We spoke to Philip Watson, Commissioning Editor for Thames & Hudson’s Museum division. Philip started working for Thames & Hudson over 20 years ago as a desk editor, with brief interludes writing and translating. Titles he has handled for T&H include The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum), Kimonos (from the Khalili Collection), Jewelry by Suzanne Belperron, books on monsters, mythology and the occult, as well as various photography and fashion titles (Chanel: The Vocabulary of Style, Dior: New Looks, The World According to Karl). We spoke to him about passion projects, the importance of a good project manager for ambitious projects and the one illustrated book that we cannot miss this autumn.
Tell us about your role at Thames & Hudson.
I am Commissioning Editor for Thames & Hudson’s Museum division. We publish illustrated books for many public and private collections, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. We have strong links with lots of institutions overseas, such as the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait, whose ninth catalogue we are currently preparing for press.
Part of my job is also to stay in touch with galleries and museums whose catalogues we publish in English language editions, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris (for their major Henri Cartier-Bresson photography show in 2014), and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, with whom we have collaborated many times. We distribute publications worldwide for several big names too, such as MoMA in New York.
I liaise with overseas publishers to buy English rights for outstanding illustrated publications that deserve to be seen more widely. For instance, next year we are publishing the work of the Chilean photographer Sergio Larraín from his own unpublished notebooks.
I also commission independent projects that I pursue out of my own curiosity, such as Banks’ Florilegium, an extraordinary unpublished 18th century botanical treasure.
What are the benefits for institutions such as the British Museum or the V&A in having a relationship with a publisher such as Thames & Hudson?
Our role as publisher for the museums is to make their collections better known worldwide, far beyond the walls of the museums themselves. First, we aim to bring new creative approaches to their collections, coming up with fresh ways to explore them, and to uncover treasures that simply can’t be seen at any one time – more than 90 per cent of the British Museum’s collections, for instance, are held in storage, away from public view. Then we apply our commercial expertise as publishers of visual culture to reach as many readers as possible around the world.
The museums have a statutory duty to the public to make their collections accessible to the public, and we help them to do that through the books we publish together.
Would you define yourself primarily as an editor or a project manager? How do you define the difference?
Editors come in more than one guise. A commissioning editor identifies, brings in and shapes new projects (not forgetting how it will all be budgeted and paid for). The desk editor checks facts, smooths and improves the text and gets the best possible results from what’s been delivered, while remaining invisible – the book should appear flawless, as if by magic. Having learned my trade as a desk editor, I’m now a commissioning editor – although the jump isn’t an easy one. The Project Manager is crucial: he/she is the bridge between ambition and reality, supervising the work on all the raw materials and getting the book to press on time. I am often fatally attracted to ambitious projects, so I need to work with a patient and persistent project manager to help make sure they get published.
Why has digital yet to disrupt illustrated publishers to the extent that many predicted a few years back?
It has become almost a truism: nothing beats a well-printed, well-bound book for both practicality and pleasure. What else is there? It is more durable than digital, or film, or video, since it doesn’t date or become obsolete (and no buffering either); and as an object of infinitely variable size and shape it will always be much more flexible to use than a screen. For pleasure, there is no contest. Thames & Hudson launched the complete illustrated edition of Van Gogh’s letters in a set of six large volumes (for £395) on the same day that they were made available on a dedicated free website (vangoghletters.org), but we sold out after less than six months and had to reprint. Most buyers were private individuals. We have got used to having both digital and print, not ‘either/or’, and we’re better at knowing which we want at different times.
Digital technology has changed the way we shop, however. Most illustrated books need to be seen first, before a customer will buy them, but then again so do shoes, and plenty are bought online. There is a resurgence of interest in beautiful, well-made objects and great illustrated books are certainly among them.
Tell us about a book we should be reading this autumn.
Charles Fréger’s Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters. Wild and often beautiful photographs of Japanese folk festivals, with explanatory manga-style illustrations. It’s sometimes hard to believe these characters exist, but they are entirely serious, and most people opening the book will be seeing them for the first time outside their original setting in small Japanese farming and fishing communities, where demons and spirits (good and bad) are celebrated to this day.