Q&A: Hol books in depth

Eoin Purcell

An Interview with Hol Art Books publisher, Greg Albers

A little while ago, I spotted Hol Art Books and I was intrigued. The site has been expanded and upgraded and is even more intriguing. So intrigued I thought I’d send Greg Albers (See the bio below culled from his site here), the Publisher an e-mail with some questions by e-mail and see what came of it. The Q&A below is what came of it.

A little about Greg Albers

Greg Albers is the founder, and currently sole employee, of Hol Art Books. Prior to starting Hol, he was the marketing publications manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Greg received his degree in English-Creative Writing from Colorado College and later participated in the Summer Publishing Institute at New York University. He has worked as a printer at letterpress and lithography studios, a freelance graphic designer, and for three years in Los Angeles was a retail sales convertee as assistant manager at Pottery Barn. Greg currently lives in Boston with his wife and young son.

1) This is an ambitious project. How many titles do you see Holbooks publishing over the next 3 years or is this something you have targets on?

Though I expect we’ll be lower in the first year (I’m aiming for our first books to come out fall of 2009), I’d like to start by publishing maybe 10 books a season, fall and spring. It’s important financially and for our marketing to build a solid list as quickly as possible, and we may find that if anything 10 is too small a goal. And regardless, according to the model I’ve set up, the number of titles we publish is actually up to the project teams. I can obviously work to build teams more actively and so will have a bigger impact on the end results, but If 25 teams form on their own and want to publish all their books in a single season, it might be a financial stretch for us early on, but I’m going to work hard to make that happen for them.

2) How soon do you expect the first project team to come together? Have you had any applications yet?

No applications yet, though prior to the redesign of the site I just launched last week, it was geared much more to a presentation of the ideas behind our publishing model rather than the building of the teams. Now that I’ve redesigned, I’ll be actively inviting people to participate. I’d like to see a handful of people signed up for various projects within the month, and to see the first complete teams come together a month or two after that.

…and actually, after I wrote this, an interesting potential project book landed in my in-box.

3) Do you think that you will need to adapt the model as you go forward? Is this something that requires a big investment of capital to kick off and if so how are you funding it?

When I worked at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, we implemented a new graphic identity for the museum. Rather than launching a complete system of finished products, the brand designers we hired established a very simple set of rules to follow (two variations of a logo, a publication size, two typefaces). Over the years following, it was the job of the museum and its graphic designers to define how those rules actually played out in the real world of exhibition signs, brochures, and guides.

That’s how I look at what I’m doing with Hol, I’m establishing a set of rules (writing about art, projects defined by self-selection first and followed by peer review, small initial print runs) and will let time and participation define how those rules are applied. I have to be confident in those initial rules, because once launched, the system is in many ways out of my control. If teams form and approve a project through peer review that I maybe wouldn’t have on my own, the rules say that I’m still going to publish their book. In the end, I not only expect adaptation, I think I invite it.

As far as capital investment…. You said earlier that this was a ambitious project, I’d say ambitious maybe, but it’s ambition built on small steps and small risks. Rather than investing more in fewer titles and aiming for strong returns, our system is built on investing less in more books and expecting more modest returns from each. This lets us loosen control over the type and number of books published, and also helps us startup the company as a whole.

I’m keeping capital investment in the company minimal as possible as well. In this day and age, you can do a lot at a professional-level at very modest cost, with do-it-yourself services. Frankly, I’d rather invest what money we do have (the company is self-funded so far) directly into the books we publish. In the longterm I’ll definitely be looking for more funding, but don’t know yet how I’ll structure it.

One thought I’ve had is to make book-specific funding an integrated part of the process. Meaning, a funder could invest money to help develop and print a particular book and in return either get back their investment plus a percentage of the book’s earnings, or get more direct acknowledgment on the book as a sponsor or funder. Basically making the funder another member of the team. I don’t know that this would be the case for every title, but might be a good way of dealing with extra ambitious or extra risky books.

4) Last, but not least, the field you have started in is specific and niche. Do you think a similar model might work in trade publishing or is it destined to remain in specialist publishing?

Yes, we’re definitely niche and I think would be regardless of the model we were following. I heard Mike Shatzkin of the Idea Logical Company give a talk at last year’s BEA entitled End of General Trade Publishing Houses that really rang true for me. You can find the whole text of the talk online and it’s well worth the read if you haven’t already.

Part of his argument is that we’re moving from a product centric to an audience centric world, and by being a niche publisher I can serve my audience much better than a general trade publisher would be able to. We can achieve completeness in our category and this will be key to our success. Specific to our model, completeness lets us build a cohesive community of participants; and it means that no matter what specific books the teams choose to publish, we can market and distribute them through the same channels as every book from every other team. In fact if anything, I foresee a time when we’re no longer niche enough and need to spin off a couple different further-specialized publishers within the art field.

So I guess it’s not that our model is destined to remain in specialist publishing, it’s that all publishing is destined to become specialist. That said, I’ll continue watching projects like HarperCollins’ authonomy.com with interest, just in case.

All exceptionally interesting I think you will agree,