Publishing – is it worth the time and effort?

Not since Gutenberg has anyone had a better idea. Books are portable, personal, and cheap. They’re also the ideal spot in which to stick a photograph. But because photobooks are so sensible, pretty much everyone wants to make one. That’s just the problem: how does one make a photobook that not only rises above the rabble, but deserves to stand above the crowd? Tim Grey spoke to nine experts from around the world to try and find out.

Bursting your bubble

Let’s begin with the bad news: your book’s not going to sell. I asked top agents and publishers how many of their artists drove Bentleys. The answer was always exactly the same: they laughed. Heartily.

Essentially, there are too many photobooks and not enough buyers. According to standard economics, market forces should ensure that supply will dip to meet demand when nobody wants a product. But for some reason, with photobooks, we insist on printing the things, regardless of who’ll buy them. So, in effect, the photographer becomes the customer.

“At the moment, there’s way too many photographers out there,” explains Tom Claxton, a photographic agent in New York. His list includes some serious names in photography, such as Mark Steinmetz, Max Pinckers, and Laia Abril, who took out this year’s Aperture Award at Paris Photo.

© Paul Blackmore. Flat Rock, Bondi 2017, from the book, Heat.
© Paul Blackmore. Flat Rock, Bondi 2017, from the book, Heat.

This glut of photographers – and photography books – is commonly referred to in the industry as “The Bubble.” The most devastating critic of The Bubble is Fotobookfestival’s director, Dieter Neubert. For the past ten years, he’s been running one of the planet’s most popular photography festivals in the handsome German town of Kassel. But he’s seriously concerned about the state of the artform. “It’s hard to find really good books,” he admits sadly. “It’s relatively easy to make a book, so you have too many. But publishers have problems in selling all the books. It’s a strange situation.”

In fact, publishers are having so much trouble selling books that the great majority are actually charging photographers to print their work and slap a price on the cover. “In an ideal situation, you’re going to come out with no costs. The problem is that [with] two-thirds of publishers right now, the photographers are paying the majority of the production costs up-front,” says Claxton. “There are very few, actually, that will cover the whole cost. You’re looking at anything from 50-page softback at US$10,000, up to anywhere around US$25,000-30,000 for something that’s a little more involved.”

Even Alexa Becker, head of acquisitions at one of the world’s most highly-regarded publishing houses, Kehrer Verlag, admits something is amiss. “There are a lot of books out there, and the sales don’t justify the expenses,” she says. “To make the model work, there has to be an alternative sort of income or funding – and when that’s the case, something’s not working.”

What does this mean for you? Basically, if you’re thinking of producing a book, be realistic. Most professionals suggest that the best-case scenario is breaking even – that’s just for printing. “The main game is having it all paid for,” explains West Australian photographer, Christian Fletcher. “If you can get it all paid for up front, it doesn’t matter what happens after that.”

Why bother?

If there’s no money in photobooks, why do we all want to make one? Perhaps the benefits of publishing are less tangible, but no less important for the career – and the soul – of a photographer.

One compelling reason is that a bound and beautifully-printed collection of your work is a compelling promotional tool. For Sarah Walker, whose debut book, Second Sight, won the Australia and New Zealand Photobook of the Year, having a publication launched the young photographer into a new phase in her career. “It definitely opened doors,” she says. “It had a snowball effect, where we were able to make a new book, which was launched recently. And, I got a solo show in Canberra, which was the first time I’d had a really large gallery space, and I could show the work in its entirety.”

The simple act of publishing a book imbued Walker’s work with a legitimacy it previously lacked. People sat up and paid attention – which, in an incurably distracted world, is no small thing. “It sounds sad to say this, but once people start seeing your work published, you’re taken a little bit more seriously,” Walker explains. “I feel like there are people I’ve met, and people who have reached out after buying the book that I’ve met, and that wouldn’t have happened beforehand. From showing work around Australia, it kinda stays within Australia. But having work presented and sold internationally has been the biggest bonus, making those connections that are new.”

