Art of the matter

"We are going through if not the biggest upheaval since Gutenburg, at least the biggest upheaval since the invention of the modern book trade in the 19th century."

Thames & Hudson m.d. Jamie Camplin knows the book industry—he has been at T&H for 40 of the illustrated publisher's 60 years—and is not prone to exaggeration. When he says the above in the course of a conversation about the book trade in general and illustrated publishing in particular, it is a sit up and take notice moment.

He may be right. With the recession, encroaching digitisation and a shaky retail foundation, there is the undeniable sense that the trade is at a crossroads. The received wisdom is that illustrated publishing is one of the sectors that will suffer more than others in the downturn and the new digital age. In the mass market culture, the relatively high price points of illustrated books do not help (average selling price across the category is currently £13.26), and with no e-reader as yet available that can display illustrated books to their full potential, the immediate digital future is uncertain.

Sales overall through the sector have stagnated. After nearly 8% growth in value sales through Nielsen BookScan year on year since 2001, illustrated book sales climbed only 1.5% from 2007 to 2008, up from £64.1m to £65m. Breaking out just the art and photography sub-categories—BookScan's overall art figures include film, television, music, dance and other performing arts—sales declined from £43.2m to £42.9m. Particular subcategories are struggling more. The value sales for individual artists and monographs shrank from £7.6m in 2007 to £7.1m in 2008, architecture from £7.2m to £6.9m, and antiques and collectibles £2.4m to just under £2m. Photography, the largest subcategory, had a marginal increase from £11.76m to £11.84m.

There were double-digit drops in BookScan sales in 2008 for a number of illustrated publishers including Quadrille (–27.3%), Phaidon (–11.5%), New Holland (–13.3%) and Kyle Cathie (–14%). Some publishers are definitely feeling the pinch. Octopus, Anova Books and New Holland all announced redundancies last year. Penguin is considering restructuring Dorling Kindersley after sounding out rival publishers for a possible sale.

Whether 2008 was just a fallow year, or the beginning of an overall trend remains to be seen. Though bestselling art and photography books tend to sell in the low five figures, the past 10 years have seen a number of breakout hits that have driven the sector, including Yann Arthur-Betrand's various Earth from the Air books (T&H), Jack Vettriano's Lovers and Other Strangers (Pavilion) or Phaidon's mini Photo Book.

Yet there was only one real cross­over hit last year, Banksy's Wall and Piece (Century). All editions for the book, which was originally published in 2005, sold 87,363 ­copies and accounted for an astonishing £1m of the individual artists' cat­egory's £7.1m value sales. The second best volume seller after Wall and Piece was Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu (Boxtree) which recorded sales of 20,446 (value was just under £160,000). In value terms the next top seller was Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life, the Tate Publishing companion to a Tate Liver­pool exhibition, which shifted 11,227 copies for sales of £208,000. The bestselling photography title was BBC Books' annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which sold 10,677 copies at the chunky a.s.p. of £19.14 for value sales of £204,000. Fred Dibnah's Building of Britain (Bantam) by David Hall was tops in architecture with volume and value sales of 24,446 and £320,000.

Encouragingly, this year has ­started marginally better for illus­trated publishers. Value sales through BookScan to 18th April 2009 are at £17.6m, a jump of 4% over the same period in 2008. Banksy remains top of the category, the only art and photography title to have sold more than 10,000 copies thus far.

Other revenue
Yet while pressures are undoubtedly real, the UK BookScan data does not pick up specialty sales, which can make a decent chunk of an art publisher's revenue. Art instruction and crafting specialist Search Press, for example, sells a good portion of its books through art specialty shops and clubs. And the full picture of the health of British illustrated publishing needs to take account of coedition revenue and international sales. Thames & Hudson, for example, had value sales of just under £5.4m through BookScan in 2008, just one-sixth of its nearly £30m annual turnover.

