Rebecca a considerable proportion of your career was in public institutions having trained originally in Art History, then Museology, what drew you eventually into publishing?
Even when I was organising exhibitions, at both the Whitechapel and Serpentine galleries in London, I think I already knew that making the accompanying catalogue was my favourite part of the job. I love how books endure – long after a temporary exhibition has come and gone, the book still exists. I still go into bookshops now and come across books I worked on for exhibitions 10 or 15 years ago, which is incredibly satisfying and I know for artists themselves, it’s really important to have publications as part of the process of critical endorsement of their work. I also like how books are democratic: not everyone can always travel to London or wherever to see a show, yet a book can travel to you. One of the best books I bought in the last 12 months was an exhibition catalogue for a show in Spain that I would never have been able to see, but the book is an incredible publication (It’s called 'Genealogies of Art' if you’re interested!). I know some people think that art books are too expensive, but for the sheer amount of content contained within a small package, I think they’re incredibly good value and much cheaper than a plane ticket and hotel! And these days, it's easier than ever to get hold of second hand or out-of-print books, so even books that were printed in small runs are possible to track down. That said, I’m still very committed to seeing art first hand and a lot of my weekends and holidays are spent visiting exhibitions, but even then, it’s never possible to see everything I want to, so books are a good back up for the things I can’t get to. And a good souvenir of the shows I especially enjoyed.
How does an idea for a book form at the early stages?
Book ideas form in any number of ways: sometimes they come out of conversations with editorial colleagues at Phaidon, or art writers, or artists themselves. Other times I get the germ of an idea – perhaps even just a possible title – and it takes a while to formulate into something solid. The challenge is to find an idea that feels both new and timely, while also being a subject that enough people are going to want to know about to make it worth the investment of producing a trade book (i.e. not an academic press, non-profit institution or commercial gallery, which tend to have far lower print runs and therefore can explore more niche subjects). In practical terms, most art survey (rather than monographic artist) books start as a few words on a Post-It note, and then if it feels like it has legs, I set up a spreadsheet and start gathering intel: looking to see what else has been published on the subject, either in book form or in magazine or other types of article, and also thinking about how it might be structured – whether it's a large format reference book or a small format reading book, whether it needs a single specialist author, or multiple writers etc. From here it goes to our editorial group for discussion, and if it's considered worth pursuing, it then goes to our publishing board for a more formal presentation with a budget attached. The majority of initial ideas don’t make it through all of these stages, but luckily, some do! And of course, we also receive proposals from external writers or artists, where they’ve developed the idea already and are looking for a publisher to work with to bring it to fruition – for example, this is how the book 'Video/Art: the First Fifty Years' by Barbara London came into being. She is the former curator at MoMA, New York, and who came to us with the idea of writing a story of how video moved from the fringes to the mainstream of the contemporary art world, which felt like a fresh new approach to this subject.
Great (Women) Artists has been a huge success, and has been translated into 8 languages so far. Naturally you commission all books with the intention of being well received but do you get a sense with some more than others, that they’re going to be a huge hit?
There are two kinds of ‘hit’: there are the books that are very much connected to a moment in time, which are successful when they publish but don’t necessarily continue to sell for years to come after the initial launch, and there are slow-burn books that are less time-sensitive, but which have contents that doesn’t become out of date, so which can ‘back list’ and continue to sell steadily. So we try to build a list that has a mix of both. To a certain extent, because of Phaidon's long history (it was founded in 1923) there are certain types of book that we feel confident about making – Great (Women) Artists, for example, followed the format and structure of other publications in the family of 'The Art Book’ which sees artists organised A to Z and represented by one artwork each. We know that a broad audience buys these types of books as they’re very accessible and also make great gifts, so this is a good format to use for such a survey. Sometimes books do surprise us: in 2016 Phaidon published a book of quotations by artists called "Art is the Highest Form of Hope” and had to reprint it within months as it was so much more popular than we’d expected.
How do you select your contributors, particularly for your Vitamin art series of books that to do date have covered the mediums of Clay, Textiles, Painting and Drawing?
