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The Book of Days: creating an anthology live at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

Paperback and hardback editions of The Book of Days, an illustrated anthology edited, designed and produced in three weeks. Zoë Sadokierski, CC BY-NC

The Book of Days was a publishing experiment. During the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) I edited and designed a festival anthology live, on site at the Walsh Bay precinct. The anthology includes writing and illustrations from festival presenters, as well as contributions from the festival audience.

There has never been an anthology produced alongside the SWF, which has been running for almost two decades. This seemed a shame. What better way to celebrate a well loved writers’ festival – SWF attracts 90,000 attendees each year – than in book form? But publishing a book is expensive in terms of time, labour and production. The SWF is a charity organisation, run on a surprisingly small skeleton staff.

My recent experiments with print-on-demand publishing prove it’s possible to publish a book for the cost of ordering a single unit. I was fortunate to be on a research sabbatical for the first half of this year, and had a stipend attached to an artist residency at the University of Technology Sydney Library. My sabbatical and residency were both dedicated to researching the evolution of books in the digital age.

So, I proposed creating a real-time SWF anthology to Artistic Director Jemma Birrell and Program Coordinator Kate Steinweg, who enthusiastically agreed to let me perform the experiment at the 2015 festival and helped solicit writing from festival presenters.

The Book of Days workstation at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay. Jackson Mann

Each day from 10am to 5pm during the festival (May 18–24) I was stationed outside the Pier 2/3 Main Stage at Walsh Bay, designing the book, working with collaborators and managing the production process. I updated an online archive daily, showing the book’s progress over the week of the festival. A large screen connected to my laptop allowed festival attendees to watch the book design process in action.

The anthology is divided into two parts. The first is a selection of writing and illustrations from festival presenters including excerpts from events, previously published poems or essays, and a few tastes of unpublished work from: Robert Adamson, Dennis Altman, James Boyce, Robert Dessaix, Mohsin Hamid, Rebecca Huntley, Lee Kofman, Helen Macdonald, Emily St. John Mandel, Les Murray, Omar Musa, John Pickrell and Tom Uglow.

Illustrators Lucy Adelaide and Alissa Dinallo at the Book of Days workstation, Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay during the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival.

I invited illustrators to join me at the workstation, or submit via email. The published book includes images by Lucy Adelaide, W.H. Chong, Tessa Curran, Tony Flowers, Juno Gemes, Leigh Hobbs, Olivia King, Leigh Rigozzi, myself, Gemma Warriner, Yan Qin Weng and William Yang.

The writing station outside the Sydney Writers’ Festival Pier 2/3 main stage invited festival audiences to contribute to the anthology, leaving responses to the 2015 theme ‘How to live?’ via typewriter, index card or Twitter. Jackson Mann

The second part of the anthology contains contributions from festival audiences, who were invited to respond to the 2015 festival theme “How to live?” via Twitter (using #SWFBOD), typewriter or index card (at the Pier 2/3 workstation). These contributions – all 4,000 words of them – are included in the final book.

Sydney Writers’ Festival audience members contributing to The Book of Days at the writing station on Friday.
SWF Family Day was a hive of activity. Ashleigh Wilson

On Sunday, Family Day at SWF, the onslaught of excited kids made the typewriters an occupational health and safety nightmare, so I replaced them with drawing tools and an invite to contribute a dinosaur drawing to illustrate John Pickrell’s essay on the problems with Jurassic Park.

One of three double page spreads of dinosaur drawings contributed by kids on Family Day.
Contributions from the SWF audience, submitted via index cards at writing station.

The book was created from scratch in three weeks. In the days before the festival, I edited contributions from festival presenters, commissioned illustrators and set up the workstation in the drafty Walsh Bay precinct. Once the festival was underway, I designed the book publicly and gathered audience contributions.

The production continued when the festival came to an end: typing up audience contributions; scanning and laying out illustrations (all those dinosaurs took half a day alone); editing the text (with help from festival staff and friends); making additional illustrations and creating print-ready files.

Spread from The Book of Days. Text by Omar Musa, illustration by Zoë Sadokierski.

When all this was done, I sent the files to print-on-demand company and the book was ready to order. To buy a copy, customers order and pay via the Blurb website and a book is printed and posted to them. There is no need for me or the SWF to pay for a large print run of books and handle distribution – a book is only created when there is demand for it. However, this means the unit price of producing a book is high – the paperback costs roughly $29.00 and the hardback $44.00 to print and bind.

No one involved, including myself, was paid for contributions or time. The book’s retail price is set at A$1 more than its production price, with net profits donated back to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This is not a commercially viable publishing model, but financial gain can’t be the only driving force for creative work. As the largely underpaid publishing industry knows well.

Illustration of Les Murray by WH Chong in The Book of Days, a SWF anthology.

As well as a souvenir of the 2015 festival, this anthology is a compelling argument for the future of books in print. By the time the next Sydney Writers’ Festival comes around, there will be a new program on the website, the previous year’s newspaper lift-outs will be yellowed and all the news and conversations about the 2015 experience will be buried deep in the ether.

The Book of Days, though, will remain on my shelf, and hopefully other shelves in Sydney and around the world. Festival audiences will remember the authors we heard, the people we met and the experience of being swept up in a community of readers. Those who could not attend can get a sense of the experience – from the authors, illustrators and audience perspective – and may discover new writing. The anthology will be on shelves for years to come because book objects are talismans as much as vessels for the content they carry.

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