Can art books be published as ebooks?


Viewing art on a screen can not yet match flicking through a printed book

One of the major debates in the art publishing world today rages around the future of the art book, especially with regard to digital technology.

Anita Pisch looks at why publishing art books in digital formats is yet to prove either satisfactory or successful.

With ebooks making modest but steady inroads into the trade publishing market, and art books proving prohibitively expensive for many publishers and readers alike, one seemingly logical response might be to digitise art publishing. Following this line of reasoning, digital art books could provide lavishly illustrated texts to diverse and geographically dispersed audiences at a fraction of the cost of printed books. But art books have not taken off in the digital environment.

To date, the art book has not sold well in digital formats and the technology is seen as woefully inadequate to provide an experience analogous to that of the printed page. Digital resolution for images is poor, the electronic format has not thus far reproduced the experience of the page with its captions, side bars and marginalia and the ereaders and tablets do not sit well on coffee tables or shelves.

properganderpress podcast

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin speaks about the future of art publishing in Australia


First tentative steps at developing the art ebook are somewhat lacklustre.


Interactive touch technology is still in its infancy. It is impossible to say yet where it will lead.
Photo in public domain

On the international stage, however, concerted efforts are being made to devise a platform that may, if not re-create the printed matter experience, provide a new and somewhat unique experience.The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Yale University an USD840,000 grant to develop a new electronic portal through which consumers and institutions can access customisable curated art and art history at a reasonable cost or for free.

Yale University Press and the Art Institute of Chicago will gradually upload their back titles, and users will actually be able to customise content and collate publications and course materials from a variety of texts. Interactivity within texts will also be a feature, with these developments towards creating a unique and immersive art publishing experience generating new technologies that have not yet been wholly envisioned.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has already uploaded in excess of 450 art books for free download from their site. Although exciting, and allowing those of us who can’t just pop into New York to gain access to exhibition catalogues, these are simply scanned pdfs of existing print publications without interactive qualities and with generally poor image reproduction, when compared with the printed book.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York released its first digital-only interactive publication, Picasso: The Making of Cubism 1912-1914, in 2014.This fully interactive pdf, with clickable menus and sidebars, costs USD24.99 and can be downloaded from the or downloaded as an iPad app from the App Store

This envisaged future sees a place for both the digital artefact and the beautiful printed book, with digital technology providing an affordable and accessible means of gaining access to art across a wide and geographically dispersed audience. The two major barriers to this at the moment are inadequate technology and the cost of image reproduction, as digital permissions are often currently sold separately to printed rights, curtailing a publisher’s ability to produce both digital and printed versions of a book.

Little current interest in developing art ebooks in Australia

While the major Australian art publishers have not rushed to provide digital art ebooks for sale, the indigenous market is in the embryonic stages of a technological shift, with the Aboriginal Australia Art and Culture Centre,  a 100 per cent Aboriginal owned and operated business based in Alice Springs and operating online, advertising three ebooks available for purchase through Paypal. Each is available in English, French and German.

Also in Australia, the availability of art ebooks as pdf downloads is flourishing in open access environments provided by universities and major libraries. The National Library of Australia has a large number of art ebooks that can be downloaded from its site, and both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian National University have a small number of texts, which can be read online.

With open access to digital theses, there are unprecedented opportunities to keep abreast of art scholarship, although frequently, in the latter case, the text is either not accompanied by images, or they are of vastly inferior quality to those on the printed page.

In the art publishing industry there is by no means a consensus on either the probability or the desirability of art ebooks. Some publishing professionals deny any possibility that an engaging or satisfactory experience can be gained on a laptop , tablet or smartphone. Others are excited about the enticing potentialities in a future we can’t yet quite see.

You can listen to a fascinating, in-depth panel discussion about ‘The Future of Art Book Publishing’ in the US context, which took place on 12.02.2013 at the New York Public Library. Panel members are Margaret Chace, Associate Publisher, Skira-Rizzoli; Paul Chan, artist, Founder of Badlands Unlimited; Sharon Gallagher, President and Publisher of ARTBOOK | D.A.P.; and Chul R. Kim, Associate Publisher, the Museum of Modern Art. The discussion is moderated by Arezoo Moseni, Senior Art Librarian at the New York Public Library.


The personality cult of Stalin in posters: new book by properganderpress’s Anita Pisch

Anita Pisch’s new, fully illustrated book, The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929 -1953, published by ANU Press, is available for free download here, and can also be purchased in hard copy from ANU Press.

