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How Publishers are Responding to Changes in the Publishing Environment

Module by: Lawrence McGill. E-mail the author

At least one press, Cambridge, has decided to cut by at least half the number of books it publishes in the area of art history, due to changes in the publishing environment over the past decade. As one source pointed out, this is likely to have a major impact on the field. "Everyone was counting on [Cambridge] to publish 35 monographs per year." But with Cambridge’s commitment to art history publishing having declined, this source asserts that "the era of cranking out books to support the tenure system is GONE." [source’s emphasis]

Other factors contribute to this contention, of course. While Cambridge has decided to cut back on art history publishing, other publishers have altered their approach to publishing in this area in ways that pose significant challenges to art history scholarship. For example, at more than one press, titles that have cross-disciplinary potential are now favored over more traditional sorts of art history scholarship. One editor said, "We try to envision multiple audiences for books; for example, books that will reach readers in both the arts and sciences." Books are preferred that take "a conceptual approach to history, as opposed to a narrative or empirical approach." According to this source, the focus on interdisciplinary works allows the press to be "more intellectually current and agile" than other presses publishing in the field.

Another source said that changes in the field of art and architectural history itself are driving publishers towards the publication of more interdisciplinary works. "Art historians are working in so many areas now that it is hard to define art historical problems as different from the sorts of problems that could be found amongst other fields in the humanities. The boundaries in the field have come down in many ways. Students and teachers read outside of the field now. It is a good idea for publishers to create books that combine authors from different specializations and with different voices in an interdisciplinary way. But then the problem for the bookstore is finding a rubric for labeling the book that permits it to be categorized in a salable way. Perhaps art books that combine the field of art history with other disciplines in the humanities could sell better than books focused purely upon art history."

The source quoted previously, whose press strives to reach "multiple audiences" with their art history-related titles, agrees that books labeled "art history" do not tend to sell as well as books labeled more generically as "art," or even better, as "art/science." She says that her press’s strategy of publishing more interdisciplinary books has worked well, as her area generally exceeds sales goals. The academic titles she publishes are "much more likely than before to meet the needs of authors in adjacent fields." As a result, "the sense of crisis in art history publishing is not felt that acutely at the Press," due to the intellectual flexibility of the Press in this area.

While such a strategy may be relatively successful from the standpoint of total sales, it may inadvertently be exacerbating the problem of declining sales to university libraries. As one source noted, "[Library] funds allocated for a specific area such as Medieval Studies have to be spent on medieval books, not interdisciplinary studies incorporating medieval topics."

But for other presses publishing in the field, the commitment to publishing traditional scholarly monographs remains strong. As one source put it, "Our reputation as a scholarly press is based on our commitment to publishing monographs." In fact, at this press a conscious choice has been made to move away from publishing exhibition catalogues and "coffee table books," in favor of publishing works dealing with "the historical, social and anthropological aspects of art history." In order to do this, though, the standard illustration program for works in art history has been revised to reflect the reality of rising reproduction costs. The plan at this press is to eschew the more elaborate illustration programs that have accompanied many works of art history in recent years, in favor of "handsome, black and white, argument-oriented monographs."

One of the biggest hurdles facing the press, according to this source, is "the production-related expectations of authors." The practice at the press now is to talk with authors at the proposal stage about what sorts of treatments are within the realm of possibility and which are not. The press then typically presents authors with two scenarios for publication, with associated cost estimates: an optimal illustration plan and a minimal illustration plan. Then, an agreement is signed with the author based on an understanding that the plan to be enacted will depend upon the resources available at the time of publication. As is the case at most presses, it is largely the author’s responsibility to acquire subvention money to cover illustration costs, although the press will assist by filling out forms, tracking the process, issuing invoices, taking money in, monitoring the dates when subsidies are due, and so forth.

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