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Monday, 29 January 2018

There is Money in Photobooks But!

Image from Whitewash by Harit Srikhao

Akina is one of my favourite publishers. They make beautifully produced books ant Valentina Abenavoli and Alex Bochetto have an aesthetic which ploughs its own course.

But it seems that's not enough to make a decent living as a publisher. In a much-commented on post on Facebook, Valentina considered the dilemmas of making a living as a publisher, wondering why it was so much more difficult than in years gone by (when Daisuke Yokota was a very main event), and pondering the concrete difficulties of cashflow, including the dilemma of booksellers that don't pay invoices. And from the other side, there was the dilemma of booksellers that do pay up front for books and then can't sell them.

The reasons given were numerous. Now you have so many new publishers, new designers and people selling through multiple markets including their own websites, online shops, and photobook specialised shops. And they are publishing more books than ever before. It's a very crowded market.

I don't think the number of books being bought is going down, but because the spread of books is so much wider, the opportunity to make a living as a publisher (or bookseller) is diminishing. You really have to be reinventing yourself and redefining yourself on a constant basis. And that's exhausting and it becomes a Darwinian survival of the fittest. How can you juggle book-making with promotion, with writing, with film, with workshops, with buzz-making, with other work, with keeping up with what's new, with home life, with everything. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

There's also the idea that the market should be growing. As people, such as Akina, move up from the raw dynamics of the photocopied book to something with much higher production levels, the idea is that the economics should develop with that. But perhaps the photobook industry as it stands is a zero-growth industry. Why should it grow? What are we doing to make it grow?

Or if you do want to make it economically viable then you can go down the path of some photobook publishers and make books where the bottom line is everything. Sometimes that's a virtue because even though the books are cheap the bottom line is incorporated into the branding, design and production - as with Cafe Royal. They make cheap books that aren't cheap. Then you get people who cut corners on design, on printing, on paper, on everything. And it's just a bit shit. But they make money and sell their books. Like market traders. Pile them high and sell for a quick profit. It works and if you can do it good luck to you. You don't have a soul but so it goes.

Now there are different ways of making money to fund new books. So you get Mack reprinting Pictures From Home or Ravens or Mississippi. And these sell by the thousand and make a lot of money for online sellers like Photobookstore. But people will only buy so many books. And so the money goes here rather than elsewhere. Which is fair enough really because they are brilliant books.

On the flip side to that, there are the bijou small handmade editions as exemplified by Reminders Photography Stronghold, Independent Russian Photobooks, Ceiba Editions (on a larger scale) and many more. The importance of paper, of supporting materials, of the tactile qualities of paper and the book as object are also entering larger scale publishers. The result is, I feel, more people are willing to buy limited edition books that are almost artists' books. Again, you spend more on some books at the expense of others.

image from After the Firebird by Ekaterina Vasilyeva 

That connects in to another, very practical point. If the photobook thing has been going on for ten years, that means a lot of shelves are filling up very quickly. Where do you keep all these books? You are much, much more likely to buy a pretty good book if you have lots of spare shelf space than if you don't. For many people, photobooks are very literally, and very harshly, a waste of space.

The febrile excitement has died down. The illusion of making money from photobooks, of the big buzzing book has evaporated. That's probably a good thing because it was an illusion and really rather stupid, but it was also kind of fun as this old post from a few years ago demonstrates.There's also the energy of the photobook world. Basically it relies on an energy and an engagement that punches above its weight. That's still there but the more manic aspects of it have dissipated. That's probably a good thing. The question now is, if you are used to that energy and the attention it generated (articles in newspapers announcing the Golden Age of Photobooks and the like), it's a bit disappointing to have to shrink back into the shadows and get on with the serious business of making a living.

There's also idea that people learn from experience or the examples of others. I'm not sure they do. Cafe Royal have been doing their cheap editions for years and they continue to sell. And there's also the exceptional example of the brilliant Mc Hotel (which Alex Bochetto gave to me years ago at Paris Photo and which was the absolute favourite among participants at the recent workshop I ran in Catania, Sicily), the classic 2 euro book.

Or the example of Mack who are reprinting old editions, which helps fund the less lucrative new editions I'm guessing. It's a good thing and a rejigging of the market to take in all those old books that are no longer cheaply available. It's been going on for years, but that little trio really marked something different. The problem is what a trio that was! You can't just reprint anything. It has to be top drawer and the fact it was published by Mack adds another level of value.

And then ultimately, there's the idea that the stories that photobooks tell aren't that interesting. Not that all photobooks need to have a story. They don't. depending on the subject, the structure, the voice etc. But so many now fetishise the obscure and make a virtue out of sequencing without story, as though sequencing makes a story. Sequencing isn't narrative.  The over-emphasis on the importance of sequencing, above all, can lead to photobook confusion and disappointment for the potential buyer and a closing down of a potential market. There are too many people who are catering to the 10,000 (if you look at it from an optimistic global view, or 500 if you look at it from a more pessimistic national view) people that buy books and the imaginary and rather simulacral visual language that has developed within photobooks over the last five years.

The final thing is we really are limited in our corner of photobook world about what photobooks are. We are incredibly snotty about them.

Last year I made All Quiet on the Home Front. That was made in an edition of 500. The other book I have just finished co-writing and editing is Magnum China. The whole process is on a much grander scale, the editing process is completely different, and it involves Magnum so there are those complexities (and the number of medical hours taken up fixing the noses put out of joint must be in four figures). The biggest difference though is the print run, or the print runs because it will be published in multiple languages. They are huge. We're talking Frankfurt Bookfair, whole forests will be decimated for Magnum China. But the photobook world I have been talking about wouldn't even consider it a photobook. Because it's not so that's fair enough.

But it says something. There is money in photography, and there is in books containing photography. Perhaps we just have to rejig how we think about photobooks. Or if we don't do that, just accept that it's a small bijou world and be happy to be part of it.


Anonymous said...


Any chance of more info on MC HOTEL that you mentioned?



colin pantall said...

There's an old post on the blog about it somewhere - but really just buy it. Google mc hotel and photobook etc