Tom Sowden: on book arts

In recent years there has been an explosion in artists choosing to make work through the book format. Some artists work exclusively with books whereas others choose to use books for specific projects. Some books are handmade, some are mass produced, while others only exist digitally.

This explosion has been because of a range of factors. Books have become a recognised art form within many degree courses at art colleges, and so artists who have been through this system will naturally think of the book if they are exploring narrative, sequencing, collections or text and image. Because it has become an accepted art form, there is also a growing audience that is receptive and understands the book as an art object.

With the growth in digital technologies, it is also easier and cheaper to produce books. Be this through the ease of printing pages on a printer at home, through to print-on-demand websites that can produce the whole book for you, or even the local high street printer that can print and bind a low-run, high quality edition digitally. There is also the ability to tap into established distribution networks for artists’ books that include through the print-on-demand websites, artist’s book fairs or small independent bookshops.

Production

Within this article I will concentrate on books that have a physical form, rather than e-books, and look at some of ways in which artists’ books can be produced and marketed. From how book production skills can be acquired and where artists’ books can be sold or exhibited, to who collects artists’ books and where you can find other resources and information about them. This is a UK-based look at book-related activities, but it is also popular in many other countries perhaps most notably the USA, which has a very well-established book arts community. The one thing to be clear on in this article is that I am talking predominantly about artists’ books (books that are conceived as an art object) and not the craft of bookbinding, fine press books and book design, although there will, of course, be overlaps!

If you would like to gain knowledge on how to make an artist’s book, or just a book, there are courses available across the UK that will teach you some of the skills necessary. More often than not these courses will revolve around a local book artist, a university or art college, an arts centre, print workshop or bookbinder. Three key places that run many artist’s book courses are London Centre for Book Arts, Hot Bed Press in Salford and where I work, in the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) at the University of the West of England. Hot Bed Press has just announced a course called ‘The Complete Book Artist’. A 30-week course that as well as ‘equipping you with technical knowledge, will challenge you to explore narrative, sequencing, text & image, the relationship between form and content and how you can use the book form to interrogate and push your own practice and ideas.’  In the CFPR, we run a series of evening and summer courses that can equip you with a broad range of skills connected to making books. But a quick Google search of ‘artist’s book courses’ will bring up many more.

As well as Hot Bed Press and London Centre for Book Arts, there are many other print studios around the country that have the facilities to enable you to make books, as well as members that are already engaged in producing artists’ books, meaning you can join a sympathetic network. Studios that I know with active book artists attached to them include Spike Print Studio in Bristol, East London Printmakers, London Print Studio and Edinburgh Printmakers. Because of the close relationship between printmaking and book production, membership of a print studio is often a great place to meet like-minded people and begin book production.

Making a living solely from producing and selling artists’ books is very hard. In the UK there is an audience of collectors, but it is relatively small and often doesn’t have the largest budget. People can be reluctant to spend a great deal of money on a book, and the books that often command the largest prices are those for which the painstaking craft of production it is evident. There is also a general acceptance amongst those of us producing books, that if we were to sell the individual pages as prints, we would make a lot more money than when they are bound into a book. I personally only sell my books through attendance at artist’s book fairs and through my own website, from which I make a very modest income that supplements a full-time research and teaching job.

Workshops

Because making a living from artists’ books is hard, many artists supplement their income by using their book skills. In many instances this is through teaching, either on art-based courses that suit artist’s book production (e.g. Fine Art, Graphic Design, Illustration), or by running short courses such as those at the institutions listed above. These short courses can cover a multitude of different processes, all of which are book-related and can be useful in book production. For example bookbinding, typesetting, screenprinting, rubber-stamping, relief printing, papermaking, pop-up, paper engineering and architectural altered books, are just some of the courses that I know have been offered by fellow book artists.

To set up a course it is often best to make contact with a college, gallery or studio to see if they would be interested in accommodating you to run a course. If they are, then they often take care of bookings and prices and give you a fee to run them. The other way is to find a suitable space, for example a village or church hall or bookable space in a gallery, that you can hire and then advertise it yourself. To advertise any courses you might be running, or to find a course to attend, two of the best places to visit are The Book Arts Newsletter and Artist Books 3.0. The Book Arts Newsletter is produced ten times a year by my colleague Sarah Bodman and is available to download. It is free to list any book arts related activity of your own in the newsletter, including courses, exhibitions and new publications that you may wish to share with a minimum worldwide audience of 3000. To be notified of when the newsletter is available to download, and other book arts related news, contact Sarah via email and ask to be put on the book arts mailing list.

Artist Books 3.0 is a specific artists’ books social network website, that was set up by Robert Heather of the State Library of Victoria, Australia. Again if you join the website you can advertise any book related activity you may be involved in and also join in discussions around the book and make contact with other book artists from around the world. Finally to advertise any courses, don’t forget that posters in the local area and using Facebook, Twitter etc. are also just as good a way to get people interested.

Printing and selling

There is also another way to produce artists’ books that doesn’t require practical making skills, and that is through print-on-demand. I won’t go into too much detail as it is well documented in this article on Artquest but print-on-demand has allowed many people to quickly, easily, and cheaply put a concept into book form. There are heavy restrictions on producing books this way, you are limited on size, paper stock, printing methods and binding choices, but I use it a lot now to produce my books as I like the commercially printed and bound book that can be achieved. I also like that until the point of ordering a copy of my book, it is completely free. It is also a great way to sell your books. Once you have an account with a print-on-demand website, and particularly if you are using one of the big two (lulu.com or blurb.com) then you also have the platform to sell your book. You can set up a storefront on their websites and sell your work from there. You pay nothing for this, the person buying pays once they order a copy of a book, you are told what the base price is and can add the amount of profit that you wish to make. A word of warning, try not to charge too much for a print-on-demand book, regardless of how much effort was put in to making it, I’m afraid these books are never perceived as ‘premium’ products. For example, the most I charge for my books is £25, and that is for the larger books, with colour printed pages. For many of the smaller books, I try to keep them around £10 – £15, similar to the price of a standard paperback book.

