“For independent non-industry publishers, the chief goal of sales and/or distribution is to connect audiences to content. Distribution is not a revenue-generating activity, so funding needs to come from elsewhere, i.e., programming or publishing grants... the chief goal of distribution is less to generate income or even recoup expenses, but to ensure that published materials get out to readers/audiences.”
“Selling on commission is not a model that works for [artist-run] publishers; independent publishers don’t want the publication back; publishers, artists, would rather the books keep circulating.”
Both quotes: Reporter: Gina Badger.Notes taken at the meeting of the TXT–Canadian Art Publishing Network Meeting, 7–8 November, 2014, Artexte, Montreal.
Brief 02 ∞
From Dissemination to Circulation
DISTRIBUTION REMAINS an ongoing challenge for artist-run publishers, even for those who have commercial distribution. This is complicated by the non-standardization of production methods and format choices in visual arts publishing, which makes it difficult for many amazing projects to circulate and attract diversified reading publics. Whereas “dissemination” is a term that has long been used to articulate a goal of cultural policy, it implies the sustained promotion of artistic experience, without reliance upon feedback from an audience. The concept of “circulation,” on the other hand, is better suited to the networked effects through which cultural expression spreads in the digital era; for instance, it acknowledges that publics have agency within the networked processes by which art publications become visible and gain value over time.
This brief also includes a reprint of Esther Vincent’s talk,“Networking and Distribution: It Doesn’t Happen by Itself.” Speaking from her perspective as president of the now-defunct Marginal Distribution (Peterborough), she emphasizes the publisher’s active role to ensure that books attract a public, or, as she states,“finding a place for your book and getting it there.” Vincent explains that there is an advantage to knowing where you will locate your book right from the start, as this will determine who ultimately buys or reads it. Vincent also offers insight into why the book industry has imposed strict formats and policies with the goal of streamlining dissemination through the mechanism of sales. She also offers hints on how to visualize an intended niche public, and then manage the project in order to attract this public, making sure the resources are in place for sustained promotion, a typically underestimated facet of publishing projects.
Distribution systems have tended towards consolidation, with large ecommerce aggregators such as Amazon becoming near-monopolies in the field. Access to these systems can be expensive, in many cases the publisher must first pay for distribution service and also give a percentage of sales. In a sector where narrow (or non-existant) profit margins are the norm, the focus upon successful commercial distribution makes it harder to appreciate successful circulation that artist-run publishing projects have achieved. Often this occurs over many years, as these publications gained recognition through time-based processes, of which sales is only one of various outcomes. Many artist-run publishing projects are produced not only to achieve maximum and immediate sales or critical recognition, but also seek to have long-term impact on discursive fields, such as art history, curatorial or cultural studies, through placement in the public collections of museums, archives and libraries.
This is why, contrary to standards of commercial distribution chains, artist-run publishers who attend book fairs or who deposit books on consignment with independent bookstores don’t want the publications returned to them. Booksellers typically return unsold copies books to the distributor (or destroy them) after an agreed-upon time period; however, many artist-run publishers and artists would rather make connections for future collaborations by letting their books continue to circulate, often for free, hand to hand, reader to reader. Recent developments in self-archiving and long-term conservation of digital files increase further the potential for these anachronistic stocks of books to be rediscovered through search engines and social-media platforms.
If the work of circulation begins with producing a publication, it does not end when it is placed within a brick-and-mortar store or online sales platform. As Vincent states:“You need to support your book” by letting people know that your book exists and how to find it. Conventional modes of publicity (press releases, book launches) continue to create conditions of visibility; however, the network effects of the digital era are contingent upon parallel visibility accrued through online platforms. The latter is achieved through the agency of the publics that the project attracts. Strategies for achieving visibility will be further discussed in “Brief 06—Resources and Resourcefulness.”∞
Further Readings ∞
Esther Vincent,“Networking and Distribution: It Doesn’t Happen by Itself”,Tiré à part.Situer les pratiques d’édition des centres d’artistes. Off printing: Situating Publishing Practices in Artist-run Centres. RCAAQ, 2005 (reproduction with the permission of the author and the editor). [PDF]
Material Conditions—This third brief addresses the economics of writing and publishing as activities complementary to a visual art practice. Publishing in the visual arts is often articulated in terms of diminishing resources. Indeed, ARCA’s research on the evolution of art-publication funding at the Canada Council for the Arts (2014) confirmed a diminishing eligibility for artist-run publishing projects over the past thirty years, with the exception of magazines (magazine funding has its own, internal challenges that will not be addressed in this guide). However, in a prior meeting of the Ad Hoc committee, an ARCA member expressed the conundrum differently, observing that relatively speaking, artist-run culture has access to “an incredible amount of resources, historical experience, knowledge; a solid network is in place, foundation firmly laid with designers, copy editors, printers, as well as a long-standing relationship with the writing community.”
The Grey Guide to Artist-Run Publishing and Circulation is produced by Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference(ARCA) in collaboration with le Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec (RCAAQ). Composed of a series of seven briefs written and developed by artist, critic, cultural worker and art librarian Felicity Tayler, this publication will first be launched through a bi-weekly e-campaign, from March 1st to June 7, 2017. The briefs and reference material will then be available for consultation on ARCA’s website, under the “Grey Guide” menu. A small run print version will be distributed for free to members attending the plenary assembly at the Flotilla National Conference on September 24, 2017, in Charlottetown.
Following a series of meetings of an ad hoc committee of independent publishers from Quebec and Canada, this guide seeks to trigger high-level debate about the role of publishing in artist-run culture. Combining theory with practice, the Grey Guide also offers practical guidance in this complex field, so that a new generation of artists and cultural workers who wish to professionalize may do so, while others may opt to remain resolutely DIY if they so please. Either way, somewhere on the continuum between adopting an entrepreneurial strategy and advocating for sustained public funding, this guide offers insight into the advantages and disadvantages inherent to a diversity of approaches.
ARCA wishes to thank all meeting participants, the staff at Artexte, and Michael Maranda for their astute feedback, as well as ARCA’s members for their confidence and ongoing support. This publication has also benefitted from the support of l’Association des groupes en arts visuels francophones (AGAVF), the RCAAQ via its program for promotion of publications as well as support for translation from Canadian Heritage.