Can art books be published as ebooks?

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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.

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

 

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

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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 MoMAstore.org 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.

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