Ugly Duckling’s True Beauty

Filed in Archive, Blog by on July 20, 2013 0 Comments


Book publishing has been in turmoil lately. Amazon has sued multiple publishers for price fixing, Penguin has merged with Random House, while libraries and bookstores have been busy moving Lance Armstrong’s books onto their Fiction shelves.

So it was refreshing , on a recent visit to New York, to be introduced to a one-of-a-kind small publisher in Brooklyn called Ugly Duckling Presse. The extra ‘e’ in Presse is a nod to their use of olde-school printing methods in combination with the latest digital and web publishing tools.

UDP’s single-room office-cum-warehouse is one of many hip creative organisations hived into the reborn Old American Can Factory (top left in the above composite picture). Other tenants include the eclectic and subversive Akashic Books, best known as the publisher of Go The Fuck to Sleep, and Archipelago Books which specialises in translating classic and contemporary literature from around the world.

UDP’s specialty is cutting-edge poetry. Matvei Yankelevich is the switched-on manager and co-founder (pictured top right). He enthusiastically shows me how different types of machines use letterpress technology in which metal type and graphics on blocks or plates are inked and pressed into printed pages.

The letterpress technology is mostly used to give book covers a distinctive look and feel, while the  internal pages are often outsourced to a conventional printer. But the overall results are far from conventional.

Matvei grins at my expression as we unfold 5 Meters of Poems by Carlos Oquendo de Amat. We are soon standing five metres apart with a few dozen pages of poems stretched between us.

There are books whose spines are threaded with string such as Little Richard the Second by Gregg Biglieri. In an age where digital books are sweeping the world, it is somehow reassuring to know that a book bound by string can still be pre-sold to online subscribers as well as distributed around the US to bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

A pivotal subscription for UDP is their 6×6 program. This is a series of 36 booklets being published over many years in which six poets each feature six of their poems. Matvei talks me through the current edition (number 27) as it is about to be snail-mailed to subscribers by a group of four student volunteers. The letterpressed cover is bound to the carefully designed pages by a thick black rubber band. This and other 6×6 booklets are obvious connections to UDP’s origins in New York’s zine scene of the 1990s.

If you like to read fresh poetic voices, you’ll have to go a long way to better the offerings of Ugly Duckling Presse. Their extraordinary publishing model may inspire other small presses around the world, especially if the legendary Jason Epstein’s prediction of book publishing returning to its “cottage industry” roots proves true.


Special thanks to Rachel Shepheard, a former UDP intern and now publicist with Text Publishing in Melbourne, for introducing me to Ugly Duckling Presse.

If you would like to view a New York Times video report from last September about Ugly Duckling Presse and Akashic Press, here is the link: Small Presses Take Brooklyn

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