“I’ll corroborate what you’ve probably been hearing,” says Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs, when asked to discuss the state of digital publishing in the art and photo book market. “It’s been slow going.” While e-books are a phenomenon in the world of text-based publishing, it’s a different matter in the art book market. Other publishers contacted by PW—including Abrams, D.A.P., Thames & Hudson, and the Museum of Modern Art—all have similar responses. Despite these companies’ enthusiasm for and experimentation with digital publishing (including in-house digital channels, such as Web sites or online courses) and some critically acclaimed works, none has achieved much sales traction with its digital releases.

Art book publishers are continuing to do the groundwork necessary to build in-house expertise in digital publishing, nonetheless—whether that means hiring new staff or using outside vendors. When the audience for art e-books arrives or some technical or marketing breakthrough transforms the business, they intend to be ready.

Thames & Hudson specializes in art and illustrated books and publishes about 110 physical titles in a fiscal year, while releasing about 50 e-books, mostly of backlist titles. “Frontlist e-book publishing is the next horizon,” says T&H publisher Will Balliet. He notes that the press is moving carefully, “sticking a toe in digital and learning what we can, and trying not to invest an enormous amount of money until we can see a market.” Balliet says that T&H’s U.K. branch handles digital conversions of most titles, and that Thames & Hudson U.S. works with W.W. Norton, its distributor here, to convert books that originate on this side of the Atlantic to e-books. T&H’s biggest digital sales numbers come from the education market, Balliet says, pointing to Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts ($79.17), the initial volume of a series of heavily illustrated art history textbooks that the house is releasing in online versions and as enhanced PDFs, with a variety of “bells and whistles.” He notes that the e-textbook has sold in “the four figures, and sells at a steady pace.” The irony, Balliet says, is that “our least-advanced digital product sells the best,” though he adds that T&H is exploring the possibility of producing the title for tablet devices. According to Balliet, T&H has also created an e-book edition of The Rolling Stones 50 ($9.99), an illustrated work on the legendary British rock band, in partnership with Apple using iBooks Author, its free multimedia authoring software. “The print book did well, but the e-book numbers were small,” the publisher notes. Balliet also says T&H is working to “pick up steam on recent frontlist titles,” pointing to the forthcoming Moments That Made the Movies, an enhanced e-book coming in October that will be the first illustrated book by film critic David Thompson.

“We’ve gotten past experimenting, to a point where we have dozens of books in the pipeline,” Balliet says, adding, “You need to put a certain amount out just to see what happens.”

Experimentation and Modest Sales

At Abrams, one of the largest art book publishers in the world, Jacobs says he’s had “a few successes [with e-books], but there’s no market really, though we were hopeful because of the iPad.” The successes include Olivia Harrison’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World ($14.99), with about 7,000 downloads, produced in partnership with Apple and created with iBooks Author. Jacobs also points to two golf books (Kinetic Golf and 7 Laws of the Golf Swing) that did “surprisingly well,” though they generated “about 20% of the Harrison sales,” he says. The CEO also cites Abrams’s ComicArts imprint, which specializes in graphic novels, graphic nonfiction and comics related works, noting that its digital editions have “modest” sales numbers. Digital editions of graphic novels from ComicsArts are distributed by Comixology, the fast-growing digital comics distributor and marketplace. Jacobs also says that e-cookbooks by “big-name chefs” have done well, and says digital editions of kids’ books, humor, and crafts titles—which he cites for their “dedicated user base”—have also done “modestly well, but nothing that would send us ahead in digital publishing in a big way.”

At D.A.P., an art, photography, and illustrated book distributor and publisher, Elisa Leshowitz, director of publisher services, says, “It’s been slow going in general for digital releases.” How slow? D.A.P. distributes about 250 art and photo book publishers, and only about 15 of them are offering any digital works at all. Despite this, D.A.P. launched Art Book Digital, its own digital conversion business, and it has a full-time designer on staff dedicated to e-book conversion. “We started a conversion business to help our publishers,” Leshowitz says, adding, “We were not seeing the attention to detail from other digital vendors to the basic facts of [designing] art books.” She notes, “There are slow painstaking decisions behind heavily illustrated art books. How do you transfer that to a small format? We want to do it carefully, and ePub3 doesn’t always allow for the complexity of a physical book, so the e-book must be redesigned.”

D.A.P./Art Book Digital’s first e-book was Rembrandt’s Nose by Michael Taylor ($18.99), a heavily illustrated, text-driven e-title which was released in 2010 after first appearing as a hardcover in 2007. Leshowitz says it “was the title that prompted us to realize that we could do our own design and include features that respected an art book’s needs in design.”

D.A.P. now has about 30 titles on its digital backlist and will release 10 new digital art titles in 2013. Leshowitz says she works with a variety of digital vendors and has produced titles for the Apple platform (using iBooks Author) and for the Kindle Fire. Most of D.A.P.’s digital sales come from titles with text and heavy illustration, she notes, and the sales split between print and digital editions is often similar to that seen in the text-based book trade, with e-books reaching about 10% of p-book sales. Pure art book sales are negligible, according to Leshowitz. “There just aren’t that many titles that you can call ‘bestselling.’ ”

Leshowitz says, Sharon Gallagher, founder and CEO of D.A.P., is “enthusiastic about digital publishing, and works to encourage our publishers to experiment.” Both D.A.P. and its publishers are experimenting, looking for ways to combine multimedia functionality with art-historical scholarship, despite serving a digital market that seems only interested in text. “Who is our audience? Museums, public libraries, academics, artists, students. What material do they want? It seems to be essays,” she says, acknowledging the challenges her company faces in creating a digital art book program. D.A.P. distributes e-books from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica Hirshler in Kindle and ePub editions ($15.99). A digital edition of San Francisco street/gallery artist Barry McGee’s 448-page retrospective catalogue, Barry McGee, is coming the fall. Leshowitz says it will have a “more app-like feel” and is essentially a genuine digital art book, created using iBooks Author, but without using any multimedia content. “When does an e-book need to be ehnanced? We’re not video gamers,” she notes, adding that the title is a straight photo book. “Whatever’s put in an e-book has to be informative.”

