I’ve been writing art books, most but not all of them about contemporary art, for the whole of my professional life. Full colour art books, handsome quartos with illustrations on almost every page, priced to bring them within the reach of most middle-class readers, became a standard publishing form towards the end of the 1950s. As a medium for conveying information about the visual arts they were a dominant form for the next half-century or so, until – say – the financial crash of 2008-9. Now, it seems, they are an increasingly threatened species.

There are several reasons for this. One, obviously, is the increasing domi- nance of the web. This, with its ability to provide a plethora of images at no cost to anyone who has access to a computer, has brought huge changes to the way in which the arts – all the arts – are accessed and consumed. A case in point is the way in which the web has changed the music business. Not so long ago, the main profit-maker for popular music – musicians and manufacturers alike – was the so-called album, presented on a CD. Now album sales are heavily down, and the individual song, downloaded on to a computer, or comparable device, has become a much more important source of revenue. Meanwhile there is an ever-increasing emphasis on live performance – on music as an event, experienced collectively, but face to face with the performer or performers.

My impression, however, is that popular music has been able to adjust itself much more successfully to the recent transformation of its business model than art book publishing. There are quite a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is that music is immaterial. It therefore adjusts more easily to the essentially immaterial nature of the web. Another is that the music business has a much bigger financial base than art book publishing, and much greater inherent flexibility. It has been able to go back to the times, long before the birth of the CD, when performance was king, and, at the same time, has been able to harness new forms of technology.

In theory, art book publishing should have been able to adjust in the same way, by replacing the book on paper with a digital equivalent, to be read on a computer screen. Essentially there are two different kinds of digital book. One mimics the form of the traditional book – you turn the pages as you read. The other belongs to the realm of computer apps. This is the case with Apple iBooks. iBooks can do things conventional books-on-paper can’t do – they offer moving images and sound. If the book features a living artist, he can speak to you directly from your screen. No third-party interpretation is required. If the art being presented is three-dimensional, then images can be rotated to show a sculpture or an installation from different angles. If there is a need to enlarge on a particular aspect of what is being discussed, or provide a reference, then the book can offer a clickable link that takes the user from the virtual ‘page’ he is on to some other part of the web.

Somehow this doesn’t quite work psychologically. Fifty Shades of Grey, self-published by the author, may have sold many thousands of copies in digital form, but when it comes to art books, people still, it seems, hanker for a physical object. The only thing is that, now the web has accustomed them to getting so much for free, they are really not that keen to pay for it.

There are other problems as well. Grandee art publishers have always liked to see themselves as being very much part of the cultural conversation, shaping opinion, telling people what to think. Yet when push comes to shove, they’d much prefer it if the author would stick to fairly closely to some generally approved pattern, rather than trying to strike out on his own. Innovation upsets too many apple-carts

Paradoxically, this is particularly true when the text is about contemporary art, a field where there are, at any given moment, a lot of received opinions, but few objective correlatives against which those opinions can be measured. If you worked, as I did, largely in the contemporary area, you were never completely surprised, when discussing a new project, to be presented with what was, in effect, a readymade synopsis. ‘This is what I’d like you to say.’ More often, when one was dealing with a British publisher, the request took a slightly different and gentler form: ‘Well, I’ve just paid a visit to America, for the annual meeting of the College Art Association, and this is the line I think they’ll want you to take.’ In the art book publishing world now fast passing away, British publishers tended to try to cover their not inconsiderable costs with British sales, and to make the real profit with a much bigger American edition, selling well in the huge American collegiate market. A success there could put more than enough butter on their slice of bread. Editions in other languages – French, German, Italian, Spanish – might in addition supply a reasonable quantity of jam. Much of this foreign language market vanished with the recession, and has never come back.

This situation could give rise to some odd requests. For example, in the mid-1990s, at the time of the spectacular rise of the YBAs (Younger Brit- ish Artists), I was revising an old text of mine. In course of the discussion about how to update it I was begged: ‘Please, please don’t put all these new British artists into a chapter of their own. The American college market won’t like it if you do.’ In other words: ‘If you want to sell in America, don’t challenge the dominance of American art.’

The demands being made now are more brutal, and tend to show how desperate the plight of some established imprints has become. Here is a recent example – however, I will be kind enough not to name the imprint concerned.

