Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sustainable counter-media — Radix Media on Kickstarter

Radix Media, a Portland-based radical offset printing and design operation, has launched a modest $5000 Kickstarter campaign, to upgrade their presses and invest in booklet-making equipment. They describe the project as representing the difference between continuing the project, and making it sustainable.

Sustainable operation is the goal that so few radical projects reach—and the failure to properly plan, capitalize and equip projects carries a hefty cost in failed projects, badly-used resources and harried radicals, beaten down by the constant difficulties associated with just getting by. When you're working on a shoe-string, a wing and a prayer, every set-back is a potential disaster—and set-backs tend to snowball.

For example, Corvus Editions had a thoroughly enjoyable, but financially lack-luster Summer and Fall. The bookfairs that usually push things along were not quite break-even affairs, however successful they were as social gatherings and busman's holidays. When all was said and done, I had a bit more merchandise printed, assembled and on-hand than I had at the start of the summer, but I was running short on the farm-waste papers I use to print most of the newer and more popular titles in the catalog. Working hand-to-mouth, the hundred bucks required for a paper order isn't always there. Making a smaller paper order changes the cost of the product dramatically, since shipping costs have to be absorbed by fewer products. But there's no time to waste in restocking, since a paper order may take a week to arrive. Since the shoestring is what it is, the logical way to order paper is to refill toner cartridges, but that's a risky game in terms of predictable print quality. And so on. The trade-offs are all risky, and the calculations are all exhausting. And sometimes you make the best use of the resources available to you and things just don't pan out. I spent the Fall juggling resources while sales sagged—and then about the time sales started to pick up I had a batch of handmade cover paper go wrong on me and my laser printer (a wonderful little workhorse up to this point, but one I have worked hard) started to give out. The decision to go another $300 in debt to maintain a project that still isn't really breaking even, in an economy that may well get harder on really small businesses before the pendulum swings the other way, was, to say the least, a wrenching one. In the end, I decided that I didn't really have a lot of options but to push forward—but, having been in the surplus labor pool for quite awhile now, and being, I think, pretty realistic about the hurdles facing radical microenterprise, I'm not sure I could claim it was the right decision. As much as anything, it seems necessary to push back as hard as you can against a system which forces you to ask whether a few hundred bucks might be more than your project—or your life—is worth. So, as of day before yesterday, I have a gently-used HP Laserjet 8150dn, (slightly out of date, but still formidable, with automatic duplexing and tabloid-printing capability) complete with the 2000-sheet feeder-cart and an extra HP toner cartridge, which I was able pick up for a song—but not until I borrowed the song. In the short-term, it means late order will only get a couple of days later. In the long term, it opens up the possibility of doing large-format reprints of periodical like The Firebrand or Liberty, and re/producing broadsides at the size they really require. It opens the possibility of experimenting with soy toner, which has been making inroads precisely through companies supplying cartridges for this sort of workgroup printer. As a much heavier-duty printer, it already seems to have improved the project's print quality, fusing toner more consistently on better and more unusual paper, at a significantly lower per-page cost. (And I'll finally be able to do that skewer-binding projects, using the metal rails from pendaflex folders...)

My printer upgrade is probably a good gamble, but it raises the stakes for the Corvus project—and the more general project of keeping a roof over my head and kibble in the cats's dish. But assuming that the basic project is sound, and I still think it is, the increased risk is probable worth it.

That said, it certainly would have been nice to do this when there wasn't a crisis, on a basis that wasn't an intensification of my current uncertain situation. The brilliance of micro-financing on the Kickstarter model is that it reduces risks considerably on all sides. Donation is possible, but the standard means of support is the purchase of a specific good or service. And nobody is charged until the target amount is reached, so either the project is launched or expanded with a reasonable level of funding or nothing moves forward. There is a reasonable expectation that any project that seems moderately well-budgeted will at least produce the products committed to.

There is no question in my mind that we can develop networks of sustainable presses, printers, distributors and infoshops, all on the nickle-and-dime micro-enterprise model. The only question is whether enough of us will ante up with the nickles and dimes to make it happen. When it comes to choosing projects to support, particularly at this stage in the struggle, committed printers and publishers seem like something of a no-brainer. The improvements that Radix Media has proposed would amplify their ability to do their job—which is to amplify the voices of radicals. Take a look at the proposal and consider contributing.

2 comments:

Matthieu said...

I like this, but can't contribute due to banking regulations. Nevertheless that seems a good alternative to point to, for those who think that without taxes nothing will get done.

Shawn P. Wilbur said...

Apparently there has been some confusion about the relation between Radix Media and Corvus Editions. The projects are unconnected, beyond relations of mutual solidarity and the fact that we all tend to rise or fall together when it comes to the sustainability of counter-media.