Publishing Images in a Scholarly Book

You Want That With Pictures? How to Publish Images in a Scholarly Book

And as if it were the fate of learning in these tymes, to be reduced to meere gazing; bookes that have pictures, are now in great request.
— Meric Casaubon, Generall Learning

Illustrated books are expensive. I knew this fact well because I was working on a monograph that examined the financial conditions of doing and printing science in early modern Europe. Yet somehow I never thought of applying this claim to my own situation when I brought my manuscript to a publisher. Surely, I believed, twenty-first century academic publishing is different from the print culture of the Dutch Golden Age. I was wrong. Illustrations are a major factor in determining the production cost of a book even today, and oftentimes the author is supposed to pick up the tab. It only goes to show that even historians do not learn the lessons of history.

Very few authors think about the issue of illustrations as they prepare to write their first book. Yet if you happen to be an art historian, a historian of visual culture, a visual anthropologist, or simply a person who likes pretty books, you need to know that illustrations will give you a major headache just at the moment when you triumphantly think your book is finally ready. Or, at least, that is what happened to me. When my book manuscript was accepted by the press, I suddenly needed to think about acquiring illustrations and finding the funds to have them printed.

Most university presses are happy to have a few images in the book. When a major publisher accepted my friend’s manuscript, which did not deal with visual culture, she was told that press would print up to ten black and white illustrations free of charge. She was happy and satisfied. Problems begin when one needs to print dozens of illustrations, especially if they are in color. My book’s last chapter deals with the eighteenth-century invention of color printing, so I knew that I had to discuss the question of images with my press. In such cases, most publishers tend to ask the author for several thousand dollars to pay for the color printer. Some presses might have internal funds, up to a few thousand dollars, to partially offset these production costs. They might offer this in the contract, or you might have to ask for it. A friend of mine successfully negotiated that his publisher should cover 50% of the original quote from its funds, but he still needed to contribute a few thousand dollars.

How does one find the money to pay the publisher? The easiest solution is to be wealthy. I have heard rumors about art historians who opened their wallets and spent over ten thousand dollars to publish a beautiful, fully illustrated volume. If you are employed, your university probably has grants especially designed to cover such expenses. Deans and administrators know about these issues because imaging costs are not only an issue for scholars in the Humanities. Scientists also pay a hefty price for printing illustrations in their articles (Nature Genetics, for example, asks for $557 for the first color image of an article), so most universities will recognize the legitimacy of such funding requests. It is probably a good idea to think further, though. Many professional societies and little-known foundations have book subvention grants for members in good standing. Do not expect to join the society, however, and to apply for money the next day. The Renaissance Society of America’s grants, for example, are only available to those who have been members for at least three years.

Paying the press is only one side of the coin. Acquiring publication-quality images, and the permission to publish them, is a tedious and nerve-wrecking process. It has taken half a year of my life and on occasion almost drove me insane. Had I been closer to tenure review, I would have started screaming. For example, I contacted an Italian museum for a reproduction of a rhinoceros painting on repeated occasions, both via email and through their online form. I then waited for over three months for a response, which asked over 100 euros for the photograph. I balked at the amount and explained that I thought it was a bit too expensive.Another three months later, the museum emailed me again, asking whether my order was still active, acting as if they had never received my earlier response. As a result, you will not find this rhinoceros in my book. And, with hindsight, the delays and the price were not so outrageous. A British museum once told an art historian friend that her request for a photograph would be processed in one year. Another friend was quoted 500 euros from an Eastern European museum for a reproduction of a painting, but then was able to bargain the price down to a hundred euros. A third friend was so incensed by an Austrian institution’s imaging policies that she copied a sixteenth-century woodcut by hand. The book was already in press when her situation became resolved, and she could substitute her drawing with a proper photograph.

