Ebooks are coming to architecture, but is there a market?
This looks to be a climactic year for digital publishing. Three years ago digital sage Clay Shirky was still speculating that print-on-demand books were the way of the future, but the appearance of smartphones, iPads and Kindles has been decisive in persuading readers to accept books on screen. Today every story from the publishing industry points to the ascendancy of pixels: in the UK, consumer ebook sales rose 366 per cent last year, and in the US adult ebooks now outsell hardbacks.
One might expect architectural book publishing to be a last redoubt for print; photographs and fine line drawings work well on paper, and as Clay Shirky also predicted back in 2009, ‘Brides magazine will be the last one standing’ because of the importance of pictures. Moreover, many architecture books are objects of desire in their own right, with physical, tactile qualities that ebooks cannot offer. But as evidence mounts that architectural book publishers are not immune to the problems that beset the wider industry (see the recent demise of Dutch publisher SUN) new digital imprints are blossoming.
In June the Moscow-based Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design announced the launch of Strelka Press, dedicated to experimental publishing, initially, as least, in digital form. Its first series of seven long-form essays by UK- and US-based critics including Owen Hatherley, Sam Jacob and Keller Easterling are distributed as Kindle editions. The decision to inaugurate Strelka Press as an ebook publisher does not preclude future print projects, and is not driven by the cost of printing books says its director, Justin McGuirk. Rather, it is intended to allow quick responses to topical issues, and to encourage critical writing that is longer than a magazine article but shorter than conventional books. ‘Despite this angst about the ‘death’ of the book this is an exciting time for publishing, and we want to be at the forefront of these new possibilities,’ says McGuirk.
Another new imprint, Machine Books, was co-founded by journalist Tim Abrahams. It too focusses on the long-form essay – the first is a study of the London 2012 stadium – and Abrahams cites speed to market as a driver for going digital: ‘As a journalist I wasn’t able to get my head round the fact that you need to think about publishing a book two years before you do it,’ he says. Equally, ‘there are many important debates taking place that long-term, big book architectural publishing is wantonly failing to address… I am not interested in delivering high-gloss architecture porn. If you are concerned about photographs then print is still very much your medium, but if you want to know what the hell is going on then get a Kindle.’
But even the presumed superiority of print for reproducing visual material is under threat, says Virginia McLeod, co-founder and editorial director of Outcast Editions, which publishes ‘book apps’ for the iPad. ‘We see book apps as having no disadvantages whatsoever,’ she says. McLeod previously worked in print publishing for Phaidon Press (itself currently for sale and ‘looking for another owner to lead its transition from print to digital’, according to The Bookseller) and when Outcast Editions was established in mid-2010, it was committed to hard copies with physical distribution, and prepared its first three books for print. By early 2011, however, ‘it was clear that a revolution of Gutenberg proportions was underway in the publishing industry,’ says McLeod. While the infrastructure of bookselling was breaking down, digital publishing offered not only efficient distribution, but the format-specific advantages of interactivity and connectivity between drawings, photographs and texts. As for image quality, technical developments such as the new ‘retina display’ iPad ‘means we prepare all of our assets – from fonts, to drawings, photographs and video – in high resolution that is as good as, or even better than, high quality lithographic printing.’
McLeod is evangelical about the possibilities for illustrated digital publishing, but acknowledges one significant challenge: there remains ‘a certain resistance to digital books on the part of buyers’. This is based in part on what McLeod says is an erroneous belief that digital books are easier and cheaper to make.
For publishers of monographs, it will also be neccessary to reassure their subjects that appearance on screen confers the same status as print – one might speculate that if Le Corbusier were to publish Vers une Architecture today he might well do so digitally, but the Oeuvre Complète would still appear in ink on paper. Indeed, as McGuirk, Abrahams and McLeod all suggest, digital publishing might be better understood an addition to print rather than its usurper. Viewed in a wider context – such as the notable growth in the number of small independent paper journals – the emergence of digital architectural publishers might be taken as sign of the health of the culture rather than the sickness of print.
First published in AT230, July/ August 2012