This is exactly the effect her publisher, Dan Rule at Perimeter, was hoping for. To his mind, a photobook provides a legitimacy that can accelerate a photographer’s career. “It’s one of a suite of ways to get your work out there,” he advises. “As a publisher, what we can provide for a photographer is a completely different way of sharing your work with the world, and with institutions. We’re able to get photographers from Australia into these permanent collections of major, major institutions. In that way, the photographer can find a broader market.”

© Ingvar Kenne. Untitled, from the book, The Ball.
© Ingvar Kenne. Untitled, from the book, The Ball.

For more established photographers such as Ingvar Kenne, his creative book projects might not make money, but it definitely leads in that direction. “Undoubtedly, it helps,” he explains. “I have my exhibition and book stuff, which really doesn’t pay for itself. But there’s advertising. I know there’s a certain amount of jobs I never would have gotten unless I had my personal work. It goes hand-in-hand.”

And, it’s this model that Tom Claxton pursues for his artists, too. In his opinion, a photographer’s career should be a balance between residencies, print sales, publishing, commercial, and editorial work. “And commercial should take up the least time,” he sagely advises. “That’s my goal: If my artists can do one job a year, and it be a big, big budget, that’s it.”

Of course, there’s another trifling reason a photographer might want to make a photobook: they might really like photography. “I’m only interested in the photograph,” admits Kenne. “It’s all I really care about and enjoy.”

Going solo vs hitching a lift

The parlous state of the publishing industry begs the question remains: Do I self-publish, or find someone to do it for me? Perhaps the most important quality of an established publisher is that they’ve done it all before. This is a group of professionals who make books for a living. Walker, who published Second Sight and her more recent Pelči Manor with Perimeter, welcomed the helping hand of a wisened publisher. “I’ve self-published before and it’s been a bit of a train-wreck,” she admits. “It’s harder to do a really good job without a team behind you. You’re really supported through the process of having a designer and editors, and people outside of photography looking at it.”

© Christian Fletcher. Nannup, WA, from the book, West.
© Christian Fletcher. Nannup, WA, from the book, West.

And there’s a genuine esteem connected with a respected publisher who has a long history of printing fantastic books. Readers know they can trust Taschen, or Phaidon, or Little Brown Mushroom, because they’ve made such great books. Being associated with such an august institution will lend legitimacy to your work. “I think it’s still a signal for galleries and museums and institutions that when you publish with a renowned publisher that there has been a selective process beforehand,” explains Becker. “It means something if we, or MACK or Steidl say ‘yes’ to a book. That really helps you on the career ladder.”

The other advantage an established publisher has over a solo agent is its infrastructure. Major publishers know what they’re up to when it comes to design, printing, and publicity. In signing a major distribution deal with Macmillan for his first publication, Lost but Found, Peter Sharp understood exactly what he was getting into. “I was very clear from the outset as to what I would bring to the party in terms of content creation, and then what I needed help with to make a successful book,” he explains. “I needed assistance with design, that I needed assistance with writing, that I needed assistance with making these stories concise, and that the book flowed.”

One overlooked contribution of an editorial team is its ability to clarify a message. Sometimes, photographers are too close to their work, and it takes another pair of eyes to see where the beating heart of the book really is. As they say, every artist needs to kill their darlings.

© Ingvar Kenne. Untitled, from the book, The Hedgehog and the Foxes.
© Ingvar Kenne. Untitled, from the book, The Hedgehog and the Foxes.

For instance, Ingvar Kenne made multiple versions of his award-winning book, Citizen, before seeking feedback on his selection. “When I first did my dummies, I didn’t ask for help. And now, looking back at the book, I thank God I finally did,” Kenne says. “It’s often about culling, and holding on to things for the wrong reason – holding on to images for the love of that single image, but it’s easy to overlook the overall picture.”

But what if you really love your darlings? What if your darlings don’t deserve to die? It’s the conundrum faced by every photographer when they’re about to publish a book: Am I willing to sacrifice complete creative control for the advantages a publisher brings?

