In 2020, I started planning The Steve Keene Art Book, the first-ever monograph of the most prolific painter in the world, an artist whose work I’d spent time documenting and photographing for years. I met Steve in NYC in the 1990s, and he’s been a part of my time here ever since. My goal was to make a book that would be stocked in museums and libraries and show the world how special Keene’s art is.
Keene has been a working artist for over 30 years. He is incredibly prolific, having painted more than 300,000 handmade art pieces. He collaborated with indie musicians including Pavement, Will Oldham and the Silver Jews, and became part of the indie-rock universe selling his colorful wood paintings at record fairs, merch tables and art shows. He famously sold them for $1, $2 or $5; These days he sells 6 for $70 via his website.
I wanted to share the process and some of the lessons learned while making this 264-page gloriously beautiful art book to help others considering making art books. My experience was impacted by the pandemic, supply-chain issues, the war in Ukraine, and countless other factors.
Building Your Audience
When the idea for the book came to me, I was already part of a community of musicians, filmmakers, artists, and other creative types. I had curated Keene art shows previously at The Brooklyn Brooklyn Public Library (2013) and in Los Angeles at Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects gallery , so I had already been nurturing a growing active social media audience.
The book was produced with a specific audience in mind: indie rock fans of the mid-’90s onward who collected vinyl and are culturally savvy. I created it as a tribute to an artist who has meant so much to our lives that everything and everyone involved needed to be scrutinized and beyond reproach.
Accomplishing these goals required a team effort. Research ensued. Colleagues were consulted. New contacts were made. Even though at that time the book was completely undesigned, it was imperative to obtain art book industry feedback. I learned that the amount of industry interest might be helpful in determining how far the project may go and how many copies we might be able to sell beyond the initial supporters.
Creating the Content
The book’s crowdfunding campaign was originally scheduled to start in March 2020 start but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it. So, I used my own finances to fund the project, first curating the contents via Keene’s online community. I photographed 99% of the paintings for the book myself by having collectors send their paintings to my New York studio apartment. I hired an art director, an editor and commissioned some essays from writers, journalists and artists to help put his work into context. I had to examine Steve’s massive body of work, photograph it, and figure out the book’s dimensions, weight, design, and how to best showcase his very colorful work. In a nod to the indie music community that had grown up with Keene, the book is a vinyl box-set size behemoth weighing in at 5.5 lbs and designed to fit on your record rack.
- Go with the flow.
- Enlist the help of the people that know your subject and that add value to your work.
- Research what size is practical for your topic.
- Go to a bookstore and find other titles that you like and see how they approached their design and size choices.
- Try to figure in the cost of shipping the books individually (via media mail) so that you build enough postage into your budget.
Funding the project
In 2021, after a yearlong delay thanks to COVID-19, I launched a Kickstarter campaign that would raise all the funds for the production and reimburse my investment too. Those who have run crowdfunding campaigns know that you must really push to get people to back your project. Getting the campaign in front of hundreds of people’s eyeballs repeatedly is challenging and time consuming.
Asking friends and family for support is key: Make a list of contacts and remind them of the launch and end dates. Thanks to 650 supporters, our crowdfunding campaign was successful. I was relieved and pleased—I had worked hard and was looking forward to producing a book that the most prestigious museum shops would want to stock!
One challenge is designing a budget and estimating how much everything will cost. These projects may take years, so getting an accurate estimate is difficult. Refine your budget to get an accurate cost estimate and then add 20% to that total. We had a very specific estimate for the cost of this project, but unexpected things happen, and there are financial consequences. Develop a campaign with an eye toward the future: incorporate likely rising costs for shipping and manufacturing.
Our campaign benefited greatly from the endless content Keene has created and our built-in audience. He has famous fans with large followings. Our backers and contributors were eager for the book to succeed along with the collectors who donated their work. They posted their collections regularly and used the #skartbook hashtag. This helped broaden the marketing campaign, allowing thousands more people to find out about it. In the end, there were approximately 750 contributors across all platforms. Every one of the supporters helped make the book happen. The community’s passion fueled this project’s success.
- Ask for professional advice in analyzing your budget before starting the campaign.
- Create a fun page so Kickstarter features it on their homepage and in newsletters like they did ours.
- Expect rising costs to happen before press time.
- Add an extra 20% to offset surprise price hikes.
- It’s essential to get a good start and some momentum going in the first few days. This takes planning and commitment of friends and peers.
It was my goal to make a great book that would not only be delivered to our backers, but would be in the best museums, libraries, and bookstores. We wanted to put together a “greatest hits” monograph that was as uncompromisingly massive as Keene’s 30-year work ethic. My outreach to many of the biggest art book publishers yielded positive results. Many top editors got right back to me, knew of Keene, and were interested. But the major publishers demanded ownership of copyright and offered no advances.
