Inversely proportional: thoughts on the future of the photobook

December 17, 2009

In honor of the passing of the great Larry Sultan, all the images in this post are from the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. This was the one that showed me the possibilities of the photobook.

This post is late in the game, but I hope it can be part of the networked blog discussion about the future of photography books started by Andy Adams of Flak Photo and Miki Johnson of liveBooks’ Resolve blog. I have been away from blogging and many other things normal people do thanks to an intense few months in graduate school. I want to weigh in on this subject, which, having been a photobook editor at a trade publishing house for ten years, is dear to my heart.  This experience will also reveal my biases, no excuses.

I havent read much of what the other bloggers have had to say so far, so as not to get buffeted by the winds of the discussion as it is in the moment. I suppose that is not so much in the spirit of dialogue, but after I post this I hope to read up and catch up. I expounded on the  topic of self-publishing and the future of photobooks in an interview Casey Gollan conducted with me at the Hey, Hot Shot! blog. I don’t want to be redundant with the points made there, but some of them bear repeating: for one, it is not primarily production quality, which will continue to improve, that holds the key to how photobooks evolve away from traditional publishing models. I think it is distribution, in its meaning now and probable future implications, which is the main consideration. By extension, distribution will be the key to how all books evolve in the future.

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

There is a wide assumption that distribution is all about how the consumer will find books in the future, but that is only one half of it. The other half is obviously, How will the author/photographer find projects worth publishing, balancing the effort it takes to make a good book under any model vs. the number of consumers ready for it on the other end? The answer suggests a certain leveling: the “emerging” photographer can go his own way and create a fairly well-printed book with an unremarkable design and “publish” it to the tune of the few dozen contacts and fans from his MFA program and Flickr friends.

But what about the “established” photographer? Even if this is her first publishing venture, will she be content with this model? Will the institution or gallery who hosts her high-profile coinciding exhibition be content with a self-published catalog that costs nearly twice as much as other comparable photobooks, due to the economies of manufacturing on an ultrasmall print-run scale?

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

Here Im suggesting that for all the duress the print publishing industry is under, a certain kind of patronage can keep the presses running. Those author/photographers for whom “a book” is not a single-minded goal, but who value all the aspects that come through the process—high-level creative collaboration, materials and production factor exploration, the reputation and history of the publishing house, fraternity with that publishers other artists, and yes, distribution—will be the ones making books with publishing houses.

Another point to reemphasize from the HHS! interview is that a huge drawback in the print-on-demand model is the lack of collaboration. Sure, never leave your workstation and youre still a blogger, music producer, filmmaker, etc. You are also a book publisher: the romance of the solitary genius. Whats lost here? The combination of differently specialized people bringing their expertise to bear on a project in the making. I assert that most books are multiauthored; from concept to object, several people—individually but interdependently—control the creative variables of the book.

The team that creates a book includes, but is not limited to, the author, editor, designer, and production person—and the manufacturers. Those Chinese guys that get slagged so much? They provide the majority of the color printing nowadays, and they are pretty brilliant at it. The point is that with mass-manufactured objects, which is what books are, sole authorship doesnt exist. Contemplating the book as product of an inspired photographer/editor partnership ignores the process of how the book was created in its materiality (though I will say—again revealing undeniable bias—the role of the editor is largely invisible, and often unacknowledged; thanks to Marc Feustel over at eyecurious for his insightful post on that very issue).

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

So for the next few years at least, I see a matrix of inversely proportional considerations in the trad publishing and the self-publishing models: I would chart them on x and y axes here for you, but I am a crap designer, so just viz it in your minds eye if you will.

Model I: The swarm. Increased access to self-publishing is inversely proportional to the consumers facility in finding books. In this case we see a market surge in photobooks, available through more sources (mostly photographers own web sites) than conventional distribution now offers. In the past a publisher’s list has been a scannable roster that  projects the publishers identity and is usually a handy guide to consumers who want a certain kind of book. In this model, the market is atomized and increasingly glutted; a subject search online is the principal way to find books, sucking any joy from the process. Or, someone undertakes a curated distribution center/online self-published book retailer, which helps the consumer browse books, but also helps establish and underscore a gulf between a trad-published book (even small run titles) that you find at, say, photo-eye, and the kind of book that for some reason doesnt seem to meet that standard.