Meanwhile, it’s worth thinking very hard about making a Faustian bargain with a publisher: What are you getting when you’re selling your soul? Design teams, editors, admin staff, cleaners, truck drivers, and publicity monsters all need to eat. Once they’re fed, is there a chicken bone left for a photographer to chew? “The way publishing has panned out these days, you don’t get any money out of it anyway,” says Sydney photographer, Paul Blackmore. “You might not have to put so much money in, but you lose a huge amount of control.”

Although it’s relatively doable to design, publish, and plug your own book, one stumbling block remains. If you want to see your book in Dymocks – let alone the international retailers – you’re going to have to go through a publishing house.

© Peter Sharp. Sparrow, from the book, Lost but Found.
© Peter Sharp. Sparrow, from the book, Lost but Found.

But all’s not lost. Thanks to the Internet, maybe having your publication in bookstores isn’t really the main game. For instance, Fletcher sells his photobooks online, in his gallery, and at hand-picked independent bookstores. He doesn’t do too badly out of it, either – his most successful book shifted 30,000 copies. “You don’t make much money out of books anyway, unless you’re Ken Duncan and you can sell shitloads all over the place,” he says. “So, we sell them mainly through our gallery so that we get the bulk of the profit. When you go through a bookshop, you lose half. Once you pay your tax, out the other end of it, you don’t get much. You have to sell tens of thousands to make it worthwhile.”

So, if you’re not expecting to make any money out of your photobook, then isn’t the main game just getting it out there? Maybe retail distribution doesn’t matter. “Unless you’re going to do a book that’s sort of in the $20-30 range, and it’s going to be stocked at Walmart and Urban Outfitters, and mainstream non-photobook stores, ultimately, they are luxury objects,” says Claxton. “You can do an edition of ten, and get the work out there and find as much of an audience as a run of a thousand. It’s online how people discover the work. It’s the reviews, it’s the articles on the book. Once the book comes out, that gets that machine underway,” he says.

Get with the Times (New Roman)

What really separates a photobook from a portfolio is design. There’s an intentionality behind the object: it has been carefully manufactured to look just like this.

The fact that a photobook looks beautiful (or is intentionally ugly) might explain some of its resilience in the age of Instagram. “When you pick up a book, you feel it: the way pages drape, the way the ink sits on the page,” explains Dan Rule, for whom exceptional design is a hallmark of his imprint, Perimeter. “All those things are really coalescing with the work to create something a little more meaningful. It’s hard to describe, but I think that books should feel sensitive to their content. The most successful ones, you can very much feel that sensitivity.”

© Paul Blackmore. Stretch, Bondi Icebergs 2014, from the book, Heat.
© Paul Blackmore. Stretch, Bondi Icebergs 2014, from the book, Heat.

The marriage of photographer and designer can sometimes result in a book that is far superior to what its author originally conceived. Though Blackmore self-published Heat, the decision to employ some local designers took his book somewhere he hadn’t initially imagined. “I took my ideas to them, and they interpreted what I wanted, then they came back and showed me what they thought,” he recalls. “What they had come up with was so fantastic, and better than what I had first come up with. I love that process.”

But, for a few brave souls, there are other paths to tread. With WEST, Christian Fletcher took the road less travelled and laid out the book himself. “It’s all pretty easy, really,” he says. “There are only so many ways to place an image on a page. It’s not like I’ve had to be a Rhodes Scholar. You just need a little understanding of design and you can just whack it together pretty quickly. It looks quite nice. There are a couple of mistakes in the design that we noticed, but most people won’t know, or care.”

The other consideration in publishing your book is paper. The material you choose will have a subtle, but significant effect on whether your reader even picks it up. “You just try and make it as tricked-up as you can; choose a stock that’s fairly weighty,” explains Fletcher. “You want your book to be big, but not too big, small, but not too small – depending on what sort of price-point you want to hit.”

© Christian Fletcher. Waste processing facility tailings dam, Dardanup, WA, from the book, West.
© Christian Fletcher. Waste processing facility tailings dam, Dardanup, WA, from the book, West.

