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A Happy Medium: A Conversation with Bad News Books

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Independent publishing is a tough game, but Harry Culy of Bad News Books has made it work for the last six years.

Words by Max Olijnyk

Photography by Max Olijnyk & Bad News Books

Publishing is something that few people stick at for very long. Basically, because it’s a lot of work and makes no money. And ‘coolness’ is something that few publishers can pull off because very few are cool. Harry Culy and Lucy Aitchison are a distinct exception to these rules. Over the past five years, their Bad News Books imprint has quietly become one of Australasia’s most interesting and varied proponents of photographic talent, and they also make great t-shirts. Over a coffee in the Wellington apartment he shares with Lucy and their cat Hank, Harry showed me a few of his favourite titles from their back catalogue.

Bad News BooksDefendants – Sam Stephenson

Max Olijnyk:

So how did you start out as a publisher?

Harry Culy:

Lucy did a photography diploma and I’d just finished my degree, then Lucy did a design diploma and learned how to actually make books, so we started making these little zines of our friends’ work. The zines were like six pieces of paper folded in half and stapled with a different coloured cover. They were so cheap but so nice – people seemed to really like them.

Bad News BooksField Studies #2

Max:

How many of them did you do?

Harry:

I think we did eight titles. We made most of them here in Wellington on a Xerox using the cheapest materials we could find. After that we made a couple of newspaper print books. (Harry picks up a copy of Defendants by Sam Stephenson) This is one of my favourites. Sam’s from that Sydney skate world. He’s been shooting his friends with a black and white point and shoot camera for 15 years in pretty much exactly the same way. This book was made after a bout of bad times, and he had to go stay at his parents’ house for a month to recoup. He was watching a lot of daytime television, and this guy popped up on Judge Judy who looked like his friend. This was in 2007, so he took a photo of the screen with his shitty camera phone. And that’s the project description: documenting these weird defendants from Judge Judy because he couldn’t hang out with his friends. He was looking for his friends in other places.

Max:

And they’re all in trouble.

Harry:

They’re all in trouble, yeah, and he’s in trouble. I love all the people in the background, they’re just disintegrating because it’s super low res. I reckon it’s pretty amazing. It sort of encompasses our ethos, I think.

Bad News BooksDefendants – Sam Stephenson

Max:

How did you come up with the name Bad News Books?

Harry:

We had a really shit name for a year or something. I knew it wasn’t quite right. We had a week before the launch of these two newspapers in Sydney and I woke up one morning and it popped into my head. It sounded way better. So I’m glad we didn’t stick with the original shitty name.

Max:

You don’t have to tell me what that was.

Harry:

It was bad.

Bad News BooksHarry Culy
Bad News Books

“I’m interested in showing the world what’s being made here in New Zealand and Australia … it’s important that there’s a voice for our little part of the world.”

Max:

So what year was that?

Harry:

I think February 2015? We made those other simple zines in 2013.

Max:

It’s cool you’ve worked in so many different formats. I wouldn’t know where to start if I wanted to get something made on newsprint.

Harry:

You just have to accumulate that knowledge over time: what printer does this, how to set up your files to get the best result with that one, who do you need to talk to there… we learned as we went along. From there we started doing crazier high production stuff, spending more money. (Harry picks up Six for Gold by Jake Mein)

Bad News BooksJake Mein – Six For Gold

Max:

Oh that one’s amazing.

Harry:

Yeah, hard cover, gold foiling. It’s still digital offset printing, but it’s really nice. Jake’s been a skate photographer for the past ten-odd years, and these are his more personal photographs from in amongst all his work for magazines. It’s kind of a weird one, because it’s ten years of photographs – it’s not a super concise project – it’s more of a collection of fleeting moments. Lucy came up with the title from this poem about seeing magpies. We thought Jake was a bit like a magpie, flying around the world finding these golden moments. So we put it together and tried to make a visual poem. It was a shortlisted finalist for the Australia and New Zealand Photobook Award, so that was cool.

Max:

Amazing.

Harry:

Yeah, so we went from making zines and newsprint books to these kind of high-end things, and now I think we’re going to go back to making more cheap things again. Jake’s book cost like a hundred bucks each to make, you know?

Bad News BooksJake Mein – Six For Gold

Max:

…And you sold them for a hundred bucks.

Harry:

Yeah. And our goal was never to make money, but I think there’s some charm in these earlier ones. Depending on the project, there’s a place for both production approaches.

Max:

For Defendants, the newsprint is perfect, but maybe not for a ten-year retrospective.

