words Kester Rattenbury
Considering how highly books are respected, it’s strange how little is known about the mysterious world of publishing. Journalist and author Kester Rattenbury probes the arcane workings of a dilettantish industry and argues that while publishers are fighting to be noticed on the mass market, the very nature of the book is changing.
It’s not possible to get anywhere ahead of Rem Koolhaas. Having opened up the publishing market with S,M,L,XL, architecture’s one and only best-seller, he’s moved the book-as-project, and publishing culture, into new areas. His latest venture, the £6.99 series book Content, designed with the designers of lad-zine Jack, has all the usual graphic inventiveness but a new economic and cultural agenda. It contains ads for Prada, Gucci and the European Union and is intended to be bought as casually as a cheap fanzine for its hot, funny imagery. Serious text is slipped in by stealth. As a proactive, exploitative analysis of the books market, it’s spot on.
The introduction of each new media is accompanied by reams of hype and analysis. The birth of the internet generated hysterical speculations about how it would change the world. Serious media studies courses parse new and new-ish media: newspapers, radio, TV, advertising and the internet. They probe who owns them and systematically analyse their content and production. And quite right too, given how massively such media shape, inform, define how we see the world. But books, the oldest, most durable and most high-code of all, have somehow more or less escaped such scrutiny. Like alcohol as compared to drugs, they’re simply too old and well-accepted to be regarded as the dangerous mind-altering things they really are.
That is, unless you’ve actually produced a book yourself. This is a bewildered account from a newcomer of what seems an extraordinary, arcane business, with huge cultural influence and some rather odd things going on behind the scenes.
Our representations – our books, drawings, journalism, images – define what we actually think subjects like architecture are, as well as providing and shaping most of information about it. Books are the most respected of all these media. People like Mark Wigley or Charles Jencks argue that the production of a book is the ultimate, really architectural activity; the thing that defines and immortalises the activity of architecture; that sorts out who goes down in history and who doesn’t. Books are central to our culture. Yet they are produced through a system we know next to nothing about.
As someone with long experience as an architectural journalist, I was rather shocked by my first encounters with the world of publishing. It was much easier to land a book contract – several book contracts, in fact – than it was to get an article into a magazine. And once you’d got it, you had, generally speaking, far less support, and a far less clear system to negotiate. And the deadlines, though widely spread, arrived in unpredictable, highly pressured batches that made journalism seem like a relaxed picnic.
Journalism is, of course, hugely limited, partial and biased. The huge companies that produce it have their own political and economic agendas, which filters through the production structures, partly through invented conventions called news values, which massively privilege glamorous, slightly but not too unusual, cusp-fashionable or mainstream aesthetic development over any other possible social, political, cultural or aesthetic agenda. And it’s run in a gossipy, underpaid, casual way that means we all write about our mates (hi, everyone). It’s systematically biased.
But after a few encounters with the publishing world, magazine journalism seems like a model of probity. In a well-run trade rag, your copy – anything you write – will be read by the section editor (the news, features, or reviews editor, who’s hopefully up on the subject), proofread by at least three, properly paid sub-editors who are usually very experienced in their subject. (Sub-editing, it should be noted, routinely attracts clever, creative people as a well-paid day job.) Anything controversial will usually be read by the editor as well. When you enter the world of book publishing, there’s an uncanny feeling that anything you write might actually get into print having been read by maybe two people. And you have to hope they are conscientious and well-informed, because they’re probably being paid half what the magazine subs are getting.
This may be unrealistically pessimistic. Academic books, for instance – which operate on a different system, effectively subsidised by the universities who require their salaried academics to produce books – actually go through an academic peer review system before selection. But as a mere author, book production feels gappy, with greater responsibility falling on the individual, and worse pay for everyone at the coalface. As an author, your income probably won’t pay for your phone calls – an advance for a whole book seems to be around what you would expect for a couple of magazine articles. And comparatively low pay extends through the industry: The best-paid jobs, apparently, are in newspaper publishing; then in magazine publishing, with book publishing at the bottom.
This is in critical inverse to their cultural status. The extraordinary, pervasive, high status of the book is linked through sheer age and tradition to the weirdest and most arcane of economics. Publishing today is the relic of an altruistic or dilettante gentleman-artistic endeavour, and though now being taken over by accountants, its current rush for the mass market looks astonishingly ill-informed. Nobody knows who buys architectural books. The publishers simply don’t do market research. Amazingly, given the sophistication of consumer profiling and the apparent ease with which this information could be compiled and analysed, they just don’t bother.
Instead, publishers play a peculiar, increasingly cautious form of follow-my-leader. They observe books that already appear to be selling reasonably well elsewhere, and replicate them. Taschen’s “brick” format for example – 1000 objects and so on – was copied endlessly. More generally, the market is flooded with big, hardback, interchangeable books on modern houses. The publishing market is only to be shifted from this spiral of self-copying by a few, relatively radical projects that are, often and almost inevitably, produced by small, independent or very new publishing houses – many of them foundering in the process.
