An Ottawa brain scientist is dropping the microscope and turning his mind towards finely crafted books with a new startup.
Alex Simon spent most of his adult life studying science, eventually receiving a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard University and later an MBA from its world-renowned business school.
It was there that he also discovered the Harvard Library, the oldest library system in the U.S. Founded in 1638, it houses many weighty tomes from centuries past and became the perfect incubator for his old-tech startup called Century Press.
“The cool thing about going to the library at Harvard is that they have all these books from the very early first editions, and so you’d be reading a book that’s 120 years old,” Simon says.
Reading them was like stumbling on a time capsule, he explains. He would find notes written in the margins from 100 years before.
“It felt so different to read a book in that format,” Simon adds, noting the historic volumes were printed and bound in a completely different way than most books today.
While most books today are mass-produced and disposable, Simon wondered why there couldn’t be finely crafted volumes like the ones he found in the library.
Eventually, he hit on an idea: a business making beautifully crafted books that would last lifetimes.
The Kentucky native put his passion project on the back burner while at Harvard. After a year abroad with his wife, who grew up in Montreal, the two decided to make Ottawa their permanent home in 2020.
Once he was settled in his new surroundings, he set out to make his dream a reality.
A printing business that uses old-fashioned techniques and equipment may seem counterintuitive in the age of e-books and video streaming, but Simon disagrees.
“There’s all this stress from the publishing industry about people moving to e-readers or (audiobooks), but people are still going to the library to pick up hardcopy books,” he says.
The numbers suggest Simon could be on to something.
A 2019 consumer survey from BookNet Canada, a book industry research group, found printed books still made up more than 80 per cent of the market, with e-books accounting for 20 per cent of sales and audiobooks another eight per cent. According to Statistics Canada, in 2018 e-book sales made up just 13 per cent of the total market.
South of the border, meanwhile, sales of printed books grew by more than eight per cent in 2020, according to industry research firm NPD BookScan – the largest single-year gain in a decade.
The books Simon found in his Harvard Library excursions had a distinct character.
“From the time of Gutenberg, in the 15th century, up until the mid 20th century, all the printing was done letterpress-printing style,” he explains, meaning the words on the page make an imprint on the paper and you can actually feel the text.
“You lose a lot of the character of the books when you go from a very analog printing process to a digital printing process.”
Backed by a $10,000 loan from Futurpreneur Canada, Simon is fulfilling his goal of making finely crafted products while employing local artisans and craftspeople to produce them. For now it’s a one-man operation while he contracts out everything he can’t do himself.
For his first book, the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby, he hired local artist Rachel Moranis to create the minimalist cover on “up-cycled” leather that had previously been used in other products. He contracted Smiths Falls Bookbinding to handle that portion of the project.
"You lose a lot of the character of the books when you go from a very analog printing process to a digital printing process."
Even the preface has a local connection; Ottawa native Miles Corak, an economics professor at the City University of New York and originator of what has become known as the Great Gatsby Curve, wrote the introduction. The Great Gatsby Curve is a measure of income inequality and how it restricts economic mobility.
An existing fine-press industry already produces books with the same quality and considerations sought by collectors. But Simon says those volumes generally aren’t cheap, often starting at $1,000 apiece.
By contrast, he says he can offer a similar-quality product for about $100. He keeps costs down by selling directly to consumers, and his books are bound in deadstock leather – off-cuts from the fashion industry that are normally thrown away and are much cheaper than traditional bookbinding leather.
In addition, he employs less expensive photopolymer plates for the letterpress printing rather than hand-setting lead type.
Noting that Century Press’s first order came from South Africa, Simon sees multimillion-dollar global market potential for hand-crafted books.
As an analogy, he points to the resurgence of vinyl records. Even in the age of Spotify, when every song is accessible at the click of a mouse, the market for old-school recordings has been growing, Simon notes.
In the same way, he says, people want books they can hold in their hand, works that can be stored on a bookshelf and add to a home's character.
Passed down through generations
“You have such a deeper appreciation and connection with the media that you’re consuming,” he explains reverently. “They’re meant to be passed on, you know, generation to generation.”
Why The Great Gatsby for his first project? The book is an acknowledged classic for one thing, he says, but there are also sound practical business reasons for the choice.
The novel is still very popular, selling about 500,000 copies a year in Canada and the U.S. In addition, it just entered the public domain in 2021, meaning anyone can now publish and distribute copies without paying royalties or fees to former copyright holders.
Simon says he would like to publish original works of Canadian fiction, but for now he is sticking to books that are in the public domain.
Another 20th-century literary classic, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, enters the public domain in 2022, but Simon is still on the fence about whether that will be his next project. He is also considering an iconic piece of Canadian literature, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
Simon hopes contemporary content will become a larger part of the business as it grows. If Gatsby is a success, in the medium term he plans to publish 10 unique volumes per year.