While the exceptionally varied and creative nature of artist's books makes pinning down a single definition difficult, in broad terms artist's book are books created as original works of art that integrate their formal means of realization and production with thematic or aesthetic issues. Usually self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form, artist's books occupy a zone of activity at the intersection of, but beyond the limits of any one of, a number of different disciplines including fine printing, independent publishing, conceptual art, painting and traditional arts, the craft tradition, performance art, concrete poetry, and illustrated books, among others. While works of art, artist's books still function as books -- they are designed to be read.
Altered books are books transformed or altered by the sculptural act of the artist, who uses subtractive or additive techniques -- such as carving, sanding away, cutting, pasting, or painting over -- to modify book's appearance and meaning. The artist who creates altered books approaches pre-altered books as a raw material, similar to clay or marble, and then uncovers or creates new meaning hidden within the book structure. Altered books is a broad classification, encompassing items that still function on some level as books, as well as more sculptural works.
Often belonging more to the world of sculpture or installation art than the world of books, book art uses books a raw material to conceive of original works of art that often depart radically from books' original form and function. The artist does not create a books that stands as a work of art, but rather uses books or the idea of books as a starting point to create original pieces of art that, ibn the words of book artist Johanna Drucker, "function as icons of book-ness or book identity, but not provide an experience associated with books themselves" (The Century of Artists Books, 2nd ed., pg. 14).