The week before last provided an enlightening conference convergence, as the annual Tools of Change meeting coincided with a panel deep beneath the New York Public Library’s main building. The latter, linked, I believe, to the College Art Association conference, was called The Future of Art Book Publishing (full audio is here) and had representatives from different parts of the art book ecosystem speaking with great optimism–and defiance–about the prospects for this niche’s survival.
What I found most interesting at the Art Book panel, despite the indisputably declining sales described by Margaret Chace of Skira-Rizzoli, was the fact that art books are being sold in more outlets than ever before–not just museums, but stores like Anthropologie and pop-up shops mentioned by Charles Kim of MoMA. This is a critical innovation (a “tool of change,” even?), as large physical bookstores seem to enter their death throes and Amazon becomes nearly ubiquitous. If the ability to touch a book is unmatched for leading to sales, I would expect this to be doubly so for art books. Especially, as Sharon Gallagher of D.A.P. forcefully stated, if the future form of the art book, whatever that is, will still have a bookish-ness about it, will still have pages. (Gallagher told a story about her book-industry husband berating a shopper at P.S.1’s store, who asked if he could just buy said book at Amazon. You can not, the outraged husband said, buy this particular copy at that particular online seller. It’s a good thing the guy didn’t also want his parking stub validated.)
I mention that anecdote because it’s exactly the kind of preciousness that is so anathema at Tools of Change, which is insanely content-agnostic. The text being provided isn’t the point, it’s the delivery, getting it out to the audience, having the audience come and find it. Declaring that art book publishing is special and must survive is like telling a non-anthropic-principle cosmos that it’s humanity’s destiny to explore the universe. (Try saying that to an onrushing meteor.) My point isn’t that art books aren’t special–Tools of Change had panels on the importance of literary endeavors in digital publishing, and even an entire day devoted to self-published authors, many of whom are poets and lit novelists–it’s that the modern publishing environment doesn’t care what you make. Just make it available and discoverable. (And good.)
If January’s Digital Book World conference was obsessed with Fifty Shades of Gray as the bogey-Bildungsroman, then Tools of Change couldn’t shut up about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which apart from being a critical and monetary smash, was also an example of the new kind of word-of-fingers-on-keyboards that everyone says is necessary to generate sales in this era. Flynn herself wasn’t active in social media, but her potential readers were, and that’s the key. Tools of Change had an entire panel with Goodreads’ CEO, Otis Chandle, which hit all the expected points, as his company is reaching a certain critical mass in book discoverability. (I myself spent this past long weekend obsessively entering books I’d read into the Goodreads system, and it was a great memory-jogger about books I like but can’t always name when asked.) But there was also a panel with Owen Teicher, president of the American Bookseller Association, who, other than an extended raspberry to the Department of Justice for favoring Amazon’s business practices over the publisher-Apple agency model, was unfailingly positive about what bookstores, especially indies, are doing to merge digital reading with physical sales. (Note to self: walk down to the Met’s store, which just re-organized its book area, and see what the book-sales traffic is like.)
Tools of Change has always been more philosophical than Digital Book World, squishier in a good way, more alive with the buzz of the moment. This year’s buzz, as I mentioned in my DBW post, is about audience and discoverability, and I was particularly interested in panels which described discovery not just in digital (Goodreads, social media) but in physical terms. Or, better yet, a hybrid of both (“hybrid” being the buzzword-in-waiting). Two panels bookended (sorry) this approach. The first, “Books at the Block Party: The Economics and Outcomes of a Local Literary Economy,” on the conference’s first day, was an open-ended discussion about connecting with book audiences, with experts from digital media (Tumblr), libraries (the Darien library system), audience-building for authors (Booksquare, We Grow Media), and an author (Kevin Smokler, who’s trying to do for reading what every museum should try to do for art long audiences once cared about because it was on a test, but have long since forgotten).
This panel featured the enthusiasm, optimism, and desire for hard work that really makes you glad to have chosen that particular panel over the other possibilities at a crowded conference. One particular quote, from Smokler, really stuck with me: “Publishers: teach and train your authors to have the mindset of the value of connecting with individual readers.” What are we, in museum publishing, doing to connect our authors/curators with potential readers? Sure, we’re getting their content out there, but are we working closely enough with other museum departments–communications, events, membership–to ensure that these words in our books are a part of the community? This excellent panel made me want to organize every content creator in my institution over a really big breakfast and brainstorm until we were ready for lunch.
The second panel I wanted to mention was “Beyond Devices: Is The Real Value Of eBooks Social Engagement?” It was on the conference’s last day, when everyone was tired, a flu was going around, and three days in a New York hotel was just getting a bit much. An eclectic mix of different panelists (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a former agent, a book marketing consultant, a social-media-for-book-events entrepreneur, and a book club empowerment organizer) met in the same small room as the panel above and had a similar enthusiastic discussion of just what “digital reading” means: is it physical reading improved by digital communities, or just plain reading on a device? The answer, I think, by lack of a formal answer, was “whatever the audience wants digital reading to be.” For those of us in museums, struggling with what form the art book of the future will take, that’s the right answer. The fact that we were already looking beyond devices, those precious must-have thingies that launched a million very dull arguments, was promising. I found strange connections between a panel called “Creators and Technology Converging: When Tech Becomes Part of the Story” and Charles Kim’s description of some of MoMA’s plans for ebooks. Both were finding possibilities apart from platforms. Paul Chan, who discussed his Badlands Unlimited imprint at the NYPL art-book panel, would have been a perfect fit here or at the author-day track, as his DIY object-making operation was an inspiring analogue to every would-be publisher or app-designer trying to Kickstart their way out of inertia.
There were plenty of other interesting panels, but a discussion of all of them could last as long as the conference itself. In some ways, far more rewarding were the conversations with panelists and attendees outside of the ring of ballrooms surrounding the Death-Star-like central core of the Marriott Marquis. I liked the idea of one panelist that a place like the Met needs to “hack the typical large-museum experience” and make it easier for the tourist or even local-with-an-hour-to-kill to get inside, see something inspiring, buy something, and get out. A place like the Met should be awash in local-oriented events, this person said; and those events should be online and simulcast, other attendees told me. The Met was seen as an imposing edifice but full of possibility. Is this the way a graffiti artist might view an enormous limestone wall, or the way an entrepreneur might view an open but hungry market? Well, that’s the trick that will actually determine if the Future of Art Book Publishing is written from the publisher’s point of view or from the audience’s. The former will always require development funds and subvention, the latter a desire to meet the community at the intersection of digital and physical realms, where the museum is a portal to an infinite world of art, history, scholarship, inspiration, and possibility. I love my fellow art book publishers but I’m putting my money on the latter.