Borders’s closure in 2011 served as a gloomy backdrop for the panel at the New York Public Library on February 12, “The Future of Art Book Publishing,” whose title carried a hint of bad news for catalogues and monographs. Facts on the ground would seem to support that: trade publishers are transitioning to the digital market; independent and specialty bookstores are still struggling against the low prices at Amazon; and print, the preferred vehicle for art books, has lost its prestige. But Sharon Gallagher, president and publisher at Art Book|Distributed Art Publishing (D.A.P.), a company that represents more than 200 art book publishers and museums, cautioned that confusing the art book’s future with its fate is “the very mechanism of defeatism.”

Once a medium’s practitioners start talking about its fate,” she said, “their medium may well have begun its devolution to the dread dead status of legacy.”

For all the challenges in trade book publishing, the market for art books has remained fairly resilient over the past several years. Publishers continue to conduct business across the global art world, copartner with insular institutions and museums, and benefit from price-insensitive readers who still view art books as luxurious objects that are worth prices that can double, triple, or quadruple those of traditional trade hardcovers. It has been called the “carriage trade” for a reason. But publishers are also finding a younger audience of book admirers and collectors, citing the New York Artists Book Fair, which had 20,000 visitors last year and recently expanded to Los Angeles.

“I would say the art book business is doing as well as it ever did,” said Margaret Chace, associate publisher at Skira-Rizzoli, an imprint of the two Italian publishers, who also spoke on “The Future of Art Book Publishing” panel along with Gallagher; Chul R. Kim, associate publisher at MOMA; and Paul Chan, publisher and founder of Badlands Unlimited. Over the last three years, the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York has seen sales increase by double-digit numbers, according to Chace.

Nevertheless, publishers are having to take necessary steps toward ensuring that the art book has a viable future; as of now, it still depends on bricks-and-mortar stores. “We’re a very small part of the trade world, infinitesimally small in terms of numbers,” said Gallagher in a phone interview. “And yet we need those bookstores, too, to get our books out there. So if the trade publishers go digital and the bookstores close, where exactly are people going to see art books?”

There’s a much better chance that an art book will sell if it can be seen and leafed through. As Kim said at the panel, “We think that once people pick up and interact with a book, they are much more likely to purchase it.” Cover images online are headaches for art book publishers, since these fail to convey that immortal heft and profundity that distinguishes art books from others. What a consumer normally encounters on Amazon when it comes to art books is an average cover image accompanied by an above-average price tag. “The difficulty with selling books online is that the physicality of the book is lost, and also the serendipity of browsing a store and coming upon these gorgeous objects,” said Christopher Lyon, executive editor and director of digital publishing at The Monacelli Press. Monacelli does roughly a third of its sales online, the rest in bookstores and by direct and special sales to English-speaking markets abroad.

Faced with ever-dwindling bookstores, then, art book publishers are making sure their books look all the more enticing in the places where they’re still visible. Elaborately designed and packaged limited editions have proven to be highly successful. Few have harnessed this strategy better than Taschen, the vast Germany-based art book publisher that collects $20 million in sales each year and has stores all over the world, New York and Los Angeles included. It started back in 1999, when Taschen published photographer Helmut Newton’s SUMO, the colossal monograph that became known as the largest and most expensive book of the 20th century. It’s over two feet tall, weighs over 65 pounds, and comes with a Philippe Starck–designed metal bookstand. It originally sold for $1,500, and now sells for $15,000. (In 1999, one copy autographed by 100 celebrities featured in the book sold at auction for $32,000.) Since then, Taschen has shrewdly dealt in lavish art books. On sale now, for instance, is a six-volume set of Robert Crumb notebook sketches for $1,000. Last winter it released a facsimile of an illuminated Esther scroll from 1746, presented in a walnut-veneer display case, and priced at $700.

Other publishers have embraced a similar strategy. Abrams has found that the prices on art books can go higher when they have a look and packaging to match. “There’s a willingness on the part of the consumer to pay a real premium for something that is elaborately and beautifully produced,” said Deborah Aaronson, vice-president and publisher at Abrams’s adult division. Abrams has issued several Richard Avedon books priced at $100, most recently Murals and Portraits, all of which have been successful sells. The publisher has also found that the same model can be applied to categories beyond fine art, such as popular culture. It plans to release a George Lucas art book, Star Wars Frames, which will consist of some eight books with film frames selected by the director, packaged in a hardcover slipcase, and priced at $150.

