Visual Editors and Literary Designers: An Interview with Andrew Losowsky
Andrew Losowsky is a writer, journalist, and expert on communication and editorial design. He defines himself as a visual editor. Currently Senior Books Editor at The Huffington Post, he will soon be a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, working on creating a publishing platform to help people in crisis situations. He has also authored some of those pavlovian books that get you salivating the minute you see them: “Fully Booked”, “Visual Storytelling”, “Turning Pages”, or “Reading in Four Dimensions” among others. At The Publishing Lab we’ve been fans of his work for many years. We’re interested in the way he considers all written communication forms as a whole, design-wise, approaching all of them as plain narrative forms and eschewing the ususal isolated and hermetic categories of “literary fiction”, “journalism”, “scholarly texts”, etc.; understanding them all as a whole, and fostering a hybrid and global anaylisis on information design. So when we heard he was coming to Barcelona to speak at the Rock Paper Pixel event at the Fadfest, we didn’t stop until we finally cornered him for an interview. Maria Serrano, editor at a Barcelona-based Editorial Gustavo Gili and co-editor at TPL, met him at Rock Paper Pixel to try and wheedle him into sharing some of the secrets of his expertise as a visual editor. María Serrano: You close your introduction to “Fully Booked”, your last book, by stating that “this is a wonderful time to be a writer, a storyteller, a designer and a reader”. What would you say makes it so great? Andrew Losowsky: Right now there are more platforms and more opportunities and more media than there have ever been. And they’re more accessible than they have ever been. It’s easy now to create a book and to print it, whereas that would not be the case 10 years ago or 15 years ago. Digital printing makes things so easy. When it comes to physical books it’s easier than ever. And of course now we have a point with the internet where enough people are online that it’s now accepted as a medium by millions of people, and with social media spreading things that people like, things can go viral very quickly.
It’s a time when there’s almost an infinite amount to read, an almost infinite amount that’s free and there’s so many different ways of telling a story. So if you want to be a storyteller you can choose any of these, if you want to be a reader you can read infinite amounts on almost any topic you want, especially in major languages like English and Spanish. So for those reasons I think that it is that moment.
I also think that there are still limits to that. And it’s easy to forget that there are limits to that. There are a lot of themes that are not properly covered. It’s very much about the dominant cultures right now, the dominant languages. And not everybody is online, or not everybody has access to these kinds of books and magazines, and I think it’s very important to remember and to realize which areas are missing as well. But, all of that said, this is a time, more than any other time in history, where there is such a high literacy level and such a high accessibility to media. M. S.: As for that, the statement you made in your talk before about it not being about the medium anymore, but about the story, is somehow crucial in my opinion. The way people who used to think “I want to write (or publish) books” now actually need to consider “I have a story to tell, which is the best medium for it?”, instead. A. L.: Right now a lot of people still do think about the medium first, but they don’t need to do that. What I’m suggesting is that it’s better that people think this first: what is the story? And then: what is the best way to tell that story? And it’s not only what is the story but what is the audience I want to reach through the story, because a lot of audiences aren’t online or aren’t on mobile or won’t read a magazine or won’t read a book, so I think it’s important to think of the audiences first.
And another thing that I think is also exciting is it hasn’t got to be which one medium will I choose, it could be maybe I’ll make this part into a newspaper, this part into a podcast and this part into a webpage.