Model II: Conquest of default formats, features, and materials. This graph is plotted with an increase in access to self-publishing on one axis and a decrease in variety of design and production features on the other. That is, the ascent of self- and print-on-demand publishing services coincides with the decline of exploration of the manifold materials and production possibilities afforded by most print vendors. I mean stuff many people will never noticedeckled edges, foil stamping, gatefolds, alternating stocks, thermoreactive inks,  and numerous other optionsbut which I believe make significant psychological impressions on them. These are not options that the top print-on-demand services offer. Will they some day? In principle, why not. Id love to go shopping—build a book online with a big menu of esoteric production options. However, even in bulk each of those features costs exponentially more than conventional ones, and in a small or on-demand run, the numbers are mindblowing.

These features are today exploited by the few clients who can afford them, and will in turn charge accordingly on the purchase level. They are largely available to the elite publishing stratum who work with the minority of manufacturers who can afford to offer them (through volume discounts from the batch buys which can keep supply chains open to specialty materials). Fewer publishers equals fewer experienced production managers, and therefore a decrease in exploration of the production and design opportunities overall.

From the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

Or maybe I am dead wrong about all this. In which case we could see Model III. The punk era of books finally arrives (this is pretty much the bright side of Model I). Increase in self-publishing begets a scrappy new stratum of publications, unleashing the creative potential of artists previously locked out of traditional publishing. This could be the cusp of a kind of golden era, where all kinds of artists, naïve to the traditions and conventions of the photobook, create a boom in coarse but fascinating publications. The market begins to resemble the chapbook section of City Lights, or a record store. This would be a flowering of outsider talent that really comes from the ground up, not self-conscious production and design slumming, like the newsprint formats of  Grant Willings Svart Metall or Alec Soths Last Days of W., or Ari Marcopouloss photocopied The Chance is Higher, or Michael NorthrupBeautiful Ecstasy, compulsively guttered by the excellent designer Paul Sahre (all of which I love). The brand concept migrates from the publisher to the photographer, and as with so many things we find new filters for an increasingly atomized scene.

And through it all, books with pictures of  dogs and cats continue to drive sales.


  1. This great Alan. I agree about distribution. I think this is why the niche brands on the web will become incredibly important for these books from unknowns.

    What I’d like to see is some type of collaborative effort where bloggers and online photography orgs can share and review books from unknowns.

    Or perhaps something similar to the photography print model can develop for photography books, where certain bloggers/orgs take a commission on the sales. I think for a photographer to do it on their own is difficult unless they’re personal brand is very strong and has wide reach.

    I think collaborative collectives where you have strength in numbers will be key as well.

    But at the end of the day, there needs to be a demand for the books. So, really, perhaps the bigger question becomes, how can the photography audience grow? Maybe it can’t, and it’ll just be a battle for eyeballs and exposure, kinda like it is already…

  2. Slightly off topic, but is anyone contemplating a high-end subscription model, in which a new book is printed and arrives each month to a self-selected audience? Like http://www.thethingquarterly.com/ for photography.

  3. Or what about book sharing? I’d love to browse through a dozen books a month and then swap them with other people. If I come across something I really like, I’ll buy it.

    This is especially true with the self-published, on-demand type books. It’s difficult to pull the trigger on these if you don’t know the artist that well, or how the book really looks.

  4. I can’t help but smile at your description of a potential punk era of books. With the means of production instantly accessible to anyone, that era might just arrive sooner than most publishing era insiders expect.

    In 1996 I was setting up a website for a non-profit association. My grasp of the technical details of FTP and permissions was rudimentary at best. At one point I asked a UNIX sysad some basic questions, and he said, “If you don’t know this stuff, you shouldn’t be building a website.”

    These days anyone can create a very sophisticated website for free, in seconds. The means of production are being relentlessly commoditized. As you point out, this limits options. But there are still plenty of amazing custom sites on the Web. Of course web technology and print technology are not equivalent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if production experimentation continues to flourish even in a radically democratized publishing environment.