All authors need to know how to find affordable and responsive sources for their illustrations. As a rule of thumb, I found private collectors much more helpful than public institutions. It might not be easy to figure out which collector owns which particular painting or a rare book, but once you have been able to get in touch with them, they are usually happy to provide you with a reproduction free of charge. They do not want to make money off academics, and, one imagines, they might even think that scholarly publications can raise the visibility (or the market value) of their collections. Public archives, libraries and museums can behave differently. A number of them treat scholars as a cash cow, and charge from $50 to a few hundred pounds for licensing a photograph of an item in their collections, just because they can. When you deal with a few dozen illustrations for your book, this means that you may end up with several thousands of dollars in the red.

Fortunately, many public institutions are supportive of scholarly publishing. The Wellcome Collection, for instance, has just released all its digital collections of historical materials to non-commercial entities under a creative commons license. You can simply download the high-resolution images and publish them without paying a fee. The Getty Museum and Research Institute launched its Open Content Program in mid-2013, making available to the public over 10,000 images, which they can use for any purpose they wish. And even if an institution quotes a high licensing fee on its website, chances are high that it is willing to negotiate. You just need to haggle a bit. Many libraries and museums happily offered me a discount once I told them that I was a cash-strapped junior scholar, and my book was not going to be the next Harry Potter. On one occasion, a Parisian collection immediately dropped their photography fee from over 200 euros to 10 euros, and almost all other repositories offered a 50% discount on whatever they originally quoted.

Sometimes only patience helps. When I approached the British Museum, I expected a smooth ride. They already have a policy that allows academics to download publication-quality images for printed scholarly publications under certain conditions. I asked them for permission to publish the same images in the electronic version of my book, as well. Since almost all journal articles and books are published online nowadays, I did not think this was an unusual request. The Museum thought differently and quoted me their commercial rates, which I found prohibitively high. After a month of repeated pleas, I was able to secure better terms, ultimately. The question remains, though, why a public institution has an idiosyncratic and outdated policy that, despite its stated aim to support scholarly work, does not make it possible for most academics to enjoy its benefits.

To publish illustrations, you also need to make sure you have the legal right to do so. And this is the last nightmare you have to deal with. You have to determine whether you are publishing an image of an artwork that is under copyright. You also have to determine whether the institution, which photographs the artwork for you, considers that photograph to be under a separate copyright, as well. Everyone will tell you that the law is murky in this area. Instead of relying on clear instructions, you will have to hammer out a solution that will be acceptable to you, your suppliers, and your press. You might make the argument that the fair use doctrine allows scholarly authors to publish images that they subject to analysis in their book, and there is some legal precedent to support this interpretation. Not all publishers will agree with you, though, because they do not want to become involved even with a potentially successful lawsuit and they hope to maintain cordial relations with the museums and libraries that supply your images. As a result, you either decide to bring your manuscript to another press, or you agree to secure a permissions letter together with each of your illustrations. If you work on the twentieth century, you will have to figure out if the original artwork is still under copyright. This might be difficult. A friend of mine tried to trace the copyright status of a newspaper clipping, but was unable to figure it out within a reasonable time frame. As a result, she decided to claim fair use for these images, which her publisher accepted on condition that she would have to indemnify them if they get sued.

In my case, copyright was not an issue for all the artworks of the Dutch Golden Age. I only had to deal with institutions that claim copyright over the photographs of artworks. Not all of them do. The National Museum in Warsaw told me straight that copyright does not exist for photographic reproductions, and I happily agreed. Other museums and libraries told me that their photographs were under copyright, and you will find the © sign next to their images in my book. To make things even more complicated, some institutions did not exactly claim copyright but only released their photographs if I signed a contract that specified how I could use these images. As a result, if my book comes out in translation, or a new edition is published, I will have to contact these institutions again. I will need to ask for a new license to publish, and pay even more. It almost makes me wish my book becomes a flop.

I once wanted to become a literary scholar, studying the issues of intertextuality with little attention to the world of images. When I moved over to the history of science, and began to research cabinets of curiosities, microscopes and natural history, I did not give much thought to the financial implications of this switch. I am still very happy with my new research topic, and find history of science a fascinating discipline. But I wish I had had an idea of the complex logistics and finances of working in a field where one needs illustrations to publish a book. And I wish more museums, libraries and archives made their digital collections available under a creative commons license. After all, their mission is to keep the world’s cultural heritage alive for the public to enjoy, to study, and also to use.

