Or so goes the theory. But there are those who are mounting a convincing rearguard action in defence of print, one being publisher Edward Booth- Clibborn. A former friend and associate of McLuhan, Booth-Clibborn can lay claim to being the UK's hippest publisher. With a catalogue that encompasses Young British Art, street culture, fashion, cutting-edge design and photography, he's surfing the zeitgeist like no one else.
It was Booth-Clibborn who (in)famously committed Damien Hirst's oeuvre to the page with the publication last year of I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. A collaboration between Hirst and designer Jonathan Barnbrook, it is an art book which dazzlingly turns the conventions of the monograph inside out. As well as its innovative use of typographics and imagery, it includes pop-ups, pull-outs and stickers, and dares to make contemporary art both witty and fun. It has just sold out of its first print-run, and seems set to become one of the decade's most significant pieces of publishing.
Booth-Clibborn is an unlikely looking figure to oversee such an achingly hip publishing emporium. Now in his mid-sixties, he is grey-haired and genial. As well as the Hirst, he has recently published cult classics such as Album Covers From the Vinyl Junkyard, a collection of the most obscure and kitsch record sleeves of the past 30 years; Highflyers, a startlingly day-glo compendium of flyers and invites for nightclubs and party events from the past decade; and Fax You, the first ever collection of fax art. Safety in Numbers, Nick Walpington's global survey of youth culture, and David LaChapelle's LaChapelle Land are two of the most striking photography collections of the past 12 months, while Sneakers, a tribute to the cult of the trainer, and Dysfunctional, a global survey of skateboarding culture, are due in autumn.
Following the success of the Hirst book, Booth-Clibborn has practically got the market for Young British Artists sewn up. Titles on Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman Brothers are scheduled next year, while September sees the publication of Incarnate by Marc Quinn, followed (provisionally) in November by a massive survey of the British art in the Saatchi collection. Coming this month is Marking an Angel, an account of the conception and creation of Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North in Gateshead. While not as confrontational as the Hirst or Quinn books, it bears the characteristic Booth-Clibborn stamp of high production values, eloquent design and revealing essays (one by Iain Sinclair) which go a long way to illuminate Gormley's work.
Booth-Clibborn's success has been built on finding a new, global readership. He might be a niche publisher, but that niche stretches across geographical boundaries and international frontiers. Mainly young, design literate and visually sophisticated, his is an urban audience ready to embrace innovation as long as it is impeccably designed. You might call them the taste-brokers of the global village - and Booth-Clibborn readily admits he stumbled across them practically by accident.
Although he has been publishing on a part-time basis since the early Seventies, his breakthrough came in 1991 when he brought out Typography Now: The Next Wave. The product of a chance meeting with the design group Why Not Associates at a conference on typography in 1990, the book was, says Booth-Clibborn, "intended as something that would just interest the trade. Nothing more. But it absolutely flew out of the shops. There were queues of people wanting to get hold of it at Dillons. I thought what have got here? It was a big seller, but I didn't understand why."
Edited by Rick Poynor and designed by Why Not Associates, it brought together the latest innovations in type and image from across the world: not the most obviously popular (or even interesting) subject matter. It was the book's design that made it so exceptional. "Type was basically very unfashionable," comments Andrew Altmann of Why Not. "When we were at college in the Eighties, it was always just the boring bit at the bottom of the page. Typographers were a strange bunch - a lot of tweed and corduroy, it had that sort of image. But we had always been interested in type and thought it could be the main event in itself."
With wild colours, strange patterns and lots of white space, Typography Now became a international publishing success with the fashionable types of London, Milan, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco. It is now into its eighth reprint and has sold approaching 100,000 copies world-wide. Altman sighs ruefully at its success: "Little did we know that it was going to do so well. If we had, we'd have negotiated a royalty. It took us a long time to do, and we just got a design fee. It's made a lot of money for Edward."
Booth-Clibborn realised he'd found something new. Previously his publications had been far safer, sober affairs, such as collections of British and American illustration, and design with uninspiring titles such as The Best of American Packaging. "I realised the audience who were buying the book had grown up with MTV and with the Internet and the Web," comments Booth-Clibbon. "I thought, I've touched on something here. It set me on the course of doing very visual books."
Throughout his career Booth-Clibborn has shown an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. After training as a painter, he joined ad agency J Walter Thompson as an Art Director in the Fifties. He left in 1968 and, inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan, made his way to Toronto to meet the man himself. They became friends and eventually began to work together.
Something of a forgotten figure in the late Seventies and Eighties, McLuhan, the original theorist of the mass media, has been enjoying a revival in recent years because of the spread of media studies and the reworking of his ideas by a new generation of theorists such as Jean Baudrillard. McLuhan was an academic smart enough to understand - and exploit - the concept of the soundbite, and many of his more famous formulations - "the medium is the message", "the global village", "the information society" - are still with us today.
