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September 2018

Vol. 160 / No. 1386

Publishing art history

It is an old joke that art dealers are people for whom a silver lining is simply an excuse for a dark cloud. Much the same could be said of publishers, and in particular those who specialise in books on the history of art. Art books are more abundant than ever, routinely printed to standards unimaginable a generation ago and affordable to a wide audience. Yet the litany of publishers’ complaints is long: sales are in decline, reproduction fees charged by museums are punitive and the future of physical books has been thrown into the shade by the bright screens of the digital age. It may, therefore, seem surprising that The Burlington Magazine should choose this moment to launch its own imprint. The first title, Roger Fry and Italian Art, by our former Editor Caroline Elam, is scheduled to appear later this year, published in collaboration with Ad Ilissum. (An article based on the research for the book appears on pp.727–33 of the current issue.) Although a modest enterprise – we envisage publishing no more than three or four titles a year, on subjects chosen to appeal to readers of this Magazine – it embodies a commitment to the future of books on art history.

That means physical books. The business-school truism that people always overestimate the short-term impact of technological change and underestimate its long-term effects is perfectly exemplified by book publishing. It is easy to envisage a time in which all publications are digital but as far as illustrated books are concerned, that day is still some way off. Publishers’ apprehension about the impact of digital technologies on art books now has quite a long history. For example, many spent substantial sums in the 1990s developing CD-ROM publications, a technology that now seems almost as antiquated as hot-metal typesetting. The arrival of e-books at the end of the 1990s proved to be the way forward, but although illustrated e-books exist they have been slow to evolve and are unlikely to offer serious competition to art books in the near future.

What is more, in almost every field, including fiction, for which e-books are best suited, digital publishing seems to have lost steam: in the United Kingdom, for example, revenues from the sale of physical books rose by five per cent in 2017 (to £3.1bn) whereas revenues from digital book sales declined by two per cent (to £543m).1 Even in an art-historical genre in which it was assumed that digital media would definitively overtake print, the publication of catalogues raisonnés, the reality has proved to be more complex. The resources needed to assemble such a catalogue are so expensive in terms of human resources (and often reproduction fees) that the additional cost of printing a few hundred physical copies in addition to online publishing is usually comparatively small. This is also a reflection of the revolution in printing technology in the past generation – in particular advances in offset lithography, in speed as well as quality – that has made colour printing as good and as inexpensive as it has ever been.

Yet the quandary for publishers of academic art history is inescapable. How can a typical book on this subject, such as a monograph, consisting of around 100,000 words and 200 illustrations, be made to work? Reproduction fees are one significant issue. Although it is true that some museums are making more images freely available, especially for academic publication, in the United Kingdom they have been remarkably reluctant to do so, blaming the need to sustain revenues in a time of declining public subsidy. Not only are authors increasingly expected to shoulder this financial burden, they are now also often expected to supply their text for nothing, or a nominal fee. Deplorable as this undoubtedly is, it reflects the economic reality of publishing a serious art history title. For such a book to be viable it either needs to be subsidised – by a charitable foundation or an academic institution if not the author – or it has to sell around 3,000 copies. That is a very tall order for a specialised academic title, which in most subjects typically sell fewer than 1,000 copies.

One problem is that art history books are too cheap. That is in part a reflection of the industry-wide pressure on book prices created by the ending in the mid-1990s of the Net Book Agreement (which had made it impossible for booksellers to discount book prices). The result of the Agreement’s demise was not just cheaper books, but a growing consumer resistance to high prices for specialised titles. Few art books retail for more than £50, a price that is often barely sufficient to cover their costs. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement also led to the disappearance of book clubs (which had offered discounted titles to their members), whose orders used to add substantial numbers to a print run, bringing down the cost of the individual books. In all this it needs to be borne in mind that bookshops expect a fifty or sixty per cent discount on a book’s retail price, a figure that rises to fifty-five or sixty-five per cent for export sales.

Information about print runs is hard to obtain, but there is no doubt that in one category, exhibition catalogues, the sale figures for academic art history can be impressive. In the past year alone, sales of the catalogues of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Raphael: The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and Albertina, Vienna, would make publishers in any field envious. That explains why institutions that have closed their bookpublishing arms in recent years, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, have continued to publish their own exhibition catalogues, as the profits are reasonably well guaranteed. It must surely be the case, however, that the demands on museum curators to stage such ambitious and expensive exhibitions make it increasingly difficult for them to find time to write books with no exhibition for a peg. By contrast, art historians in universities are under pressure to publish, but increasingly they seem intent on following the precedent of colleagues in literature departments by writing in technical and obscure language. The suspicion must be that the difficulties in selling books on art history are a matter of supply as much as demand.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the easy availability of high-quality images of works of art has shifted attention to the text in books on art, since it is now rarely possible to assume that people will buy them simply for their illustrations. The impressive sales figures of books by leading academic historians, such as Eamon Duffy, David Cannadine or Margaret MacMillan, show that there is a large popular appetite for well-written, intellectually challenging texts on a wide range of historical subjects. This is an appetite that is much less often satisfied by art historians. The way to sell more books on art history is to encourage more people to read them, and that will be achieved not by technological or economic innovation but by something that this Magazine, and now the books it will publish, has always endeavoured to provide – good writing.



1 sales-take-hit-833321, accessed 15th August 2018.