One of my favorite Los Angeles independent presses is BüK — an imprint built around the elegant idea of the pamphlet. Beginning in 2005, BüK co-founders Lisa Lyons (a former Lannan Foundation and Getty Trust curator) and Gary Kornblau (former publisher of the iconic 1990s magazine Art issues) have issued small books individually and in curated sets of six, offering a reading experience that is diverse, intelligent and unpredictable, while also being digestible in a single sitting.

Pamphlets, of course, are a classic form — “where mass-market publishing began,” Lyons explains — but they also represent a response to our sped-up culture, in which there is often not enough time to immerse a longer work. The BüK model, then, straddles two worlds, looking back and looking forward, taking an old idea and making it new again, using it as a way of getting us to engage.

The BüK pamphlets have sold a cumulative 60,000 copies; they include re-issues of “The U.S. Constitution,” Epictetus’ “The Enchiridion” and Valerie Solanas’ notorious “S.C.U.M. Manifesto,” as well as contemporary work by Jeffrey Vallance, Dave Hickey and Haruki Murakami. Recently, Lyons and Kornblau announced that, after eight years, BüK would be closing; we corresponded, via email, about the imprint and the decision to shut down.

Why did you decide to stop?

Lisa Lyons: We were interested in growing our business but were not able to establish the exceptionally large wholesale distribution network that was required to do so. We did a thorough analysis of our options, including increasing our financial commitment to the project. Along the way we also looked at making significant changes to design, price point and marketing strategies. Ultimately, we concluded that such changes would not serve the product, our readers or the press, and we decided to close up shop.

What was the initial impetus for BüK?

Lyons: After winding up my work for the Getty, I decided to pursue an idea that had been kicking around in my brain for several years: to produce small books that each contained one great thing to read and to sell them for as close to a dollar each as possible. I wanted them to be beautifully designed, thought-provoking and so inexpensive — I toyed with calling them Buck Books — that they would be exceptionally easy to buy. I’m all for curling up with a fat book, but I felt there were a great many people like myself who were awfully busy and needed help in sifting through the thousands of choices out there to reach that one important essay, article, story they might otherwise miss. I got together one day for lunch with Gary, whose work as an editor and publisher I had always admired, and shared with him what I was thinking about, only to learn that he had likewise been contemplating producing small books of a similar bent.

Gary Kornblau: We understood that great writing, particularly nonfiction, often functions best as a pamphlet — a short, powerful blast of ideas. How many books do we read that we like a lot, but once we finish believe should have been a single essay? I have a library full of such things.

Lyons: After several conversations Gary and I decided to join forces, and the result was BüK: an inexpensive pamphlet containing one provocative essay, short story, portfolio of pictures, collection of poems or other surprising entertainment, readable in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. The name came out of a brainstorming session during which the walls of my dining room were plastered with big sheets of paper with potential names, including Buck. I remember the moment when our graphic designer, Robert Jensen, crossed out the “c” in Buck and rewrote the word as BuK, and next put an umlaut over the “u,” turning into a smiley face, and bam: It was a happy book! The room erupted and we knew we had found our name. BüK was born.

You put out a mix of new work and reprints, individually and in sets. How did you choose the work?

Kornblau: Our criteria were simple: a complete (not condensed) text, ranging from 16 to 32 pages, that both of us found worthy. Since we are two strong-minded people with wide interests, this made things quite easy. We would have wished to commission more new texts, and had we continued, that would have been a priority.

Lyons: BüK was conceived as a brand you could rely on for providing a superb reading experience, no matter what the topic, with the suggestion being that if you like, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” you can trust BüK when it tells you that you will also find these other, completely different but compelling pieces of writing worth your time. So the next thing you know, you’re reading a short story by Banana Yoshimoto, or Eddy Joe Cotton’s “Hobo Lexicon.” The boxed sets of six were conceived in part as a way of marketing diverse material and introducing readers to writing they might not otherwise seek out. Texts for each set were assembled specifically to cover a wide spectrum of subjects and genres.

What were the challenges of such a model?

Lyons: Our challenges lay primarily in the areas of marketing and distribution. In addition to direct sales to consumers online and at various events, we sold wholesale into a range of venues: gift stores, bookstores, museum stores, grocery stores, coffee houses and hotels. Lacking spines, our titles required special attention to merchandising, which proved a challenge to some of our vendors. From a retail standpoint, our thematic boxed sets, such as the Big Idea Box or The Great Arts Box, appealed to some of our brick-and-mortar vendors because they required little explanation in a busy sales environment, and also because of the higher profit margin they gave them in a small footprint.

Kornblau: The boxed and slipcased sets also provided the pamphlets with a spine, making them more like traditional books and therefore easier to sell in stores.

BüK emerged around the time the digital space exploded as a reading landscape, which also involved the disseminating of shorter texts. Do you see a relationship?

Kornblau: We wanted to explode the myth that fast means short and slow means long. Our goal was to slow down reading tremendously, but to allow that slow process to be concluded quickly in one sitting. That is, we were slow and short. We wanted to cut through the plethora of poseurs breathlessly chasing and producing fast and short digital material, and the folks defending slow and long print material as the only true course for important publishing. By being slow and short we took the best impulses of the digital and the print world and melded them. We were a “post-digital” press, not a pre-digital throwback.

Lyons: We wholeheartedly embrace the digital reading experience. However, we also believe in the joys of print: Reading from a beautifully designed book with an evocative cover, presented on the page precisely as the author, designer and publisher intended, is an incomparable experience. The size, the look and feel of BüKs were carefully calibrated to provide pleasure.

Do you consider the project a success?

Lyons and Kornblau: We are extremely proud of our titles and we recognize that having sold some 60,000 BüKs is a serious accomplishment. The project was flawed because we did not meet our initial goal to have hundreds of thousands of BüKs in circulation. From the standpoint of providing truly great reading to a large number of people, BüK was a glorious experiment.

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