The Museum of Fine Arts releases about 8–12 books a year. Its digital program is “small and experimental,” according to director of publications Emiko Usui, and is used to “highlight the collection.” The program has released Musical Instruments by Darcy Kuronen ($9.99), published in print in 2004 and this year on the Apple platform, with audio and video clips, and images of over 100 rare instruments from the MFA’s collection. Arts of Korea ($9.99) by Jane Portal, released earlier this year for the iPad and Kindle Fire, includes a widget that allows readers to “spin” ceramics and sculptures 360 degrees to get better virtual views.

The museum’s digital publishing program has experimented with free downloads, and Usui says that “free makes a difference.” The e-book edition of Kuronen’s Musical Instruments was available for free over the course of a month earlier this year, resulting in 2,900 downloads, compared to about 3,000 print unit sales. The story is much the same for the Arts of Korea enhanced e-book, which generated 800 free downloads; roughly the same number of print copies sold, Usui says. “Those are big numbers for us,” she notes, though she did not have data on whether the downloads added to print sales.

Aperture, the noted photography resource center, gallery, and publishing house, echoed the other publishers. “We’re still assessing our digital platform,” says Lesley Martin, publisher of the Aperture book program. The program is converting its text-based titles into ePub and is currently digitizing back issues of Aperture, the house’s highly regarded photography magazine, which is available via Zinnio, the digital newsstand. Aperture also released Merce Cunningham: 65 years ($14.99), a multimedia app with video and audio, based on a print title published in 1997 about the famed choreographer. Martin called it a “visual biography with video and sound” that was produced with an outside developer. While the app has been critically acclaimed, “there’s been no real demand,” she says.

Christopher Hudson, publisher of the Museum of Modern Art’s publications division, says he was initially concerned that e-books would undermine MoMA’s lucrative print program. “But that has not been the case,” he says. “We jumped into digital about three years ago and, surprise, print sales have held up and increased.” Hudson says, “The book as object is big, and we have three million visitors a year to MoMA—a captive audience that’s looking for something physical to take home with them; that’s driving our print sales.”

MoMA releases 25–30 books a year—books that offer beautiful and complex layouts. But its digital publishing program represents less than 6% of the print works available on its list and “less than 1% of sales,” Hudson says. “We do it for public awareness and outreach,” he adds, noting that direct sales and in-app purchases of digital content have not been successful for the program. “We’ve seen some success in subscription services and giving away content,” he says. “I believe in digital as a marketing tool but... giving away content is no way to grow.”

Forthcoming digital titles from the Museum of Modern Art include Picasso: Constructing Cubism 1912–1914, co-edited by Anne Umland and Blair Hartzell—a book of heavily illustrated essays that features 360-degree animated 3-D views of the works. Hudson says the book is “designed to be easily accessible to readers, including curators, scholars, and students, with the potential to be integrated into a university curriculum as seamlessly as any other text.” For the broader public, there’s MoMA Highlights ($9.99), an iBooks Author edition that was released in May and presents 350 masterworks with embedded audio and video.

MoMA uses outside developers and in-house staff to create digital products, and, Hudson notes, not all of its titles are available in the ePub standard format. “EPub is not a seamless transition. I believe in standardized formats, but for complex visual formats [ePub is] not there yet,” he says. MoMA offers straight PDFs and enhanced e-books, as well as creating digital editions using iBooks Author, often in partnership with Apple. Hudson also says that MoMA has had success with a series of self-guided online courses ($350 each for five weeks) that are heavily illustrated.

What Next?

Most of the successes art and photography book publishers cite are actually text-based e-books with some illustrations. Digital publishing seems to have hit a wall in the art book market, a sector where the focus is often on the physical book as a beautiful object. And the convenience and utility of e-books aren’t enough to outweigh that appeal—even in the case of beautiful e-books displayed on dazzling iPad screens. Art books, publishers note, are often purchased for their design and nuanced layouts as much as for their content. It’s one area where print seems to have a distinct advantage over digital.

Like other publishers, Hudson points to the problems of discoverability for e-books, even in the iBookstore. “You can be the #1 book on the iBookstore and not sell a thousand copies,” he says. Hudson also says that serious print art book publishing “has been subsidized for years by corporations or educational adoptions,” and that publishers need to be patient while the digital market evolves. He notes that he’s now “focused on how a museum can act as a trusted brand and a guide to discoverability,” asking, “How do you use digital to piggyback on print works?” He adds, “I don’t think we’ll come up with a way to get people to pay $75 [for an e-book] the way they would for a print title. It’s going to be a long transition [to a digital marketplace for art books]. The evolution of a sustainable business model is slow.” While there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that digital editions may seed the market and perhaps bring a publication to a wider audience, all the publishers PW spoke with acknowledge that they have no data to support the claim.

Balliet returns to the biggest problem art book publishers face when it comes to selling e-book editions: “Our print books are beautiful objects and they’re usually given as gifts. That’s not what pushes digital. Finding the equivalent in digital to print is still the big challenge. Digital will play an important role in our publishing, but physical books will be with us for a while.”