And so you have the options of doing all of these things and saying: I’m going to take photos and record voices and display them in this way. And then it comes to understanding what each medium brings to the story, how each medium changes the story, because the medium is part of the story itself. I think it really comes down to an understanding from the creator as to what kind of emotion they want and try to understand what kind of emotions and reactions each medium can create or generate. M. S.: And it seems to me you are not uncomfortable at all with that media hybridity, you get along quite well with things which don’t have an univocal meaning. You eschew that “print versus digital” dichotomy. In your book “Reading in Four Dimensions” you warn readers about your using the concepts “language” and “information” interchangeably… You’ve defined yourself as a “visual editor” who works with “literary designers”… A. L.: We live all of our lives in a hybrid world; we don’t only live with one medium and nothing else. And so the idea that a story is limited to one is actually sort of putting a false limit onto the ways that that story can be told. All the time we see advertisements, we listen to the radio, we watch TV, we pick up books, we pick up magazines, we talk to people, you know, our lives are about hybrid stories. So we’re used to this idea that a story can exist at those multiple spaces. And yet very few stories do, outside of the news. So it’s interesting to see that there are stories that do this.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the only way to do it, because I don’t think there’s an only way to do anything. What interests me most with the hybrid is that by doing this they’re pushing the limits of the ways in which we read, and they’re experimenting in a way that is changing our understanding of how culture connects and how this media connect. So I focus a lot on those just because I think those are areas where we can learn most from… about the media themselves. But I don’t think the only good work is done in hybrid spaces or that work will always be in hybrid spaces, either. I think it’s always going to be one part of all of the environment that we’re in. M. S.: It’s refreshing to start hearing voices that resist the opposition between print and digital media. A. L.: But it’s not a competition, it’s a dance. They’re together. One does something and the other one reacts. And the other one does something and the other one reacts… That’s not a fight, and people who misunderstand it and take it as being… maybe because conflict is a great driver of narrative, people love conflict as the story, specially the media, but it’s not a fight at all. M. S.: And how do you think printed books are reacting to the digital space? A. L.: I think we’re getting to a point where becoming print is a choice and buying print is a choice for those societies in which eBooks have become quite common. And it becomes a choice with costs, because it’s more expensive, it’s heavier, you don’t have it immediately… you know, all the things that make eBooks very attractive. So in order to counteract that, the physical book is becoming more beautiful, it’s becoming more thought-out… A lot of them are, not all of them, but these that are featured in “Fully Booked”. The idea is that these are something that you’ll want to keep, that you have as a souvenir on your shelf, that looks good; they become part of the decoration… And this seems to me one of the big ways in which the print books are starting to react.
Also the idea of the cover of the book. Right now book covers on digital are very small, they might be black and white, they don’t do the same job at selling the book as they do in a physical form. And so when you have covers that have really been thought-out and really try and give you a feeling or give you a sensation before you open the book, you already have a reaction. You’re already drawn in, you’re already interested and excited as to what will come next… This is part of the story, and it’s a part of the story that physical books right now can do unique. And so in these areas we’re seeing the physical sensations being more thought about, we’re seeing the kinds of cloth that are being used on the book covers to achieve a special effect and so on…
I think the most interesting ones are those usually done by Penguin Classics, because most of these texts are free online and the cost is absolutely zero to get them, so they’re competing against free and they’re competing very well because they’re really focusing on the experience of the physical object and what that means to us.
Now, whether that will be the same for the next generation I don’t know, those who grow up using iPads and reading and for whom a book will be something different… But right now, for us, who grew up with books, who grew up with that association, that is very powerful and that’s really where these narratives are focusing. M. S.: And what about the insides of the book. Do you think all these fragmentation in some book layouts, such as Mark Z. Danielevski’s “House of Leaves” or some of the books published by Visual Editions—Adam Thirwell’s “Kapow”, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Tree of Codes”—can also be seen as a reaction to the digital space? A. L.: Some. “House of Leaves” came out in 2000. The Web was still at a very early stage and he worked on that book for 10 years, 12 years so I don’t think that one is especially a reaction to digital. It might be but I don’t see it as that. Some of the Visual Editions ones, Kapow and so on, maybe… In general I think people are more accustomed to reading shorter texts, so I think in less obvious books we’re seeing chapters become shorter, we’re seeing books become quite short.
They’re also books that are coming from digital, we’re getting books based on twitter feeds, books based on blogs, books based on Instagram, Tumblr has done a lot of books as well… So we’re seeing some books emerge that are created in a digital context. My own book “The Doorbells of Florence” was created as a Flickr series…
There’s a new book coming out this September, I think, By Marisha Pessi, it’s a fiction book; it’s called “Night Film”. Throughout the book you have a Time magazine slideshow from their website, inside the book, printed there, and then you have a Wikipedia page printed there… I think the Vanity Fair website also appears. So you have this interesting hybrid things happening inside the book where suddenly you see a photograph of the character in the context of the media, and it’s very strange to see a photograph of the character, and you don’t expect to… So we’re seeing these things happen a lot more as well because they’re part of the culture, because they’re part of life.
