Friday, January 09, 2009

Art Books #2 - the economics of publishing

Following on from Art Instruction Books #1: different ways of learning in this post I'm aiming to ponder and reflect on the economic of publishing and its influence on content.

It's not 'facts' per se so much as my views. Interestingly some of the people commenting on the previous post picked up on the issues I had in mind.
"Sometimes how your book is formatted or organized comes down to what they want of you."


"The problem with a lot of instruction books is, that the first idea for it is born in someones publishers office. "What is our target group with the most possible sales?" Very often it seems only the very beginners come to their mind. "So, don't scare them off, it all has to be easy looking = bigger sales."

Once I was approached by a publisher for a pastel instruction book. To get an idea what they wanted me to do, so I could fit within an instruction book series, they send me a memo with keywords. I remember things like "fresh","modern", "easy looking", "handy", "quick learning". To be honest: I was flattered they asked me, but horrified by their concept, so I declined their offer."
Although I've got a great deal of respect for the tradition of publishing - and used to haunt bookshops looking for the latest offering by Watson Guptill and North Light Books in particular - I've got some concerns about conventional publishing. The comments above highlight some of these.

Plus as indicated in the previous post many of the people commenting said how much they learned online. So is paper publishing the way to go?

The economics of publishing

Publishing in paper has traditionally been an expensive business. To make a reasonable profit and to keep unit costs down a book needs to have a defined market and the potential to sell enough copies to make a print run worthwhile. After all publishing is a business and business considerations are always critical if you want to continue in business.

The impact on content

In keeping costs down, here's what I've observed (and have been told) can happen to content:
  • the mass market is the hobby artist. Consequently books are often aimed at that hobby artist - and often the one who's starting out or starting to use a new medium. There are some intermediate level texts. There are relatively few texts of an advanced level for the artist seeking to further develop their skills in terms of techniques generally or a specific medium.
  • many books have the same standard chapters on basic painting information - because of who the audience is. Such standard content tends to be very brief and consequently is often not done very well. (It's a good indicator of the level of audience the book it pitched at)
  • it's cheaper to print images then it is to pay somebody to write text (plus of course as a number of people commented they only tend to look at the pictures anyway).
  • the use of images will always be constrained by the budget and the easy availability of images. It's rare to see a book which uses great drawings and paintings from the past to illustrate points.
  • there's a notion that if you provide all the answers in one book then people won't buy the next one
  • content from one book can get recycled into another book at a later date (the art instruction book version of 'the greatest hits' album). This sometimes happens with very little indication that this is happening. (I now work on the principle of refusing to buy any book which has recycled content that I recognise on the basis I've already bought it once!)
  • the percentage of the retail price which goes to the artist is much lower than most people realise. Artists as content providers don't tend to make a lot of money from publishing - according to the artists I know who have had multiple art instruction books published (none of whom are bloggers I hasten to add!).
Do you agree? Does anybody have any other points which would make suitable additions to this list?

The digital revolution and the scope for self-publishing

Changes in format, production process and distribution

It seems to me that conventional publishing might possibly be about to go through the same challenges as faced by the music business.

The common consensus is that the music business is broken. I'm no expert but it seems to me that the corporate world took a long time to realise what was going on. The old model of the 'way we do things around here' doesn't work any more. Downloading tracks from the internet and the advent of the iphone (and similar) means that the configuration of the old product simply didn't fit the consumers any more. Record companies have also been totally side-swiped by the fact that singers and musicians now have access to both the means to produce and the means to distribute (Facebook, MySpace etc) and are refining both the product and the product mix and price as they do.

So what's happened in terms of publishing art books? Well, as the musicians are doing, artists are now finding it's possible to publish and sell your own book without getting involved with publishing companies.

Here are a few examples:
  • for those who like looking at the pictures - try 6 volumes of Karin Jurick's Artbooks. These were published by Mac and are all sold out!
  • Artist and tutor Michael Chesley Johnson has self-published a couple of books
Others artists have self-published books using Blurb and Lulu - however these tend, like Karin's to be about the artist's own work.

What I haven't come across yet is art books which can be read on Kindle. So are art books responding to the new and changing formats of online communication and publishing?

