Features

“We Own The Means Of Production”: A Conversation With Radix Media

The workers of Radix Media. From L to R: Lantz Arroyo, Sarah Lopez, Meher Manda, Nicholas Hurd

The story of Radix Media, the Brooklyn-based, worker-owned printshop and publisher began amid the the still-growing calls for radical social justice that were seeded by the Occupy movement in 2011. In its near decade of existence, Radix has taken the values espoused by Occupy as a starting point. In Radix, decisions are made non-hierarchically, without bosses. Workers are represented by a union and printing materials are eco-friendly. 

In 2017, Radix Media entered the publishing game with designs on “prioritizing the voices of typically marginalized communities to get to the root of the human experience.” Their releases to date include thoughtful genre offerings, literary and political essays, zines, and pamphlets. Radix Media recently launched a kickstarter to fund the collectives entry into the comics space with a line of graphic narrative releases. In keeping with their mission, their initial offers are an eclectic mix, aesthetically and thematically, but all offer radical visions of social justice.

Currently, Radix Media is run by just three worker-owners, along with collective members, investing in worker-ownership through sweat equity. Although modest in size, collective decision making and worker ownership, in practice, is a powerful symbol and a living example that there are alternatives to the strictly commercial avenues that dominate the publishing industry. Ian Thomas interviewed worker-owners Lantz Arroyo and Sarah Lopez, as well as Collective Member Meher Manda via email in late September 2020. The Radix Media Graphic Narrative Kickstarter ends on October 23.

Ian Thomas: Can you talk about the origins of Radix? 

Meher Manda: Radix Media emerged in the Pacific Northwest in 2010. After an apprenticeship with Eberhardt Press, a print shop and publisher based in Portland, Oregon, Lantz Arroyo founded Radix Media as a one-person shop that printed flyers and posters for local social justice organizations with a focus on offset printing.

Lantz relocated to NY in 2011, where he was connected to the digital printers at OccuCopy, a worker-owned print shop that emerged in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Lantz brought his expertise of offset printing to OccuCopy, and soon the two groups joined forces and quickly became a crucial resource for the local community at a time when social justice organizations were incredibly activated. The other members of OccuCopy moved on to do other things and in 2017, Radix Media merged with Wasp Poster and Print, a letterpress and design studio run by Nicholas Hurd, becoming a more expansive printing enterprise offering offset lithography, letterpress, and state-of-the-art digital printing. Designer Sarah Lopez joined the team that same year, and Radix Media entered the world of independent publishing in 2018. I came onboard in 2020 to help expand our publishing catalog. 

Is there a guiding principle or mission statement under which Radix operates?

Meher Manda: The name Radix comes from the Latin root of the word radical, meaning to get to the root. We aim to publish new ideas and fresh perspectives, and prioritize voices from typically marginalized communities, to get to the root of the human experience. As publishers, we acquire and celebrate projects that are typically ignored by mainstream publishing. We’re also printers who love printed matter; we live to acquire an experimental, slightly under-the-radar project and turn it into a beautiful, handheld book that has its own visual language. This gives our process a holistic approach—from the get-go, we are able to invite authors and artists into the process of bookmaking, and are able to collaborate with them on how they want their book to look.

This also means that we can consciously lead with our values in every aspect of the process. As a worker-owned business, we own the means of production, and therefore have full control of how the business operates. We’re also non-hierarchical and make all of our decisions based on consensus. Radix is union strong and eco-friendly, which ensures that our work is accountable and responsible.

From Ganzeer's The Solar Grid

Radix is billed as worker-owned. Can you talk about what exactly that means? How many worker-owners are there?

Meher Manda: There are currently three worker-owners at Radix Media—Lantz Arroyo, Nicholas Hurd, and Sarah Lopez. I am a Collective Member—it’s the stage before one can become a worker-owner by investing sweat equity.

We believe that all workers should have autonomy and a say in the production process. As a worker-owned cooperative, we don’t function within an hierarchical model. Rather, we function within an egalitarian setup. Everyone has an equal voice and we make our decisions collectively. This also ensures that there is diverse thought, and disagreement and workshopping of ideas is integral to making sure we have a multifaceted catalog. This also avoids the kind of gatekeeping that happens in traditional publishing where hierarchies keep people out of the decision-making process. What would it be like if an editorial assistant had a say in the acquiring of new books? How much more diverse would publishing have been if all stakeholders had an equal say in the process? Being worker-owned guarantees that at the end of the day, each of us is equally happy with and proud of the finished product.

