How Yale Press Took Over Art Publishing

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Photo by Sagar Setru.

Enter the reception room for Yale University Press’s New Haven office, and, for a second, you might think you’ve wandered into the parlor of a country gentleman’s estate. You’d certainly think so if you saw the mirror on the right wall, whose gold-painted frame is chipped and scuffed just enough to bestow it with an antique grace. Then there’s the brown leather sofa beneath the mirror, its edges studded with brass tacks that pop out like blisters on the upholstery. The mirror’s reflection catches another antique on the opposite wall: an old clock, whose face is the off-white of a worn manuscript.

Cast your gaze over the entire room, though, and your illusion collapses, punctured by cubicles, Venetian blinds, walls of white drywood, fluorescent lights — the accoutrements of office life. Among such drab company, the mirror, the sofa, and the clock would feel out of place, even awkward, were it not for the books scattered throughout the room — propped up on supports, laid flat on tables, lined up on shelves. They form a sort of bridge between the room’s artistic flourishes and the more quotidian elements of office life.

For Yale Press’s Art and Architecture division, the challenge of publishing is just this: forming a bridge between the aesthetics of art and the nitty-gritty of producing and selling books. In this task, they have no peer. Yale University Press (YUP) books regularly win the major prizes of the art book world, with five winners over the past decade for the Alfred H. Barr Award for museum catalogues and four for the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award for works on art history. Even the mainstream media has taken note of Yale’s dominance, with praise coming from prominent national publications like The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle. While the last decade has seen contractions of the art publishing divisions of many of Yale’s competitors, Yale has actually increased its art book output since 2000, and art books make up a larger chunk of YUP’s revenue than books from any other discipline.

Yale Press’s mission statement sets as its goal “the discovery and dissemination of light and truth, lux et veritas.” For its art book division, it’s clear what constitutes the lux et veritas — art itself, as critiqued and celebrated in works from the world’s top museums and scholars. But these works don’t end up on our shelves of their own accord. Their journey is the culmination of 50 years of strategizing, hiring, negotiating, guessing — the stuff of business, not of museums or scholarly tomes. If anything, the story of the rise of art publishing at Yale Press shows that there’s more art to these books than just the lux et veritas between the covers. Publishing, too, has an art of its own.

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If publishing is an art, then, for most of the last 40 years, John Nicoll has been YUP’s premier artist. But that’s not a title the former managing director of YUP’s London office would care to hear. He prefers more prosaic similes. “Publishing books — you’re a midwife to other people’s children,” he says. The 67-year-old from the tiny town of Staveley in the Midlands of England speaks with humility and verve in a crisp British accent.

Whether he’s a midwife or an artist, there’s no doubt that art publishing at Yale owes a great deal to John Nicoll. His combination of business skills, production sense, and editorial finesse, in the words of longtime colleague and former YUP Publishing Director Tina Weiner, “set a new standard” for publishers in the art book industry. But Nicoll might never have come to Yale had it not been for a quirk of fate.

For its first 60 years in existence, YUP published almost no art books. Few scholarly publishers did at that time because of the enormous headaches involved in reproducing images, an obvious prerequisite for almost any book about art. Book printers of the era still relied heavily on a 19th-century technology called hot metal typesetting, which did not accommodate images easily. Color printing technologies did not allow for high-quality reproductions in books. In addition, image reproduction required (and continues to require) extra expenditures for better printing, as well as for permissions fees paid to the museums and collections that own the original artworks. Few scholarly presses could justify the investment of time and resources that art books required.

Nevertheless, YUP found itself thrust into the industry in the early 1970s by a series of events wholly unrelated to the press itself. In 1970, the Mellon family set up in London the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a sister institution to the Yale Center for British Art, whose building, collections, and endowment had all been provided by the Mellon family. The London location initially included a program for publishing books on British art, but financial complications pressed the Mellons into negotiations with Yale University Press to bring the books under publication in London under the purview of YUP editors in New Haven. After the gift of an entire museum, Yale couldn’t refuse.

