Art Publishers Look to Yale Press for Glimpse Into Their Digital Future

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Art Publishers Look to Yale Press for Glimpse Into Their Digital Future
By Jennifer Howard
October 15, 2012

A year ago, Patricia J. Fidler didn’t see much good news for scholarly e-books in art, art history, and architecture. There weren’t many of them, they didn’t sell well, and obtaining the rights to produce all those images digitally created headaches for both publishers and authors. They also hadn’t caught on with scholars. “There is a huge resistance in academia to e-books, especially in art and art history,” says Ms. Fidler, the publisher of Yale University Press’s art and architecture list.

Those problems haven’t vanished. The world is not suddenly awash in best-selling, lavishly illustrated, academic e-studies of French Impressionists or midcentury modern architecture. But Ms. Fidler’s feeling encouraged. What’s changed her mind? Recents shifts in the museum, technology, and rights-management worlds have made her think that scholarly art-history publishing has a promising digital future after all.

Museums are opening up more images to scholars to use for free. The Getty Foundation is leading an ambitious five-year project called the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative to help museums use Web-based technology to present their collections online. Software like Apple’s iBooks Author is making it easier to play around with image-rich digital publishing. (Getty Publications has used this tool to create a forthcoming digital book for the iPad, publisher Kara Kirk told me.)

Money also helps a publisher feel optimistic. In September the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the Yale press a $195,000 planning grant to support intensive research into how to make digital art-history publishing work better.

Right now, the press has to find outside financial support for every art-history monograph it publishes, according to Ms. Fidler. “We’re looking to find a viable business model along with a viable electronic book that deals with heavily illustrated material,” she says.

Nobody knows yet what such a book looks like. “One of our goals is to figure out what people want in an electronic book,” she told me. Using the Mellon grant, the press will survey scholars and ask them, “What would you like to do with your content that you can’t do with a printed book?”

In its search for workable models, Yale will also be talking to librarians, museums, and artists’ groups such as the Artists Rights Society, which represents more than 50,000 visual artists and artists’ estates worldwide.

“Can we look at new models for the way in which rights and reproductions can be handled?” Ms. Fidler asks. “Because frankly we won’t go anywhere if there’s not some movement in the costs that authors have to absorb at the moment.”

Those costs can hit a humanities scholar’s research budget hard. According to Linda Downs, executive director of the College Art Association, image permissions and licensing costs for a 200-page art-history book average $7,000 to $10,000. Authors usually have to cover those costs themselves. Scholars in disciplines that aren’t so visual might jump at the chance to publish in both print and online formats, Ms. Downs told me in an e-mail. But “art historians will choose one or the other” because they might get hit with two sets of permissions fees and other restrictions.

Ms. Fidler sees small signs that the rights situation is getting more author-friendly. For instance, some museums have made it easier, and cheaper, to reproduce images they own. The National Gallery of Art recently decided to offer free access to digital images of public-domain objects from its collections. Those images “are now available free of charge for any use, commercial or noncommercial,” according to the gallery’s new open-access policy.

Ms. Fidler calls the gallery’s decision “a major sea change” in the field. The gallery joins other museums, including the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, and the Yale Center for British Art, that have opened up some image permissions in recent years. Several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Research Institute, also participate in ARTstor’s Images for Academic Publishing program, which makes select images freely available for scholarly publication.

More Optimism
Having a few thousand images from museum collections freely available will not transform the academic art-publishing market, but it helps. Ms. Downs says image costs remain high. But Susan M. Bielstein, executive editor for art, architecture, and ancient studies at the University of Chicago Press, told me that she’s noticed a shift in the rights market lately.

Five years ago, rights costs were often prohibitive for authors, she says. But as rights-clearance groups have gotten a better feel for the e-book market, “the prices have been dropping,” she says. Anthony Burton, the press’s illustrations editor, says via e-mail that image brokers have “become a bit more realistic in the fees they charge for e-book rights,” and in some cases will waive fees or include them with print rights.)

Ms. Bielstein says that the e-book market, while still tiny, is expanding—more cause for optimism. Three years go, she said, the Chicago press estimated it would sell 35 to 50 copies of an electronic book. “Now we’re looking at closer to 110,” she said. “Even though the specific numbers are modest, the rates of change are explosive.”

Much of the Chicago press’s work in electronic art-history publishing isn’t fancy or born-digital yet. They do e-book versions of print books or put backlist books online. Ms. Bielstein hopes Yale’s explorations can help answer what an online art book can really do—what sorts of enhanced functions it will provide, what kinds of scholarship it can enable. Will art e-books include hyperlinks that take a reader to bibliographic information? Will they successfully incorporate streaming video or 3-D models, as the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians has done with articles? “We’re all very curious to see what develops at Yale,” Ms. Bielstein says.

Yale’s Ms. Fidler sounds more excited than daunted by the challenge. “I feel fundamentally different than I would have a year ago,” she told me. “Maybe with all of us trying to lead toward a different future for this discipline, it might actually happen.”