Jon Dowling of Counter-Print on self-publishing, classic design books and surviving change

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The humble British pub can be a place where many great ideas are conceived. For Céline Leterme and Jon Dowling, they started talking about Counter-Print – an online book shop and publisher – at their own local nine years ago, after realising there were others who shared their love of vintage design books.

Selling classic titles that they found on their travels, it began as a little side project, something they did in their spare time. The couple’s first website only had a few second-hand books available but every time they put them online, they would quickly sell.

Fast-forward to today, and the ambitious designers are now also selling new books on design from a variety of publishers they admire, as well as children’s books and – with the recent launch of their new site – they have added a ‘Lifestyle’ section which they hope to expand.

It’s been a fascinating journey, one that saw the pair quit their jobs to run Counter-Print full-time. They’ve survived many ups and downs, including the effects of the tablet and e-book. But with everyone falling back in love with printed books, we spoke to Jon about self-publishing, classic design books and how they’ve made Counter-Print a success…

Where did the idea for Counter-Print come from?

« My partner and I were in our mid-twenties and working as graphic designers in London. Céline grew up in Belgium and we often went book shopping while we were over there, scouring the markets and antique stores for out-of-print books from the European designers we admired.

« I remember taking the books into work, as a source of inspiration, and colleagues asking if I could pick something up for them, when I was next over. We didn’t do this for profit, but it got our minds ticking. Perhaps we could sell our finds online? We created a rudimentary website and posted a few books from Belgium on it, which we supplemented with some more obscure charity shop finds from the UK. Counter-Print was born.

« There were about 10 second-hand books on a white home page, so the origins were pretty humble. »

It started as a side project nine years ago, now it’s a full-time venture. At what point did you ditch your jobs to focus on Counter-Print?

« I think after about a year, though my memory is a little hazy, we realised that the profit we were making from Counter-Print was covering over half our mortgage. At this point, I left my full-time job and did a little freelancing a couple of days a week, gained some client’s of my own and was off. My partner jumped ship about six months later. Looking back, we agonised over it and it was our favourite point of conversation, over many a coffee, in many a café.

« We still design, though not because we absolutely have to, it helps inform our work with the online store and vice versa. I’m not sure if I could run Counter-Print if I wasn’t a designer and, client work aside, there’s always the books to design. »

Where do you source classic design books from?

« Right now we mainly buy them from online sites and antique dealers in Europe. Designers get in touch with us wanting to sell their collections, we receive books from retirees or magazines, you name it. We can also be found rummaging around your local Oxfam book shop on a Saturday morning, though with a two year old, this isn’t as common a sight as it once was. »

Any unusual finds along the way? Tell us more

« We’ve found signed copies, beautiful inscriptions, obviously some vary rare editions, but the most exciting is when you uncover a book you know is worth an incredible amount of money. It really is extremely rare and I think it’s becoming harder to do. Perhaps sites like Counter-Print and our competitors have ourselves to blame for that. Now that so many vintage design books have been bought and sold online, it’s not that hard to find out the worth of something.

« We’ve found Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser and Lou Dorfsman books that are probably worth around £200 for a fiver. That’s a great morning. »

Have there been any titles you’ve held onto? What were they and why?

« I held onto more in the beginning. It was very hard to let go of books, so I kept hold of the ones from design greats such as Ruder, Crouwel, Igarashi, etc. It felt like that, with every discovery, a world was opening up. It was an exciting time in my own education and development as a designer and I wasn’t really thinking about the whole thing as a business. It was just like, this is what we’re into, hope you like it too. I wish I had an Instagram account then!

« Now my design library is so big it’s a little sickening. I think they can become too big, if not regularly vetted. Most aren’t mine though, they are just stock and sit in multiples of four or five, in a shelving system. There’s no real need for me to hang on to stuff, unless it’s very rare and, even then, I’m not interested in the same things I was 10/15 years ago. My job has changed and so have my interests. »

What makes a great design book, in your opinion?

« Interesting original subject matter, rigorous research, a unique perspective and a design that is informed and shaped by the content are important in the creation of a good design book. I’ve published over ten books on design to date and I am very much still learning. I try to learn from the greats and often take inspiration from the books that have come through the doors of the studio over the years – this goes for concept as well as design. »

These days, you also sell new books. How do you choose titles to sell?