Although a lot has been written about the personality cult of Stalin, not much has been written about Soviet art under Stalin, and even less about posters of Stalin. Anita Pisch combed the dusty archives of Russian libraries, museums and galleries to find posters of Stalin, buried at a time when the tyrant who had ruled the USSR for 25 years was expunged from Soviet history as thoroughly as if he had never existed.

This book is the first dedicated study on the marketing of Stalin in Soviet propaganda posters. Hundreds of previously unpublished posters are examined, with more than 130 reproduced in full colour.

Book trailer for The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929-1953: archetypes, inventions and fabrications, by Anita Pisch. Published by ANU Press, 2016. Trailer (c) properganderpress 2016.

In Russia, posters from the Soviet era are kept in large cardboard folios in the dusty back rooms of the libraries and museums. Inadequately catalogued and without digital reproduction or a searchable index, a vital part of Soviet history lays buried in the archives, quietly degrading.

The posters provide a fascinating insight into the sort of society that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were striving to create, and also into how they wished to present their government to the people.

Stalin's care illuminates the future of our children, Iraklii Toidze, 1947. Image photographed by Anita Pisch.

Stalin in the pose of Christ in Russian Orthodox icons. ‘Stalin’s kindness illuminates the future of our children,’ Iraklii Toidze, 1947. Image photographed by Anita Pisch.

From 1929 until 1953, Joseph Stalin’s image became a central symbol in Soviet propaganda.  Touched up images of Stalin appeared everywhere:

  • emblazoned across buildings
  • lining the streets
  • carried in parades
  • woven into carpets
  • in painting
  • in statuary
  • in monumental architecture
  • in friezes
  • on banners
  • and on posters
Between 1929 and 1953, Stalin's image appeared everywhere. 'Thank you Comrade Stalin for our happy life,' Nikolai Zhukov, 1940.

Between 1929 and 1953, Stalin’s image appeared everywhere. ‘Thank you Comrade Stalin for our happy life,’ Nikolai Zhukov, 1940. Image photographed by Anita Pisch.

The ‘Stalin’ of the posters bore little resemblance to the man Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, whose humble origins, criminal past, penchant for violence and pockmarked skin made him an unlikely candidate for charismatic adulation.

Through the posters, Stalin came to embody the qualities of

  • the wise Teacher
  • the Father of the nation
  • the great Warrior, and
  • the Saviour of Russia
Stalin was shown in posters as both the father to all children of the USSR, and as an icon to be hung on the wall for prayer. 'Happy New Year, beloved Stalin,' K. Ivanov, 1952. Image photographed by Anita Pisch

Stalin was shown in posters as both the father to all children of the USSR, and as an icon to be hung on the wall for prayer. ‘Happy New Year, beloved Stalin,’ K. Ivanov, 1952. Image photographed by Anita Pisch

The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929-1953 will be available from ANU Press in paperback, and for free download through open access, in December 2016. Join Anita for a fascinating journey into one of the earliest and most successful mass marketing campaigns of the twentieth century.

personality cult of Stalin, Soviet posters, Stalin, personality cult

Anita Pisch’s fully illustrated The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929-1953: archetypes, inventions & fabrications has just been released by ANU Press.

Australian art publishing in crisis? Or is crisis just business as usual?

Australian art books

High production costs and a niche market put buying art books out of the reach of many Australians.
Photo by Anita Pisch

Ask any art historian, and they will tell you that it is quite difficult to get books published on art in Australia. Why this should be so in a nation that demonstrates increasing interest in and engagement with the arts is an interesting question, which generates both simple and complex answers.

Anita Pisch briefly examines some of the key issues in contemporary Australian art book publishing, within both a historical and international context.

While it may be tempting to see the difficulty in getting art books published in Australia as simply part of the broader challenges faced by the publishing industry as a whole, both in Australia and internationally, this would be to fail to recognise the distinct features and challenges of the art publishing industry as a niche market for a high-quality product which carries specific symbolic and cultural capital.

Art book publishing comprises only a tiny fraction of the publishing industry as a whole, and differs from other areas of the industry in several ways, including high publication costs, target audience, layout and design, and suitability for digitisation.

Art books essentially fall into two very broad categories: books on the history of art, theory of art, art movements or individual artists, and books that are published as art catalogues relating to specific exhibitions.

 Subsidised monographs and scholarly books

The first category includes art textbooks, scholarly and academic publications,books created for collectors, and monographs that are devoted to the oeuvre of a particular artist or group of artists.

Generally speaking, art books are not expected to turn a profit, and their publication is usually subsidised in some way: by virtue of a philanthropic bequest to the publishing house, through a grant or subsidy awarded to the author, or even by the featured artists contributing to printing and production costs out of their own pocket. Authors are not usually paid and may, or may not, eventually see some financial return out of royalties – although this is often only in the unlikely scenario that the book gets to a second edition.

