The Photobook Sessions web conference held by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation and Camberwell College of Arts which was guest curated by Lewis Chaplin and Sarah Piegay Espenon of Loose Joints, and included photographers they had published such as Mårten Lange. There was also an interesting talk by Bruno Ceschel of Self Publish Be Happy who administered a more wary outlook on the future of photobook publishing - essentially saying that there is no money in it and how his platform was looking at alternative methods of publishing, which, to me, seemed to boil down to online publishing (which I consider something one would do in accompaniment of an actual physical object). Cashel pointed out how many established publishers were not putting out photobooks anymore and leaving it a small core of dedicated photobook publishers such as Steidl simply due to costs.
This made me think about an interview with Simon Norfolk on the A Small Voice podcast. The crux of Norfolk's argument is that photobooks self-perpetuate in their own limited and likeminded circles, and the production of photobooks are simply and only 'vanity publishing no different to an author paying someone to publish their book... who can afford to pay £40-£60 for a coffee table book? Just middle class people like yourself' (Norfolk, 2019). If going to make a niche or academically informed book probably this is true, as opposed to making something that lends itself to a wider commercial audience, like a book of pretty landscapes. Over the years I have heard it bandied about countless times how publishers would want an artist to from the first £20,000 of the print run, not unlike music bands and models needing to have 20,000 social media followers before a label or agency would be interested in signing them.
A dear friend of mine, Martin Masai Anderson recently self published Can't Smile Without You - A photo documentary following the fans of Tottenham Hotspur football club home and away between 2013 and 2017. I'm sure Martin wouldn't mind me alluding to that he essentially gambled the money he had saved for the deposit on a house for his young family to finance the publication and it was a fair amount more than the standard £20,000 by the time he had paid for a designer, paid the prestigious Italian printers EBS and employed a publicist to ensure people knew about the book. It is great that Martin has now turned a profit on what was 5 years worth of personal investment in a project that he has no qualms in referring to as a 'passion project'. Of course, Martin could've used a less expensive and he could've designed the book himself however he argues that if he was going to do something like this he wanted to make it as high quality as possible and in relation to book design and editing, the sheer volume of images and being emotionally invested in so many of them, he needed a different set of eyes to eliminate that side of things. I guess what I find so interesting is that theoretically Martin has a huge immediate potential audience in that of the global support for not Tottenham Hotspur football club, but also football fans at large, not to mention further audiences such as within a cultural and academic fields but it still took well over a year to sell a few thousand copies. I don't see this a reflection on the quality of Martin's work and output, more that photobooks, priced at £45 are something of a luxury when push comes to shove these days.
I do think that, on one side of the coin, photobooks are self-indulgent vanity projects, and the market is saturated are far far too many low-quality examples, but I also firmly believe they have an unquestionable place not least to physically solidify an authors work. I have no shame it admitting after 20odd years as a photographer I would like to publish a monologue - in vain or otherwise, I want to be able to look back the work in a solid form, as opposed to on harddrives. I think there is a sense of completeness to the work having gone through the process of turning it into a book. I also believe by putting something tangible into peoples hands to reflect on has a slightly longer lasting impression that merely posting it online.
I have a fair amount of experience working with publishers on photo and illustrative reference publications and indeed the manufacturing costs are high but at the same time, I see many new small imprints popping up all the time (I have included many of them on my personal resources page on my website here) which produce smaller runs of cheaper made books - not everything has to have a linen cloth covered cover and printed on luxurious paper. In another A Small Voice podcast with Matthew Genitempo and Brian Schutmaat, who have recently co-founded Texas-based independent art book publisher, Trespasser, Matthew was asked, "what do you think the future of photobooks is?" He replied that he didn't know and that the interviewers guess would be as good as his, however, he states he firmly knew what he would like to see the future being - more small limited runs of handmade books, in which "the human touch is undeniable".
Photobooks are costly and arguably destructive in an eco capacity, but surely there are ways around minimising this? Using recycled paper (recycled paper is often more expensive but is eco-friendly) and stitch binding soft covers as opposed to using toxic glue and extra material are a few strategies I will be employing. My plan is to produce a limited run of self-designed, hand-made and self-published books. It is not really feasible to hand-make anything larger than tens of units but this can work in two ways; 1, the limited-ness of the book creates a 'specialness' and 2, with relatively low overheards, the success of the book can be judged and I can use some of the copies, almost as dummies, to send to publishing houses with a view of hopefully getting published to a larger run. As mentioned, I have experience as a book designer, liaising with printers and I have made countless dummies for myself and clients so I feel quite confident in moving forward in this self-sufficent manner. There are reference books on self-publishing (listed below) which I can refer to however I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what it is I want to create and how I will go about it, which I will document in upcoming posts.
- Jorg Colberg. 2016. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. Routledge.
- Bruno Ceschel. 2015. Self Publish, Be Happy: A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto. Aperture.
- Parr, Martin. & Badger, G., 2004. The Photobook: A History Vol 1. 1 ed. London: Phaidon.
Anderson, Martin. 2020. Can't Smile Without You. AMS.
Genitempo, Matthew. 2021. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers 155 [Interview by Ben Smith] A Small Voice [Online] Available at: https://bensmithphoto.com/asmallvoice/genitempo-and-schutmaat [Accessed: 05.08.21]
Norfolk, Simon. 2019. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers 107 [Interview by Ben Smith] A Small Voice [Online] Available at: https://bensmithphoto.com/asmallvoice/simon-norfolk?rq=simon%20norfolk [Accessed: 05.08.21]