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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Book Publishing, 21st-Century Style

The book publishing industry is nearing a crossroads. Although printed books have experienced steady growth and digital books are holding their own, much of it is through the auspices of independent titles online (a third of the bestselling ebooks on Amazon are self-published). Trade publishers must keep creative and sustainable, so effective models for producing high-specification books is essential. Volume is a London-based company that merges the digital and physical worlds—a hybrid of indie and mass—using a pre-order/crowdfunding model. The company is creating the first online publishing platform solely for books on the visual arts, setting its sights on physical books. The first project is Look & See by Anthony Burill, a personal tour through the printmaker’s archive of typographic ephemera and curios (images below). I spoke to co-founders Lucas Dietrich and Darren Wall about how they envision this unique model will work.

Its obvious that crowdfunding is not a traditional means of publishing. In fact, some would argue that it is one step shy of vanity publishing. But Volume is a different model entirely. What do you hope to accomplish with Volume? Volume has two key objectives: to provide an exciting platform for the direct interaction between creators of books on the visual arts and the readers and buyers who want to support them. Part of this is about the economics of publishing art books, but Volume’s real aim it to create communities around individual books. This leads to the second objective: to publish books that would otherwise be difficult to produce against the commercial demands of conventional publishing, which remains largely business-to-business.

I understand that crowdfunding is a means to lock in an audience. But how do you think this will change the playing field of trade publishing? The most interesting aspect of the crowdfunding model is less how money is raised than the engagement with a reader at an early stage of a book’s development. Some projects will come to Volume fully formed, but others might need, on the one hand, the help and expertise of an established art book publisher, but also the views and enthusiasms of those who are eager to bring the book into the world. Volume does not see crowdfunding as an end in itself, merely as the first stage of a richer publishing process from conception to publication and distribution.

Why do you think that many other established trade publishers have been reluctant to enter into this way of financing a book? I’m not so sure they are, but the model does remain alien to many. Publishing is a traditionally top-down enterprise—editors decide want they want to publish and try to convince a sales team they can sell copies. When you’re dealing with the crowd, it’s bottom up. Volume does not believe these two aspects are mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary.

This does not replace the traditional trade model of investing in a project, issuing advances against royalties, selling retail, etc. But how does it co-exist with the old methods? Each of our author agreements is particular to the book, but the author’s share has two parts—one that relates to the book’s crowdfunding phase, and one that relates to the post-funded project.

You’re “curating” the books that you will publish through Volume. What are the criteria for what is selected? There are many, but among them are: a) Will the material make a beautiful book or beautiful book-object? b) Does the content fall outside conventional publishing categories? c) Does the author have a dedicated following, in any medium, that would provide initial support for the project? d) Are there elements that can be offered around the book that might enhance the reader’s experience, such as a studio visit or other forms of printed matter?

An author having a following is obviously important in any situation. How much risk is involved for the authors? This depends on the stage at which authors approach Volume. As a rule, the risk in terms of time and economic exposure are reduced by seeking support before the serious creative work commences. On the other hand, some projects may come to Volume that are virtually printed and just need a catalyst to launch them into the world, such as the production expertise required to produce an illustrated book.

Most Kickstarter campaigns ask for enough to fulfill the production needs of the project. Is their room for profit here? What will determine success? As with any published book, conventionally produced or otherwise, the economics of an illustrated book are particular to each title. Broadly speaking, a funding target will cover the cost of producing the books and supplying them to the original backers. Profits will come if the book then finds a modest-size audience in the international book trade.

This is mostly for illustrated books, how do you plan on reaching your audiences? Most books, particularly within the visual arts, fit within a niche, but visual creatives are naturally open to work produced across the creative disciplines. One of the intriguing aspects of online audiences is the degree to which they have become ‘nichified’ and can be animated and engaged on highly specific projects, particularly when there is a physical outcome. People are passionate about books, particularly art books, so that if the books that go on to the Volume platform are well judged, the enthusiasm generated among the early fans will radiate to other genres in the creative arts. Over time, we hope Volume will become a destination for people interested in all facets of the visual arts and will find projects and publications they could find nowhere else.

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