Publishers may also release numbered special limited editions of art books, accompanied by original drawings and prints, personalised covers and slipcases or other limited edition paraphernalia, to attract collectors as buyers. The profit made on the limited edition helps subsidise the cost of the general print run.

Although art books are not particularly profitable, publishers may decide to publish an art title due to personal interest in the subject matter, because they feel that the work is in the public interest, and/or because of the gains in cultural capital.

Australian art publishing, more so than in Europe or the USA, has been dominated by individual maverick art publishers. If Sydney Ure Smith was a prominent presence between the 1920s and the 1940s, the scene from the 1970s onwards has been dominated by a number of strong individual personalities. These include Nevill Drury at Craftsman House, Jenny Zimmer at Macmillan Art Publishing and now Thames & Hudson, Lou Klepac at Beagle Press and the Grimwades and Miegunyah Press.

Since the 1980s, a number of small specialist art publishers and individual commercial galleries have been regularly publishing art books. These publications should not be confused with art catalogues, but often adopt a monographic character and run to a couple of hundred pages.

Some mainstream international publishers with an Australian arm, including Thames & Hudson, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, have also maintained an art publishing profile here, although in general, under current protectionist policies for Australian publishing, they publish more titles on non-Australian artists than they do on Australian artists.

In general, art books which are not tied to an exhibition suffer from the lack of a precipitating ‘event’ and its attendant publicity, (all of which is costed to the event, rather than the book itself); no ready-made venue from which to sell the book; and no vehicle for attracting outside sponsorship to help cover costs. These books face the following challenges:

  • diminishing bricks-and-mortar venues in which to sell physical books;
  • high production costs;
  • high prices for the end product (particularly when the consumer makes inevitable comparisons against the cost of other books);
  • a niche audience;
  • funding cuts across the arts in general, which diminish the likelihood of attracting a subsidy for publication;
  • high copyright and image permission costs, which must usually be borne by the author and can run into thousands of dollars;
  • diminishing in-house publishing staff, meaning that editing and design must be handed to freelancers, with costs often passed on to the author;
  • a downturn in the art market that sees the great majority of professional artists struggling to make a living and thus unable to find funds to contribute to the production costs of their own monographs.

Catalogues by the major galleries


Fountain Of Life, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Most art books published in Australia are catalogues to accompany exhibition at the major galleries.
Photo by Benjamin9003


In the twenty-first century, most publications on art in Australia come from the publicly funded national and state collecting institutions, with the most proactive publishing occurring at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Many regional art galleries also have a rigorous art publishing profile.

The art catalogue accounts for a large proportion of current art publishing in Australia and, despite striking similarities to scholarly art books, is distinguished by its relationship with the exhibition subject, the institutional authorship, and the catalogue’s role as exhibition merchandise. Additionally, particularly when it comes to blockbuster exhibitions, the catalogue provides avenues for corporate and other sponsorship, often by companies that gain significant cultural capital by associating their name with a high-class product and who will benefit from being viewed as philanthropically motivated.

Between 1965 and 1985, exhibition catalogues in Australia suddenly changed from being ephemeral brochures and pamphlets, to lengthy autonomous publications which were almost indistinguishable from art books. Jim Berryman ties the sudden massive expansion of the dimensions of the catalogue to the spread of academic art history in the universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and the subsequent rise of professionalism in the curatorial role.

Along with increases in government funding to the arts, which resulted in both increases in acquisitions and in other resources, a pool of funding became available to enable serious scholarship to be published for the benefit of the general public in lavishly illustrated, glossy-paged tomes, which were soon to become too heavy to seriously consider carrying through an exhibition.

What distinguishes Australian art publishing from the rest of the world is the advent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art books. If in the 1970s this was a small trickle with a strong anthropological bent, by the twenty-first century it had grown into a major torrent, with hundreds of glossy art books produced devoted to various aspects of indigenous art. These books are some of the few Australian art publications to find an international market due to the wider global audience for indigenous art.

There may be no crisis in Australian art publishing, or perhaps more accurately, one could describe it as the ongoing crisis that has been a permanent fixture in this country. The audience is relatively small and production costs are hefty. Ebooks and ecatalogues have not made a major inroad in art publishing in this country for a number of reasons. The art book is seen as a luxury item with high production values and essential tactile properties. Despite the ongoing challenges, Australian publishers manage to produce a reasonable number of beautiful, high quality, scholarly art books each year, especially when considered on a per capita basis.

