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September 29, 2017
By Jennifer McCartney
How one determined publisher is tapping digital marketing for its decidedly analog publications.

By leveraging digital technology and social media, one determined publisher is finding success with its decidedly analog publications. Thornwillow Press has found a niche with its bespoke letterpress products, which are handmade in New York state for a worldwide market. The company operates a thriving e-commerce business and funds many of its one-of-a-kind projects on Kickstarter—including its successful series of broadsides on such timely political themes as subversion, “alternative facts,” and American protest.

“More has changed in the past 10 years than in the past 500 years in terms of how ideas are distributed,” says Luke Ives Pontifell, the founder and publisher of Thornwillow Press. “It’s all about traditional craftsmanship, and it’s also about linking to technology.”

According to Pontifell, the broadsides are an old concept. The single-sheet documents, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, were meant for quick consumption—like a blog post or social media update. Thornwillow’s American Protest series (fully funded on Kickstarter by 278 backers for $10,544) is made up of 10 letterpress broadsides featuring protest speeches spanning U.S. history—some by well-known figures, such as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. The series also includes the preamble to one of the most famous broadsides in history: the Declaration of Independence.

"You have to have a clear idea of what you want to do and pursue that relentlessly. And be prepared for a lot of bumps."
Pontifell believes that such print-based artifacts are more important today than ever before. “You don’t turn off or delete [a broadside] with a switch,” he says. “You carry these ideas into the future.”

Thornwillow Press was born 32 years ago in Manhattan, when a teenage Pontifell took a course in letterpress printing and began making books for friends and family. It wasn’t easy. “You have to have a clear idea of what you want to do and pursue that relentlessly,” he says of his business strategy. “And be prepared for a lot of bumps.”

The company blossomed after a successful outreach campaign got Pontifell’s books into the hands of influencers with whom he wanted to work—people such as Walter Cronkite. The CBS anchorman was impressed with Pontifell’s work and commissioned the young entrepreneur to create a special handcrafted edition of his moon landing broadcasts. “Cronkite had written original texts for the anniversary of the moon landing,” explains Pontifell. “He’d interviewed the astronauts. It was all the CBS broadcasts from space.”

Soon, Pontifell was printing special editions of texts by John Updike and David Mamet, as well as supplying the stationery for luxury companies like Cartier and Crane. The business relocated to a 19th-century brick factory in Newburgh in upstate New York and currently has 15 full-time employees working in letterpress, bookbinding, graphic and website design, and customer service. Thornwillow has also launched a summer bookbinding internship with Harvard. “We’ve now become an e-commerce business that is selling our wares through technology,” notes Pontifell. “But what we do is all handmade and crafted. It’s about making things that are beautiful that will be here when we’re gone.”

Jennifer McCartney is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of the novel Afloat.