I was happy about the interest, but the terms were unacceptable. I wasn’t about to turn over the project’s copyright to one of these publishers without a significant advance on my six-year labor of love. After I had raised all the funds for production and design by myself, with the understanding that personal payment for this work was not forthcoming, I felt I should retain the ownership of all my hard work.
Looking deeper, the team needed to reflect and understand the DIY ethos that both the book’s subject and I shared. In order to fulfill its commercial goals, it needed a publicist and a publisher that could help, so we enlisted longtime Steve Keene champion Felice Ecker of Girlie Action Media, who had promoted a Keene exhibit at Brooklyn Public Library. I also partnered with Los Angeles publisher Hat & Beard Press. Under their guidance, the book was printed by one of Europe’s most highly regarded printing presses. Their connections also helped us get press coverage at Pitchfork, the New Yorker and the New York Times.
Details matter. It was essential to include a broad swath of contributors who are deeply ingrained in Keene’s ’90s history, so I enlisted art director Henry Owings, who cut his teeth on indie fanzine Chunklet, and editor Gail O’Hara from the influential zine Chickfactor. I commissioned essays from Sam Brumbaugh, an event booker and novelist who curated NYC’s Threadwaxing Space, where Keene sold his paintings in the ’90s; journalist Karen Loew, who grew up in Virginia and went to UVA in Keene’s former hometown of Charlottesville; and artist Ryan McGinness, who interviews Keene about his process in the book, among others.
- Put together a team of people you trust who share your values and goals.
- Work with people that have a personal connection to your topic.
- Never stop researching your topic and be open to discovering new insight.
- Learn as much about the market as possible.
Printing the book
The consumer printing world can be daunting. I got a quote in 2020 before the design was finalized. At that point, I was trying to get a basic number as a goal for the crowdfunding run. Many variables affect the cost of printing: quantity, page count, paper selection, number of ink colors, special design features, are just some of the most obvious costs. Estimates can’t reflect the reality of what the future may bring.
Once the book was designed and approved for printing, it was time to approve a more detailed estimate and deliver half of the funds as a deposit on the print run. My crowdfunding campaign had provided a cushion if prices fluctuated. The original estimate was the biggest budget I had agreed to in my life as an adult. I was nervous but I took a deep breath and signed off on the estimate and wired what I thought would be one-half of the funds to the printer’s liaison.
The printing plant prepared proofs and began its process at the Bosnian plant. This specific printer was chosen because it is where the most respected and high-quality art book publishers in the world (Phaedon, Taschen, etc.) have many of their books made. After finalizing the design and delivering the final files, I prepared for my quality control trip. It would be my first time in Bosnia and the stakes were high.
I visited in Feb. 2022 and while on-press, I checked the print samples against my proofs. We matched my art director’s specifications. Surprisingly, there were important decisions to be made on-press about the color choices proving no matter how much you think you’ve communicated ahead of time, there are going to be questions that arise with making something as complicated as this. As this was my first time on-press for a book, each phase of the process was fascinating. I collected videos and photos in order to update our backers and grow the online campaign. I left the plant excited about the prospect that the book was going to turn out exactly the way my art director and I had envisioned.
- Get recommendations for all services by people you trust.
- Go on-press as your project is beginning.
- Triple check colors and any design quirks. See how much you can learn from every new situation.
One of the big costs associated with book printing is bulk freight shipping. Little did I know that this would be the thing that nearly destroyed my Steve Keene Art Book dreams. Shortly after returning home from my trip, Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine is approximately 1,000 miles from the city where the book was being printed. But after hearing from my printer’s liaison, I realized what “supply chain issues” would mean to our project.
Once a deposit is made, your project is committed, and the nature of estimates is that they will change based on issues that arise during the process. I had transferred half the funds ($25,000) and received test proofs. The process was legally bound to continue. There was no going back. The cost of paper had increased. But it was the wartime freight “surcharges” (price gouging, cough cough) that shipping companies added at this time that caused me the most pain.
After my deposit went through, I was told these costs would triple. These new fees eliminated the buffer I’d built into my budget. In fact, I would be going out of pocket many thousands of dollars in order to continue. While I was able to come up with the remaining funds, this is how the war in Ukraine dramatically impacted the project. I was able to move ahead thanks to Hat & Beard and a series of “Steve Keene 30-Year Retrospective Art Shows” at which we sold some of his most valuable pieces to offset these costs.
From concept to manufacturing, making a book is a huge project. In this case it took me (on and off) over six years; tens of thousands of dollars; thousands of miles traveled; hundreds of hours writing, designing, listening, researching, and photographing to complete. Even without a war starting, I had plenty of reasons to lose patience and give up. But together, with a worthy subject, a community of supporters, and wonderful collaborators, we put together a fitting tribute to an artist that had made a big impact in our lives. Rolling Stone wrote that we created “a massively dazzling celebration of fandom as an art form–playful, affectionate, slightly unhinged.” Success was ours!