I’ve seen a few print shops operating with a cooperative model. Do you think that this type of business is uniquely positioned to be worker owned? If so, why?

Lantz Arroyo: Absolutely. Both printing and publishing are incredibly cooperative industries, requiring not just expertise, but also lots of dialogue and compromise, and a worker-owned business can handle that in a more fulfilling way. Although there’s really no industry I can think of that couldn’t benefit from its workers directly controlling their workplace conditions and the fruits of their labor.

Can you talk about the co-operative models on which it is based? What considerations were made when setting the bylaws or operating principles of Radix Media?

Lantz Arroyo: The biggest thing we aim for is transparency and egalitarianism. The business functions best when everyone has the autonomy to do their share. There’s no difference between the worker who prints the high end business cards and the worker who cleans the bathroom. We do it all!

In addition to our operating agreement, which governs very strict legal things, we have a worker manual that covers more of the day-to-day operation. This is something that I learned at the Red and Black, a cafe and community space in Portland where I worked for 4 years. The knowledge I gained there was itself based on worker cooperatives of the past. There’s quite a rich history and you can find worker co-ops in many industries across the world.

Radix Media is both a commercial printer and a publisher? What does decision making look like in these two different aspects of the project? Are the same workers making the decisions in both cases?

Meher Manda: The printing and publishing wings take place under Radix Media, which is currently a team of four. Naturally, some of us handle more on the editorial and marketing end of stuff, while some handle more of the printing, and some do everything. There is respect for each individual’s expertise in a subject and every decision is made with consensus, we have a rigorous decision making process that can sometimes go on for days.

Sarah Lopez: Like Meher mentioned we make all of our decisions as a group. Some of us have more experience with certain aspects of the business so their suggestions often hold more sway, but every Radix Media worker is informed of what’s happening and has an equal voice both on the printing and publishing side. Before the pandemic we would have morning meetings where we would check in on the progress of long-term projects and delegate tasks for the day. Everyone is also included in the more serious decisions that pertain to the business as a whole. For example, there’s full transparency in regards to the business’ finances, and we all have to agree before making large purchases. We don’t have a board of directors telling us what to do, but we are accountable to each other. It helps that we’re a small team, but we’re committed to maintaining this level of transparency and inclusion as we grow.

IT: You recently announced a Kickstarter for three graphic narrative projects in 2021-2022 can you talk about how this came together?

Meher Manda: A few circumstances led to the conception of the Kickstarter campaign. First, of course, is the scale of the collection we want to bring out—The Solar Grid by Ganzeer which is a graphic novel spanning about ten serialized editions and a collected box set, Fanning the Flames by Molly Crabapple, a coloring book for adults, and the graphic novella Mortals by John Dermot Woods and Matt L. That’s 12 books and a box set! For an emerging, small publisher, that’s an ambitious project to pull off. And because of the values we hold we did not want to compromise on fair compensation and the quality of the books. So we knew we needed some support in bringing this project to life.

Then the pandemic happened, which resulted in us having to temporarily close our print shop for three months since it is considered a non-essential business. This further impacted the resources we could direct to publishing this collection. A Kickstarter campaign is the most effective community-driven effort we could undertake—readers of these author-artists, people who like our books and support our values, communities who want to see independent publishing thrive can support the campaign and receive fun rewards which include our publishing catalog, posters, art work, etc.

Lantz Arroyo: I’d also been in touch with Margot Atwell, the Director of Publishing at Kickstarter, for a few years. We’d been wanting to run a Kickstarter campaign for a while, because so many other publishers have had great success with it. Margot helped with everything from looking over the rewards to giving us promotional tips and edits on all the major written material. The team there has been an enormous resource to us and we can’t thank them enough!

Comic book production, especially at  the independent level, is built on sweat equity and often razor thin profit margins. In what ways do artists using your services and the audiences of those books benefit from working with a print shop like Radix, running under this model, as opposed to, say a print-to-order service? 

Meher Manda: A Print-to-order option would not give a zine maker a publishing team, whose members would engage with the book from an editorial and marketing perspective. I think when it comes to books, we operate as publishers with an in-house printer, rather than the other way around.

