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On art and books and reading books on art (the thoughts of Hol publisher Greg Albers)

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Wednesday
Jul272011

Still a good idea

On Monday, July 25, 2011, we posted here on our blog about a exploratory project we called a "bootleg book". This particular bootleg was a paperback book version of the summer 2011 issue of Artforum magazine. Taking its name from a special, extended section in the issue on Abstract Expressionism, the book was titled Acting Out: The AbEx Effect, and was intended to demonstrate how the writing in art magazines might take a wholly other, and possibly effective, form.

We created the book by scanning the printed magazine, digitizing the text and redesigning it into a one-hundred-eighty page, black-and-white book-friendly layout. We printed five copies, four of which we sent to the editor, executive editor, design director and publisher of Artforum. It felt like a triumph. 

Two days later, we received a letter from a lawyer representing the magazine. The letter made clear that Artforum considered the book copyright infringement and they demanded we remove all related materials from our website. This was crushing. Not only because we had a lawyer threatening us (even if in a professional tone) but because of the unexpectedly, and unabashedly negative reaction we provoked from Artforum itself. It was never our intention to do any harm. Nor was it our intention to spend the rest of our days arguing the finer points of copyright law or in so doing, to pick a fight with the magazine. So, we removed the post. No more bootleg.

Lessons Learned

The basic idea behind the book was to demonstrate that art writing that traditionally lives in only one form (in this case a large-format, glossy magazine with ads) can easily and perhaps beneficially live in another form as well (a small paperback book with only black-and-white images and no ads). We thought that creating the actual physical book and calling it a bootleg would be the most interesting and attention-getting way of distributing this fundamental idea. We used Artforum because it's so unlike a humble paperback book, and because their summer issue had this great, book-ready special section. We could have chosen another art magazine though, as our point wasn't about the specific content, only about the form that content takes. Obviously, the choices we thought were the best, were also the most troublesome.

For the blog post itself, along with a description of the how and why of the project, we used six pictures of the printed book itself instead of straight images of the layouts and cover. This let us focus on the physicality of the object itself, which again was our point: that content can live in different objects, different forms.

At the end of the post, following the book images and description, we wrote: "We've sent a few copies to the good folks at Artforum, but otherwise, if you're interested in seeing a copy yourself, you'll need to email us and we'll see what we can do." We wouldn't do this again. At the time, we honestly (if, in hindsight, also naïvely) thought that Artforum would really like the book concept and, with their approval, wouldn't mind us sending out a handful of copies to interested folks. We thought this might be five or six copies, and though ultimately we got thirty requests before the post was taken down, this is still pretty paltry compared to a magazine circulation that must be in excess of 25,000. Of course, we also honestly thought we'd hear from the magazine's editor instead of its lawyer, so obviously our judgement is not to be trusted. 

The other big lesson learned was that we needed to be more clear that—despite its physical reality—this was only a conceptual project. Most people understood this, but not all. We received a number of emails from individuals interested in getting a copy of the book not because they thought it was an interesting publishing concept but because they wanted to read the summer issue that way. Still, though we weren't expecting to hear from them, these readers are the exact customer base we wanted to convince Artforum existed, and as it turns out, they do.

This, in the end, is maybe the hardest part about taking down the post that shared our bootleg idea. People were interested. Interesting people with good ideas were excited by concept and wanted to talk about it further; book and magazine publishers wanted to learn how it was done and how it might be applied to their own projects; and art scholars, critics, students and general readers were interested in seeing and reading content this way. Luckily, it's still a good idea.

Reader Comments (10)

I loved the idea of a "bootleg" copy of Artforum. It challenges the ownership of information (just like Appropriation questions the owner of the masterpiece).
I loved that publishing could be performative.

Try again with a magazine from the past - way past - like 1912.

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Gersh-Nesic

Thanks Beth. Of course it wasn't really our intention to challenge Artforum's ownership at all, we only wanted to suggest what they themselves might do with their own content. Or, what other magazines might do with theirs. I think had we called our book a "prototype" instead of a "bootleg" we would have fared much better with the magazine, and ultimately done better justice to our overall concept.

