Art market

Exploiting the exhibition catalogue: An assessment of art publishing today

How publishers are coping with changes in academic approaches to art and the buying habits of the public

With the enormous growth in popularity of art history as both an academic discipline and a leisure activity has come a corresponding growth in the types and forms of art publishing.

The largest growth area has been in the field of exhibition catalogues. In the late Seventies exhibitions became major media events. For many visitors, buying the glossy, beautifully illustrated catalogue for the show they have just seen is part of the visiting process; for those who cannot get to the exhibition the catalogue often serves as a hefty alternative. Catalogues have developed a life of their own and become an important arena for serious and scholarly discussion of a particular topic. This has offered publishers the chance to market books to a captive audience and to the general book trade at the same time. Publication of the Glory of Venice catalogue for the current Royal Academy show gave Yale University Press the opportunity to reprint two books on Tiepolo by Michael Levey and publish a new work on the artist by Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall. All four books ride on the publicity of the exhibition and are being used to sell each other.

If exhibition catalogues are the popular and visible end of academic art publishing, the part-work or catalogue raisonné is still the province of the main university presses.

Only a press not entirely constrained by commercial pressure can produce costly, highly academic works, often printed in very small quantities and with few colour illustrations.

Twenty years ago few schools or universities taught art history. Now it is one of the most popular courses in Arts faculties both here and in the USA. Over the past few years the connoisseurs, object-based approach has been largely replaced by a more theoretical, academic style, closely allied to social history, sociology and philosophy. With this new methodology has come a new style of art book, less dependent on objects and illustrations. Small specialist publishers have made a niche for themselves producing well priced books exploring different forms of art-historical thought.

Reaktion Books for example, has a series of special interest books entitled “Critical Views” with which they aim “to provoke debate across the widest possible spectrum”. Books like these provide a forum for new study and ideas.

Good art history does not have to be expensive. The reading public has become much more used to buying art books and although many are around the £45 to £60 mark it is perfectly possible to find good, well illustrated introductions to many subjects at under £10. The “World of Art” series from Thames & Hudson (currently priced at £6.95 a volume) must have introduced more people to art than any comparable series.

Publishers have also become more concerned with production values and have started to compete on the design and quality of illustrations as never before. Some, like Phaidon Press, have adopted an overall house style which aims to make their books instantly recognisable. Others, like the German publisher Taschen, have concentrated on producing low-budget books with very high quality illustrations. Their superb value paperbacks are produced in enormous quantities and sell for under £12.00. People who never thought of buying an art book are buying these. No wonder other publishers are trying the same thing.

One of the ways Taschen can afford to sell their books so cheaply is that they publish their books in a number of languages and sell across Europe. Co-editions between publishers are an essential way of keeping down costs and making a book available to a much wider audience. Often it is the only way of producing a book at a reasonable and saleable price—once two or three publishers have shared the costs of production for a large highly illustrated book it becomes a marketable proposition. For the UK, sharing a language with the vast USA market means that many publishers will look for a co-publisher in the States before they embark on a publication. Getting a project accepted in the US can make or break a publishing possibility.

The most critical problem facing art book publishers now is copyright. Legal action being taken by the copyright agency DACS (see p.I) has meant that the future of illustrated books on twentieth-century art is in the balance. Costs for reproduction rights are soaring. With £150 being charged for a single colour image (and £60 for black and white) the price of producing an illustrated book is becoming impossible. If things go on this way, as John Nicoll of Yale University Press said recently, “the public is going to wake up to a world without art books”.

The cost of an academic art book in the UK

A fairly specialised academic art book published by Yale University Press in the UK has been taken as an example. The work has 256 pages (265 x 215 mm) with 120,000 words of text and is hardbound with a colour jacket. All 220 illustrations are in black and white.

1500 copies were printed, with 150 copies allowed for free and review purposes.

The total cost was £10,326, of which typesetting and correction were £1,760, origination of illustrations £1,700 and paper, printing and binding £6,866.

Looking at revenues, the published price was £35, with an average discount of £12.60, author’s royalty £3.50 and publisher’s receipts £18.90, which , multiplied by 1350 copies comes to £25,515, but deducting the manufacturing cost of £10,326 comes to a total of £15,189.

In this case the author provided all the illustrations and cleared all copyrights in return for a royalty of 10% on the published price. If the book sells out, he will earn £4,725.

The royalties therefore may or may not cover his costs which range from zero to £90 per image, even though nothing is reproduced that dates from after the eighteenth century.

The publisher’s margin can be further broken down, though rather more approximately:

Distribution and warehousing: £3,630

Sales representation: £3,020

Advertising and direct mail promotion via catalogues, leaflets etc : £1,660.

This comes to a total of £8,310 leaving £6,879 for all in house costs including copy editing, design and all editorial, marketing and administrative overheads. Crucially, the figures also assume that the book will sell out within a reasonable period of time—there is no allowance here for write-off or long term storage or the cost of money.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 43 December 1994