Hoping to enhance art publishing in South Africa, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and Oliver Barstow founded FOURTHWALL Books. The company publishes beautifully designed and written books on art, architecture and photography. Intrigued by how it all works and why some books get published over others, we chatted to Oliver to find out.
Between 10and5: Please let us know your official (or unofficial) job title.
Oliver Barstow of FOURTHWALL Books: Official – Editorial designer. Unofficial – director, office manager, accountant, warehousing & logistics, PR, secretary. The list goes on.
10and5: What and where did you study?
Oliver: Literature – BA (Hons) University of Stellenbosch, Writing – (MA in Writing) WITS University. Some of the best designers I know have no formal training.
10and5: How and why was FOURTHWALL Books started?
Oliver: How – a lucky meeting between myself and Bronwyn Law-Viljoen. I had been working on an idea for a book about Fire Walker, a public sculpture at the foot of the Queen Elisabeth Bridge in Newtown, Johannesburg, a collaboration between William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx. My plan was to get all of the content for the book together and then figure out how best to publish it.
The Kentridge Studio suggested that I get hold of Bronwyn as a potential editor for the book. We met, realized almost immediately that we had similar ideas, both about books and setting up a small publishing company. From the point of our first meeting it took us about two weeks to come up with a name and open up a bank account.
While getting Fire Walker together, we also worked on Lindsay Bremner’s Writing the City into Being, which ended up being our first book, and which recently won the Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Award in New York.
Why – because the only way we were going to be able to do the books we really wanted to do was to do them ourselves.
10and5: What skills does it take to do what you do?
Oliver: First of all, the ability to listen. The people we work with have invested a huge amount into their projects, often ten years or more. A lifetime in some cases. When they hand it over they need to know that we have understood where they are coming from. It is our job to help them build on the work, to make it better, and to help them understand exactly what it is that they are or should be trying to achieve with the book. We spend a lot of time with the content, a lot of time talking and a lot of time listening.
10and5: What do you love most about it?
Oliver: Arriving at the key idea behind a book that causes the rest of the content to fall into place. It doesn’t happen with all books, but when it does there is a really strong sense of knowing that you are on the right track. So much of what holds a good book together is invisible in the finished product. A good book has as much to do with what you don’t see as what you do.
10and5: And what’s the part you could do without?
Oliver: Probably the logistics and the often wasteful nature of the printing industry. It is a big conflict for us. We love paper. We love the book as an object. But when compared to digital publishing, printing on paper is a hugely wasteful exercise. A mistake on press means printing a whole section over again at a considerable cost. A mistake on screen is simply corrected with very little cost at all.
On the logistics side, getting books overseas requires buying into the sea and airfreight industry, which has massive implications on sustainability and the environment. I believe that the key challenge as a publisher, and a factor that will determine our success, is finding a way to address these issues. I think paper books will be around for a long time still, especially art books, but we need to radically rethink how we make and distribute them.
10and5: What’s the weirdest task you’ve found yourself doing in the name of your job?
Oliver: There have been a few. Convincing a customs official at JFK that the 20 Fire Walker books in my suitcase were not part of a terror plot and actually on their way to the opening of a William Kentridge (‘William who?’) exhibition in Manhattan.
Selling Dave Southwood’s book ‘Milnerton Market’ with Dave Southwood at the Milnerton Market. There is a guy called Arthur who works at the market. He keeps the toilets clean. There is a portrait of him in the book. He was one of the first people to buy a copy of the book at the market and he paid cash. He said he was going to send the book to his son who had emigrated to America.
More recently, I spent a Saturday with the artist Willem Boshoff looking at rocks in Belfast for a book we are doing this year. He knows all of the local plants by their Latin names.
10and5: Please tell us something your job has taught you that you didn’t already know.
Oliver: Always, always get it in writing. Although outward appearances suggest otherwise, printers – I mean the people who handle the machines, not the machines themselves, although this could apply to both – are more sensitive than you might think.
10and5: How do you decide on what books to publish?
Oliver: The general principle is never to publish anything that is not worth reading. A lot of books are published without this basic principle in mind. This of course is also a matter of deciding what exactly is worth reading in this day and age.
The interesting thing is that we have found ourselves publishing books that other publishers have turned down, usually because they are not exactly sure how to handle the content, or because they can’t see a way to make it profitable. Is it an art book? A photography book? A book of essays? Fiction, non-fiction? Conventional publishing tends to like a book to fit firmly in a single category. We feel differently. We are drawn to projects that don’t fit comfortably into a any one category. We look for this potential because it gives us the opportunity to make something that is more than just a book. The book becomes an extension of the project, a work in itself and not just a container for the content.
10and5: Any industry secrets?
Oliver: Yes. To quote the British designer Paul Stiff (that’s really his name) ‘The reader comes first, second and third’.
10and5: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Oliver: An inventor – seriously.
10and5: Advice to those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Oliver: Think long and hard – its an industry that is facing serious challenges, but this is what makes it exciting. If you really love books this will reflect in the work you do. But most of all, read as much as you can. The best books are always made by people who know what it means to be a reader.
You can find all the previous interviews in our ‘My Day Job’ series here. If you or someone you know has an interesting or dream creative job then please let us know! email@example.com