Can Art Book publishing weather the current crisis?

Friday the 13th. An unlucky day, one of many nowadays.

It was on that date this March that Jake Lucas had to shut up shop and step away for a little while from the physical manifestation of Jumbo Press. The London print studio and zine publisher was ready to start a new adventure, opening a new store in Barcelona off the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign. But with Coronavirus rates in Spain spiralling out of control, Jake and his partner-in-crime at Jumbo had no choice but to delay the launch until further notice, leaving behind a whole host of gorgeous Riso reads and artistic goodies sitting in the dark.

"We definitely felt a sense of uncertainty and fear as soon as we packed up to work from home," Jake writes to me from self-isolation. "We actually live in a little town outside of Barcelona and commute in, so putting others and ourselves at risk just isn't worth it."

That risk we are all familiar with, and it's why countless now work from home. But the financial fallout posed to industries everywhere will be a substantial one, and art publishing is as susceptible a business as any other; if bookstores aren't open, then release dates need to be pushed back.

Factored into that is the closing of presses big and small, and the already-vulnerable independent shops solely dedicated to art goods and books which lay momentarily mothballed. Such outlets are an essential component of the artistic ecosystem, being at most times the only places artists can get their work to be seen offline.

"It's obviously a bit of a 
blow for Jumbo as the idea of having a studio-store space was to be more personal and for people to be able to enjoy artists’ work which they may have seen digitally in an up-close and physical way," Jake continues.

"There are obviously many concerns for the world of small press, illustration and DIY art as a lot of people depend on income from markets etc. that have been cancelled due to COVID-19. We definitely have had to rejig everything since the crisis as a big part of our income comes from Risograph printing comics and posters for clients.”

Jumbo are now using this time to plan books to publish later in the year, alongside selling some of their current stock online.

"We have found that a lot of people have been supportive and wanting to help us keep going, which has been a blessing," Jake says. "Only time will tell what other implications it will have long term, but for now we want to do whatever we can for the DIY art community."

The Publisher POV

It's not just smaller prints and stores feeling the pinch currently; bigger arts publishers like Nobrow and gestalten have also had to readjust to the crisis.

Long loved for sequential art splendour, Nobrow and kid book-friendly imprint Flying Eye Books have had to change publication dates for a few titles – but in more ways than one.

Marketing manager Zoë Aubugeau-Williams tells us of Nobrow's The Art of Drag, now postponed to September. "We had planned a number of displays and events around it, we’ve moved to September so we can celebrate its release properly.

"But for some of the children’s titles such as I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast," Zoë continues, "we've actually moved them forward as it has both educational and activity elements, offering lots to parents with children at home.

"We have lost a lot of our regular routes of distribution so that is of course having an effect, but for now we are able to sell and ship books online. So Nobrow is focussing on that while keeping hard at work on upcoming titles. That way we’ve still got lots of great books coming when everything’s back up and running again!"

Another well-known name in the game is German design publisher gestalten, who ironically have a forthcoming tome celebrating independent bookstores around the world. That book, Do You Read Me?, like other gestalten releases, has had its release date postponed.

"Our distributor and their warehouses remain operational though," says UK sales director Emily Brown, "and in light of the temporary closure of key wholesalers, it’s more vital than ever to support and supply our booksellers focussing on online sales.

Detail of FiLBooks feature from Do You Read Me?, gestalten, 2020.

"Artwords Bookshop are a wonderful example: while their physical space is closed, they are running free, twice-weekly local deliveries for online orders. It’s inspiring to see retailers and publishers using technology to stay connected with their customers and to harbour a sense of community.

"We at gestalten are focussing on communication and flexibility, and dedicating time to ingenuity and innovation like so many of these non-traditional outlets, considering creative ways to celebrate our postponed titles when the time comes."

Goliath falls

A recent creative antidote to Corona blues came in the form of wonderful free colouring books like the one below, featuring an all-star cast of Anthony Burrill, Marylou Faure, Supermundane and Martina Paukova. Behind the inspired venture was Counter-Print, one of the UK's most celebrated online book shops.

Speaking with co-founder Jon Dowling, we learn there has been an upside to recent events, one that may be toppling a certain Goliath.

"We’ve been extremely fortunate to have a very strong online presence," Jon explains while social distancing in Sussex. "Counter-Print has always operated solely as an online bookstore and, after an initial dip in sales, we’ve actually become very busy. Reading, it turns out, is actually a perfect way to spend lock-down. In particular, people are buying activity books for their children, novels for themselves and business books to sharpen their skills for when they return to work.

"I also think that we are lucky to find ourselves, at this time, with a large Instagram following," he elaborates. "Most of our online traffic comes through this channel and I think our customers are spending much more time on social media at the moment, due to the current situation.

"Online book stores like Counter-Print are, for once, benefitting from the strain put upon Amazon by government measures. While they struggle to cope with sending out essential items, their Prime service, a delivery method independent shops can never match, is seeing wait times lengthen to that of a week. We can now beat Amazon on delivery times – as well as service, shopping experience, curation and more."

Sparkling solutions

Counter-Print's colouring books are a great example of publishers, presses and stores tackling the Great Crisis with great creativity and the support of the arts community. As Jon reveals, they were originally made to help parents like him as they look after young kids at home, snowballing into something much bigger with the support of top artists and kids from around the world sharing their pics.

"From a personal point of view, it’s been one of the most heart-warming initiatives we’ve been involved with. It was meant as an unselfish act but the result was an increase in traffic to the site, that must of helped sales a little bit in a difficult time."

"Everyone is now online and you need to be where your customers are," Jon says. "I would advise anyone with a foot in e-commerce to up your presence on social media. Be generous and allow your customers to see how you live, work and operate. Many of us are independent, home workers anyway.

"Think of free content you can giveaway: there is a huge online movement offering advice, meet-ups, tutorials. Make some of the interviews you created for an old book available for free.

"Run a competition, get as much quality content out as you can. Social capital creates a reciprocity that will result in sales if and when you ask people to buy something from you.

Jumbo Press have taken the contest route, getting folk to draw their elephant mascot Jumbo in home-bound isolation.

"We found this a great way to get involved with the people who followed us, get the message out and we came across so many great illustrators who we didn't even know followed us before!" Jumbo's Jake writes.

Nobrow meanwhile have been offering book-inspired online activities that families can do at home, and this week launch a new Flying Eye Families initiative on social media with readings and activities showing how other children are learning at home.

"We know it’s tough times for everyone and want to use this time to support the community," says Zoë Aubugeau-Williams. "We’ll be posting work-from-home tips from our illustrators who do it all the time, tips for submitting ideas to us and ask-me-anything slots on our social media with members of the Nobrow team."

Gestalten are following the same tack, updating a journal with ideas for improvised breakfasts, armchair escapism and activities for children.

"For example, we’ve shared a ‘how to’ on growing vegetables indoors from our gardening for kids bookEasy Peasy (below)," Emily Brown says proudly. "It’s great to see there’s been a really positive response to these types of pieces."

It seems then there's a new generation of kids in the making who are too young for Instagram but are now exposed to some of its top-tier talent. Also in their hands perhaps is fresher, more artisanal material than the ones they're used to from school.

While there are unlucky days ahead, it's clear the world isn't totally out of luck.

Related: 25 best picture books for children

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