Recently I’ve found myself involved with quite a few digital art books, as a provider of ideas as well as a provider of text. I’m not skilful enough to put them together myself. However I know roughly speaking how they work and I’m fortunate enough to have good collaborators. My efforts to date have been comparatively modest but are rapidly becoming more ambitious. The project I have in hand at the moment is a lot more ambitious than the kind of digital book you meet on a Kindle. A collaboration with my friend Zavier Ellis, of the gallery Charlie Smith London, it is an iBook for iPad (but soon for Apple laptops as well) – the first volume of a compendium called 100 London Artists, designed to celebrate London as an art city.
London is now perhaps (and this assertion may surprise some people) the most important city in the world for contemporary art. It has great muse- ums. The most important international dealers have opened branches here even if their businesses didn’t originate in London. It has the major auction rooms, which do more and more big sales of very new, or at least quite recent, art. It has frequent art fairs. It has a number of display spaces for private collections, among them the Saatchi Gallery, which, despite some stumbles, currently does a lot more for new artists, including British ones, than either of the Tates. It has major graduate art colleges. It has non-com- mercial organizations, such as the Bow Arts Trust, which provide studio spaces. If one looks at what other major cities provide – New York, Paris, Berlin – London is visibly more complete. All of the others are weaker in one sector or another.
One point about doing this as an iBook, rather than as a more conventional cross-platform digital product, is that the format not only offers text and pictures – it also provides clickable links to the Web, which will enable users to find further information about both the artists and institutions fea- tured. In other words it will be a hub, as well as a book. The volume to follow will offer video clips, and multiple views of sculptures and other three dimensional works, jumping from one viewpoint to another as re- quired. Other iBooks I have authored, though more modest in scale and intention, have in some ways been even more radically innovative in what they offered. There have been filmed interviews with the artists featured, for example, and clips of studio activity.
There are excellent reasons why people who want to produce art books have begun to look at digital publication very seriously. Print art books, especially hardcovers, more expensive but probably more profitable than paperbacks, suffered a sales slump up to 20% in 2009 and 2010, the years immediately following the crash of 2008, though there has been a small recovery since then. Many of the art hardcover books now published are essentially ‘vanity’ publications, intended to boost the reputation and prices of a particular artist, but money losers in themselves. The ambitious syn- optic books on contemporary art, some of which I was fortunate enough to be commissioned to do in the closing years of the last century, seem to be a particularly threatened species. Publishing houses who used to special- ize in doing books of this kind are frantically diversifying – cook books, interior decoration books, lifestyle books of all kinds now help to fill up their lists. The preference is for what looks good on a coffee table, for the book-as-object, like a nice bit or ornamental china, or a vase of flowers.
The economic structure that supported the kind of books I used to write was always a bit rickety. As I know from my own royalty statements over the years, ambitious wide-ranging books on contemporary art could at one time generate very substantial sales in multiple markets, but would gener- ate surprisingly little cash for the person whose name was on the cover. A major reason for this was the payments for illustrations that publishers had to make to copyright holders. If you wrote books about Modern or contemporary art, pretty much all of the illustration material you needed was in copyright. Obviously these payments claimed priority in the budget – authors got the leftovers.
To choose an example from the ‘popular’ end of the market for art books – specifically from the long running bargain priced World of Art series published by Thames & Hudson – the advance for a book in this series, standard price if in paperback either £9.95 or £8.95, is currently £1000 for a text of 35,000 words, against a royalty of 2.6%. In other words, the author gets just short of thirty pence per copy, and around 3500 copies have to be sold to repay the advance. Some titles take off, and last for years in various versions, and also appear in a number of other languages, in addition to English. My own Movements in Art Since 1945, first published as a World of Art in 1969, has run through five different editions and is still in print. I heard about a new edition in German only the other day. Other titles in the series, quite a lot of them, struggle to return the advance – in that case £1000 is all you get for doing the job. Thames & Hudson are honest enough to warn one about this when commissioning.
The paradox is – I am speaking here in the broadest terms – that the two incarnations of Movements in Art I received most benefit from were both pirated, though with my consent, and at least with the publisher’s acqui- escence. Not that either of us could have done much about it, had we ob- jected. One such edition appeared in China in the 1980s, fairly soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution. China was not then a signatory to the international copyright convention, which the Chinese government did not join until 1992. The book introduced a whole generation of Chinese cura- tors and artists to what had happened in contemporary art since the end of WWII. A rather similar thing happened when the book was published in Farsi (Persian) at the turn of the millennium. Iran only took its first steps to join the Convention in April 2012. Both publishing events led to invitations to visit, to lecture, to explore fascinating new art worlds. Never mind the royalties, feel the boarding pass.