The books they produce are often picked up wholesale after the independent’s collapse, or partnered by a larger publisher who (with all of the hard work already out of the way) can afford to put them out at relatively low risk to themselves (examples include Cedric Price’s Re: CP being put out by Birkhauser after August Media folded, and Nigel Coates’ A Guide to Ecstacity being put out by Laurence King). Other projects are done fairly independently by their editors or graphic designers, and offered as a more or less complete package. The current, graphics-heavy drive of the top-of-the-range publishers is thus built partly on the bones of small firms who’ve gone under in the process.
But of course, our current, world-dominating generic leader is S,M,L,XL, by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau. It is our greatest contemporary book publishing phenomenon. It is most famous for its graphic remodelling. As the book’s editor, Jennifer Sigler, said at the Florence conference where we discussed these issues: “Bruce, in 10 minutes, changed publishing for ever.” Listing the designer as equal to author/architect on the billing; mixing scrapbook/graphic novel/graphics/practice review/speculations; it suggests that the book can be read in different ways: straight through, as reference, as graphic object, as big tease. Polemic, narrative, jokes and info are trailed throughout. Like all Koolhaas’ work, it spawned imitations so quickly that it’s already a genre of its own.
Actually, though, it’s not S,M,L,XL’s format that is so astonishingly innovative. It is a brilliant example in architecture’s own highest-code genre: the Book-as-project, which runs from Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architectura to Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau with Amédée Ozenfant (from which whole pages of Vers Une Architecture were lifted); or Oeuvre Compléte, which is how author Alan Powers evokes the eminent heritage of the project book. Powers adds that it’s “an architectural version of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel of the absurd Tristram Shandy, which uses graphics when words fail”. It’s a curious formula mixing polemic, graphics, self promotion, built and unbuilt projects. But it’s a model that has existed as long as the book itself. The huge architectural status of such projects perhaps argues that those who can reason and experiment with form in both books and buildings are indeed on another level.
But the thing that gave S,M,L,XL its contemporary sharpness was its unprecedented, massive sales. The first, high-cost edition (at around £100, as I recall) of 30,000 copies (a standard large run for architectural books) sold out in months. Its much cheaper reprint of 70,000 has also sold out. That makes it architecture’s only bestseller – at around the circulation of a respectable novel. (First editions are selling on Amazon for just under $500.) It’s a huge impetus for the market to follow – especially as it has no other means of predicting its future sales.
This massive success is surely because it overturns one of publishing’s usual conventions. Publishers tend to pigeonhole books and focus them on one market (design-led rather than text-led, for instance; or student rather than professional). S,M,L,XL ignores this and goes for all architectural markets at once. If you like reading about buildings, there’s lots of content. But it looks like a design-led book, so it appeals if you – like so many of architecture’s book audience – never actually read it, but just look at (and copy) the pictures. And it’s a cool, cultish object, with the names you need to know writ large on the cover, so it’s a must-have household object for the design-conscious. And all of this makes it interesting as a project, so if you’re interested in architecture conceptually or intellectually, it’s essential to have an opinion about it. It’s maximised its market precisely by ignoring one of publishing’s structural conventions.
The success of the S,M,L,XL architect’s-own-book format is probably partly what’s pushing the architectural monograph out of the market. Monographs are entirely the other side of the coin: they have tiny and unpredictable sales. If the normal print run for a general architectural book is 30,000, the normal print run for a monograph is 5000. The normal deal between publisher and architect would be that the architect provides all the drawings, all the photos, that there is no copyright to be paid on the images – these make up almost all the problems and all the costs of architectural publishing – and that they will, moreover, buy, say, 1000 of the print run themselves. Of course, with these arrangements, the architect also chooses their own favourite writer. The monograph is, effectively, a great big practice brochure.
Vanity publishing is known to be a part of architectural publishing, but it’s probably not known just how pervasive this is. Of course, any book produced by the architect will not provide a sharp critique of that architect’s work. But in monographs, which look incredibly high-code and high-status, this tied status is invisible. And it’s even less evident that, the whole industry – including the academic sector – is inevitably, essentially, self-promotional in one form or another, because it’s so badly paid that no one can afford to do it simply for money.
Nor is this a market that is widely understood, or even easy to find information about. The best study available so far, by Linda Eerme and Robin Kinross, however, provides a good introduction to this globalised, increasingly cautious, copycat market. They describe how the endless takeovers and self-cloning increasingly form an English-speaking global homogenous product, in which even the partnered independents take fewer risks, and in which slow-selling books are taken off the shelves and pulped.
In the trade world, global means the countries who form this market only. The list – and therefore the subjects of the books – are dominated by countries like America, the UK, Germany and Spain. France isn’t interested in anything that isn’t French, China is growing, and you can write off the whole of Africa and most of the former Soviet bloc. (This leaves the field wide open, yet again, for Koolhaas, whose Project on the City book on Lagos will provide information that isn’t available elsewhere on the global market, just as his Project on the City on China exposed a booming but still unfamiliar economy.) It’s a revealing picture of attenuated globalism – and of the agenda we are laying down for ourselves.