Dániel Margócsy
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Hunter College – CUNY

Image: Piso, Willem (1611-1678), ‘De Indiae Utriusque Re Naturali et Medica libri quatuordecim… Amstelaedami : Apud Ludovicum et Danielem Elzevirios, 1658. Section three, Bontius, Jacob 1592-1631, p 51, engraving of a Rhinoceros. EPB / D 41392/D. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.


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  1. Daniel, it’s good of you to take the time to outline the image publishing process – and contribute to greater understanding of its perils and pains, especially for first-time academic authors. As someone who publishes with images – even sometimes in colour – I’ve experienced similar frustrations. And as an author (and even more as a museum curator) it’s enormously helpful to have images freely available via Creative Commons or similar open licensing.

    But since I work in one of those image holding cultural institutions, I also see the issues from the other side of the fence. While I’m sure you were a model of tact and humanity, it’s not unknown for authors to become exasperated and even irate because they’ve naively assumed that museums and libraries can drop everything to run to their aid when they begin to source images the day before their deadline.

    More seriously, it’s striking that many of the public institutions offering generous free access to images do so on the basis of substantial private endowments. Institutions without the backing of the Wellcome Trust or the Getty Foundation are under huge pressure to diversify their funding away from a reliance on public taxes. So the reason for policies that might seem idiosyncratic or outdated is that such institutions don’t feel they can afford to be cavalier and simply give away potential future sources of revenue: they might make up one strand of a financial plan to secure survival, precisely to keep cultural heritage accessible.

    Because if images are made available for free, who pays for the storage and conservation of the original objects and books, for the photographer’s time and skill, for the software and servers that store and deliver files, and so on and on? If it’s the public purse, a taxpayer or public official might legitimately ask why tax dollars should be used to subsidise the private enterprise of publishing: scholarly publishers are usually businesses which, like any other, aim to generate profits.

    If publishing images remains complex and messy, some aspects are nevertheless much easier than they used to be (you’re now likely to get a hi-res digital file rather than wrestling with prints and transparencies of variable quality). But if history is anything to go by, we shouldn’t expect a digital panacea to transform this area entirely – the precarious finances of most publishers, authors, libraries and museums mean that their interests are likely to remain in tension into the future.

    Luckily, it doesn’t sound as if you have been totally dissuaded from repeating the experience…..

    Stephen Johnston
    Museum of the History of Science
    University of Oxford

  2. Daniel Margocsy

    Dear Stephen,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful response. You are absolutely right about the financial straits of public museums without substantial private funding. I am absolutely aware of the downsizing and closures that many museums in Europe and in the US face these days. My essay aims primarily to reveal the complex landscape of the image acquisitions process for first-time authors, from my own perspective.

    At the same time, I have to admit that almost all authors I have talked to expressed their exasperation with the image acquisitions process. And it is somewhat problematic if museums, through their image policies, alienate their closest allies in arguing for the necessity and importance of funding museums from taxpayer money. These authors, after all, advertise and argue for the importance of these museum holdings through their scholarly work. I have nothing against charging commercial publications for licensing images, but all these authors were publishing with non-profit presses, and will probably not see any honoraria from their work. I have nothing against museums that charge scholars the actual fee for photography and related costs, but I frequently encountered amounts that were much higher than that. You argue that these excess amounts go towards funding the museum’s mission of preserving our heritage. I am not sure the current situation is the best we can achieve, even under the current situation of reduced public funding.

    And I do think that a policy is outdated and idiosyncratic if its stated aim is to help scholars’ license images for free, but then prevents them from publishing these images in 95% of the non-profit publishing world.

  3. Tschussle

    Thank you very much for this! It’s an excellent reminder to start early with permissions, and I didn’t know that you could haggle over the price.

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