For the Love of Print

Many attribute the readiness to pay high prices not simply to deep pockets but to a newfound appreciation for print, an aftereffect of so much reading being transferred to digital space, where books are abstracted and have no material value. Aaronson believes that trade publishers are similarly responding to the phenomenon with lavishly packaged books, such as in the realm of cookbooks. It has become increasingly incumbent on publishers, then, to provide handsome objects that meet the growing appreciation. “If you want to have a book as an object, you need a reason to buy it as a physical object,” Aaronson said.

Museums have also been rethinking design and packaging. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, published by the Met in conjunction with its popular 2011 exhibition, has a hologram cover with the British fashion designer’s face transmogrifying into a brooding platinum skull. It’s not the formal, well-mannered art book that would normally be associated with the museum. Instead of being dominated by text, the book gives priority to the stark photos by Sølve Sundsbø and block quotes from McQueen. It was awarded the Independent Publisher Book Award for Most Outstanding Design in 2012 and has sold nearly a quarter of a million copies to date.

As though taking a cue from McQueen to “demolish the rules but to keep the tradition,” the Met has shifted away from the traditional museum publishing model. “The sales numbers pretty much show that you need to take a page from other entertainment industries,” said Mark Polizzotti, director of publications at the Met. Polizzotti believes that museums can no longer take their audiences for granted. He now thinks of each publication as a trade book for the general reader, and that means dressing books less donnishly, pushing marginalia to the back for a cleaner read, and concentrating more on the marketing angle. It also means rethinking the classic art book—hefty, square, glossy—and developing a new physiognomy—various sizes, lengths, and features. “It has to be a commercially viable object, and the commercial context has changed,” he said.

Savage Beauty is one of several art titles sold in specialty retail stores such as Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. D.A.P. ranks nontraditional bookstores as its fastest growing segment. When a title is an appropriate match for a particular store, be it Restoration Hardware or Paul Smith, the sales can be substantial [see sidebar for alternative and museum stores that will be attending BEA in May]. These stores have helped many publishers compensate for diminishing bookstores. But since art book publishers release a variety of titles each year, shelf space can naturally be fitful. “If somebody sees the special sales gift market as the salvation, they’re going to be publishing a much different and much smaller list of books in the future,” said Sharon Gallagher.

Where art books will be sold in the future then remains unclear. “We really need to figure out what other outlets are going to replace the bookstores as they start to disappear,” Polizzotti said, “otherwise it’s going to be almost impossible to sell these things.”

The Issue of Rights & Permission Fees

According to several art book publishers, certain types of books have also become impossible to release, largely due to copyright and image permission fees, which are believed to have increased markedly over the last decade. Broad surveys, for example, which require hundreds of images at hundreds of dollars a pop from various different artists, are no longer economically possible. “The effect on art publishing has been to make entire categories impossible to do,” said Monacelli’s Lyon.

Theodore Feder, president of the copyright agency Artists Rights Society, said that, in his organization’s case, “If someone describes a situation like that to us and it turns out the fees are prohibitive, we make every effort to make it possible for the book to be published.” Artists Rights Society represents 50,000 artists and their estates, including Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, and other well-known names. According to Feder, fees have not increased at ARS for over 10 years.

Part of the difficulty has to do with the rapidly changing digital environment. “I think we’re all caught in the middle of this segue period,” said Robert Panzer, executive director at VAGA, which represents more than 7,000 artists and their estates worldwide. With the proliferation of new digital formats and devices, the process has been severely complicated. It’s hard to determine whether things such as e-books represent new streams of revenue. A lot of the confusion rests in the fact that art book publishers simply don’t know how many copies of an e-book are going to sell in the current environment. Permission fees are usually determined by those factors. “We’re at this point now where we’re seeking commentary from publishers on how their business models are working so that we can find a happy medium that works for both parties,” said Panzer. The process does remain complicated, as, in some cases, publishers can end up having to pay different rights agencies in order to reproduce a single image. VAGA’s prices were readjusted upward 10% three years ago.

Lyon believes that without changes in image permissions, art book publishers, especially commercial publishers like his, will struggle to develop e-books that can make returns. “There’s no way to get that market off the ground without some kind of innovative pricing structure for picture rights,” he said.

Art Books Enhanced

Enhanced e-books present opportunities for publishers that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. It’s now possible to envision an art book that could faithfully reproduce installation, video, and performance art. But the market for art e-books remains miniscule. The tech can’t fully support the ambitions yet, and nobody can be sure what device or format will ultimately prevail as the one best suited for art books. MOMA has lately teamed up with Apple to develop a multitouch iBook for a revised edition of Collection Highlights with enhanced functions and custom-designed widgets. The hope is that features such as those will better enable readers to navigate the illustrated content.