This market – and therefore this agenda – is forged at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, with its 11 halls, each the size of Olympia, where the all-important deals for international rights are struck in closed booths only open to bona-fide clients who alone are allowed to see the real, high profile products on offer. It’s a fairly secretive economy anyway, and one that is of course a closed book to the overwhelming majority of its consumers.
Within the limitations of this “global” agenda, Eerme and Kinross’ main concern is the growth of the book as a pure design object, and the alarming literal disappearance of the author and the implicit degrading of the written content. They describe how Phaidon – once an old fashioned academic/art publisher – has been reinvented; its “aggressively design-led” approach producing books that are “in the first place design objects rather than books in any traditional sense”. They note that the names of the well-recognised academics and journalists writing books like their – 55 series, or The Art Book, The Movie Book, The House Book, and so on never appear on the front cover or spine (or indeed the front papers). The value of the intellectual text is thus hugely downgraded.
Instead, Eerme and Kinross claim, Phaidon books are sold as impulse purchases, through specially designed, machine-gun-like machines (55) or in inflated bubbles in a big bin by the till (Fresh Cream). If this example of publishing resorting to gimmicks – or books as gimmicks – is extreme, it is part of a broader market shift to mass sales. For, as Eerme and Kinross explain, high-volume sales make for a cheapness that is difficult for competitors to match, “leaving an uncritical consumer demanding little more of its heavily illustrated books than that they respond to the lowest possible price to colour plate ratio”.
The books one tends to remember, of course, are the unusual ones. The truly brilliant exploitations of the system like Koolhaas’ productions. Or the truly heroic struggles through it, like Richard Weston’s straightforward, hugely expensive, classic book on Jørn Utzon: a Herculean achievement whose classy bookiness camouflages how unusual such highly researched, beautifully illustrated and designed books actually are.
But the mainstream is made up of books one hardly notices: the endless books on architecture now, or on house designs. This relentless quest for and production of picture books of new, and as yet “unseen” (that is, not previously published) buildings, mainly houses, has turned this sector of the market into something that works culturally much more like a magazine. And, despite potent, brilliant, successful models, most mainstream book production is graphically deadly, does not use form to exploit its subject matter, has its formats decided by publishers or production managers (with, presumably, no design training) – and, of course, no market research beyond imitating
The usual cultural argument is that books, far from being destroyed by the advent of new media, have been strengthened by them, becoming more popular, more graphically diverse, offering a more visually literate and experimental readership. But there’s a funny backlash to this. All new media tend to copy their predecessors (early photographs mimicked the composition of paintings) but books are also mimicking their juniors.
In its most extreme terms, you could argue that the whole definition of “book” is becoming amorphous and arguable, with the form diverging into culturally unrelated formats, linked only by their peculiar economy. Academic books, which can’t compete with trade press production of big cheap picture books because of their small, slow sales, are moving into e-books, thus suggesting a world where all academic books could be available online, though probably with limited illustrations because of copyright problems. This would probably be more like a global reference library of journal articles than the traditional book model. The mainstream middle of the trade market is effectively hardback magazines previewing the latest in-house design fashion. Design-led books are turning into the equivalent of the Philippe Starck lemon squeezer, where content becomes increasingly incidental. How far this divergent tendency goes and whether it will change the economy itself remains to be seen.
Koolhaas is, of course, attuned to the strange possibilities of this peculiar situation. As his new title, Content, argues, he has fused form and content to point up the content-less-ness of so many new books, and to produce something that exploits the inequalities of a very peculiar business. His publishing projects, like his built projects, are in themselves a critique – as well as an exploitation – of the economy and culture that brought them into being. Incidentally, this also shows his journalistic acuity and perhaps his journalistically framed agenda: the acute description and implicit criticism of a system, which arguably serves to prop that system up.
Whether Content is a decadent production that heralds the demise of the idealism of the book form but is clever, entertaining and seductive along the way, or something that alerts the mainstream of this arcane industry to its own irregularities is an open question, as Koolhaas projects tend to be. Because, of course, we tend to describe the exceptional, not the far more depressing mainstream. There are some extraordinary publishing experiments going on out there. Whether and how the mainstream market is able to take any notice remains to be seen. But while most of us are operating with uninformed reverence for the world of book publishing, Koolhaas is both exploiting and exposing it for the extraordinary, secretive, arcane, hugely influential world it is.
Author’s note: This article is partly based on a panel discussion between Jennifer Sigler (editor, S,M,L,XL), Michael Kubo (Actar Books), Armin Linke (photographer, from whose website you can download your own book for €30) and myself that was part of the Florence Beyond Media conference (iMage magazine/University of Florence) in 2003. It was convened by Gabriele Mastrigli, who is completing his PhD on architectural publishing and is producing an account of the event. I am also grateful to him for pointing out the Eerme and Kinross study, The Architects of the Book, Domus 847 April 2002, also at https://www.hyphenpress.co.uk/column/column_6.html. Other sources for this article are Alan Powers and Charles Jencks’ essays in my own This Is Not Architecture, Routledge 2002, and Mark Wigley’s Typographical Intelligence in UN Studio UN Fold, NAI 2002. I am also grateful to Philip Cooper of Laurence King for his time in discussing some of these issues before the Florence conference.