Although Fletcher isn’t willing to compromise on the format (“Definitely, hardcover,” he says), doing so may make your book more accessible – and thus reach more eyes. For Sharp, for instance, making a book for everyone was of utmost importance. “Macmillan felt like FlexiBack was the best material for the book,” he says. “It allowed us to reach a price-point under $30, and to put more pages in the book. They 100 percent made the right decision.”

Becker, who helps select paper for a living, believes the impact of paper stock is under-rated. In her experience, readers are acutely aware of a publication’s quality, and they aren’t happy with being sold short. “There are actually a lot of people out there who still value the book as an object. They know what good paper feels like, and whether the paper is right for the images,” she says. “Basically, a book is a work of perfection, and that’s what we strive for.”

There are others, however, who think that concentrating on the paper choice risks missing the forest for the trees. Neubert is distressed by the rise of the ultra-limited run, designed to make sales to major institutions and collectors, while pumping up the secondary market for books at auction. He reckons the cost of most photobooks is poisoning the artform. “The most important thing is the quality of the photos and the story. It’s not extremely important to have a nice, hard-bound cover with expensive editions and small inlays,” he explains. “A book should be available for many, many people. Photographic language is the most important part. Then, of course, the physical thing has to match the photographic story. If these both come together, that’s the perfect book in the end.”

Be your own best advocate

At this point, it hardly bears repeating: photobooks don’t sell themselves. There’s a common myth that going with a big publisher means they’ll take care of media and marketing. The truth is that everything requires a strong dose of DIY.

Becker, at Kehrer Verlag – one of the big-five publishers when it comes to serious photography, says that even at this level the enthusiasm of the photographer is critical. “It helps a great deal. If you don’t promote the book at all, it’s really hard to stick out from the crowd,” she says. “There are many, many beautiful books out there.”

© Sarah Walker. Halo (Light Refraction), from the book, Second Sight.
© Sarah Walker. Halo (Light Refraction), from the book, Second Sight.

Rule, who is at the vanguard of independent photo publishing here in Australia, makes precisely the same point. “There’s only a few books that will just sell and sell,” he says. “A photographer who will travel with the book, go to book fairs, do signings, do events, that’s when you can really reap the benefits of a book. It’s just a fantastic way of sharing your work.”

Well, you might say, Kehrer Verlag and Perimeter are artsy-fartsy publishers. Surely one of the heavyweights like Penguin or HarperCollins would do a better job? You’re wrong.

Sharp is straight-up about expecting a publisher to promote his book. “I went into it with the attitude that it’s collaborative,” he recalls. “From the beginning, I tried to give them as much content to help them go sell the book. I’d come up with ideas about what we could do. I’d give them ideas about who they could go to promote. They were then able to use that to secure some press and publicity that I don’t think they would have got were I not willing to tell my story.”

Sharp is particularly unique in that he’s pretty green – Lost but Found is his debut book, and he’s only been shooting professionally for nigh on two years. But even salty old photographers with a huge portfolio and a squad of books to their name know the incalculable benefit of elbow-grease. “You don’t go into a coffee shop and just stand there and expect coffee, you know what I mean?” explains Ingvar Kenne. “You have to ask for it,” explains Ingvar Kenne. “If you want to sell your book – or just promote it – you have to do the work.”

The medium is the message

Clearly, there’s a vast number of decisions to be made when you set out to make a photobook. We’ve covered most of the practical considerations. But the one thing we haven’t talked about is the most singularly important. It’s what goes inside the book.

On this point, I’ve got nothing to tell you. Unfortunately, it’s up to you. The only advice worth listening to comes from Ingvar Kenne: don’t compromise. “It has to be a project that I can look back on in 20 years and think that I made the decisions and I stand by them,” advises Kenne. “You don’t want to sit there, have a book in your hand, and have a bunch of excuses attached to that. Because then it would be disastrous to stand behind it. It has to be pure joy.”


Alexa Becker        

Paul Blackmore    

Tom Claxton        

Christian Fletcher 

Ingvar Kenne       

Dieter Neubert     

Dan Rule             

Peter Sharp         

Sarah Walker


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