If someone does come to us for only printing services, they would go through the print shop, and in that event we don't engage with it from a publishing perspective at all (those of us in the team who handle publishing mostly won't even be interacting with the project). They would just print the book and market and sell it themselves. But regarding prices, we do offer printing at various price points so even smaller projects can afford us.

Sarah Lopez: As a publisher, we offer our artists a lot more control over the final product compared to more traditional publishers, we also pride ourselves in paying fairly. While it’s not always on the higher end of the pay scale, we work very hard to compensate our authors and artists above professional rates.

As far as our audience goes, we take a chance on titles that other publishers would never even consider. This includes format, style, and content. People who follow Radix Media can be sure to expect work that pushes the boundaries of comics and literature, and takes a fresh perspective on the world.

Is moving into the graphic narrative arena a big leap for Radix? Will it require any new considerations from a technical perspective? From a marketing and business perspective?

Meher Manda: We’ve published titles that one could consider directly and adjacently fitting under the graphic narrative umbrella. We Are All Things by Elliott Colla and Ganzeer, which we released earlier this year was a graphic prose poem. We also put out Be The Change! A Justseeds Coloring Book in collaboration with Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Sabrina Cintron’s The Witches’ Grimoire, which is a spellbinding graphic chapbook. With each project, we’ve learned something new about the publishing market and what it takes to promote a book that has a strong visual component. So we aren’t coming to this collection fresh-eyed, but these projects do mark a lot of firsts for us as an emerging publisher. 

The Solar Grid will be our first graphic series; we’ve never published a full-length graphic novella like MORTALS before; and while we have released coloring books in the past, Fanning the Flames is the first time we’re collaborating with Molly on her original work. So it is very exciting for us to jump into this universe. As far as marketing goes, we’re definitely going to reach out to readers of these author-artists (none of them are debut authors, so that works in our favor), fans of the comic book and graphic narrative genre, and just all readers really, because of the thematic and literary merit in each of these projects. What helps us in publicity is that these are relevant works; these books adequately address and externalize a lot of the systemic concerns that are rampant in our day-to-day life.

Fanning The Flames, Molly Crabapple

The graphic narrative project will see publication of three titles: Ganzeer's The Solar Grid, John Dermot Woods and Matt L's Mortals, and Molly Crabapple's Fanning the Flames Coloring Book. How were these titles selected?

Meher Manda: One of the benefits of having such a small team where we work collaboratively is that we develop close relationships with our authors and clients. We worked with Ganzeer, John, and Molly previously—we published Ganzeer and Elliott Colla’s We Are All Things, for which Molly wrote the introduction, and John’s science fiction chapbook Always Blue, under the Futures series. So it was very natural for us to sit down with them and ideate on future projects. When we found out John and Matt were working on this deeply meditative graphic novella about an aging actor, we knew we wanted to publish it.

Similarly, Ganzeer was developing The Solar Grid independently—he’d had a Kickstarter campaign to support the creation of the project. But he was developing it as a stand-alone book and wanted to turn it into a series. This is where we came in; we have experience releasing monthly chapbooks—we did it with the Futures series in 2019. And we would publish anything by Molly Crabapple, truly. She’s such a wonderful artist and writer, but also such a deeply committed literary citizen. The idea to publish a coloring book featuring Molly’s drawings came to us very organically—her sketches are so lush and colorful, it’s going to be interesting to present them without that color as a way to invite artists literally into Molly’s world.

And the more we looked at the three projects independently, the more we realized that they informed one another. Each project explores uncertainty by asking “what if?” What if we don’t check capitalism’s greed and work to preserve our environment, The Solar Grid warns. What if our world was more receptive to bodies and spaces of all kinds, Fanning the Flames prods. And what if we wholly surrendered to our craft and life, MORTALS ponders. Grouping them under the scope of this campaign happened very cohesively.

These titles all explore "urban isolation, the failures of capitalism, and transformative justice." Can you talk about how these themes dovetail with the broader mission of Radix Media?

