops we are organizing, the pool of pictures is the same for everyone: in this sense and without the photographers names on the images, what's important is the material you work with. In just a few hours you can actually create and bind a photobook without being a photographer or an editor. Everybody can try it.

Akina Books is on Facebook and Twitter.