We have three kinds of contributors in the 'Vitamin’ art books: the nominators – who are the curators and other art professionals who put forward names of living artists who they feel are the most important in that medium; then there are the artists themselves; and then there are the authors who we commission to write short texts about each of the featured artists. The nominators are brought together through a combination of our wide network of contacts in the art world as well as extra research we do to find subject specialists relating to that medium. The artist names are compiled into a longlist, from which we narrow down to a shortlist of around 110 – this is partly dictated by who had the most nominations overall but also by our aim to get good diversity across the shortlist (in terms of the art itself as well as the backgrounds of maker: we really want these books to be very international). Then the writers are, again, drawn from our existing network of freelance art experts, as well as those with specialise in the subject. We also approach an expert in the medium – often a curator or academic - to write an introductory essay which often puts things into a wider, more historic context, for example, for Vitamin D3 (the most recent in the series, on drawing) we invited Dr Anna Lovatt who is an Assistant Professor at the Southern Methodist University in Texas, and an expert in post-minimal and conceptual drawing from the 1960s onwards to write the introduction.
In 2019 your book on Harland Miller entitled In Shadows I Boogie was published. Tell us a little about the relationship between an artist and commissioning editor when producing such a substantial monograph
I’d been following Harland’s work for a number of years. Indeed I first knew him as a writer after he wrote a text for a catalogue I had edited at the Serpentine Gallery, and I also read his novel. I then saw his art in various exhibitions, including at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and at White Cube in London. He had published a slim monograph with Rizzoli in 2007 as well as a number of exhibition catalogues, but after seeing his exhibition at Blain Southern in Berlin in 2016, I could see that his painting was taking exciting new directions, and felt that the time was right for a more substantial book bringing together both his earlier works and the most recent series. I was particularly interested in the fact of him working in series, which are all connected in some ways, but which have different starting points. We jointly made the decision early on not to simply present his art chronologically but to have a chapter for each series, to enable him to tell the story of each. Every chapter opens with a text by the artist himself and we worked closely on selecting which artworks to feature in each chapter – Harland has made a lot more works than we had space for, so part of the challenge was deciding what not to include! I remember one week spent with a lot of postage stamp sized images of his work, trying to figure out what to include! We both had ideas about what the essays should focus on – thinking especially what hadn’t been written previously in relation to his work. Then I researched who to approach to write these texts, again thinking about who hadn’t written about him previously. Finally I was keen that we included some of his life story – especially explaining the different places he’s lived and exhibited – so we delved into his archives to find material for an illustrated chronology. In short, it was a close collaboration between editor and artist at every stage! Harland even made two new paintings for the covers of our book (which was logical, given that book covers are often the subject of his paintings), and we replicated the drips from the edges of the canvas on the book itself. The idea was that anyone buying the book would feel like they were almost buying one of his artworks – we very much had his collectors and fans in mind when conceiving the overall package.
How long does the process of creating a book take from inception to reaching the bookshelves?
The shortest schedule I have worked on was for "Reading Art – Art for Book Lovers”. This was a project I developed with the brilliant art historian David Trigg, which explores how books have been both subject and material for art from ancient times to now. From pitching the idea to publishing the finished book was only about a year, and given that we print in the Far East and have to allow several months for international shipping and distribution, that was an insanely short time frame for a book containing so many images and texts! For survey books, we’d ideally have more like 2 years to allow time to conceive and develop the concept before starting to commission texts and source/clear pictures. For books written by a sole-author, it varies depending on how quickly they can write it, but usually we publish around 12-18 months after a final manuscript is submitted. And for artist monographs, again it varies and is often dependent on whether we’re trying to publish to time a book with a particular exhibition or other external event.
What do you have coming up in the next twelve months in relation to new projects and books?
The main projects I’m working on are 'African Artists: 1882 to Now' – which is similar in Great (Women) Artists in being a substantial, cross-historical survey of artists, with the intention of showcasing those who might have been overlooked in art history, alongside the better known names. It features over 300 artists and we’ve worked with a panel of specialist advisors from the continent and beyond to shape the book’s contents. There’s a lot of interest in African art more broadly at present (in the art market and in museums exhibitions) so it seems very well timed to be working on this, and it will publish in October this year. And then I am working on a book for Spring 2022 that will present 100 artists born since 1980 – which is similar to a Vitamin series book in that the names are put forward by arts professionals, but in this case, the panel of nominators are also of the same generation – so its very much about revealing art’s next generation. We had fantastic response from nominators and I’m discovering lots of new artists – which is really the most fun part of the job. I can’t wait for museums and galleries to reopen this Spring so I can get back out and see some work in the flesh! And finally, I commissioned writer and curator Dr. Omar Kholeif to write the story of Internet Art, in a similar vein to the Video/Art book I mentioned, and again that will publish in Spring 2022. So those are what are mainly keeping me busy!
All images courtesy of Phaidon Press