OPuS event - Museums and Cultural Publishing

by Catherine Hall

This event took place on 3rd November 2016 and was focused on publishers and retailers working within museums, galleries, and the heritage sector. Katie Bond of the National Trust, Samuel Fanous of the Bodleian Library, and Declan McCarthy of the Ashmolean museum kindly came to talk to us about the financial and business considerations that come into play when commissioning works.

Publishers from the cultural sector occupy an ambivalent position between other trade publishers and cultural bodies, which may explain why they have survived the recession so well. As others have folded, heritage publishing has moved more and more into the High Street. This is reflected by the kinds of works being produced in each of our speakers’ businesses.

It was interesting to hear about the differences between each institution’s approach to publishing, in spite of their similarities. The Ashmolean was the most specialist, publishing only three to five catalogues per annum. They have learned that about 5% of attendees will buy a catalogue, so instead of looking at bulk printing the emphasis is upon creating beautiful books. Their most successful publications are of obscure or unusual exhibits, as audiences feel that they already know the works of more famous artists. As a result, their best selling work was the Stradivarius catalogue. Their greatest challenge in the face of a changing market is bringing in digital material, as it is impossible to secure the digital rights in perpetuity that an eBook demands.

In comparison, the Bodleian has a varied list that ranges from scholarly books based on collections, to gift books. Samuel Fanous is very invested in engaging in outreach, pointing out that cultural institutions cannot be ivory towers. This communication with the community also has the benefit of attracting potential benefactors, who see that the institution cares enough about their collections to publicise them widely. In the spirit of branching out, the Bodleian has recently created a children’s book list designed to actually be read rather than collected.

The National Trust does best when publishing books directly related to their properties. These can be sold in their 200 shops nationwide, as well as in eBook form as they own the copyright to all photos taken. These do extremely well internationally, with 60% of their sales coming from overseas. Forays into fiction publishing have not met with much success, but their children’s list has had a huge response, going up by 12% this year alone. This may partly be due to a savvy partnership with Nosy Crow. The institution has also benefitted from Katie Bond’s extensive trade experience. Fifteen years’ worth of industry knowledge has helped steer design towards the new and creative, where before their guidebooks have looked like marketing brochures.

It was heartening to hear that each of the institutions is doing well in spite of the economic environment, and newfound uncertainty created by Brexit. Many thanks to all of the speakers for giving such detailed insight into the business decisions that are made within the heritage sector.

Edited by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 16 Nov 2016 around 8pm