I had the honor of getting to write Ask an Art Book Editor, Volume 2 for the Chronicle Books blog the other day (companion piece to Ask an Art Book Editor and This is What Your Art Book Proposal Needs). Folks write in with questions about publishing in general, and art book publishing in particular, and I respond (as best I can!). Reposting it here for your reading enjoyment--
While there is, of course, always an art audience for art books (for example: a fine-art photography audience for fine-art photography books, a museum-going audience for exhibition catalogs, etc.), what particularly fascinates me is the even bigger audience that we can potentially reach with our publishing. If you make art books that are essentially democratic and populist in nature, then you are suddenly inviting a whole lot more people to the art party. What this can mean is that people are coming to art books who don’t necessarily think of themselves as “art people”—perhaps they’re drawn to the subject matter, or are fans of the author on social media, or perhaps the book is just so visually striking or physically exciting as an object that they can’t resist picking it up in the store. Those are all very real reasons why people who may or may not self-identify as “art book buyers” buy art books.
I have an undergraduate degree in Communications and a master’s in English Literature. Those are both pretty good general qualifications to work in the publishing industry—though I have to admit that publishing was not what I had in mind when I got either one. Since I work on art books, the one thing I might change if I had it to do all over again would be to get some art school in there somewhere. But, then again, that just goes to show that if you have a good basic grounding in your education, you can be self-taught and learn on the job when it comes to category expertise. I don’t know any cookbook editors who went to culinary school, and while most humor book editors are quite funny people, they certainly never went to school for funniness.
I’m a big fan of graduate publishing courses, and also of publishing internships. If you want to get started in publishing, either a publishing course or an internship can be a great way to get around that age-old job-hunting paradox of needing to have experience to get a job, but needing to have a job to get experience.
Honestly? Email and meetings. A big part of book editing is project management, and a big part of project management is email—making sure everything is moving smoothly and everyone is on track, tackling problems and questions as they arise, sending materials back and forth with authors, and much, much more. We also meet a lot with our teams here in-house, both to work on the projects currently in the pipeline, and also to develop and acquire new projects. I also meet with current authors, if they’re local, a fair bit, and am constantly meeting with new talent, agents, and folks with ideas to discuss new projects and the possibility of working together.
People have an image in their minds of the editor sitting there marking changes onto a printed manuscript with a red pencil, and, yes, on occasion I do actually do that—but I have to chuckle to myself almost every time I do, because I always think “Ha! I’m doing that thing! The thing people think book editors do all day long!” In reality, because I work on art books, the editorial process more often involves printing out a whole bunch of images and spreading them out on the floor than it does getting out my red pencil.
We have a book room of our current books for when we need to grab copies to look at or send out to people. We also have an amazing archive room with a copy of every single book Chronicle has ever published going back to the 1960s. But, beyond that, all our desks have bookshelves, and almost every person in this building has their own little library of books at their desk that pertain to their own job. So I’ve got shelves of art books—both ones I’ve worked on and ones from other publishers—some of which I reference frequently, and others I just like having nearby because they make me feel inspired.
Hands down, it’s the moment when the advances come in. Advances are finished copies of the book that are fast-tracked to us from the printer as soon as the printing and binding are done. It’s the first time we get to hold the finished book in our hands—this thing that we’ve been working on, often for several years. It’s the moment when, all of a sudden, you get to see the fruits of your labor. And then as fast as you can, you send them off to the author. Getting to write someone a note that says “Here is your book, congratulations!”, getting to see how it all came together and now there is this amazing thing that didn’t exist before—I’ve done it hundreds of times and, let me tell you, it never ever gets old. It’s a thrill every time.