  5. i like photobooks, i buy photobooks, i’m proud of the books that lie around my flat when people come over, i consider them just as much part of the furniture as my old cameras and the coffee table they both sit on.

    i bring photobooks with me to pubs when I meet friends knowing it will get passed around and enjoyed in the context of socialising and drinking.

    i think photobooks will go away; actually re-invented maybe, or maybe not, actually not, i’ll finish with that.

    when i went on holiday to Greece a few years back a diver introduced me to sea urchin, my favourite sushi morsel for over a decade, and no doubt the honey-bee of the sea. He introduced me to the process of using the knife to open them up and i learned how much effort went into collecting such a small amount of benefit, and i figured out why it’s the most expensive offering in any sushi restaurant.

    why do i describe this? Well if i was stranded on an island and this was the only way i could live, live by having the patience and tenacity and the resource to do this, then i would get two benefits, the most ideal eating experience matched with no other alternative for satisfying my digestive needs.

    Why is this relevant? Well i think photo books, before monitors, were exactly like being stranded on an island with no other alternatives than sea urchins. I think now how we get so much of our visual fine art diet from the monitor, i think so much so that the margin of benefit we can get from a book (albeit the best experience) has been marginalised.

    much like being stranded on an island and the resource cost of the sea urchin, if i had alternatives (say soft-shell crab or shrimp) and i had to make opportunity/cost decisions, then the immutable drive to optimise would cause me to spend my resources elsewhere and maybe only eat shrimp, which is not that bad, nor is the monitor really.

    now enter the ease of creating photobooks, enter the opportunity for us all to be authors, enter the opportunity for photobooks and photo albums to begin to collide (i love that idea), enter the growing aptitude of some photographers from the ease of producing images that suck and then getting better, without cost, due to digital cycle vs film cycle and enter the growing amount of feedback you can get from all the image sharing options that are out there.. Should we not experience a new renaissance of photo-books?

    that’s what i thought a couple of months ago, that’s what i thought before handing my iphone over to people i’ve met to show them some images of my son, then of some of my work. Even at this ridiculous size and rendering they got a ‘margin’ of benefit. Now i’m starting to think that it’s not about photo books, even if the images to populate them are going to blossom, i think it’s about tablet pc’s, i think the future of photobooks is going to be gobbled up by the tablets.

    i do think wall furniture is still alive and well and i think images as framed work will still be healthy. But i think photobooks as we know them may be produced, but they won’t be so much like the sea urchin they used to be before there were monitors.

    That’s what i think anyway.

  6. The level of interest in this discussion says a lot, and I think Bryan’s ultimate question is the right one: how to nurture the audience for photography in general? (Thanks too Bryan for your kind words).
    There have been subscriptions to books/limited editions–I am reminded of Nazraeli’s One Picture Books (probably not technically a subscription), and something I read at Shane Lavalette’s blog about some nice artists’ books from TBW: http://www.shanelavalette.com/journal/2009/11/20/tbw-books-subscription-series-2/.
    The Netflix of Photobooks idea is righteous. I wish something like that could be. On the one hand, it’s called a library–but art and photo books are always beat to hell, and yeah, I’d like it delivered to my door and to hold on to it indefinitely. I think the next best thing to it would be to start a small swapping/lending network among trusted friends. Why don’t people have photobook parties?

  7. “I think the next best thing to it would be to start a small swapping/lending network among trusted friends.”

    This is exactly what I’m getting at. So much of this ties into the book as collectible object, which for many, also means it’s an investment. And I wonder, why this mentality? Why can’t the ownership of photobooks (or even art?) be shared?

    With shared ownership, people would be able to experience more photography books. And I think we’d be more willing to take risks on work that might not necessarily be to our taste. And if a good number of people in this network also run blogs or such, they’ll likely be willing to give a good review of something underground that might not have much of a chance in the current paradigm.

  8. More on the future of photo books from Senior Product Manager at online publisher lulu.com Tim Wright: http://bit.ly/87FuEK

  9. […] Flak Photo and Resolve started a multi-blog discussion about the future of photography books. In my contribution, I posited a scenario where photography book publishing thrives through means analogous to punk’s […]

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