Christopher Lyon offers a feature-length commentary on the crisis in art book publishing entitled The Art Book's Last Stand? in the September 2006 issue of Art in America.
[Museum staff and others with electronnic access to Art in America through WilsonWeb will be disappointed to learn that, at this writing, the most recent issue is not yet available. Staff with access to the museum's clipping service will find the article among the entries for 8/24/06.]
The oversize art book, extensively illustrated with large color illustrations, is a distinctive feature of post-World War II culture in the U.S. The purpose of such books was to reach beyond the specialized audiences of scholars, collectors and others with a financial or professional interest in art to engage an extensive new readership hungry for culture.
Lyon, executive editor at Prestel Publishing in New York, examines the converging factors affecting the production, distribution and consumption of the classic art book. He notes that in recent years responsibility for production has migrated from large, commercial trade publishers to the smaller institutional publisher, here meaning museums and universities, as well as boutique publishers.
While these new publishers are not as driven by the sales demands as their larger brethren and can take advantage of tax rules governing stock inventories, they are subject to other ills: exhibition programs, the boom-and-bust cycles common to small- and middle-sized institutions, the "chronically over-extended curators".
Museum politics and curatorial egos may play a much larger role in shaping the content and design of a publication than consideration of the end user .... Excessively long, over-specialized texts and boring, unimaginative design are common afflictions of museum books.
The Internet, Lyon contends, while changing the nature of the art book purchase, has been embraced by many of the new breed of art publishers. Of greater concern is the decline of the independent bookstore, which once captured a large proportion of sales for art books. The loss of such outlets has led publishers to produce smaller print runs.
Lyon identifies two related factors with a significant impact on new art book production: market saturation and the used-book trade. "Books aren't 'consumed' in the way that other merchandise is. Whether or not they remain in print, they continue to circulate." By the same token the "Internet-invigorated used book market" means it's far easier to find those competing out-of-print titles.
He is less clear on whether there have been significant changes in the nature of the art book consumer. Perhaps unwilling to bite the hand that feeds him, however meagerly, Lyon falls back in the end: "none of the explanations changes the fundamental reality that art publishing is not sustaining the numbers it once did." He suggests that publishers recognize the core audience for art books are "'culture workers' and aficionados" after all and not the mass market.
In his overview Lyon provides valuable sidebars on "A Short History of the Art Book"; and "Permisssions Purgatory", which begins
Among the changes negatively affecting art book production since the 1980s, the most significant appear to be the sharp rise in picture costs and increasing restrictions on reproduction rights. These factors affect the supply of books in various ways: increased costs and liabilities for authors, encroachments on free expression and the public domain, and, for publishers as well as authors, a rise in expenses associated with acquiring and clearing rights for reproductions of works of art--the lifeblood of illustrated books.