When the artist Paul Chan founded the art e-book publisher Badlands Unlimited in 2010, the market for digital art books was not only nonexistent and the tech somewhat less sophisticated, but debate still surrounded the ultimate fate of digital. At the 2010 Artists Book Fair, a bitter argument broke out at the publisher’s stand, with one woman accusing Badlands of “burning books.” But much has changed within the last three years, and the mantra at Badlands—that “historical distinctions between books, files, and artworks are dissolving rapidly”—is less an iconoclastic platform and more the current state of reality. Badlands has innovated interactive e-books, such as the multiartist digital exhibition How to Download a Boyfriend, and has lately released the more traditional The Afternoon Interviews, a collection of previously unpublished interviews with Marcel Duchamp by the art critic Calvin Tomkins. It’s currently working on an artist e-book with Josh Kline, who’s associated with a young generation of New York artists that address issues related to social media within culture.

“The experience of reading an e-book is still middling at best,” Chan said. “But it’s growing, changing, and inventing itself.”

That growing potential has inspired publishers. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is releasing an e-book for Israeli-born artist Ori Gersht that will feature his striking video work. Emiko Usui, associate publisher at the museum, is also considering a video e-book that could assist performing arts classes at MFA’s affiliated school—classes that now rely heavily on textbook theory and still photographs. But the museum has only been working at e-books for a short time. “We’re just beginning to explore this area,” Usui said. The Monacelli Press is working with paleoartist Viktor Deak to create a fossil record of the human species in e-book form with both two and three dimensions. MOMA is in negotiations with the Picasso administration to develop the first digital Picasso monograph, structured around the museum’s “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914” exhibit two years ago, with plans to have some 475 images, 360 views of the two guitar sculptures in the MOMA collection, plus audio and video content that will take up curation and conservation issues.

MOMA, whose art books generate $5 million in revenue each year, is studying to be one of the leaders in the e-book realm. “We don’t want to wait for the market to mature,” Chul Kim, the associate publisher, said. But until the market does, art e-books will remain costly investments with low return rates. In order to clear that roadblock, the museum has started seeking international partners with whom it can amortize costs, such as Random House Korea. In the fall, MOMA plans to corelease with Random House a collection of limited-edition facsimile prints by Paul Klee, originally published by the museum in 1947, to the Asian market. The two are also discussing the possibility of co-publishing Korean editions of MOMA e-books. When combined with other international partnerships—France, Germany, and Japan have also been referenced—that could free up funds to reinvest into art e-books. “We will have a much better chance of developing these digital editions, working with the technology, and growing as the platforms and the market grows,” Kim said.

MOMA doesn’t see its printed books diminishing in value any time soon, “not for at least the next 10–15 years.” Art books may very well have the best of both the digital and print worlds in the future. Most art publishers are in agreement that, despite the possibilities that are being offered by e-books, there will continue to be physical books, as these remain works of art in themselves. Sharron Gallagher is among those who speak of the future—and not the fate—of print. “The printed book will be around just as long as the bicycle,” she said. “They are both amazing inventions.”

Buyers of Art Books Everywhere, Including Javits

At the recent panel on “The Future of Art Book Publishing,” Chul Kim, associate publisher at the Museum of Modern Art, said that in a previous museum publishing job, “our three biggest accounts were Amazon, Nordstroms and Nieman Marcus.” That is, alternative high-end retail establishments are good places to sell art books—and those include museums, of course. The BEA has made an effort to get specialty retailers to this year’s show. Below are a selection of some of those retailers who will be attending.

Specialty Retailers

Barneys, New York
The Breakers (Newport, R.I.)
Costco Wholesale
Hillside Gifts
Spencer Gifts
Sur La Table
Through the Magic Door
Undercover Books & Gifts
University Book Store
Willow’s Books & Cafe
The Winchester Book Gallery
Woodcrafter’s Book Nook

Museum Stores

American Museum of Natural History
American Visionary Art Museum
Asia Society
The Barnes Foundation
Bay Area Discovery Museum
Bruce Museum
Conner Prairie Museum Shop
DIA Beacon
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
J. Paul Getty Museum Store
The Institute of Contemporary Art
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Jewish Museum
Liberty Science Center
Metropolitan Museum of Art
MFA Boston
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Morgan Library & Museum
Museum of African American History
Museum of Fine Arts
Museum of Modern Art
National Constitution Center
National Gallery of Art
The Newark Museum
New-York Historical Society
New York Transit Museum Store
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Smithsonian Institute
Tenement Museum
White House Historical Association
Yale Center for British Art