From photocopy to EPUB, artists’ e-books are coming

Badlands Unlimited

The Digital Photobook

“Either I’m missing something or there’s a serious lack of artist-designed apps and e-books.” —Corinna Kirsch, October 12, 2012 (@hereisfantasy)

Kirsch is right. Aside from Badlands Unlimited and a modest if slowly growing number of photographers as featured in The Digital Photobook there is very, very little going on as far as artist-driven digital publishing. I’d been thinking about this for a while myself and even more so over the last month, following a blog post on Art Fag City, also by Kirsch, covering the 2012 New York Art Book Fair and two speakers there, Lucy Lippard and Petra Cortright:

“Lippard made clear in her keynote that she is not happy with how many artists’ books have become so pricey, glossy, and pretty. Zooming in on the history of artists’ books as she lived it—from Xeroxed leaflets to her days at Printed Matter—Lippard described an ethos of the 60s and 70s that saw artists’ books as ‘cheap and mass-produced.’ It was a time when bookmaking carved out a niche for artistic activity, outside the typical art market….

“Still, digital books can be produced and sold at very low price points and are arguably more democratic than, you know, a pricey coffee table book….

“Cut to Petra Cortright reading from HELL_TREE. Published as an unlimited e-book edition, for just $1.99 download, Cortright’s book seems to match Lippard’s interests in the bookmaking community.”

That’s right, there should be a natural affinity between the grassroots, DIY artist book and zine publishing of the past several decades, and digital publishing of today. So, where are all the digital artist books? Here’s my thinking:

Artist books are essentially an appropriation of what was otherwise a popular, commercial form: printed books. I think at least some of what made this movement possible was that the structure of a printed book—its binding, covers, paper, printing—was easy for artists to understand. It sounds simplistic, but they could literally see how a book was made and thereby know how to make their own version. Further, in Lippard’s artist book golden age, the 60s and 70s, printing technology was at a point where a level of mass production was within the reach of the average artist in the form of the photocopier and cheap offset printing. This access to the form and to the methods of production allowed artists to experiment at a fantastic scale and scope. While the quality of this experimentation was surely mixed, eventually it led to what is now a rich and flourishing artistic medium of artist-led publishing.

In the same Twitter thread that started all this, Martin Brink (@martin_brink) of The Digital Photobook suggested that making digital publications wasn’t as easy as Kirsch believed, that it required “a much more complex concept, content and thinking process.” And while he’s right, successful digital publications do require these things, I think this skips over the fact that a simplified and open production process is the first step. Artists need to be able to understand and play with the basic structure of a form before they can successfully conceptualize what to do with it in any meaningful way. This in mind, let’s look more closely at digital publishing.

When you buy and download an e-book from the iBooks store (or Kindle, or Nook, or Kobo, or Sony stores), do you know what the file looks like? Do you know what kind of file it is? If you could even find the file itself, as opposed to just its cover image on your screen, would that allow you to see how it was made? For most people, the answer to all these questions is no. Most readers have no idea what an e-book actually is, let alone, how one is made. And in fact, by its very nature, an e-book’s digital structure is hidden from view—when you open an e-book, you only see its content, not how that content is stitched together.

There remains an air of mystery surrounding the e-book format, due both to the newness of the form, and to some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the major sellers. However, it need not remain a mystery and I think there are a couple of reasons why it won’t.

EPUB is the primary e-book format for every major e-book vendor (with the exception of Amazon who uses a very similar but slightly tweaked and more proprietary format). EPUB was developed and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and is an open specification. There are no licensing agreements or special, proprietary tools needed to make and distribute books in the EPUB format. EPUB is also, at its most basic level, a very simple format that consists primarily of a packaged set of HTML files. The shorthand explanation of how an EPUB is made, goes something like this:

STEP 1: Format your text and images into basic HTML

STEP 2: Combine those HTML files into a series of chapters

STEP 3: Compress the chapters into a single .ZIP package

STEP 4: Rename the .ZIP package as .EPUB, and you have an e-book

Granted, it’s not quite this easy. There are a number of rules you have to follow, and a few other documents needed to add metadata, structure and navigation, but even then, the most obtuse parts of the process are also the ones that can be copied from e-book file to e-book file. The actual content of the e-book, the part that’s different from book to book, is in a very accessible format. Furthermore, e-books that aren’t unduly protected by layers of encryption, can be reverse engineered. Just like you create an e-book by renaming a ZIP file to EPUB, you can rename an EPUB file to ZIP, and open it up just like any other compressed file.

The inherent accessibility and simplicity of the EPUB format is ultimately what will give artists the opportunity to appropriate and experiment with the format. And the fact that it is the industry-standard format will give them motivation to do so. Even more than with print books (whether photocopied and bound, or done through print-on-demand) artists have the ability to create e-books that are, in structure and format, absolutely indistinguishable from those created by the major publishing conglomerates. The playing field is essentially even, and I think artists only need see the opportunity.

Lastly, even if artists aren’t ready or willing to get into the HTML code itself, there are a number of tools being developed that will make EPUB creation increasingly easy: PressBooks is an online e-book creation platform that’s built on WordPress, “so it’s as easy as blogging”; dotEPUB is a browser extension that let’s you create EPUBs from any webpage; and Calibre, a free software that let’s you read and manage e-books, can also convert e-books “from a huge number of formats to a huge number of formats” including from HTML, PDF, and TXT files to EPUB.

As the list of tools, and knowledge about basic digital publishing formats grow, I think it is only inevitable that so too will artists’ work in this field. I hope to be exploring this more with Hol in the future, and have my eyes set especially on the LA Art Book Fair that Printed Matter is working on for February 2013 as an opportunity to do more. And who knows? In the intervening four months—an eternity in digital-publishing time—we may already be seeing many more artists experimenting with and embracing e-books. Fingers crossed.