« We avoided this for years, as we felt like we had something unique, selling vintage design books. They were from revered designers and their content and execution had stood the test of time, so it was hard to break out of this comfort zone.

« However, the introduction of new books onto Counter-Print, managed to boost our appeal to a younger demographic and was an encouragement to pursue our own dreams of publishing. It was very hard to find books at first that we felt fit our brand, so we concentrated on design monographs and books of historical interest. We try not to focus too much on current trends, unless we think the books might be design classics of the future. Our main criteria for buying books hasn’t changed since we first launched the store. We buy books that we would want on our shelves, even if they don’t sell. That way it’s win-win. It’s basically a long way of saying, ‘we buy the kind of books we would like for ourselves’.

« We also get a kick out of discovering stuff that you won’t see in larger stores – books from independent publishers, Kickstarter-funded books, limited editions and so on. We need to surprise people. The secret is not to stock everything, as then you are Amazon. We are aware that people could buy some of our books there and they could probably even save some money, some of the time. We are always reminding ourselves of why they choose to shop with us, despite of that. It’s because we curate the shop in a discerning way and we wouldn’t sell them a book we don’t like. That is ‘trust’ I suppose, that most treasured quality, all shops wish for. »

You also create and publish your own titles. Any books you’re especially proud of?

« I’m proud of the books where we tried something for the first time. Our first newspaper, monograph, illustration, logo compilation or themed graphic design book etc.

« Our first ever book took us about three years to break even on and commercially was a disaster, due to our naïvety. The print costs for the complicated production were so high that we didn’t see a return until Counter-Print gained further notoriety as a publisher. But it’s, in my mind, a great book. It was for the illustrator Robert Samuel Hanson and I thought about every detail. The only thing I neglected, was worrying about making any money from it. Over time, we have fine-tuned our model for success and the dial has stopped somewhere between commercial success and creative freedom. »

What challenges have you faced with self-publishing, and how did you overcome them?

« So first of all, the very nature of self-publishing dictates that you are kind of on your own out there. I had a limited knowledge of the publishing business before we started. I’d designed books for large publishers and for artists at my previous job in London and I was lucky enough to work on one of the UK’s leading graphic design magazines for a year. But I felt like an enthusiast and certainly not an insider to the industry. We learnt, as so many do, by our mistakes. We started small, publishing newspapers, and then graduated to small books, gradually upping the production value as we went along.

« Of course, it goes without saying, that another difficulty is money. Books cost thousands to produce, so cash flow is often a problem. We luckily seem to have plenty of ideas, so the trick is keeping the whole ball rolling, when stock, marketing, producing our own titles and so on all costs. »

Your business has seen the rise and fall of the e-book. You weathered the storm – are physical books more popular than ever before?

« Yes and no. You can’t argue that physical publishing is enjoying the same level of success as prior to the e-book. Digital publishing has taken a huge bite out of the publishing industry’s revenue, but there is cause to be optimistic – and you should always look at the cup half full, right?

« E-books have, for the first time, declined in their sales and the physical book still accounts for 80% of all books sold. The design-minded, in particular, seem to have an affinity for printed-matter, with Kickstarter campaigns funding new titles, reissues of corporate guidelines, monographs of design luminaries and newly-conceived titles on contemporary trends and fashions hitting the shelves at an heart-warmingly high rate.

« I think that we are reaching a stasis, where by the sales of e-books are plateauing and the e-book will live alongside physical books, occupying a sibling rivalry and vying for our attention, as they do so. »

You have a healthy following on social media – is this where your marketing lies? How else have you got your name out there?

« In the beginning there was no Instagram and Twitter was relatively new, such is the speed at which these things have a habit of moving. We created posters, and book marks, pieces of print or bags we could give away with orders. Our marketing scope was very narrow and, as such, we probably struggled for a few years longer than we would have, if we launched such a business today.

« Now much of our traffic comes from social media referrals, with around 60% of that traffic coming from Instagram. Much has been written about the importance of Instagram for online, retail marketing, but it is worth saying, that it is very important to us. It’s such a visual and immediate platform and, as such, it is a very easy way for us to get our products across to our audience. »

What type of books are currently proving most popular on Counter-Print?