By 1973, communication issues between New Haven and the Mellon authors had convinced YUP Director Chester Kerr to hire an editor in London for the Mellon books. He chose Nicoll, then a 29-year-old editor at Oxford University Press. Since the Mellon books weren’t so many as to merit full-time attention, Kerr also allowed Nicoll to add a handful of other titles to his list — in other words, to produce more books at his discretion. These titles could come from any discipline, art or otherwise.

Nicoll’s skill set suited the challenges of art book publishing remarkably well. Nicoll loved the aesthetic process of bookmaking. “It’s more interesting for me to print a book that looks good than one that gets good reviews in the Times [of London],” he says. He gained experience in the field as the author of books on the Pre-Raphaelites and the English painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Colleagues also speak to his natural feel for numbers and business. Gillian Malpass, who joined the Nicoll’s staff in 1974 and now works as the Publisher for Art and Architecture at YUP’s London office, says: “‘We’d be sitting around a table and he’d say, ‘Okay, if we do x, y, and z, it’ll cost this,’ and he’d run through the figures. And you’d be sitting there thinking, ‘What’s x?’”

During his first few years, Nicoll began to incorporate art books — in particular, art history books — into the YUP list, hoping for a book that would establish Yale’s reputation in the field. The break came in 1978. Yale released a title by the British architectural historian Mark Girouard called Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. The initial print run was 10,000 copies — “a colossally large print run,” remembers Nicoll today. It sold 180,000 copies and won several of Britain’s most prominent book prizes. “We knew it would do well,” says Nicoll, “but we didn’t know it would do anywhere near as well as it did.”

The next two decades were the golden years for art publishing at Yale, thanks to Nicoll’s shrewd leadership. In the 1980s, he moved most of London’s printing operations out of Britain, first to other parts of Europe and eventually to Asia.

“It was quite an adventure,” he says of the move to Asia. “None of [the employees at the Asian printing houses] spoke English, they all had different currencies, different expectations. But if you were prepared to do it, you could luck out — it would be incredibly well-done for less than you expected.” He also kick-started Yale’s entry into museum catalogue publishing, a market that was just beginning to open up in the early 1980s. Throughout, Nicoll continued to emphasize Yale’s ability to combine excellent scholarship with design that was, in his words, “stylish, classy, sexy.”

Nicoll’s leadership owed much to the force of his personality. Malpass remembers an early encounter with Nicoll in 1973 that, as she puts it, “was absolutely typical of an encounter with John, in that it was both wonderful and terrifying.” A graduate student at Oxford, she had just been hired as a temporary picture researcher and was finding illustrations for a catalogue of works by the British painter John Constable. “[Nicoll] said to me, ‘Why do you think you can do this [job]?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m doing my D.Phil at Oxford in 18th and 19th-century British art.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s all completely irrelevant,’” she remembers with a laugh. That’s not to say that Nicoll had a mean streak. “He’s an incredibly charismatic figure, with this incredible physical and intellectual presence,” adds Malpass, “and he’s all the while very nice to you.”

Was there any sense that the good times would end? “Absolutely not,” says Nicoll. “Things just got better and better.” And then, the market changed.

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The turn of the millennium brought unsettling shifts in the art book world. Most significant of these was the rise of the superstore. Serious art publishers had relied heavily on sales at independent bookstores that could cultivate a clientele with an appreciation for scholarship. But superstores like Barnes & Noble tended to prefer “promotional books” — cheap to produce, easy to sell, and wholly without serious content — over more scholarly works. As these superstores started to gain market share and squeeze independents out of business, serious art publishers lost a large portion of their trade or non-academic audience.