Online communication

We shouldn't underestimate the impact of the internet on publishing and communication.
Increased competition and the introduction of econometric methods have radically changed mass media. Media consolidation has reduced both the breadth and depth of stories covered by mass media......Ratings and audience tracking promotes the most simplified writing and articles with the widest possible interest......Complicated argument is made as simple as possible in order to "sell it" / communicate to the largest number of people possible.

Wikipedia - dumbing down

In terms of format, a lot of people are now getting very used to short spurts of text and lots of images. I'm not sure whether the notion is that people haven't got time to read more or people now think in textspeak and 120 characters of Twitter.

On the face of it, it has got huge potential implications for the format of how books are published (lots of images and not a lot of text). On the other hand, publishers have been moving in this direction for some time.

However, this is an online art blog and I don't do short posts.

I try to be accessible but I'm just NOT into "dumbing down" - the over-simplification of processes which are actually quite complex. On the contrary I'm writing about matters which I think are actually quite complex - albeit I try to find a way of writing which makes them simpler to understand. I'm also writing and sharing about what I've learned and what I've found useful. The common consensus is that I'm not doing a bad job - It certainly hasn't stopped c. 1,1250 subscribers signing up to get the feed from this blog!

By which I conclude "one size does not fit all".

Online publications

The main innovation in recent years has been the ability to produce publications which, in some instances, only exist online.

Here's what the Open University in the UK had to say about the benefits associated with online production of publications.
Online production, and making the materials open to everyone, has some considerable benefits over the former ‘Fordist’ production process.
  • It is not too expensive to change the study unit after it has been published in the light of comments received. Although the comments of colleagues are valuable, the need for external validation is reduced as both learners and other teachers can give feedback to aid improvement.
  • When open to everyone, experts from around the world can comment and offer new insights which can contribute to subsequent versions. This has already happened on some of our units.
  • If a unit topic is subject to rapid change – for example one about new technologies or influenced by changing government requirements (as is often the case with study units for teachers) – the unit can be easily updated and keep pace with change at a reasonable cost.
Evaluating open learning
Those puzzled by the reference to Fordism might want to refer to the wikipedia article on Fordism. Fordism was associated with models of production in the post-war world:
  • a change from craft production to mass production
  • reorganisation of the production process and functional specialisation
  • standardisation of product and component parts
  • economies of scale
  • mass production - large scale production runs
  • mass consumption (initially - you can have it in any colour so long as it's black!)
Post-Fordism is associated with:
  • the use of information technology
  • use of sub-contractors to perform specific tasks
  • more flexible production systems which permit smaller volume production runs
  • reduced costs due to less need for storage
  • the green agenda - and less paper!
Online publication processes

The processes of production are now available to all and can take you down the route of:
  • e-books (read online and with wireless reading devices eg Amazon's Kindle)
  • paper books produced through online processes - such as those of Lulu and Blurb
  • blogs - with individual posts covering individual topics. It seems to me that certain blogs like James Gurney's (winner of my Making A Mark Award - The FAQs and Answers Really Useful Medal - are providing a much better standard of art instruction by taking complex subjects and serving them up in small chunks. It's still easily digestible - but it doesn't try to over-simplify and lose the skill and the complexity of what it takes to produce effective images.
  • downloadable pdf files - It's now easy to produce a pdf file. I now publish Making A Mark Guides (in pdf files) on various topics which can be downloaded from my website for FREE.

What are the pros and cons of online publication?

Here's my thoughts on this topic
Pros of online publication:
  • instant publishing - timelag between completion of content and publication much reduced
  • ability to update as and when required - feedback means that you can refine and revise to produce a better quality publication
  • wireless reading devices means you can take your e-books with you out into the field, to classes and workshops and on painting holidays
  • potentially a greater say over content, format and layout as artist/author(within the constraints of budget/webware/software)
  • potentially a greater percentage cut for the artist/author as publisher
  • you don't get a book and you don't need bookshelves (having just started to think about getting a whole wall shelved to take my books - is this really a con?)
  • you get to find out just how much you get from a book sale if you sell through Amazon
  • The ISBN system has still to catch up with online publication - it's still oriented towards conventional publishing
  • more work for the artist/author as publisher
  • distribution is down to you - you need to make sure that people know about it and you have to promote it via the self-publishing website, your website and blog, hopefully your readers' websites and blogs etc

It seems to me that the conventional model of publishing art instruction books - and associated economics - has maybe reached the end of its useful life and needs a radical rethink.

