Last week, Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute hosted a two day conference called “Why Books?” All day Friday the Radcliffe Gymnasium was packed with eager listeners as historians, librarians, computer scientists, and other scholars (but, regrettably, no publishers) held forth on the past, present, and future of the book.
There was a lot of great information shared on Friday (much of which you can access via the twitter hashtag #whybooks), but the most compelling element of this conference was the series of Thursday afternoon site visits to local libraries, archives, and publishing houses. A handful of HUP staffers were invited to participate, and we also offered two sessions here. The first, hosted by Art Director Tim Jones, was called “Why (Design) Books?” Afterward, Susan Donnelly, Director of Sales and Marketing, hosted “Why (Sell and Market) Books?”
After brief overviews covering their respective beats, Tim and Susan each chose to focus on our involvement with The Image of the Black in Western Art. It’s a series with a story. It starts in 1960, when John and Dominique de Menil, art patrons and philanthropists, began an ambitious research project to collect and document how people of African descent have been portrayed across the media of Western art. The results of the research were collected in a beautiful series of books that was produced by the Menil Foundation and distributed by Harvard University Press in the 1970s. As it happened, the series stalled out before completion.
The collected art was eventually transferred to Harvard under the auspices of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Together with the Du Bois Institute, we at Harvard University Press have undertaken the massive project of relaunching the series, reproducing the original volumes with full color throughout, finally completing the originally planned books, and even adding a new volume on the twentieth century. All told, the project will consist of five volumes over the course of ten books, the first four of which we’ve published this month. We'll release the remaining books over the next several years, with the final installment scheduled for publication in the Spring of 2015.
The most straightforward answer came from Tim Jones: simply put, the bound, physical book is the perfect format for the information in this project. This is a lavishly illustrated series, containing over 3,000 images of art housed in over 500 museums and collections around the world. Currently, the fees charged for digital rights, as opposed to print, are just prohibitive. Meaning that there is no way we could afford to offer these images in any digital format for a price that would get these books distributed anywhere near as widely as the project deserves. We couldn’t do an ebook, we couldn’t do a comprehensive website, we couldn’t do a dvd.
Susan Donnelly, in her presentation, offered another answer: books are what the audience for this project wants. Having begun her career as a travelling sales representative, she’s long been aware of the affinity for this series, something buyers would never let her forget. “When is the series going to be completed? When will the missing volumes be available? Will you reprint the earlier books?” Our distributor, too, has fielded these questions for years. And we’ve regularly seen used copies of the original books trading online for hundreds of dollars. These books are loved.
Aside from the straightforward and the emotional reasons, though, the real answer to the question of “why these books” is that we’re probably the only ones who could do it, which I say dutifully, not boastfully. Our designers and editors spent a long time figuring out how to update the series while still satisfying the original fans. How do you design a series of books meant to last beyond the lifetime of all involved and never appear aesthetically pegged to the early 2000s? It took a lot of work. We wanted a classic design, with bigger images than were in the original books, and we wanted them in color, so we couldn’t use the original files. We worked with the Du Bois Institute to track down every piece of art so that they could all be reproduced anew. One of our designers spent six months laying out the first four books, and in that time did almost nothing else, simply because that’s the level of attention that the project required.
Ten books, each hundreds of pages long, each full color throughout, with hundreds of illustrations, printed and bound in Northern Italy, all to the highest production specifications, for $95 per book. That’s a high price point, we know, but trust us – this isn’t a project for the bottom line, and probably no traditional publisher would risk doing it at that price. This is a project that could only be done by a university press because it’s likely that only a university press would let the scholarly and artistic value of the series overshadow the financial realities. We’re producing these books in collaboration with the Du Bois Institute because they represent an incredibly important trove of scholarship, and disseminating work like that is our charge.
And that’s what it comes down to. The scholarship is important, books are the right format, and we can afford to do the work that it takes. And, finally, they’re absolutely stunning. In 2015 when we can lay these ten books out and finally absorb the scope of this project, I’m sure that all involved will look on this as the most beautiful project they’ve had a part in.
That’s “why books.”
For more on the series, and to see samples of the art, visit www.imageoftheblack.com