The commercial side of the publishing industry took the worst hit. As for-profit institutions, commercial presses require higher profit margins to survive. Thus, houses like Abrams — formerly Harry N. Abrams, the first publisher in the U.S. to specialize in art books — found themselves forced to retrench. Under the direction of CEO and President Michael Jacobs, who is incidentally a current Eli Whitney student at Yale, the size of the Abrams Books imprint — art, architecture, and a hodgepodge of other subjects — has fallen from 125 books in 2004 to 80 today. In contrast, commercial art publishers who have grown substantially in this market have done so with books that, while well-designed and produced, are styled and promoted in ways that publishers like YUP would never countenance. The German publisher Taschen’s best-known titles from the last few years include Norman Mailer’s Moonfire: Lunar Rock Edition, a special edition of a book about the moon landings that came with pieces of the moon, and The Big Butt Book, a photographic paean to, well, big butts. “Taschen’s books are interesting and flashy, very arresting,” says Jacobs, “but I think they have, in my opinion, low-caloric content.” Though a nonprofit, Yale has also suffered from the changes crippling its commercial competitors. Trade markets for Yale books have shrunk substantially. “I remember phoning up Tina Weiner 10 years ago and her saying, ‘You don’t have to worry. For even the most scholarly book, I will always be able to sell minimum 2,000 copies [in America],” says Malpass. Today, some of Yale’s most scholarly works sell 500 copies worldwide. In addition, outside funding to offset costs like translation, image permissions, and printing has mostly dried up. One Yale Press author recently had to pay $25,000 of his own money to pay image permissions costs for his work. “The funding sources aren’t there anymore,” says Patricia Fidler, Publisher for Art and Architecture at the YUP New Haven office. “It’s jeopardizing art history as a discipline.”

Compared to its competitors, though, YUP is in decent shape. Its dominance in the art book industry remains unquestioned. Reviewing 2004’s best art books for The San Francisco Chronicle, critic Ken Baker wrote, “In 2004, a publisher rather than a single book merits singling out as the year’s best: Yale University Press…. In recent years, it has taken an almost unchallenged lead in art books.” In addition, the size of Yale’s art book list has actually increased over the last 10 years, reaching as high as 180 titles for fiscal year 2011. Yale is only handling distribution for half of these books, mostly exhibition catalogs. Under these arrangements, the museums running the exhibitions edit, design, and produce their catalogs, while Yale organizes the process by which the catalogs go from printers to bookstores. Distribution arrangements carry far less risk for Yale, since they require a much smaller financial investment from YUP, so it’s noteworthy that most of the expansion of the Yale list over the last 10 years comes from distribution-only arrangements.

Yale’s stability owes to a handful of built-in advantages. The foundation built by Nicoll means that, as Fidler puts it, “we don’t have to convince people we know how to do it.” Its nonprofit status allows it to publish books whose expected sales aren’t large enough to draw interest from commercial publishers. In addition, the London office still attracts top European authors because, unlike many European publishing houses, Yale doesn’t need to buy the rights to sell their books in America, by far the biggest market in the global book industry.

Yale has also benefited from expanding its museum publishing program over the last two decades. Today, Yale enjoys publishing partnerships with 17 museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London. Exhibition catalogues make up 50% of the YUP list. They also tend to reach a wider audience than Yale’s more scholarly works, a large reason why art books earn more revenue for Yale than books from any other discipline.

Much of the credit for Yale’s success in this field goes to Fidler, who came to YUP New Haven in 2000 with a particular expertise in exhibition catalogue publishing. As with Nicoll, her arrival was timely. In the 1980s and 1990s, art presses like Yale had to submit bids for every catalogue they wanted to publish. With this model, museums hoped to secure for each catalogue the best publisher at the best price. By the late 1990s, though, it was clear the approach was backfiring. The competition for big catalogues “was getting disgusting,” says Sherry Babbitt, Director of Publishing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Numbers were being inflated, bad vibes were being tossed around. The bidding wars for one or two [major] titles each year was counterproductive.” Meanwhile, presses weren’t even bidding for catalogues for smaller exhibitions that couldn’t sell as widely.