Meher Manda: The story of Radix Media is a story of American grassroots politics. We emerged in 2010 in Portland, Oregon, but our journey in New York began after the poignant Occupy Wall Street movement. We are a worker co-op because it is the only way to consistently be aligned with the principles of labor rights and the fight for racial equality. We’re eco-friendly because at a time when the world is at the precipice of irreversible climate change and in urgent need of intervention, this is a necessary undertaking for any business. And we do not have a pecking order within the company because collaborative work can lead to more exciting projects than commandeering work. So naturally, the themes that these titles explore are incredibly important to us both as practitioners of radical politics and also as publishers who want to see these themes tackled head on in literary projects. We want to publish more work that demands restorative change, reimagines our society without the divisions supported by capitalism, and believes wholeheartedly in the power of community.

Is this Kickstarter a way for Radix to test the waters before entering the comics space or is Radix committed to growing in this space?

Meher Manda: I’m not sure if that’s mutually exclusive. You’re right, the Kickstarter definitely informs us of the market that exists for these projects, but we’re also committed to publishing more comics in the future. We love the form as readers and moreover, we’re committed to publishing projects from the margins and we want to see more comic series from poc writer-illustrators. The fact that we have an in-house print shop makes it much easier for us to figure out the technical logistics of printing graphic narratives since they require a more sophisticated approach than printing regular books with just text in them. Consider this as a call for any writer-illustrators out there—we are open to submissions and pitches. 

Sarah Lopez: Like Meher mentioned earlier, as an emerging press the possibilities for what we can publish are endless. We’re still figuring out our niche, but are generally interested in all forms of storytelling. I think that we’re moving toward being known for publishing stories with a particular viewpoint rather than a genre. The Graphic Narrative Collection is a way for us to test the waters, but it’s definitely not going to be the last time we publish comics.

What have been your experiences and impressions around how the publishing industry at large values labor? Are there any distinctions to be drawn between or among the different types of prose (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) and the graphic narrative/comics space?

Sarah Lopez: Artistic labor is generally undervalued in our culture. We love to consume music, art, and literature, but no one wants to pay for it. Yes, there are slight differences in approach and compensation depending on the genre, but once you dig deeper you can see that the real problem is the economic system that all of publishing exists in. We can increase pay rates here and there, give more bonuses and vacation time, even create more worker-cooperatives, but the relationship between art workers, and workers at-large, and their labor isn’t going to change until we reimagine our relationship to work and the economy as a society.

In your conception, what does future growth of Radix look like from both a publishing and business perspective?

Meher Manda: The Graphic Narrative Collection is one among several projects that we’re set to publish in the next two years—there are a few exciting anthologies we have in the works, and we’re planning a full-length title as well. What’s exciting about being an emerging press is that the possibilities are endless, and we want to publish a slate of projects of different lengths and genres, while also choosing manuscripts on their ability to speak to and inform the present strongly. 

Lantz Arroyo: Comics and graphic novels are the one area of publishing that’s growing. I think more people are realizing how great the medium is for telling certain kinds of stories. So if all goes well, I think this could be a great arena for us. Ultimately we are just trying to do our part in making the world a better place, and if we can do that by continuing to pay writers fairly and making beautiful books, I would call that a success.

If you see any correlation, do you think the political climate brought about by the Trump presidency has helped or hindered Radix Media?

Meher Manda: Radix Media was founded in 2010, but we entered literary publishing in late 2017. I think what was a pure coincidence of timing also really solidified our publishing ethos. Unlike other workplaces, we insist on bringing our politics into the workplace and letting it direct our interest as publishers. After assessing whether a project has literary merit, we consciously look at what the project is trying to say, how it is informed by and is informing the world as it is today. So while I wouldn’t call an environment as corrupt and harmful as this one helpful, I would say it energized our commitment to highlight authors of color, to publish works that are confrontational and defiant, to be radical in our approach.

Sarah Lopez: I think that our current political climate has opened a lot of people’s eyes to the racism and inequality that is baked into our system, so in some ways it has helped us. People are looking to support businesses that are invested in making a difference and truly practice what they preach.

Our first full-length book, Aftermath: Explorations of Loss & Grief, was a direct response to the 2016 election. We immediately saw the writing on the wall, and wanted to make sure that we made space for the voices that were going to be silenced. We also chose the theme of loss and grief because there was a general sense of mourning post Trump’s election. You couldn’t ignore the racism and individualism that was so prevalent anymore. The idealistic version of America that so many people believed in was crushed. A lot of people were also dealing with tangible loss.

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