Harry:

Exactly. The newsprint talks to that idea of the media, the physicality of it. The paper, the way its bound, all those things add up to create a different feeling.

Bad News BooksMeg Porteous – Stirring his tea with a buttery knife

Harry:

This crazy red binding kind of becomes part of the image. I love how it lays super flat, and the binding is like red liquorice or something.

Max:

It’s almost like an electric charge running through the book.

Harry:

Yeah, I really like it. So over time, we’ve just accumulated all these books, between the ones we’ve made and ones we distribute for friends, and if you look at the website now we’ve got like 20-odd titles up there. It’s not bad for a five-year period.You feel like you’re not doing much, but then you realise you are.

Max:

Do you think part of your role as a publisher is to maintain the right spirit of your friends’ work?

Harry:

I see us basically as co-publishers with each artist. We want to make something that’s their vision. I’m not trying to take over at all, that would be horrible. Maybe we polish what they do a little, and maybe we have a bit of an audience, though it’s still small.

Most of these books wouldn’t end up existing if they went to a traditional publisher – their models work on thousands of copies. So we find a platform for these people who might not fit into the traditional art world or publishing world. All these things live on people’s hard drives or in a box of photographs hidden away in a closet. It’s a bit like running an Artist Run Gallery, maybe.

Bad News BooksShannon Rush – DrawingsBad News BooksShannon Rush – Drawings

Max:

Have you ever considered opening your own gallery?

Harry:

I have too much on in my life at the moment, eh. I work at Massey University two and a half days a week as a technician, I’m doing my Masters, I’m doing Bad News Books, I’m doing exhibitions of my own work as well. I’m doing too much shit, so I’m spread a bit too thin as it is.I’d play around with the idea if I had more time and money.

Max:

I imagine it would fit quite well into your practice – if there was room for it. The problem with having a physical space is coming up with rent every month.

Harry:

Totally. We don’t want to turn this thing that we love into something that isn’t fun any more.As soon as you put too much pressure in, it quickly becomes less fun.

Bad News BooksJordan Madge – Banana Spider Bite

“This sort-of famous photographer was like, “What’s the deal with the t-shirts?” and I was like, “If you buy a t-shirt, then we can make more books,” so he was like, “Sweet!” and bought one.”

Max:

So Lucy and you are partners in the business?

Harry:

Yeah, we started it together. She does more of the design and I do more talking to the artists, more overall stuff. She’s not really in the photography art world, so it’s kind of cool to have that perspective. She’s a really good editor, I think, and brings her design knowledge to enhance the work. Whereas I get really stuck in my ways from being so immersed in that photobook world. It’s a good balance.

Max:

What does being based in Wellington bring to it?

Harry:

I’m interested in showing the world what’s being made here in New Zealand and Australia. Even in my own work, I want to show the rest of the world what’s going on here. There’s enough people showcasing America and Europe – which I love – but it’s important that there’s a voice for our little part of the world.

Max:

Do you get many orders from overseas?

Harry:

A few… in the last few years about 20 per cent of our orders have come from outside of Australia and New Zealand. It’s always cool when someone from LA orders a book and a t-shirt, you’re like, woah! In the future it would be cool to do more stuff overseas.

Bad News BooksSam Stephenson – Fake Nostalgia

Max:

Another strong thing for you is the merch.

Harry:

The main reason we started making march was that I really liked the logo our friend Logan drew, based on the NZ Herald logo. It’s hand-drawn, so it’s just a bit shitty and off, which is kind of perfect.

But we also figured we could make a little bit of profit on a t-shirt. It’s cool, a few years ago we took a few t-shirts to a photobook fair and this sort-of famous photographer was like, “What’s the deal with the t-shirts?” and I was like, “If you buy a t-shirt, then we can make more books,” so he was like, “Sweet!” and bought one.

Bad News BooksBad News Books tote bag

Max:

Cool! So to wind things up, what projects do you have coming up?

Harry:

We’ve got four books upcoming:
Banana Spider Bite by Jordan Madge
Fake Nostalgia by Sam Stephenson
Thank you, Ok by Meg Patriciaz
Drawings by Shannon Rush

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Max Olijnyk

Max Olijnyk is a Wellington-based writer, editor, photographer and ageing skateboarder. His work has appeared in Acclaim, The Age, Broadsheet, Monster Children, Smith Journal, Turbine Kapohau and Vice. His first book Some Stories was released in 2016. He also makes really good jeans and bread.