In the current situation some of us have more time—and perhaps more need—to read but fewer opportunities to buy books. High-street shopping is out and digital purchases are limited because, understandably, Amazon is not prioritizing the dispatch of books (in the US it accounts for approximately half of the nation’s book sales). However, art book publishers in particular have a long history of adapting—to tastes, formats and economic environments—and during the covid-19 crisis they are doing so once again.
At houses such as Thames & Hudson, Phaidon and Prestel there has been a weighing-up of options. Some new books are being published—though with inevitably reduced distribution—while others are being moved to the fall or next year. At Thames & Hudson Edvard Munch: An Inner Life will now come out in July, while Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters has been pushed back to September. And as the exhibition schedules for museums such as MoMA, Tate and the Royal Academy reassess their exhibition programs, associated publications are, likewise, being reconsidered.
Most publishers have seen a blow to sales as retail avenues shut down and logistical issues mount. Bloomsbury Publishing, which has a vibrant art and visual culture list—including the first volume of William Feaver’s monumental biography of Lucian Freud—is one such casualty. Some of its illustrated books are printed in China.
Bloomsbury has now released equity in the firm to raise £8.4m to weather the storm. “Retail closures have affected most UK and North America bookshop chains, including the retail branches of Waterstones, Barnes & Noble and W H Smith,” the company stated.
The situation is somewhat regional, however. “Our projects are still proceeding apace,” says Joanna Hurley of Santa Fe-based Hurley Media, an agency that represents and helps create illustrated books (its new photobook, Where the Buffalo Roamed: Images of the New West, is a fittingly apocalyptic survey of the American landscape by Joan Myers). Santa Fe, Hurley explains, is an “active book town” of irrepressible stores: Garcia Street Books is delivering to buyers—or leaving the books outside the store in paper bags—while Collected Works has partnered with Bookshop.org, which shares 30% of its profits with independent stores.
Of course, publishers follow events like cattle to feed. Coronavirus books have already been commissioned. In Britain, Sphere is publishing a collection of essays by science journalists titled A Little Light, which it says will deliver “a new non-fiction take on the covid-19 pandemic” (the e-book is scheduled for June). And in Italy the novelist and physicist Paolo Giordano has caused a stir with his essay How Contagion Works: Science, Awareness and Community in Times of Global Crisis (published in English as a paperback by W&N). Other authors have penned quarantine-themed short stories.
But do art, architecture and design publishers have a place in this phenomenon? Well, most companies are looking to their backlists to promote topical titles. Phaidon is pushing its 2018 volume Shaping Cities in an Urban Age (its authors, Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode, explain that “the downsides of density are most obvious when contagion strikes”). Thames & Hudson, meanwhile, is looking for the silver lining in homebound activity books such as Ways of Drawing: Artists’ Perspectives and Practices and Patchwork & Quilting: A Maker’s Guide. It even suggests that its new interiors title, Making Living Lovely: Free Your Home with Creative Design, can help you “refresh your space in self-isolation”.
Prestel has taken a similar tack. “If you’ve already re-read your old paperbacks several times and you’re fed up of playing Scrabble on repeat, we want to offer you a few alternatives,” it has emailed customers. It is offering Citygami London: Build Your Own Paper Skyline as an origami substitute for visiting London’s most famous buildings in person.
The pandemic could become a genre in art publishing. “Many artists will tackle this outbreak in their works over many years,” says Andrew Hansen, managing director of Prestel. The fallout of coronavirus in terms of the deaths, business failures and new authoritarian powers will, he maintains, be fertile turf for artists. “The trauma of this crisis will leave a new global landscape. I’m sure we will see some very interesting projects in the future.”
“What we do or don’t do is no longer just about us,” says Paolo Giordano in How Contagion Works. A sense of community, he maintains, “is the one thing I wish for us never to forget, even after this is over”. It’s an emotion echoed in the work of British photographer and photojournalist Bill Brandt. In Homes Fit for Heroes: Photographs by Bill Brandt 1939-1943 (now sadly out of print but widely available second-hand) he chronicled the domestic world of wartime lockdown. Brandt, who endured tuberculosis as a child, empathized with his suffering subjects. Perhaps art books will, in time, address the resilience, tragedy and humanity of this moment with the same compassion.