Booth-Clibborn's collaboration with McLuhan produced the Dewline Newsletter which gleefully embraced the experimental ethos of its time. Written by McLuhan, each edition would appear as a different medium - a pack of cards, a taped conversation, or a series of illustrations. But such an experimental attitude to medium and message seldom went down well with its readers. Booth-Clibborn giggles: "It is the only time I've had excrement sent to me through the post. People loathed it. We did some wonderful things, but financially it was a disaster. I lost a lot of money."
During this time he also set up Motif Editions, an art imprint which showcased the work of young artists such as David Hockney, Michael English and Allen Jones. English produced a famous series of hyper-realist posters - "Erotic Food" and "English Rubbish" - which are now collectors' items. Booth-Clibborn also published "Deya", a limited edition of poems and prints that resulted from a collaboration between poet Robert Graves and illustrator Paul Hogarth, and the controversial "Bag One" lithographs by John Lennon.
Throughout this period he also continued to run the Designers and Art Directors Association, which he founded in 1962, and to make money working as a communications consultant for various companies. But he was about to enter politics. When Jim Callaghan became Prime Minister he enlisted Booth-Clibborn's services.
During the general election of 1979 Booth-Clibborn was in charge of co- ordinating Labour's media and publicity strategy. "You could say I was a sort of Peter Mandelson," he laughs, "except not on the same scale." It didn't prove to be the most successful of political endeavours. "There were about 12 of us at the time working on the visual side of the campaign," he remembers. "We were all unpaid, we worked all hours of the day and night. And then, of course, in that election the Conservatives very wisely decided to bring in Saatchi's on a professional basis, and they produced that famous poster, `Labour isn't working'. I said to Callaghan that this would revolutionise political advertising, and it did. It changed everything."
Although Booth-Clibborn continues to publish fine art titles (he has a long-running collaboration with the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and September sees the publication Nicholas and Alexandra, a massive survey of art under the last Tsar), the Nineties have seen him assume the mantle of publisher's oldest enfant terrible. Looking at the design of his best titles, you know that this work would have been impossible to produce 20 or even 10 years ago. The best of Booth-Clibborn's books present a whole new way of experiencing space. The page is no longer based around a strict linear pattern, but is closer to collage. "McLuhan always used to say that we were moving towards mosaic," says Booth-Clibbon. "He'd look at the alignment of different newspapers that people were reading on the train, say, and read across them and say that this was a new way of experiencing information. I'm interested in how books have a place in that, but they've got to be done right."
Jonathan Barnbrook, the designer of the Hirst book, says its form was in some ways dictated by the media environment. "The Hirst book was a real chance to do something new and I feel we achieved that. Very often art books just don't reflect the excitement of the work, so we addressed the problem by making art fun. But the book wouldn't have taken the form it did it hadn't been for the short- attention-spans people have from watching TV: there's no overall narrative, things are constantly moving across the page."
There remains an air of the Sixties experimentalist about him, eager to break conventions while fulfilling a vocation to bring "culture to the people". "I learnt an awful lot from working in advertising, about what works well in a mass market - but I've always called advertising the big non-event of the 20th century. You do get your message across, but you're always tied to using the lowest common denominator, and that's restrictive. That's why I left. I've always been interested in bringing the best design to as wide an audience as possible. But it's got to be good quality. I always invest too much money in production because I'm determined to do things well. And the readership is there. Everyone thinks I've just got a niche audience. Well, I might only sell something like 3,000 books here in the UK, but worldwide my readership can be massive. I set up a web-site six months ago, and that's had over 600,000 hits on it. There's a lot of people out there who are interested in what we're doing."
Booth-Clibborn's working methods have endeared him to his collaborators, even if his reputation can be colourful. "Edward's a rogue," comments Andrew Altmann. "A loveable rogue, but a rogue. He's got a terrible reputation for not paying on time and then coming out with the most outrageous arguments for why. It's always a race with Edward and me to see who can slam the phone down first. But I love him really. He never interferes when you're working. When we did the type book, he saw nothing of it from the proposal until we gave him the final proofs. He just let us do it. There was a hell of a lot of trust there."
"I see myself as a catalyst," explains Booth-Clibborn of his hands-off approach to publishing. "It's very important you bring the right people together and ensure that everyone's on the same wavelength and pulling in the same direction. But then I let them get on with it. But you have to make sure you've got the right people."
Rumours circulate that future collaborations could include projects with Jarvis Cocker and Alexander McQueen. The Death of the Book seems a long way off from where he's sitting. "But," he warns, "it's so important that you get it right with a book. If you make a mistake it sticks around for a hell of a long time."
`Making an Angel' ed Diana Allen is published on 20 June at pounds 16.95Reuse content