Foreword Reviews

The Art of the Art Book

Getty Publications Embraces the New Publishing Landscape


At the time of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s death in 1976, few could have predicted that the art museum that now bears his name would have a publishing arm with its Virtual Library. But that’s one of the first things created by Getty Publications Publisher Kara Kirk when she came on board about three years ago. Even so, as Kara tells Foreword Reviews Executive Editor Howard Lovy, beautiful, old-fashioned, somewhat pricey doorstops of coffee table books filled with beautiful art will not disappear into anything “virtual” anytime soon.

Are your books always related to art in Getty’s collections?

We are the publisher for the entire Getty Trust, which includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the Getty Research Institute (GRI), and the Getty Foundation, with the incredibly broad mission to further critical thinking in the presentation, conservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy. This gives us the opportunity to publish in such diverse areas as ancient Mediterranean cultures, Southern California architecture, the history of photographic techniques, Chinese cave paintings, new English translations of seminal works in art history, and museum studies. While many of our books feature artwork in the museum’s collection or in the GRI’s special collections, which comprise a vast array of archives, manuscripts, rare books, prints, and photographs, we also publish books relating to exhibitions, programs, research projects, and other activities and interests of all of the programs. We are unique in that we combine the features of a university press, a scientific publisher, a trade press, and a museum publisher.

Tell us about your acquisition process. Do authors pitch you? What comes first: the concept or the beautiful pictures?

It’s a quirky process, because of the range of books we publish and the fact that we are at once an institutional publisher and also actively acquiring books from outside the Getty. Internal projects generally start with the germ of an idea or inquiry, and art is often the focal point, whether it be an exhibition or a research project or a conservation initiative; sometimes it is a combination, like our recent exhibition featuring Jackson Pollock’s monumental painting Mural, which was the subject of a major conservation study and then became the focus of an exhibition at the museum. The Getty programs all work on a global scale, so we also have many interesting opportunities for international collaboration and partnerships; for instance, a book we published this fall on Peter Paul Rubens was a collaboration with the Prado in Madrid. External acquisitions run the gamut: we may find an incredible book at the Frankfurt Book Fair and license rights to translate it into English, or a colleague who knows of interesting work being done might simply connect us with the author. And, yes, sometimes really beautiful pictures inspire us to publish books focusing simply on gorgeous objects: marginalia in medieval manuscripts or insects and flower details in Dutch paintings, for instance. Close-ups not available to the museum visitor can be put in print and prove to be very popular.

Explain the relationship between the museum and the publishing arm. Are your fortunes tied together?

The museum is an active publisher and certainly has the largest—and most diverse—audience for its books. We try to cater to their many different interests, from scholars who are researching works in our collection and tourists visiting a Los Angeles landmark, to others who are visiting the Getty to view a particular exhibition or families who are looking for ways to engage their children in art and museum-going. We benefit by having several on-site shops that sell our books to the more than 1.5 million annual Getty visitors, including a number of books that delve into the history of the Getty itself, its collections, and its ever-popular architecture and gardens. We certainly feel it when attendance lags, but our books sell well in the trade, and we don’t depend on museum visitors to make our numbers work. That said, we are certainly happy when we have the opportunity to publish a title of broad general appeal, such as our forthcoming catalogue on the late work of J. M. W. Turner, produced in conjunction with an exhibition traveling from the Tate in London this spring.

In 2014, you launched your Virtual Library. Tell us what’s in it and who uses it.

