Five questions to Greg Albers, publisher at Hol Art Books

Hi Greg. Tell us about yourself and your publishing imprint Hol Art Books?

I’m the founder and publisher of Hol Art Books, an independent press dedicated to writing on visual art.
We published our first titles in the fall of 2009 in both print and, shortly thereafter, e-book. Prior to starting Hol, I was the publications manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. My degree is in English Creative Writing, and aside from museum publications, I have a background in letterpress and lithographic printing, and graphic design.

Published by Hol Art Books. Available as ebook in multiple formats or as paperback book.

So far, Hol Art has only published textbooks, yet you seem to have a big interest in photography and is more up to date on digital photo book publishing than most. You even published Where E-Books and Photography Meets which is a great resource for anyone contemplating entering digital photo book publishing. Are you tempted by publishing photography digitally, and are there any reasons you haven’t entered yet?

I guess I’ve come to digital photobook publishing from two directions. First, simply by being personally involved in the photo world for quite some time as I’m married to a photo historian (who’s been a photo historian for much longer than I’ve been a book publisher). Second, by being one of the first art book publishers to get into e-books. In the couple years since our first e-books came out, I’ve spoken about e-books in the arts quite a bit as the art publishing world’s only expert (even if barely really an expert at all). These talks have included photo-specific ones at the Flair photo symposium at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, at the Society for Photographic Education conference in San Francisco, and at the Phoenix Art Museum most recently. And with the boom in print photobook publishing we’ve seen in the last few years, it seems only natural that, if any illustrated book would do it, photobooks would be one of the first to look to digital options.

Getting into publishing digital photobooks myself has been increasingly tempting, and I’ve had some conversations with folks that might move Hol in that direction though nothing solid has materialized yet. The trick so far has been finding the right fit at the right time, and with the time to spare for a new project. In terms of being the right fit, as a publisher, I’m primarily interested in giving my readers a direct experience with art. In the past this has meant focusing on writing that drives readers back to museum galleries and to actual works of art (not merely reproductions in books) by way of giving them more knowledge about the work and/or a compelling narrative to explore. I see photobooks and other artist publications as another way of offering this direct experience to our readers. In these cases though, rather than driving readers to an artwork, we’re putting one in their laps, in the form of a digital publication.

All that said, my own peculiar publishing proclivities wouldn’t preclude me from acting as consultant or service provider on other folks’ photobooks, and for project like those, I always encourage anyone interested to email me anytime.

You have published two ebooks about photography: Letters on Landscape Photography by Henry Peach Robinson and Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews by Frank Gohlke. What have you learned from doing so, and is it just a coincidence that they’re both about landscape?

Yes, and I can’t tell you how lucky I still feel to have had the chance to publish Frank’s work in particular. And maybe that’s the lesson I learned and the thing that still excites me the most about publishing—publishing empowers to find something you love, and share it with everyone. How fantastic is that?

While we’re on the topic of landscape photography and digital publishing, have you seen, and if so, what do you think about the online exhibition Looking at the Land - 21 Century American Views which is a collaboration between Andy Adams of Flak Photo and Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design?

To further answer your question above [sorry, I got kind of wistful there for a moment] it was not a coincidence that the two books we did initially on photography were on landscape. It was right around the time that Britt Salvesen, then at the Center for Creative Photography, reprised the landmark New Topographics show from 1975 and started it on its nine-city, two-continent tour. There was definitely something “landscape” in the air. That was a few years ago and the trend only continues today. Andy Adams’ show is perhaps another milestone in the ongoing emergence/reemergence of landscape as a topic of interest, and I think quite an interesting one even regardless of its given topic. What Andy has been able to achieve with this new digital show and with his photo network as a whole is impressive. To steal the opinion of someone far smarter than me, Andy’s been showing people that looking at photographs only online (in all their glowing LCD, screen-resolution glory) and discussing them with friends and strangers alike in an online setting, can be just as valid and valuable an experience as looking at them in person, as prints. And given where we were even just five short years ago, that’s remarkable. It’s also another big positive as far as digital photobook publishing goes as it shows that we’re finally ready to consider digital things (jpegs, e-books, blogs, social networks) in a much more positive light.

Lastly, what do you see in the future of digital photo book publishing? Until now we have mostly seen apps for Apple devices. Do you think that will change?

Yes, apps for Apple devices. I hate to say it here, because I know that’s the way the wind is blowing in the photo world, but I really hope that the future of digital photobook publishing is much more inclusive than this. For me, publishing means making the work of artists and authors available to readers as widely and as deeply as possible. Publishing books solely through iBooks Author, or as fixed-layout EPUBs, or as apps through Adobe Digital Publishing Suite just doesn’t accomplish this. Not only are these formats limited to Apple’s devices (and most-often even just to newer versions of one Apple device), they’re also being published and sold into a publishing ecosystem that’s vague at best and hostile at worst. Do readers find your photobook in the app store or in the iBooks store? What happens when you search “photobook” in either?

Can you be sure Apple will support your particular version of an iBooks Author publication in the future? What if they release new devices with new screen sizes? How do art and photography libraries collect your book? How will scholars and other artists without iPads ever access your work?

For me, the answers lie in the more universal EPUB format and in a creative rethinking of what a digital photobook can and can’t be. It’s time to let go of digital books that have gutters and turning page animations. EPUB is the primary format for every major publisher and every major e-book reading system now out there (with some small tweaks for Amazon), and I can tell you, from a design standpoint and in terms of creating a beautiful reading experience, it’s a mess out there. Photographers who excel in photobook publishing (image selection, sequencing, pacing…) are exactly what the e-book world needs now, and those that are first to successfully take up the challenge stand to make a serious and lasting contribution to this nascent field. The time is ripe.

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