Coedition publishing is subject to the global economy and the vagaries of currency fluctuations, but Camplin reports that the market is still stable. He reckons this is partly to do with how a lot of houses go about acquiring books. "For the past 50 years much of publishing has been chequebook publishing," he says. "For many of the big houses, this has clearly worked, and they have become very dominant. But what it does over a period of time is destroy the editorial base of publishing houses. Consequently, there are many publishers around the world, which publish illustrated books, that are bereft of product."

It is not just T&H. Quarto's coedition business had a record year in 2008, accounting for £42.7m of the group's overall £112.7m turnover. Meanwhile, Belinda Rasmussen, m.d. at Carlton Books, says the market has remained steady if not buoyant: "We have seen no reduction in demand from our core markets of Germany, France and Spain."

Digitisation
There will eventually be money to be made digitally, but illustrated publishers are wrestling with how to go about it. Rasmussen says that while Carlton's digital plans are well under way, the publisher is being cautious. She adds: "We are taking our time and being measured. It will become a part of what we do but, this is one area I think it is best not to jump completely in just yet, when publishers haven't yet even resolved issues like which is the best e-book format."

It makes particular sense not to jump right in if the market is almost non-existent for illustrated e-books. The Sony Reader and the Kindle have black-and-white displays only, and while the iPhone does offer full colour, its smaller screen makes it less than ideal. Fujitsu's Flepia, the world's first full-colour e-reader, went on sale in Japan in March, but it seems only geared for the keenest of early adopters: it is priced at an eye-popping ¥99,750 (£644).

While the market seems to be quite a long way from producing a satisfactory handheld digital device, there are many ways to deliver digital content. For years, illustrated publishers have been repurposing content in print. Earth from the Air for example, started as a large format hardback, and has been re-created in T&H's 365 Days series, a stripped-down children's version, a postcard book and calendars. Taschen regularly cycles content through its various series, from its top-end £100-plus XXL format to its cheap as chips £5.99 Icons. 
Illustrated publishers should be able to adopt models that exploit this flexible content, perhaps similar to academic publishing's online platforms. These prospects energise Camplin: "We have the opportunity to produce books in multiple formats, at multiple price levels, that totally suit the marketplace. And since illustrated publishing depends so much on design, there is so much opportunity for digital enhancement."

The golden age?
In fact, Camplin goes even further, suggesting that ongoing digitisation may in part lead to a "golden age" for illustrated publishers. He also notes that society today is more focused on images: "In the UK we have never before been a visual culture and we are now. We were a literary culture, but I think we were when people were living in more leisured times. A strong image has great depth to it, but it is also immediate and immediate stimulus is the mood of our times."

If print is the primary medium for the time being, however, a golden age would need retail support. In the "three-for-two" culture, art and photography books rarely get a look-in at the front of shop, and in the downturn nervous high street bookshops will probably be even less inclined to commit resources and table space to higher priced illustrated books. Yet the ongoing success of Banky's Wall and Piece proves that there is mass-market appeal for at least a particular type of art book. And the public demonstrably have an interest in art. It should perhaps not escape retailers' notice that people are continuing to go to ­museums and galleries in record numbers: there were more than 40 million visitors in 2008, according to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport—more than a season's Premiership football match attendance.

The discount culture has put additional challenges on illustrated publishers in terms of pricing. The cost of producing, say, an £18.99 hardback illustrated title with 200 images sourced from picture libraries or art collecting societies is going to far outstrip the cost of producing an £18.99 novel. Yet, with a public increasingly price aware, that puts more than a bit of pressure to keep prices somewhat artificially low, or find cost-cutting efficiencies.
Yet unlike black-and-white publishing, those efficiencies are rarely to be found in the printing process. "A key part of illustrated publishing is that the book is a beautiful object," says Rasmussen. "If something is done with that process to cheapen it, or make the book look less high quality, people will notice and your brand will suffer. We are lucky in that I think there always will be a market for high-quality books."