Once you have produced an artist’s book, or a series of books, there are other ways to market and sell them. In London the bookartbookshop located on Pitfield Street, is a fantastic shop dedicated to artists’ books. Started by Tanya Peixoto in 2002, this incredible resource has a changing stock of books, exhibitions and events, and can be approached to see if they will stock your book too. They have a selection policy, which includes the need for the books to be produced in larger edition sizes, and it is worth visiting first to see if you think your work would fit. Other small independent bookshops that I know stock and sell artists’ books are Analogue Books in Edinburgh, Good Press Gallery in Glasgow and the Here Gallery and Bookshop in Bristol. Again, make contact or visit their websites to see if they have a selection policy and to see if they are taking new stock.

Art book fairs

The most common way to sell your books is through one of the many artist’s book fairs around the country. These are a great place to not only reach a dedicated audience, but also meet with a like-minded community. The larger and more established book fairs include: The London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery; The Small Publishers Fair at Conway Hall, London; Manchester Artists’ Book Fair at Manchester School of Art; Leeds International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair held this year at The Tetley Project Space; The Artists’ Bookmarket at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh; BABE (Bristol Artists Book Event) held biennially at Arnolfini. This is by no means an exhaustive list as there are many more, and a good way to find out when one is happening, and for much more artist’s book news, is to sign up to the Book Arts Newsletter.

Having a stand at a book fair can cost varying amounts. London Art Book Fair is one of the most expensive, with stands costing from £350 + VAT for the three-day fair. Most other fairs stands are between £80 and £150 and the fairs can last one, two or three days. Some book fairs have a selection policy so that you will need to apply, whereas others are run on a first come first served basis, in which case book early! Many fairs allow for the sharing of stands so that you can split the costs, just remember you are given a table that is roughly 6ft x 3ft, so if there are more than three of you it becomes very cramped. Sharing between two people is the norm. You will also need to factor in travel and accommodation costs if the fair is not near your home. If this all sounds a little expensive, then Artists Book Online might be able to help. As well as selling small edition work (less than 50) through their website (www.artistsbooksonline.com), they often have stands at book fairs that stock work from their members.

Selling through book fairs is also a good way to be noticed by one of the prestigious artist’s book collections, both private and those housed in institutions around the country. Representatives will often attend fairs in order to buy work for their collections. The public or institutional collections are usually accessible, sometimes through appointment, and a fantastic resource to see first-hand some of the iconic books that have been produced over the last 50-60 years. Key collections are housed in: Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum, Chelsea College of Arts, Camberwell College of Arts, Winchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of the West of England and Plymouth University.

Exhibiting

Artists’ books will be shown by some galleries, but unfortunately exhibiting can sometimes be problematic. Books do not always lend themselves to being in a gallery situation (although for many this is the appeal of working in the book format, and one of the reasons that books were used by artists in the 1960s in escaping the rigid gallery system). Books are often produced to be held, allowing for a one-on-one relationship between artist and viewer, and (in many ways) to be portable. In a gallery situation this can be tricky, and although exhibitions of artists’ books are increasing, you may often find that books are untouchable and behind glass. Commercial galleries are not normally interested as the margins are far too small to make it worthwhile. The Eagle Gallery in London and Bank Street Arts in Sheffield regularly show artists’ books as part of their programmes, but most artist’s book exhibitions are located in public galleries (for the bigger shows), small galleries that have bookshops attached (such as Here Gallery), art colleges and libraries. For many, one of the best ways to show and see work is still the artist’s book fair.

If you are interested in finding out more information, there is a list of some other key resources below, but a great resource for all manner of book arts related activity is the Book Arts website run by the CFPR. The website has a host of information on exhibitions, publications, artists, courses and much more, and also where you will be able to download copies of The Book Arts Newsletter.

I hope the above is of help if you are thinking about producing artists’ books or becoming a book artist, but most importantly, I hope that you enjoy working with such an interesting and diverse medium!

Resources

Postgraduate courses

Key publications

  • The Artist’s Book Yearbook, Impact Press, Bristol (published biennially)
  • The Blue Notebook, Impact Press, Bristol (refereed journal, published biannually)
  • Journal of Artists’ Books, The Columbia Center for Book and Paper Arts, Chicago (refereed journal, published biannually)
  • The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker, Granary Books, New York, 2004
  • Booktrek, Clive Phillpot, JRP Ringier, Zurich, 2013

© Tom Sowden, 2014

Tom Sowden is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Fine Print Research, and a lecturer on the MA Multi-disciplinary Printmaking course at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Tom’s areas of research interest include the many aspects of artists’ publishing and laser cutting as a craft tool. A practicing artist, he works across a number of disciplines, primarily with the artist’s book format and video but also printmaking, sculpture and photography.


Similar How to articles


Related articles / resources


Featured project

AWP Internships

AWP Internships is an annual internship scheme that places recent graduates from University of the Arts London in high-quality internships at some of London’s most respected small scale arts organisat …

Read more


Comments