Despite this, I do now wonder if the heyday of the heavily illustrated full colour art book isn’t about over. We tend to forget that its life span has been comparatively brief. Such books only really took off after World War II, with advances in printing technology. If they are declining now, their reign may turn out to have lasted less than three-quarters of a century.
One feature of orthodox art book publishing in recent years has been the impulse to produce volumes that are ever larger and grander – folio sized, often with six-hundred or even a thousand pages. Often, too, with very ambitious price-tags. How about the celebrated photographer Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis from Taschen – two volumes, 18.4 x 27.6 in, 700 pages, £2500, complete with book stand? It seems obvious that books of this kind are never really intended to be read, despite publishers’ protestations to the contrary. They are art-objects in their own right. Their purpose is chiefly to enhance the prestige of some person, institution or cultural situation – gosh, they must be important to deserve a book as big as that! Tellingly, such books are often marketed as ‘investments’. Pay up, keep them pristine, make a profit once they are out of print and you decide to get rid of them, because they are cluttering up your space. There will always be another handsome white elephant you might want to give houseroom to for a while, just for the pleasure of leafing through those pretty pictures. Not too often, for fear of blemishing the pages.
There’s no comfortable way to tackle the text in one of these monsters, un- less you have a portable lectern to put on your desk or your dining table. These books are too big for your lap, and certainly too gigantic to read in bed. You could make a fine comic video of someone trying to read one on the tube. The books are dinosaurs, too huge and unwieldy to survive the appearance of nimbler life forms.
This, of course, brings me back to my original point. Where an existing technology is perceived to be inefficient, it tends – human ingenuity be- ing what it is – to be challenged, and perhaps replaced, by a newer one. Sometimes the replacement is comparatively easy. Photography triumphed over the camera oscura, because people had long been looking for a way of fixing images produced by a lens. There was, however, an initial bat- tle between the daguerrotype and negative to positive photography of the kind embraced by Fox-Talbot. The gasoline powered automobile met with more resistance. Initial designs were an uneasy compromise, borrowing awkwardly from the traditional dogcart. The earliest known magazine ad- vertisement for an automobile, published in America in 1898, encouraged readers to ‘Dispense With A Horse’. The quoted price in the ad is $1000 – ‘no agents’. Quite a big sum in those days. In 1898 $1000 was the equiva- lent of nearly $28,000 today, which is the current US list price of a new Ford Mustang V6 Convertible.
It took some time to win people over to this new means of transportation. They liked horses – beasts friendly to man for millennia – they didn’t at first like these noisy, smelly, unreliable and (they thought) rather ugly ma- chines. They could never, then, have envisaged the modern cult of the auto- mobile, propagated by people like Jeremy Clarkson. Cars are cutting edge technology. The grander models have also, for many enthusiasts, acquired the status of art.
Thanks to the growth of the Internet we have, in the last twenty or thirty years, witnessed a revolution in communication. In particular, we have wit- nessed a revolution in our power to disseminate visual images. This distri- bution can be instant and worldwide. At the same time, thanks to digital photography and video, we have witnessed a revolution in the means of making these images. It is not entirely surprising to see these related tech- nologies being brought together to create what we still call books, though they no longer have any physical presence and exist only on screen. Quite part from anything else digital books – among them iBooks, which are digital books in their currently most advanced form – offer advantages that I haven’t yet mentioned. They require much less time and effort to make, require many fewer people to take part in the manufacturing process, do not have any storage or transportation costs. Once you are in possession, you don’t have to look about for a shelf to put the thing on, where it will inevitably gather dust from day to day. And of course, if you want to read a digital book on the tube, you can, no matter how many virtual pages it has.
Our upcoming iBook 100 London Artists will be in tune with the times. Carry your iPad with you, and you can now get connected to the Internet while you are on the London Underground network. If the book open on your tablet happens to be ours, and you suddenly fancy visiting a gallery near your stop, just click on its name in the Resources section.
Of course even those who recognize the advantages offered by digital books often feel a twinge of nostalgia for paper and print. They hanker for something physically solid that they can hold in their hands. It’s also pru- dent to point to other possible disadvantages to the new formats. Readers normally scroll through text on screen much more rapidly than when they read and turn over pages. With iBooks, there is a mingling of images, text, movement and sound, plus the capacity to call up images at will, enlarge them with a flick of the fingers, then sweep them away. These multiple pos- sibilities create a very different experience from that of reading a book in the traditional way. Some people would argue that it is also a much more superficial one.
