WHAT FIXED BOOK PRICES MEAN FOR THE ARTISTS' BOOK // Levi Sherman

01 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

As an American artist, I never considered what France’s Lang Law, or other fixed book price agreements (FBPAs), might mean for artists’ books. While the US adheres to its mythical free market, many countries fix book prices by law or agreement. In an interview for JAB37, Leszek Brogowski states, “In one of my definitions of the artist’s book, there’s the specific question of de-territorializing the practice of art in book culture which remains . . . a protected domain, with the fixed price of a book (a radical anti-free market policy) . . . that stands in contrast to art in its traditional forms.”

FBPAs have many interesting implications for artists’ books, but I will focus on two. The first is a matter of context: the meaning of any artists’ book is affected by its location (and that of its creator and reader) within a free market or a fixed market. Brogowski argues, “We must fight for the definition of a book, to make it understood that a book doesn’t simply boil down to a form. It’s much more than a form: it’s a usage and culture.” Not only can a book acquire new meanings in different contexts, these various meanings impact the formal and conceptual concerns of artists in countries with and without FBPAs, resulting in divergent artists’ book outputs.

The second implication of FBPAs has less to do with a book’s meaning, but much to say about its categorization. FBPAs increase diversity among books and booksellers by preventing big distributors from discounting best-sellers to undercut more challenging or specialized books. Increased diversity would seem an obvious aid to artists’ books, yet only artists’ books competing within the book market (rather than the art market) stand to benefit. This distinction bolsters the argument that these artists’ books are truly books, since they are valued and produced according to the book market, whether fixed or free.

Contrast this to limited edition works with the formal characteristics of a book, yet belong to the art market. Circulating outside the book market, the influence such rarified works can exert on the publishing world is limited. Artists and distributors who engage the book market directly can challenge and steer the broader definition of literacy and the book. Separating works impacted by the book market from those beyond its reach, FBPAs make an interesting (though reductive) thought experiment, a litmus test of book-ness.

My intention is not to lump artists’ book into two camps, but to help clarify the meaning of what Brogowski calls “making art according to the customs of book culture.” He asks: “why should a work of art be materially unique when it can be multiple, like a literary work? . . . Why should the originality of a plastic work be judged against its non-reproducibility, while a literary work is judged by its intellectual and artistic values?” FBPAs should remind book artists that they can participate in and shape a cultural arena that many governments deem too important to be left to the free market.

Further Reading

Blache, Catherine. "Why Fixed Book Price Is Essential for Real Competition." International Publishers Association. International Publishers Association, 19 March 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.

Brogowski, Leszek. Interview by Hubert Renard. “What the Artist's Book Makes Us Rethink About Esthetic Theory.” Journal of Artists' Books. JAB37 2015: 9-14. Print.

Nakayama, Moè. "For What It's Worth: Fixed Book Price in Foreign Book Markets." Publishing Trendsetter. Market Partners International and Publishing Trends, May 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.


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