Inversely proportional: thoughts on the future of the photobookDecember 17, 2009
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 haven’t 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.
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?
Here I’m 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 publisher’s 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 you’re still a blogger, music producer, filmmaker, etc. You are also a book publisher: the romance of the solitary genius. What’s 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 doesn’t 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).
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 mind’s eye if you will.
Model I: The swarm. Increased access to self-publishing is inversely proportional to the consumer’s 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 publisher’s 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 doesn’t 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 notice—deckled edges, foil stamping, gatefolds, alternating stocks, thermoreactive inks, and numerous other options—but 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. I’d 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.
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 Willing’s Svart Metall or Alec Soth’s Last Days of W., or Ari Marcopoulos’s photocopied The Chance is Higher, or Michael Northrup’s Beautiful 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.