Australian art books

Beautiful art books are still being published in Australia, despite not being particularly profitable.
Photo by Anita Pisch







A short history of zines

Today’s zines grew out of early sci-fi and football fanzines, amateur political press, punk and Riot Grrrl – all defining themselves in opposition to the mainstream. The diversity found in the zine scene today derives from the complexity of the web of sources for the contemporary zine.

Anita Pisch looks at some of the major influences on today’s zines.

Similar to the debate over the definition of zines, the history of zines is complex and multi-faceted. Almost everyone agrees that one immediate precursor to the contemporary zine was the fanzine, which was a phenomenon of the interwar years of the 20th century. Fanzines appeared around sci-fi nests, arcane knowledge about sporting codes, and socially inhibiting pursuits, and were already established in the 1930s and 1940s.

Martin Luther, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine – zinesters?

Martin Luther, 95 theses, Ninety-five Theses

The first zinester? In 1517, Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1830-1904)

There are many other potential forerunners to the contemporary zine. Some claim the first zine dates back to 1517, when Martin Luther pasted his Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg.

Others describe Benjamin Franklin as a zinester. Still others look to 17th century British pamphlets promoting moral and political points of view, and then to the American Revolution, abolition of slavery, the labour movement and the civil rights movement, all generating zine-like pamphlets. There is a general consensus that Thomas Paine (‘Common Sense’, 1776) was an early American zinester.

Angry and absurd

Artists magazine, 291, Katharine Rhoades, Agnes Ernest Meyer, Marius de Zayas

Artists magazine 291, Katharine Rhoades, Agnes Ernest Meyer, Marius de Zayas – 91, No 3, 1915, published in New York City.

Several writers claim an affinity of spirit (although no direct lineage) with the Soviet samizdat, and also American literary and cultural journals and dissident newspapers, amateur press associations, little magazines, artists magazines (particularly those by the Dadaists and Surrealists), artists books and mail art.

The American underground press has a strong kinship with the zine, as it also involves scamming supplies, and the use of pseudonyms and strange or absurd titles.


Cover of the last edition of BLAST, the literary magazine of the British Vorticist movement, a movement heavily influenced by Futurism, by Wyndham Lewis


MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL punk zine, No 368, January 2014

MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL punk zine, No 368, January 2014

The contemporary zine flourished from the 1960s, and through the 70s and 80s, continuing to build on the fanzine base to promote and establish a counter culture. Punk and anarchist zines gained prominence 30 years ago, when they were created in opposition to the glam and gloss of official publishing. However, this was really a discrete development, created by people who had no involvement with fanzines.

Zines wanted to be an alternative to mainstream publishing and their emergence in all their multi-faceted forms precisely coincides with the time when publishers developed more high-tech strategies for consummating their products.

Mike Gunderloy, Factsheet 5, No. 64

Cover of Mike Gunderloy’s Factsheet 5, No. 64


When Mike Gunderloy’s ‘Factsheet 5’ emerged in the United States in 1982, reviewing zines across all traditions, the notion of the zine as a discrete form emerged and a community of zinesters was created.

Gunderloy, who primarily issued his zine as a swap for zines to be reviewed, did not categorise zines by genre, but listed them alphabetically, resulting in readers browsing titles on every conceivable topic as they meandered through the reviews. This had the effect, in pre-internet days, of creating a zine community without geographical boundaries that was perpetually in conversation with itself.

Riot Grrrl

Jan Radway, “From the Underground to the Archive in 10 Years: Girl Zines, the 1990s, and the Challenge of Historical Narrative” from National Humanities Center on Vimeo.

The early 1990s saw the flourishing of the Riot Grrrl movement and third wave feminism, which both adopted the zine form to give voice to women’s (and third wave girls’) perspectives that were largely absent from mainstream media.

Alison Piepmeier argues that most zine histories are focused on a male-dominated publishing trajectory, which leads inevitably from early revolutionary pamphleteering to the explosion of the punk/anarchist zines of the 1970s. In this scenario, women, who were again marginalised in the white, male, middle-class punk scene, began creating their own zines to give voice to their own tastes and preferences.

Alternate feminist origins for the feminist third wave and Riot Grrrl zines were the scrapbooks of 19th century women’s clubs, continuing on through the mimeographed manifestos of second wave feminism.

All of these diverse and dissident strands can still be found on the zine scene today. In contrast to mainstream publishing, every voice and viewpoint, no matter how marginalised in general society, has a right to be heard. By making it specific and personal, zines allow us to experience alternate perspectives, through the eyes and in the shoes of the people for whom these are their everyday lived realities.