The publishing partnership model circumvents these difficulties. For every exhibition catalogue put out by Yale’s 17 partner museums, Yale serves as the sole distributor, organizing the process by which books go from printer to bookstore. In this way, museums can take advantage of Yale’s distribution and marketing staff, which specializes in academic and international audiences. Yale also handles the editorial process for smaller museums that lack the resources to build strong in-house departments, while providing advice in a more limited capacity to editorial departments at some larger museums. Moreover, in the absence of bidding wars, museums that sign onto exclusive partnerships don’t have to worry about their smaller books being ignored. Says Babbitt, “I have books that are 60 pages, but I never felt that [Yale] gives them any less attention than the blockbuster catalogues.”

When Fidler arrived at YUP, Nicoll and Weiner had just clinched a partnership with the Met, to add to deals with the National Gallery in London and several smaller museums put in place during the 1990s. Control over these deals transferred thereafter to New Haven under Fidler, who built the catalogue program up to its current strength. A handful of other full-size presses — University of California Press, MIT Press, and British publisher Lund Humphries, to name a few — publish museum catalogs, but none have a lineup to exclusive partnerships to match Yale’s. Only in the realm of modern art does Yale give ground, mostly to the New York-based Distributed Art Publishers, a distribution-focused company whose clients include the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Fidler’s success in museum catalogue publishing has granted her something of a reputation of her own. “Patricia is one of the outstanding people in publishing today,” says Michael Sittenfeld, now at the Met, who worked with her as Publishing Director at the Jewish Museum in New York. It has also helped ensure that the Yale name remains strong as ever. Says Babbitt, “[The Philadelphia Museum of Art] is honored to be associated with what I feel is the finest art book publisher in the world today.”

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As significant as the changes of the last decade in art publishing have been, they pale in comparison to the digital revolution looming ahead. E-books are already well-established in the mainstream publishing world, constituting 8 percent of 2010 trade book sales in the U.S. Up to now, however, they have yet to penetrate the art book market. E-readers like the Kindle are mostly made to accommodate text-based designs and lack the image quality and design flexibility that printed books can provide.

The advent of the iPad provides publishers with the first electronic platform that fits the needs of art books. But taking advantage of the iPad presents a host of new challenges. Within the industry, there’s great uncertainty over how to make an electronic art book that fully takes advantage of the digital medium — a book that, as Malpass puts it, “doesn’t feel like a translation of a printed book.” Nor is there a clear consensus on how to manage image reproduction in the digital age. Many museums are placing high-resolution reproductions and details of works in their collections online, most prominently through the newly launched Google Art Project, which has digitized the collections of 17 museums worldwide, including the Met and the Tate Britain. But the high cost of permissions fees for electronic images will force companies to be judicious in figuring out how to incorporate these resources into their works.

A handful of presses have taken the lead in the search for these questions. This January, a consortium of presses from four universities — the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, Duke University, and the University of Pennsylvania — received a $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that, as part of its mandate, will promote digital approaches to art history publishing. “We’re really looking to push the conversation forward because, if we don’t, [art history publishing] will be that much further behind,” says Ellie Goodman, executive editor at Penn State University Press. Meanwhile, on April 1, the Museum of Modern Art released its first e-books for the iPad. As for Yale, the press has some digital projects in the pipeline, but it has yet to release anything.

Yale Press will transition to the digital age without one of the most important figures in the division’s development. John Nicoll left the press in 2003. He spent the last two years of his tenure at Yale doubling as managing director of illustrated books press Frances Lincoln in place of his late wife, who passed away in 2001, and he now works there full-time.

What will become of art publishing at Yale? The rise of the e-book has made eulogies to the printed book a favorite trope among contemporary Luddites, though it will take some time for the e-book to completely push out such a cultural staple. But that’s no reason to wait as the digital medium grows more and more pervasive. The bridge that Yale Press’s books form in the YUP offices — between the mirror and the beige cubicles, the brass-tacked sofa and the drywood walls, the antique clock and the air ducts that snake across the ceiling — matters for more than just decoration. Whether electronic or print, we need good books, and we’re counting on YUP to deliver them.

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