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The art book digital takeover: not if but when

Art books for tablets will leave printed works as elite items

We are so accustomed to the big, glossy, full-colour art book that it seems that this tool of art history, not to mention the art trade, has been with us forever. But books of this kind only really took off following the revolution in colour printing that took place soon after the First World War. These books took André Malraux’s concept of the musée imaginaire and made it into an everyday reality.

Now, thanks to the inexorable march of technology, things are changing again. Digital art books are becoming inevitable, for pretty much the same reasons that the printed book replaced the Medieval illuminated manuscript. People tend to resist any radically new technology at first. It’s unfamiliar, and often crude at its beginnings. Think of the development of the automobile, which has now been with us for somewhat more than a century. People originally thought this new method of transport was a nasty, smelly, unreliable version of the dogcart. Dogcarts drawn by horses were much nicer. But any technology that does substantially more than what is available when it first appears inevitably wins acceptance.

The younger generations of people who inhabit our highly technological society already use digital technology as a matter of course. Nearly every teenager or 20-something now has a sophisticated mobile phone. We all know stories about three-year olds gleefully playing games on iPads.

There are currently two kinds of digital books. There are cross-platform books, that work pretty much like paper books. You just turn the pages on your tablet, or scroll down on your computer screen. And then there is the iBook, exclusive to the Apple operating system, which does a lot more. An iBook can incorporate both sound and moving images. You can do an interview with an artist, and edit it so that he (or she) seems to be talking direct to the user. Or drop in film clips and show the artist at work in the studio. A quick gesture of the fingers allows the user to enlarge the image, and zoom into close up. With a series of finger-taps, he or she can see a sculpture from multiple viewpoints. There can also be clickable links that take the user, via wi-fi, to relevant sites on the web.

At the moment, iBooks are confined to iPads and iPhones. Very soon, however, there will be a new Apple operating system called Maverick, which will make iBooks available on all Apple computers. iBooks are sold through the Apple Bookstore which gives distribution all over the world, just as soon as the book is published. There are no transportation or storage costs. No costs for physical manufacture, none for paper and ink.

Where contemporary art is concerned digital books have the advantage of being quick to produce. Even the most elaborate, such as an ambitious project called “100 London Artists”, on which I am currently working, together with Zavier Ellis, take only a couple of months once the basic material is assembled: text, illustrations and film clips. With a book of this genre, which offers information about many personalities, quite a lot of one’s energy needs to be devoted, not to creativity, but to the administrative process known as “herding cats”. Books featuring just one artist are simpler. Yet, however numerous and recalcitrant the cats, it is still possible to remain in close touch with the news cycle. Equivalent print books take a year before they finally start to trickle into bookshops and become available for purchase on Amazon.

Art writers may well note some apparent disadvantages with digital books which may, in fact, be advantages. Texts for screen need to be vigorously clear and simple. Readers are more inclined to scroll rapidly and skim. There is no place for that elitist dialect, “International Art English”. There also seems to be little place in a digital book for the more demanding manifestations of Conceptual Art. The iBook is a form where the visual and the verbal (speech as well as print) are closely integrated. And the visual tends to be king.

The fate of printed art books seems to be, in the long run, that they will have a continuing existence as collectibles—admired but not usually read. How about the photographer Sebastião Salgado’s new book Genesis, from Taschen? Two vast volumes, complete with bookstand: £2,500 to you, guv.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Digital takeover: not if but when'