As for magazine's from 1912, definitely! In fact, we published a number of pamphlets from the 1913 Armory Show some time ago, and we've been working on a certain Alfred Stieglitz publication lately as well.

July 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterHol Art Books

The problem you cause yourselves is not that you tried to execute a good idea but that you stole other people hard work to do it AND then threw it in their face...next time write and edit all your own articles to publish in the book and see how 'successful' it is because people wanted it due to the intellectual property (as you said yourself) not because of your 'conceptual project'.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

Wow! This is interesting! I WISH you could have done it because I for one worked like a dog on my essay for that issue and would have happily given permission to reprint!
What if we the authors gave you permission? Do we own the copyright? Or do they?! I'm not sure...
Amy

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy sillman

Charles, while I disagree that we stole anyone's hard work (we never distributed any of Artforum's content to anyone but Artforum), I readily agree that we didn't go about presenting our idea in the best possible way. We set out to ask, "Can a magazine be a book?" but perhaps inadvertently ended up asking, "Can a conceptual idea be a book?" And in this case, the answer was apparently, No.

July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterHol Art Books

Amy, thanks for writing and for your support! Your comment gets to some of the key benefits of publishing a book version of a magazine—audience reach and longevity. While having an article in Artforum undoubtedly gives a writer terrific exposure for the month the issue is on the stands, what happens after that month? A book edition would allow the magazine and its writers to have a viable commercial and intellectual life far into the future.

As to the copyright on your and the other authors' essays, I can't be sure but the magazine probably controls them to at least some degree and would need to grant permission for reprints. And while it's a nice thought, that ship has definitely sailed. For us at least. Who knows though, maybe Artforum will still do it on their own? They never said they didn't like the idea.

Lastly, the AbEx essay aside, if you have anything else of yours you might like seeing in book form (and this goes for everyone) let us know. Along with trouble-making conceptual projects, we also publish actual books and pay our authors actual money—such as it is.

ps. Amy's Artforum essay is called "AbEx and Disco Balls". It's a great read and it's online!

July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterHol Art Books

thanks, Hol Books, -- I think the lines along which you are thinking are totally reasonable, even if the timing and details of thinking about republishing essays from magazines is not completely figured out yet. I'm curious about the copyright issues, too. I"d be curious to ask artforum about that.
OK, Thanks for publishing the link and good luck!
x
amy

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteramy sillman

It is copyright infringement, and it really wouldn't matter how you present the idea; it would be copyright infringement no matter what you call it. I was pretty shocked when I got the initial email that anyone would think this was ok enough not only to do but then to publicize and even send the offending item to the true owners of the material. Come on. This doesn't make you look good at all, and the fact that you don't even seem to understand what's wrong with your actions is pretty ludicrous coming from anyone involved in the art-books world. Good for Art Forum.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStormey

Stormey, Fair enough, I'm sorry our actions were shocking or otherwise upsetting to you, or anyone else. That certainly wasn't our intent.

July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterHol Art Books

This sounds like something that happened to me on flickr a few years back. I was innocently enough looking at various photos, and really liked one in particular. I printed it out and ended up using it in a collage work for a page in the book I was making at the time. I scanned the finished page and posted it back to flickr and tagged the photographer on it. thinking he would be honored that I liked his work enough to use it.... He was NOT pleased, wrote me a ranting email and told me it was theft, I had no right to use his art/photo. I was pissed at first, in my naivete.....I didn't want to take his art! I make my own art! In fact, after adding 40+ pieces of other paper to that collage, I doubted he had a point at all! But in time, I began to understand, it's now a hands off policy. It's been a few years since this episode. At this point, I take all my own photos, have stopped using magazines as ephemera as much as humanly possible, and I have even resorted to painting my own images to cut up.
This is all well and good, and great, now I am complying with all copyright laws. However, I can assure you, my collage work is not the same...After all, texture is king in mixed media!

August 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Sadler

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