For the humble art book author, there are, however, advantages to digital that are not perhaps so immediately apparent to non-professionals. This comment applies particularly to those, who like me, write about contempo- rary art. Large art book publishing houses, replete with opinionated editors, want you to do as you are told. It’s no longer a matter of helping you to say what you want to say as clearly and unambiguously as possible – it’s a matter of trying to cajole you, or even force you, to express the editor’s opinions, rather than your own.
I can recall a number of examples of this, some comic, some rather less so. For example, I was writing a book for the major American art book pub- lisher Abrams, covering all the visual arts of the 20th century. I submitted a first chapter, which was about the Fauves. Back, very late – by the time the reaction arrived I was already nearing the middle of the text in order to meet the contractual delivery date – came the demand: “Must have more women!” One thing is historically certain – there were no major, or even fairly minor, female artists among the Fauves. Politically correct had tri- umphed over good sense.
When the time came to do the most recent revision of Movements in Art since 1945, Thames & Hudson’s then chief commissioning editor, the late Nikos Stangos, confronted me with a list of ‘must do’s’. Some I thought were impossible, purely in narrative terms. Others were contrary to my own perception of things. We sat down and negotiated, and finally reached what I thought was an agreed agenda for what I was and wasn’t prepared to do. At this point Nikos retired into hospital, to have a back operation. Soon afterwards, the line editor of the book contacted me. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I have a note here of what Nikos said you would do. I’ll read it out to you.’ It was, unchanged in any respect, the list Nikos had originally come up with. ‘I won’t do that,’ I said. ‘It’s not what we agreed.’ – ‘What shall we do then?’ – My reply was fairly crisp. ‘We’re going to do what in fact I agreed to do, and don’t even think of altering the text without my permission, since it’s copyright to me.’ I knew the new version was already booked in to a printer in Hong Kong. Thames & Hudson needed to deliver text and illustrations on time, or miss their slot. An author beginning work on a newly commissioned text is obviously in a weaker position than I was then.
Why did this incident happen? Chiefly, I think, because the publishing house was looking towards the all-important American market. American audiences, particularly American academic audiences, like to have fed back to them opinions they have already formed. They don’t like to have these challenged by opinions (or even facts) that are not in sync with the prevailing orthodoxy. Paradoxically this orthodoxy is unstable, especially where contemporary art is concerned. What is accepted as gospel truth at one annual College Art Association meeting is no longer gospel by the fol- lowing year. This fits rather badly with the conventional publishing cycle. A 35,000 word text, already partly researched, takes about three months to write. Getting the requisite illustration material, plus permissions, takes a bit longer, once the text is received by the publisher. Then the book has to be designed, though this is easier if it belongs to a series that uses a fairly standard format. Then it goes to a printer, perhaps in the Far East. The finished books are shipped back, to distributors in the United States and in Britain. Throw in a bit of bureaucracy and some wrangling between editor and author, and it can easily be a year between the signature of the contract and delivery of the finished article.
The importance of the rise of digital publishing lies not just in the new features that print cannot deliver, nor in the convenience of getting rid of clutter. If you really love a book in the traditional form, then cherish it – but how many books are most of us able to house? It also lies in the fact that digital offers the possibility of a new kind of non-structural, non-hierarchi- cal publishing. Digital books can be produced with great rapidity, using a minuscule workforce. More and more people understand how to use the basic software made available by Apple for iBooks. Simpler cross-platform digital books are even easier to produce. A mass of non-copyright illustra- tions is available on the Web from Wiki-commons (though admittedly this doesn’t help with contemporary images, which remain in copyright). And more and more people, especially the younger generation of those inter- ested in the arts, are even more addicted to their tablets than they are to their mobile phones. What this makes possible is a kind of guerilla publish- ing, which reacts immediately to any shift in the current artistic climate. In other words, the hierarchical top down structure that has for the past sixty years or so dominated the way that art books are published, with relatively few major imprints as the primary players, seems likely to crumble fairly soon. The new way of publishing is particularly challenging in the illus- trated book sector. It offers brutal competition to the established way of doing things, partly because of the emphasis on the visual, where digital is most at home, and still more so because of the increase in speed and the steep cut in costs. Good art books have tended to require major investment. Now they don’t. And distribution through the Web is more efficient, as well as being much cheaper, than anything print can achieve.