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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...

RRB Books
Photobook Store
Claire de Rouen
Photo Eye
L'Ascenseur Vegetal
Le Bal

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


John Goldsmith said...

I completely understand your view. And before I go on, I agree. The thing is, my favourite photobook store in Vancouver (Oscar's) has already gone under as far as this month. We don't have another similar store. We're not the biggest city but we're not exactly small either. And that's all we had.

Before they had bit the dust, I had inquired about getting MInutes to Midnight by Trent Parke. Sadly, they never had even heard of Trent Park even though their shelves are (were) filled with many fine photobooks from names you know.

So what do we do about this? Bookstores have been declining for some time. Like record stores. And in the US and Canada, corner stores before that. But before Oscar's folded, I was happy to have sole my own Blurb book through this great local shop. Sadly, it only meant I was breaking even or maybe even taking a loss depending on how you look at it. After all, what does it take to self publish a book? Not only was I the photographer and writer but I was also the marketer, designers, salesperson, accountant, and everything else except the actual book maker.

Sadly, selling books at a loss or even breaking even isn't really Amazon's fault. Blurb's prices are ridiculous. Even the excellent bookmaker Steidl says most book sell at a loss. So what does the individual stand to gain?

When it comes to print on demand, which is really the only game in town for small runs, the cost is exceedingly high. You can blame Blurb (the publisher) or HP (the monopolizer of the POD technology) but either way, making books is done for the love of art, creativity, and sharing. There is no career in making money as a bookmaker just as there is no career in photography. Everyone has the tools. But nobody has a big enough piece of the pie unless you're a big company with deep pockets and a patent on the technology.

So what did I do? I moved my book from Blurb to Amazon because, if nothing else, I can share my ideas. That's all anyone can really hope for.

microcord said...

You're certainly going through an opinionated phase, Sir!

Amazon: Agreed.

Blurb: I've never bought anything directly from them. But why say it's only for the unimaginative? I thought that (say) books designed by Ania Nałęcka for Rafał Milach were first tried out there. People putting stuff out through Blurb can be as (un)imaginative as they wish. Also, I've occasionally bought Blurb-produced books from the photographer (not Milach, as it happens). The reproduction quality wasn't great but it seemed just as good as what independent publishers get from, say, Oddi, and the price wasn't bad.

I believe that Steidl's publishing of photobooks is to a large extent effectively a leisure service of the Lagerfeld empire. If so, long may the ladies pay silly prices for frocks and perfumes: they thereby subsidize the price of, say, Rosalind Solomon's Chapalingas.

Errata's "Books on Books" aren't the same as the books on which they're books. They're much smaller.

Good old photobooks can be cheap. If you don't know which title is which and are forced to use the web (perhaps via Abebooks, itself part of the Amazon monopoly) and hope for the best, then you should get high enjoyment/quid ratios from just about anything you can get cheaply that came out of Cornerhouse in the late 80s and early 90s, and from the books (on NY, London, Dublin and probably more) that Evelyn Hofer put out with this or that stunningly good writer. Your other readers are sure to have more "bang per quid" suggestions.

colin pantall said...

Thanks John and sad to hear about Oscar's - I hope that as time goes by the novelty of cheap will fade and the value of more personal and specialist book shops will rise, especially for small books and publishers. You pay for what you get and with 'proper' bookshops there are a whole bunch of hidden benefits there which you mention.

I don't agree that Blurb is the only game in town for small runs. You can make your own - mighty difficult especially with all of the other duties involved.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Microcord - I'm with you there all the way. And you're pretty good at finding things to buy.

Blurb - I suppose it serves a purpose sometimes, but in conjunction with Amazon there's an Amazon over ride - Amazon turns everything to shit.

Andrew Smith said...

Bullseye....and here's a shout for Bath Compact Discs..

Matt Johnston said...

Colin, the map you might be referring to is the Photobook Club World Map found here - https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=207756750268986204538.00049fcdac1e6f33c8089&msa=0

I love that these discussions are taking place and that gradually, the myth of the money-making photobook is being dispelled. That said, I don't hate on Amazon [excluding their dodgy accounting].

The book shop you mentioned sounds fantastic and I am a big fan of good brick-and-mortar stores but there is a danger we become overly romantic and think of all these shops as delightful caves of treasures manned by knowledgeable and approachable staff - this is not always the case. It is the publisher and booksellers responsibility to adapt to a new environment in the same way it is the photographers job to negotiate the paradigm shift that has occurred in the medium over the last 10 years.

The publisher and small bookshop cannot compete on price - so they should look elsewhere for value - this might be through events, recommendations, signings, bonus material, bookshop editions and so on. If I am able to by Mitch Epstein's 'New York Arbor' for £10 cheaper via Amazon than Steidl - why would I not? The Amazon website is better, the packaging is the same, there has been no documentation of production of this work and so I do not feel a part of the publishing process. Do I feel cheap for buying through Amazon? No, Steidl is lazy and I am sensible.

If I look at my bookshelves, the purchases I have made direct from publishers/small bookshops and artists have all offered something Amazon cannot, sometimes this is availability even. I really hope that ultimately Amazon improves the book buying experience - not through it's own website and warehouse but in forcing others to re-evaluate.


Blake Andrews said...

I personally hate Amazon, but I suppose it's fine for others, especially if there no good local bookstore. Which is more and more the case.

I'm fortunate to live near a very book photo bookstore, Ampersand Books in Portland. It is small indie store run by a nice guy and it seems to be doing very well. It is a few years old, it stocks many good new titles, it is a better alternative to Amazon because one can actually handle the books and browse more easily. I don't know all the financial dynamics. But the fact this store is relatively successful shows that it can be done. Maybe it can be a model for others. If it can happen in a relatively small city like Portland, I am sure it can work in a larger metropolitan area.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Matt and Blake. Yes, long live the bookshop. It's not romanticisation to try to fight against a behemoth that has everything going for it and will happily steamroller all opposition into the ground.

I still buy stuff from Amazon but I hate them. In terms of job satisfaction, wages, architecture, urban planning, transport, the effect they have on urban development, consumer culture and a growth-based economy, there is nothing good about them. The book's are cheap in monetary terms but in other ways they are come at a huge cost.

Thanks for the map, Matt. I'll put it up...