Maybe it's time for a change. Said with some sadness on my part as there's nothing I like better than to sit with a pile of artbooks close to hand!

Maybe it's time to
  • take publications online and
  • for the artist/author to take charge of content, format, publication and distribution?
What do you think?


Nothing to See said...

I have been following your post on Art Instruction books with interest. I LOVE

You have touched on a lot of valid points in your post.

The Kindle is not available in Canada, but the Sony eReader is. I have a Sony eReader and absolutely LOVE it. I am constantly searching the Sony eBook Store for art instruction books, but there really are none, yet, that I have found. My online friend, David Vanderpool has recently published Pencil Drawings - A looking into the art of David Vanderpool through LuLu. I purposely purchased the downloadable copy in pdf format hoping I could read it in my eReader. Although I was able to place the book on my eReader, the images are so large that it takes forever to go from page to page. Also, the type is tiny when viewed with the his formatted layout. When I make the type bigger (as you can with eReaders), I lose the formatting. So, I am reading his book on my computer screen instead of the comfort of my eReader.

For some time now I have been considering publishing my own art instruction book. One of the criteria I am considering is making it eReader friendly. I am at the very beginning of my planning stage and am no where near ready to publish. I will likely use LuLu or Blurb if I decide to publish on demand. It is difficult to plan an art instruction book for all the reasons you have mentioned. There are so many wonderful books out there already for the beginner. Do I want to do a beginner book as well, or do I want to delve into the intermediate and advanced stages of art instruction? I know there is a sore lacking of advanced art instruction books. I also understand the publishers reasoning (they are there to make money, after all).

I do believe it is time that the artist take charge of the content, format, and publication of their books. And, I do believe we need to take the new formats into account (online publications, and eReaders). Yes, I enjoy holding, touching, viewing paper publications, but the fact is, we are in a digital world and it is not going away. A pure instruction book would do well in a digital format. However, a repertoire book, in paper format, with big, luscious, full colour photos will always have an appeal for me.

Anonymous said...

I certainly hope this isn't the end of traditional media for art books or any other kind of book. I, for one, find it much more relaxing to shut out the world and sit down with a real live book. The Internet/Blogosphere is great, but such a different animal both in terms of readability and in terms of one's ability to focus (no hyperlinking in books--at least not to my knowledge!)

The other thing is this:(and I may be showing my age with this comment) Reading from the computer for too long basically gives me eye strain. I truly believe that my reading glasses (while they may have eventualy been inevitable) were precipitated in part due to the amount of time I spend on the computer. Though probably staring into the sun doesn't help too much either ;-).

As it is I mostly have to skim (sorry!) so no Kindle for me! I can't imagine reading an extensive amount of content online.

Having said that, a traditional book that also has companion content online is to me a very attractive idea, and one that I've toyed with myself (though in my case, it's an idea firmly seated in the "future projects" file!)

Felicity Grace said...

It's interesting that you say you feel some sadness about it, as more often than not the writer of the same topic will say this. There is just *something* about a book that we all love so while I feel I have to go along with the argument that they will be replaced, I can't really see that happening. Perhaps the real threat comes from bloggers who have set such a high standard there are fewer and fewer reasons to go looking for instruction or even inspiration in art books. I would personally prefer books but most have become too dumbed down and formulaic and as you've written about before, don't really provide quite enough info - you always need more. Eventually I've realised they are mostly empty promises and it's better to spend the time practising!

Anonymous said...

Although artists don't get rich from authoring or having their work in books, it does provide the recognition that can lead to presenting workshops internationally and/or improved sales of their work.

Older art instruction books by Carlson, Loomis, Payne, etc. are full of text with fewer pictures. I find them to be incredibly helpful as I am one of those people who read all the text in any art book.

