Is there a crisis in art book publishing?

Art Data is a specialist art book distributor. It takes up a small warehouse in West London (with another warehouse in Norfolk). When you go inside, the ground floor is full of bookshelves with a mezzanine floor of office space. There were five people there when I visited, sitting at desks or packing boxes. Tim Borton, whom I had come to talk to, started the company in 1978 and is still running it, so I was interested to know what he thought of the current state of the art book market.

Tim Borton at Art Data

My general perception of photography book publishing is that, while there are more books published than ever before, there is a crisis in the business of publishing, apparent in the problems for booksellers (Borders and Waterstones) and the new competition from digital formats. The rise in self-published photography books, in this light, is another symptom of the crisis.

Borton has a slightly different view. Although he does see some cause for concern, it's not clear to him that the market has got smaller. He identifies the single biggest change, not as the crisis in large booksellers, but in the disappearance of the independent bookshops that the book chains killed off. In other words, something that happened more than 20 years ago.

I often find books in specialist bookshops (like those at the Tate or Photographers' Gallery) that I don't find anywhere else or via the web. This is because of companies like Art Data who distribute titles published by international museums (take this Stan Douglas book for example). So, specialist bookshops with well-chosen stock can still provide something you won't find on the web. Borton also says that the web has brought some old titles back into circulation that were otherwise sitting ‘dead’ in a warehouse.

He also explained to me how the art book market is not like the general book market. He identifies a large area of growth in the number of books produced by commercial galleries. These may be nicely produced books but it hardly matters, in a conventional publishing sense, if the print run sells well to the public. The purpose of these books is to sell the artworks or artists they represent.

This is just one example of the many ways in which the art book market is subsidised. Which is also why it can continue even when relatively small numbers of books are sold. Borton says that only maybe four or five of his titles sell more than 3,000 copies. ‘I've got a book I want you to distribute, I'd be amazed if you sell one!’ That, for Borton, would be an encouraging proposition from a prospective publisher: it would at least be realistic.


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