06-10-2016 - The book is still far from dead, especially if a variety of parties keep pouring their hearts and souls into making beautiful publications. Dude interviewed three designers who are also involved in publishing.


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Roma Publications is an independent publisher of art books – ranging from a print run of two exclusive publications to 150,000 copies of a newspaper that’s distributed door to door, and from extra large to very small formats. Graphic designer Roger Willems was an assistant to Karel Martens and a student at the Sandberg Instituut when he started the publishing company with artists Mark Manders and Marc Nagtzaam in 1998. They called it Roma, in reference to the first letters of their first names, as well as the first book that Roger and Marc Nagtzaam made for the Prix de Rome: Roma publication #1. It soon became a series.

Nothing is better than making books in close collaboration with your artist and designer friends, including Jan Kempenaers, Geert Goiris, Johannes Schwartz, Karel Martens, Julie Peters, Marlene Dumas and Experimental Jetset, says Willems. ‘It might sounds a bit “soft” that I view making books as a project you do with friends, but publishing works best when you get along with each other well.’





How does he arrange that business-wise? There’s no publishing strategy behind the platform, no business plan, the board is made up of friends and they rarely use contracts. Everything is done in good faith. Even if it initially cost Willems more money than he made from it. But after many years, it’s now the opposite: starting a year ago, Willems earns a full salary and as the foundation’s only permanent employee, he can call himself ‘director’. ‘I’m my own client, and I think it’s the most fun to design books myself with complete freedom.’

He certainly has a head for business, in the sense that he’s disciplined, doesn’t take too many risks, is strict with his budget and only participates in four or five trade fairs a year – from New York to Unseen in Amsterdam. He switches between his publisher and designer roles, and therefore builds in flexibility. That concept is his buffer: Willems sacrifices his fee if a print needs to be redone, for example. So mistakes are paid for out of his own pocket, and when it’s empty, he doesn’t make a book for a while. In that case, money comes in from book sales through Idea Books or his own online shop.

In the past year, he’s designed 17 publications himself, out of no less than 28 titles in total. ‘I’ve been progressing steadily – my goal is actually 20 books a year. The platform is growing: the group of people that you work with is expanding, and the distribution is growing as well thanks to the international focus of Idea Books, which has always looked abroad.’ With a difficult product in a niche market, and without advertising, Willems has managed to create a market and reach an audience. But it remains a challenge, he says. ‘You never be sure that a book is going to do well.’





Sometimes, Willems feels like a kind of book doctor. He tries to get close to the work of the artist and approaches the book as a piece of art. You could say that the publisher is subservient to the product, because he doesn’t create dominant designs. ‘I do have an ego, but more terms of the coordination of the entire project’, he explains. ‘To me, design consists of making basic decisions about paper, binding method and materials. I’m more hesitant with other kinds of design. I even think that designing is difficult. I find it too arbitrary to just make a “nice” book.’

Depending on the content, every publication follows its own rules regarding appearance and distribution. For example, Willems made the hefty green book Parallel Encyclopedia #2 with his girlfriend, artist Batia Suter. It’s a book that references itself, like an exhibition in book form, and each randomly opened page is equally good and attractive. With Karel Martens, he recently made a reproduction of a series of letterpress monoprints by the artist. The two different covers are the result of a printing experiment: all of the content is printed in three layers on each sheet, which is then cut and folded into two covers. Roma Publications is now approaching 300 publications. If it keeps going at this rate, it will soon overtake Suske & Wiske.


This article is published with the special edition of Dude, Dutch Designers Magazine,
a publication of the Association of Dutch Designers (BNO)Click for more information.

– Tentoonstelling van Roma Publications in Fondzione Guiliani, Rome, 2015
– Roger Willems en Jan Kempenaers op de New York Art Book Fair 2016
– Tentoonstelling van Roma Publications in Düsseldorf 

Dude, English