I understand the value of online, PDF and other digital publishing, especially when it allows people who wouldn't normally get publishing contracts to publish their work, but I would much rather have a book to read.

Sitting at the computer is hard on my back plus I love reading art books in bed at night. Taking a computer to bed just isn't the same (especially if you fall asleep holding it!).

I appreciate the art instruction I find online but hate the expense of printing it out in order to read it offline. Another downside is not having full resolution images to print since when files are compressed to put on line, they're usually horrible when printed. That's often true for the text of PDFs too.

That said, I'd still rather have it online or print it myself than not having it at all!

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any question that online art instruction through ebooks and videos are the wave of the future, but it would be a tremendous loss to put an end to traditional publishing of art instruction books. Many of my students throughout the U.S. and Canada don't use computers; and as some have said here, others like to have a book in hand. From the artist/author's point of view, I know from experience that going with a publisher doesn't make much money per book for the artist/author, but I find the editorial and production services invaluable. It's very costly to produce the kind of book I write, involving teams of experts throughout the process. Another benefit of publishing this way is the marketing reach of the bigger publisher. I've self published and have done well selling my Exploring Color Coloring Book on and from my Web site, but it was very costly to produce. (I used real watercolor paper for the pages.) I'm looking at a list of titles I might like to write, and some look like traditional books to me and others might do better online or print-on-demand. It's nice to have options.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe it's time to
take publications online and
for the artist/author to take charge of content, format, publication and distribution?
What do you think?"

I think, in many cases, most definitely YES!! The pros far outweigh the cons, in my opinion. It's much more open to personalisation: online, I can pick and choose exactly what I need in the way of art instruction---I don't have to buy a book with repetitive info or chapters I don't need.

As for format, I especially love PDFs---you can print them off, carry them around, mark them up, and file them in topical order however you please, either on your computer or in a binder. See my comment on your previous post.


Mineke Reinders said...

I love books too, but I haven't bought a single art instruction book in the last few years. The reason is that I haven't come across anything I haven't read or seen before. I would definitely welcome more art instruction material online, whether formal or informal. In fact, this is happening already. Artists who write a blog post about how they work, either in general or about a specific piece, are giving a bit of instruction. It's different from the traditional format of an author telling you how to do "x" in 5 easy steps, and there is less continuity. Thus, finding the information and inspiration you want online requires a bit more effort, but to me it is well worth it. A few days ago, before reading this and your previous post about art instruction books, I was asked to complete an online survey by North Light Books. The survey asked me to rate possible books (cover and title) as to how likely I was to buy them. Except for a few "maybe's" my replies were that I would "definitely not buy" this book. As others have pointed out, there appears to be a dumbing down. Most of these hypothetical books were aimed at beginners or hobbyists, people who want to know how to draw or paint a particular thing. Children's portraits in colored pencil, or seascapes in pastel, and the like.
In the same way that bloggers and daily painters to a certain extent undermined the authority of art critics, galleries, etc., art instruction resources on the web (some of them very informal) undermine the concept of the authoritative author/artist. This is not to disparage the excellent writers, some of whose books I am happy to have on my shelves, and their efforts, and of course you can find a lot of mediocre material on the web too. My point is that with this medium, it is possible to find your own level, to find what you need at whatever stage you're at. And that can develop too, as it has for me. Ultimately, printed material publishers have to think about what sells, it is their business, but it does not necessarily serve all of us well, especially now that they seem to be retreating to very safe grounds. I'm curious about what form your book will ultimately take, and how you perceive it "fitting" in the realm of book publishing.

Adam Cope said...

New York Times article, FYI :

Why Blog? Reason No. 92: Book Deal

Online interactive instruction could be added to the list of online publications. Jaqc at International Plein-Air Painters does a fab job in her Yahoo group & I see for twenty quid you can sign up at The Tate online for a course.

Anonymous said...

I was just reading about the blurb model with print-on-demand--Brit Hammer has some gorgeous looking books on mosaic via blurb. There is something wonderful about high quality photographs on good paper that I would miss if I had to print something off on my own printer. I like being able to take art books into my studio for reference, and as the physicality of books still appeals to my craft-sense. On the other hand, if more advanced books could be made available through pdf's, that would be great, since as you said, most art instruction books are aimed at the largest market, beginners.