The story goes like this: a Russian colleague, with excellent contacts throughout the Russian art world, and I joined forces in the first half of last year to propose a book on Post-Soviet Russian Art, focusing on artists living and working in Russia. Many of the senior figures of the so-called perestroika generation, dominant in the 1980s, have left Russia and are now living and working abroad. There are in fact at least three generations of post-Soviet artists living and working in the country – not only artists in Moscow and St Petersburg, but in places like Kazan and Rostovon-Don. Very little systematic information currently exists about what is actually happening in the huge Russian art world.

After a considerable pause we received a response in mid-June. The terms proposed were the following: an advance of £7500, divided between the two of us, to be paid not in one lump sum, but in three tranches. A condition that we were to get all the illustrations for free. And a further condition: that we were to find a sponsor who would buy 1500 copies at £25 each, against a publication price of £50. In other words, a subsidy of £37,500.

The publisher had provided us with a spec for the book – dimensions, number of pages, number of illustrations. Out of interest we submitted this to a London printer, one who does quality art books – though it is never the cheapest option to print in London. Back came a costing: ‘£20,800 for 1500 copies.’ That is, this major imprint would only do the book if could be done without a cent of investment on their part. Somewhat worse that this, which was bad enough, there was the moral dimension. With the subject proposed there was clearly going to be no such thing as a free lunch. Any sponsor – inevitably Russian – who came up with the money was going to require a big say in what the book said. We wouldn’t be free agents. In fact we’d have two sets of masters – the publishing house and the sponsor. We refused.

After a long pause, the publisher came back to us: ‘Oh, it’s such a good idea – can’t we reconstruct?’ My colleague then went to a printing firm in Russia he knows well. This firm has – surprise! surprise! – already done a number of jobs for the famous British publisher concerned, so the firm couldn’t say they didn’t trust them to do the job. Our counter offer was that we would take no advance, make no claims for illustration costs, and raise the money to pay the printer ourselves. In other words, a completely funded product that the publisher concerned would use his imprint for and distribute.

Another long wait. Six full weeks after the counter-offer was made the publisher still hadn’t responded. We asked for a reply. Another ten days passed. Finally an email from an underling: ‘Oh, she [the Commissioning Director] is so busy – she’ll get back to you.’At which point I exploded, though with- out swear words. I said I thought the situation stank. Came an immediate email from the publishing lady concerned: ‘You’ve been so insulting – I’ll never speak to you again!’ The exact equivalent. I thought to myself, of a little girl running round and round the playground, screaming: ‘That nasty, nasty boy – he pulled my pigtails!’

My colleague and I were clearly well out of this mess. However, the story is an educational one. It tells you that a much respected, long established publishing firm is very likely in so much trouble in the current climate for art books that they don’t know which way to turn. It also suggests that what really troubled them about our counteroffer was the loss of control. Influence from a Russian sponsor with maybe an axe to grind: ‘OK, goes with the territory.’ Two authors paying their own way: ‘God forbid! It’s not the way it was in the good old days.’

There are plenty of warning signs that the art book publishing world is in the midst of a period of traumatic change, from which it may not emerge with nearly as much success as the music world has done in overcoming its own recent crisis. There is, for example the fact that the reasonably good sellers from supposedly independent art book publishers now tend to be ‘how to’ books: books on aspects of design, and – yes – cook books. Real art books that sell fairly well seem to be almost invariably the product of museum publishing houses, issued in conjunction with major exhibitions. Art book titles from independent publishers are being deeply discounted by booksell- ers offering their wares on the web. A book on Post-Soviet Russian Art with a cover price of £50 would quite likely be offered by some of these sellers for £35. Not much joy there for a sponsor paying £25 a copy. Buying in quantity from one of these outlets, he could very likely force the price down to £30 or even less, and not be held to a fixed number that he has to store.

Meanwhile there is a steady trickle of ‘monster books’ – huge prestige ob- jects, published in short editions at inflated prices. ‘£250 to you, guv.’ Or even ‘£2500 to you, guv – complete with custom-made bookstand.’ A white-elephant-in-the-room, never intended to be read. If you turn the pages, you immediately diminish the value. Maybe handsome full colour art books are destined to survive in this form only – as books that nobody reads.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.