I’m so glad you asked about this. The Virtual Library is an online repository of more than 250 Getty publications from our forty-five-year publishing history. Titles are fully searchable and include links to read online, to purchase the print book, to find in a library, or to download the complete PDF. The books cover the gamut of our program, from a catalogue of Cézanne’s watercolors to the definitive translation of Otto Wagner’s modernist manifesto, Modern Architecture, to a catalogue raisonné of the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, to books on important globe-spanning conservation projects, such as the wall paintings of Nefertari’s tomb in Egypt and the conservation of adobe missions in our home state of California. A number of these books are out of print; some of them are still in print, but we saw a value in making their content available digitally to capture a new generation of scholars and readers. We launched a year ago this month and to date have logged over 400,000 unique visitors to the site from all corners of the globe. More than 150,000 books have been downloaded in PDF format. We don’t track specific users, but the titles have been catalogued in a number of academic libraries, and the site has received wide coverage in social media and the art press. We’ve also had a number of scholars and students write to us directly to thank us for creating this resource, which I find especially gratifying. This new avenue of dissemination has breathed life back into titles that we couldn’t keep in print.

When you took over in 2012, you talked about new opportunities for leveraging digital technologies to make your content available. Describe what you’ve done so far and what you plan to do.

The Virtual Library is one example. And we’ve produced a handful of e-books, though there does not seem to be great demand for them just yet. Our audience still seems pretty committed to print, though I have no doubt that this will change over time. In order to better understand what is possible, we are doing some experiments that take advantage of technology to make different kinds of materials available that don’t necessarily work in print—audio and video, layered images, primary documents—in formats that are not necessarily what we’d think of as traditional publications. Historically the printed book has been a very convenient package, but digital formats allow us to rethink our assumptions. Another change is that the museum is no longer publishing scholarly catalogues documenting our collections in print—this material is now disseminated digitally, which allows us to update it as new information emerges and to enhance our presentation as technology evolves. This is both an opportunity—our hope is that many more people will have ready access to this content—and a challenge—for instance, how do we ensure that the digital format is sustainable? It’s still early days, but I’m excited to see how this develops.

In the post-Amazon vs. Hachette world, what should museum publishers take away from the debate over e-book pricing, if anything?

Art books are incredibly expensive to produce, and creating electronic editions of these books is not nearly as straightforward as it is for, say, a novel—it is by no means an automated process for art publishers. If we are not able to recoup these costs through the reasonable pricing of electronic editions, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for this sector to mature.

Art books are not usually on the lower end of the price spectrum. How does the overall economy impact your sales?

Economic factors certainly affect us; our sales dropped as a result of the economic downturn in 2008, as well as a result of the changing nature of scholarly publishing and shrinking library sales. We are more careful about our print runs these days and pay a lot of attention to our price points. It’s a constant balancing act. We are a nonprofit, and our mission is to disseminate the research and scholarship we produce as widely as possible. As a consequence, our price points do not generally give us the kind of margin you’d require at a trade press. On the other hand, we depend on income from sales to underwrite other projects, and if sales shrink, we can’t publish as much.

Is the beautiful, glossy, printed page going away anytime soon?

I really don’t think so. People still have coffee tables, and they still like to linger over beautiful images and great design and not look at a screen all day. Digital books are tremendous, and there are certainly advantages—convenience, portability—but there are also benefits to the printed page that are hard to deny. We are going to be working with a print/digital hybrid model for the foreseeable future.

What do you have coming out in 2015 that has you excited?

We’ve got a great list for 2015. I’m a Francophile, so I’m particularly excited about two we are publishing to commemorate Louis XIV—it’s the three-hundredth anniversary of his death this year: one on prints, which is going to be the definitive book on the subject, and another on tapestries he commissioned and collected. In conjunction with this, we’re also publishing a children’s book on how tapestries are made, which is being illustrated by the supremely talented Renée Graef. And we have the next book in the GCI’s series Artists Materials, which will explore aspects of the conservation of the work of Hans Hofmann. And one more: I was at a launch for a book on Man Ray’s writings yesterday, and the editor has unearthed a lot of terrific material, a great deal of which has never been published in English, including an album he made when he lived in Hollywood.

What keeps you up at night?

Probably the same things that worry all of us: terrorism, global warming, social injustice, race relations. But if I can get my mind off of these problems, a good book is what keeps me up—I will read until I drop.

Howard Lovy

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