There will always be people who want to write in whatever styles, and I think literary fiction is still… moves much more slowly in a lot of cases… because they are so much more respectful of or paying homage to books that are much older, so their style stays much truer to the older style. In fact, I think the amount of attention we pay to literary fiction is sometimes exaggerated. Because it’s just seen as being part of this long tradition. But of course it’s all part of a long tradition, it’s all part of the tradition of reacting to the culture that’s here and trying to write something that feels true. M. S.: Going back to something we mentioned earlier, how do you understand the work of a visual editor and a literary designer? A. L.: A visual editor is an editor who thinks about the visual sense beyond just the words and understands the storytelling possibilities and when the designs are being worked on has a sense of the whole, how they want the whole to feel like and to look like. And so, for me… I’m not a designer, I have the visual sense. But I don’t have the creative ability to be able to make that start from the original concept. But I understand completely what the designer is trying to achieve. And if I don’t, I talk to the designer and say help me understand this concept, why is the shape of this this way?, why this color? And they know that if they can’t answer that then we need to have a better… a design that answers that. Because everything has a reason to exist in trying to tell that story.
And for me a literary designer is a designer who—in the context of books and magazines at least—… They read the text first and their ideas come from the text and you can see that by the way a word is echoed in or colored…, or sense it in the way that the words are constructed. You can see very subtle things that come from the words themselves or the positioning of the words or the way that the title is positioned around them, the way the photo is used, they’re connected.
That’s the kind of designers that I like to work with, those who understand that I know something about the visual but also will themselves try and understand something about the text. And we can have a conversation on that level about what we want to achieve, what it’s about, what is the essence of it, what kind of message do we want to leave the reader, what do we want the reader to feel the moment they see it, what’s the first thing they’re going to see, how are we going to get them to navigate the page, and so on. So that, to me, is how those terms work.
And a lot of designers who are literary have gone on to become editors themselves, for example Tony Chambers at Wallpaper is one, there are other examples. You start to see this kind of crossover. And that’s quite right, I don’t feel like they should stay away, they’re already communicators so there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be good at words as well. M. S.: And what about authors? How do you think all this is affecting them? I have the feeling that this collective authorship phenomenon which we are increasingly seeing in digital spaces is also permeating into the printed book space, where we’re finding more and more projects in which the designer’s or the editor’s or even the printer’s job is essential to the final nature of the story. And all this blurs the outlines of authorship borders and smudges the idea of the author as an original, isolated, lonesome genius. A. L.: I think this has always been a fiction, the idea that author sits on his own and produces this thing and it just comes out perfect and so on. Authors have always worked with a team, they’ve always worked with editors, they’ve always worked with other writers… The idea that the author sits in a perfect state of harmony and produces… you know, lays a book like an egg, is completely false. And so the more the editors get the credit, the more the designers get the credit for forming a part of the team, then I think it’s better because it’s more honest. It respects the craft more. And it also allows you to follow these people in different ways because you don’t necessarily just want to follow the author.
A good example is Gordon Lish, who was an editor in the 1940’s-50’s-60’s in America. He edited Raymond Carver and he…, if you look at his edits, he cut the sentences so short, he was so influential and it became known who he was editing and people would seek out those books. And so why not have an editor series.
And the same things happen with designers, there are some designers whose magazines people would buy no matter who the editor is, and so why shouldn’t that happen to books as well. I mean, I think this is a good thing that the author is just one part of the team and of course it’s an important part of the team but it hasn’t always been the only person in that team, and so the more that can be highlighted, I think, the more honest and the better it is for readers.
Me ha parecido muy interesante.
Oxigenante en los tiempos que corren donde parece que se va a perder todo lo relacionado con cultura en estado puro.
Una buena y esperanzadora visión de lo que sucede.