« We mostly sell the books we publish ourselves. I suppose this is probably because this is what the customer knows us for, but other than that, the reissues of corporate guidelines we stock, such as those of NASA and British Rail, have proved very popular. They are beautifully produced time capsules, that have remained unobtainable for many, for so long.

« A lot of the books that are currently selling well were practically unobtainable, but for those with very deep pockets, ten years ago. There seems to be an unquenchable thirst for reissued books such as Emil Ruder’s ‘Typography’, Josef Müller Brockmann’s ‘The Graphic Designer and His Problems’ or Paul Rand’s ‘A Designer’s Art’, to name but three. »

Have you had any unusual requests?

« We get requests from people every week, who want us to publish their books. I wish we could help everyone out and knew all the answers, but we just try to give honest advise, when we can. »

You ship worldwide. Where do you mostly send books to? Do you see any trends in different countries?

« We mainly sell books to America and the UK. But you know, we’ve literally shipped everywhere. There is no difference in what they buy, I think the internet has had a globalising effect on design taste, for better or worse. Everything is availably to everyone. It’s getting harder to spot differing national styles in design from country to country and this has been something we have explored in our design book ‘From Japan’ and the forth-coming ‘From Scandinavia’. »

Any book designers you especially admire?

« I’ve never really been in to one designer, often picking up things I like on my travels, only later to find they were made by a famous name. Having said that, in curating Counter-Print, you can’t help but notice groups of books we have that all share the same designer. We stock a lot of modern books by Unit Editions/Spin, Irma Boom, Julia Hasting and Norm or vintage books by Paul Ibou, Olle Eksell, Massimo Vignelli and Bruno Munari, to literally name but a few.

« We really like the work of Munari. He’s the book designer’s, book designer and contributed fundamentally to many fields of the visual arts, as well as publishing. He has been sighted by many as among the most inspirational designers of all time and was described by Picasso as, ‘the new Leonardo’. My partner and I have always collected vintage children’s books, dating back to our time at University together and it is Munari’s children’s books that I always return to, now that we have a child of our own. They also remain among the most popular of his titles on the store too. « 

What’s currently bugging you, and how are you taking steps to address it?

« We feel like we don’t really have enough time to achieve everything we want to. This means we are having to delegate a lot of the tasks we enjoy doing, but just can’t find the time for. We now have a distributor, which has cut our work-load considerably, but we need to spend more time on the areas that differentiate our business from others. More time would mean everything for us – more time to work on new titles, travel, absorb culture, meet new people, educate our selves and so on. »

Which three books would you recommend we purchase from Counter-Print right now?

« Art Marks, NASA Graphics Standards Manual and Munari’s Books. And then work your way through the rest! »

What do you do to relax?

« I must say, we are not the best at relaxing. We are often processing orders by laptop-light into the evening. However, I’ve recently taken up running to try and destress, we visit exhibitions whenever possible, enjoy renovating our new place and we both love spending as much time with our families as possible. »

If anyone is thinking about getting into publishing, what advice would you give them?

« I’ve not taken, what I think to be, the conventional route into publishing. I couldn’t tell someone how to get a job at Penguin or any other large publishing house. From my experience, what I would say for anyone starting a career is, if you want something, you’ve got to go out there and take it. If the route to your goal isn’t obvious, create the opportunity for yourself. Work hard, follow your moral compass and aim high. »

Finally, what’s happening next with Counter-Print. Any hopes and dreams you care to share?

« We have a large monograph in the pipeline, another book in our series on graphic design from around the world titled ‘From Scandinavia’ and a number of other logo books. I feel much calmer about my work and life than a couple of years ago. Things are going well and I’m just trying to remind myself to enjoy the process as much as possible.

« When I was in my twenties it was all I wanted, just to be able to design books for a living. By sheer will, we’ve carved that living out for ourselves, by making a lot of sacrifices and working extremely hard, for as long as I can remember. Now I’m just trying to appreciate it and where we’re at. We want to do more of everything, add new product lines to the store, design books on new subject matters and create good work that we are proud of. »