Friday, 25 April 2014
Amazon Turns Everything to Shit
Max Pinckers new book. If you like the look of it, buy it when it comes out, before it sells out. And if you don't, don't buy it. And if you don't have the money, don't buy it either.
This post on photobooks got a bit of attention. In comments I have had in various places there seems to be an assumption that photobook publishers have the photobook market in their hands, that they are playing with the photobook buyer and raking in stacks of cash.
There is the idea that publishers should make open editions that just constantly sell - that never go out of print as long as there is a demand. Connections were made to Blurb and their deal with Amazon. If only all photographers/publishers did print-on-demand books in open editions then anyone who wanted to buy a book could buy a book was the general idea. Books would never sell out, they'd always be available.
While I have a little sympathy for that idea. No, actually, I have no sympathy for that idea. Blurb is generic publishing that is good when there is no other option - when you don't have enough time, or are completely lacking in cutting and pasting skills (analogue or digital) to make something that is going to be a million times better with every glue-stained page and creased cloth cover. Blurb is generic and it is good for generic uses. But if you want to make somethng interesting, forget it.
As for the Amazon hook-up being a good thing, please do me a favour. Amazon is a money-leaching virus that attacks us through our cheapskate hearts. I have a cheapskate heart and getting that big overpackaged Amazon box does leave me feeling cheaper by the minute. Cheaper and I get the odd inkling that I have played my part in destroying jobs, towns, cities and communities. Everything that Amazon touches turns to shit. Cheap shit for now, but the price is rising by the minute.
I am lucky enough to live in Bath. It's a precious place with precious book shops. Toppings is one, but my favourite is Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights. This is a bookshop run by people who love books. The whole bookshop is like an echo chamber of book love. It's a great place to visit, a great place to work in, and a great place to discover and buy new books. Go in to Mr B's and someone will ask if you need a bit of help and then you are off. Suggestions come in, recommendations of what people liked, what they didn't, what might hit the spot. Pretty soon, you have too many books to choose from, too many books that you can't wait to read.
A few months back, my wife went to Mr B's and bought me We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. It's a Danish book in translation, the story of a Danish village of seafarers. It follows a number of families from the 19th century to the end of the Second World War. My wife wouldn't have bought it off her own back. I wouldn't have. It was recommended to her by somebody who had read it and loved it and communicated that passion to my wife. And so I got it. And I loved it. And if you ever want photography to go with the book, think Jean Gaumy. Yes!
Mr B's has passion and a soul. It is about as far as you can get from an Amazon warehouse as you can imagine. Mr B's sells books that have been cared for by people who care, written by people who care and, most of the time, published by people who care.
Amazon don't care about books, any more than they care about hdmi cables or RCA sockets. All that matters is the bottom line.
The bottom line matters to photobook publishers as well (and this is excluding trade publishers who are a different breed entirely). For most of the small ones, the bottom line is the bottom of the publisher's pocket. They subsidise their artistic endeavours in other words. Most of the time this is because of a passion for a particular kind of photography, design, aesthetic or set of values. Sometimes there is a careerist element; do this and you'll get ahead in some way. Sometimes it's part of an entrepreneurial battle. Invest the energy and somewhere along the line, money will come out. But attached to that entrepreneurship there is also a love of books. If people really wanted to make money and nothing but money, they'd be selling something entirely different; hdmi cables for example.
Some of the time, publishers even make money of a sort out of their enterprise. Their books are subsidised; by benefactors with big wallets, or by a few select clients with a big wallet, or by academic institutions, or by governments or municipalities or arts councils.
But most of the time, photobooks are subsidised by the photographer. You pay your £7,000 or £10,000 or £20,000 and go to Italy or China or Sweden or Ireland or wherever and check the proofs, make a video then wait for your 1,000 photobooks to get printed in return. Publishing and printing aren't the same in other words.
And then you have to sell them. Some books sell themself. You can see them and know they will go in a flash. Mike Brodie's Period of Juvenile Prosperity was one, Lorenzo Vitturi's Dalston Anatomy was another, But most don't go that fast. Most don't sell out.