Adam Cope said...

There certainly isn't as many books aimed at the intermediate & advanced as beginners.

This isn't all because of the publishers but also in part simply because there just isn't that many great & original writers in the art instruction market such as Ruskin, Gombrich, Itten, Arnheim, Dow, Doby or Edwards. Espcially for the intermediate & advanced where breakthrough knowledge has to be tried & tested, painted as well as written, taught & well-digested, as well as improved upon by feedback.

I agree that publishers do alot of repeat publishing & authors do a lot of recycling of knowledge, often lifted from other authors. But then again, there's a lot of borrowing/cross-fertilisation on the internet as well isn't there.

When one sees just how many painter/tutors/wannabe-writers there are, then actually, I'm surprised that there isn't more publishing! The massive expolsion of art-blogging ties into this drive to write. Each one of us pushing towards writing 'the book inside of me'.

Making A Mark said...

I wonder if some of those people would get a contract for a book these days?

As somebody who has been writing most days for the last three years I've very definitely got the writing bug!

However, there's a lot of difference between writing a blog post and writing a book! Although blog posts are very helpful for finding out what people are interested in and what's the right level of information.

Making A Mark said...

Ana - your point about e-readers is one I've already taken on board and is one of the reasons I paused when I started to write. The format of a book has to be suitable for e-readers if you also want to sell in that format. It might be new now, and we might all love our books but I suspect we'll all be buying e-readers in the future. As you say the digital world is not going to go away

After all - who would have thought we'd be using computers so much to do our shopping and access information 10 years ago?

Making A Mark said...

Jennifer - it's working out the economics of creating a package which might be park 'paper' book / e-book and online resource which has got me in 'pause' mode at present.

Making A Mark said...

Felicity - I have to say I agree with you. The tips and explanations which are given away for free on the Internet are often superior to some of the ones we see in art instruction books (not all I hasten to add!)

Presumably it must mean that in future conventional publishers will have to "raise their game" as it were and produce books and journals which have better content - in which case we'll all benefit.

Making A Mark said...

Jana - you're absolutely right about the workshops. That was always the explanation given to me by (non-blogger) artist friends as to the reason why they did books for conventional publishers given the financial rewards were not great

However combine an increased profile from a published book with workshops for the target audience and the economics can start to make sense for artists. Plus of course they're an opportunity for some to sell yet more copies. ;)

Making A Mark said...

I certainly think pdf documents are certainly one of the potential ways forward if you're producing for people to read on-screen or print out.

I was cheering from the rooftops when I found I could convert Word documents to to pdf very easily with the latest version of Word!

All my Guides are written in Word and saved in Word and then I just press a button!

Of course the wonderful thing about computer screens is that you can make the size of your font the size you like best and low resolution images can still look great!

Adam Cope said...

adam : great & original writers in the art instruction market such as Ruskin, Gombrich, Itten, Arnheim, Dow, Doby or Edwards.

katherine : I wonder if some of those people would get a contract for a book these days?



I hesitated to put Guptill in that list as things haven't evloved that drastically since his 'Watercolor Painting Step by Step' 1957. I don't know the story that well but Guptill had already founded Watson Guptill by the time his book came out. If this publishing house has done such a good job, it's because Guptil knew his stuff as a editor/publisher/facilitator as well as a painter/instructor. They're not all bad.

Anonymous said...

I can see why working out the economics of the combo book/online scenario has given you pause. I am afraid I have more questions about that than answers! For instance, I was listening to an NPR piece on the radio yesterday about newspaper publishing and they made the point that, with few exceptions, newspapers who tried to charge for online content were unsuccessful. The reason given was twofold. One that newspapers were trying to use an old business model for a new medium, and two, that people are used to getting information online for free.

Kindle seems to be proving this theory wrong, but it does make me wonder; what makes people want to pay for certain online content and bypass others? I think it would have to be a work unique enough, comprehensive enough, or alternately "niche" enough that it couldn't be gotten by any other means (at least not without a lot of time and effort).

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