Self-Publishing for Artists:
How to Publish Books, Catalogs, Brochures
Q: I'm beginning to get more recognition as an artist and want to print a small book, catalog or brochure to help market, present, promote and get the word out about my art. I thought maybe I'd include a short bio, a list of galleries where I've exhibited, and some color reproductions of my work. What do you think?
A: Self-published materials can be great promotional tools for artists and they're getting easier and easier to print-- in higher and higher quality. First off, I'd recommend a book or catalog over a brochure; you want to make sure it's substantial enough for people to notice. Books and catalogs carry more weight than brochures (literally and figuratively), they're more permanent, are taken more seriously, and tend to end up on bookshelves and in file cabinets rather than in the trash. Publishing one in the 12 to 40 page range makes the most sense for artists who are beginning to experience varying degrees of success, getting increasing amounts of exposure, are relatively early in their careers, or are otherwise on the way up.
A good printed piece improves your ability to promote and market your art. For one thing, it's something people can hold in their hands-- tangible "proof" of your success. Plus it allows you to promote yourself without having to open your mouth... always a plus. All you have to do is hand over your book or catalog and let it do the rest. It's also a generous and effective way to advance communications with people who appear to be serious about your art, whether they discover you through exposure on blogs, social networks, your website, at gallery shows or other public exhibitions. Additionally, a well-produced book or catalog becomes a historical record of your artwork that ultimately outlasts you and serves to document a particular stage of your career for anyone researching your art in the future.
In terms of layout, organization and design, spend time looking at other artist books and catalogs before going ahead with yours. Best procedure is to visit a good art library and browse books and catalogs of better known and even famous artists who you follow and respect. Pay particular attention to publications from museum and institutional shows; these are overwhelmingly designed and written by professionals, and are often the best examples to emulate in terms of what your finished product should look like. A conversation with a museum, institutional or major public library art librarian is also highly recommended. It will give you an instant idea of the scholarly and archival value of art and artist books and catalogs, and of what works best in terms of organization, information to include, and layout. If possible, have them show you examples of art and artist publications they respect the most and explain to you what makes them superior.
Regarding the written and visual content of your catalog, the most important rule is to be concise and stick to the facts. People want to know who you are, what your art looks like, and what you've accomplished. Resist tendencies to delve into subtleties or otherwise indulge in lengthy interpretations or explanations of your work. You'll confuse readers if you do this, or worse yet, lose their attention completely because they'll give up trying to understand what your art is about. That kind of writing is best left to the critics anyway.
A bio of one to three pages focusing on basic career information is usually all that's necessary as an introduction to you and your art. Confine it to your evolution as an artist; save your entire life story for later. If possible, have a respected art expert, critic, professor, curator, gallery owner or personality do the writing, or at least some of it-- like the forward, preface, or even a brief essay on your art, for instance. Even a sentence or two quote about your art is good. The bigger the names you can associate with your art and your publication, the better.
In addition to the bio, include a list of your exhibitions and a chronology of career-related events, starting with the most recent accomplishments first (solo shows, then group shows). Collectors like to see proof that you're a going concern and are actively producing and exhibiting. Other readers, especially researchers, prefer easy access to important dates, honors, awards, grants, people and places. A listing of websites, books, magazines, catalogs and newspaper reviews that mention you or your art is also worth including. If you've had some significant sales, a list of collectors and collections that own your art should be included, but be selective here and don't include everyone. If you want, add your educational credentials at the end of all that; they're nice to know, but not critical to where you are now or where you're going (and they'll become less and less so over time).
Show all finished writing to a variety of people from various sectors of the art community BEFORE you publish. Also show it to normal everyday people who just plain like your art. Ask for their opinions and seriously consider everything that they say. If you hear similar criticisms more than once, think about reworking the necessary sections. You want your end product to be easy to understand and have as broad an appeal as possible. If possible, have an editor or proof reader go over your copy before you publish.
Now for the most important part-- your illustrations. Include a good representative selection of your CURRENT works of art. In the art world, the watchword is "What have you done for me lately?" Show 30 works, for example, painted over a ten-year period and people will wonder what you've up to besides making art, and whether being an artist is really a priority for you. Showing a handful of select past works is fine (positioned after the current works), but choose ones that have received distinctions in some way-- like winning awards, being juried into prestigious shows, being in significant collections, and so on. Past works should speak to your credibility as an artist. In fact, every aspect of your book or catalog should highlight your artistic accomplishments and commitment.
Don't crowd your illustrations; one per page on most pages is the best way to go. If groups of works are related, perhaps show two to four per page, but not more than that, and not on too many pages. Too dense visuals can get confusing, plus small illustrations dilute the visual impact of the art. Your goal is to provide a comprehensive and visually compelling record of where you are in your art career NOW. Once again, getting some form of consensus opinion from people who know your art well as to which pieces should be included is preferable to making all the selections yourself.
* For each illustration, include the title, dimensions, medium, completion date, and other pertinent information when relevant, like where it might have been exhibited, for instance. If it's sold, list the owner. If an owner prefers not to be mentioned, say the piece is in a "private collection."
* If you're fairly productive, think about providing a checklist of past works, or of significant or major works. The more comprehensive it is, the better. Again, this speaks to your productiveness, and dedication and commitment to being an artist. It will also come in very handy for people who need to research or document works of your art in the future.
* Want to make it official? Get an ISBN number. If you're publishing in both hard and soft cover, get an ISBN for each.
* Want to make it really official? Send two copies to The Library of Congress. You might also consider giving copies to museum, public or institutional libraries in the area where most people are familiar with your work... but contact their acquisitions departments and ask if you can send copies first.
What to avoid:
* Name dropping. Mentioning the world's great artists or art movements with the intention of forming connections between your work and theirs is not productive. Readers won't take this seriously, and you certainly don't want to put your art up against that of the great artists of all time. That's a losing battle if there ever was one.
* Excess padding. Don't include the names of every single person who owns your work or every single place that's shown it. For example, mentioning that you once hung a painting at Bob's Pizza and Subs may well demean your work rather than advance it (not that Bob doesn't serve great food). Knowledgeable readers spot excess padding in a second.
* Exaggeration. Tell it like it is and not like you want it to be. For example, if you once hung a painting for a week at a bar in Berlin, don't say you've exhibited internationally. Misrepresenting yourself or your accomplishments can negate everything else you show and say in your catalog, whether it's true or not.
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