And even if they do sell out, who's making money from it? Nobody? Once you've paid for the printing, the packaging, the posting, the sending out of free copies, the trudging to and from the post office, the talks, the fairs and everything else, there is not that much left. It's exhausting just talking to people who have had a 'successful' sold-out book. These are the lucky ones. Think of all the people who have not sold out their books, the pallets and boxes and stacks of unsold copies in warehouses, storage spaces, attics and cupboards and under beds! That's a burden to bear.
And what if you do sell 1,000 copies at £25 a copy. You'll make a bit of profit, but for the labour spent on all of the above things, you'd be better off getting a job at the Amazon Warehouse outside Swansea. But Swansea's too far away, and you have a soul after all and want to do something interesting if not lucrative, so you crack on. You move on to something new and leave the old behind.
And that, quite simply, is why people can't be bothered to put out another edition after the first one sells out. Because it's not about simply pressing a little button and watching the books selling out automatically. Because it isn't worth the effort and it won't make any money and it will take up far too much time, and the next one will be better anyways.
And you leave everybody who is worrying about the availability and the ebay cost to their own devices, while secretly hoping that the price goes really high because you have kept 50 copies to one side. And that's fine. If you've kept 250 out of 1,000 aside, well that's a different barrel of fish...
Speaking for myself, I kind of like the stupid "is it going to sell out? Ooh, look, it's £300 on ebay" speculation. It's dumbass but I'm there or thereabouts. I like the daft energy of it even though I know that I'm wrong and I'm awful at speculation. I like buying an extra copy of books that I think are going to do well, and then regret not looking after them better so I can never sell them. And if they do do well, I always regret not buying 10 copies or 20 copies or 100 copies even though that regret is based on a false model of getting free instant profit for my investment. As with book publishing, it doesn't work that way.
That's why I don't resent dealers who buy 20 or 30 copies of a book hoping the price will go up. Because even if it does go up to £300 on ebay it doesn't mean you're going to get £300 for it on ebay or anywhere else. Not for one copy and even less so for 20 copies. Book selling is a long game and well done for anyone who has the spirit and the patience to do it well.
I also think that a lot of the hostility to publicity about photobooks (and about Parr and Badger in particular) is because of knowledge that has been gained from Parr and Badger. We all know about the Solitude of Ravens and the like because of Parr and Badger or similar publications. And one of the jobs books about photobooks do is make them look great. And so they do. And then we covet them. The solution is either for books about photobooks not to exist - or for them to exist and then try and make the photobooks they feature look a bit crap; "the next book we'll feature is Barakei by Eikoh Hosoe. Here is the spine from the 1963 edition. Pretty dull isn't it. Just another book spine. Don't bother buying it. You'll only be disappointed."
One person complained to me that they couldn't buy William Klein's New York because it was too expensive because had been "hyped". "But Errata published a facsimile," I said. "Why don't you buy that?" But they couldn't buy that because it "wasn't the same." Wasn't the same as what? As the copy they'd seen "hyped" all over the place for the last 30 years. Do me a favour!
And no, the Errata Edition is not the same, but I'd still buy a copy. But my money is going elsewhere. And that's the problem. Most of us can't buy everything we want. I remember when Dewi Lewis republished New York and I craved a copy. But it cost £80. And I didn't have £80. What was the solution. I didn't buy it. Simple really.
So there you have it. I've sometimes had a problem with a book being sold out, I've more often had a problem with me wanting a book and not having the money for it, but I've never had a problem finding something really good to buy - be it old or be it new.
Here are some Photobook places that aren't Amazon where you will find some great books that aren't sold out and some that are sold-out, and some that used to be sold out...
Claire de Rouen
And many, many more. There's a map somewhere with all the independent photobook stores mentioned. Can somewhere send me a link so I can put it up?
Thanks Lewis at Disphotic for
The London Bookshop Map
Thanks to Matt Johnston for The Photobook Club World Map of Photobook Stores