March 16, 2016

New digital technologies “cut two ways,” at least in art book publishing



The cover of Philodendron, the catalog accompanying an exhibit at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum. The incredibly accurate reproduction of the leaf was achieved with new digital printing techniques. Image via

As someone who used to work in art book publishing, I’ve had more than my fair share of questions about how print books will be adapted for the digital age. As more people switch to ereaders, will the art book become obsolete? Why aren’t art book publishers acting more quickly to deliver their visual content digitally, despite the fact that scrolling through hi-res JPGs of paintings or photographs hardly compares to seeing them on the printed page? And because it doesn’t compare, aren’t art book publishers in a precarious position?

All this to say that Greg Beato’s article in the New York Times today was particularly refreshing. He points out that technology hasn’t just undermined print, it’s also bolstered it in key ways, allowing publishers to produce more complex and beautiful objects. “[A]s art books grow more materially impressive, they remind us that technology’s sword cuts two ways,” he writes. The “tactile immediacy” of the art book has been enhanced by new print technologies that make them thoroughly modern products.

A number of major visual book publishers confirmed the observation.

“Print technologies have gotten so advanced,” Elisa Leshowitz, director of publisher services at D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, told Beato.

“You pick up a book from 1980, something that was considered an important art book back in the day. And you compare the quality of its printing to today’s printing, and you essentially see that we’ve come a very long way. The amount of colors that can be used to replicate an original illustration. The extensive selection of papers available. Things have gotten very exciting.”

And Kara Kirk, publisher of Getty Publications, said: “I like to joke that we’ve started buying mysteries and romance novels as electronic books, but we still have coffee tables where we want to put our prized possessions.”

For Beato, the visually stunning new monographs and museum catalogs “perfectly [encapsulate] a cultural moment…in which a supposed obsolescing technology feels lively and immediate.” With annual ebook sales leveling off last year, I’d suggest that this example of technology “cutting both ways” has significance outside the realm of art books. Print books continue to be our prized possessions, all the more valuable when they’re beautifully produced.



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.