A few thoughts on photobooks



You might have noticed the flood of “best photobooks of 2011” lists last month. I’m guilty as charged, having made my own one. Marc Feustel then compiled a best of the best ranking, tallying up 50+ individual lists. While I do mind that the whole month of December is now devoted to “best of” lists I don’t mind seeing those lists at all. For me, they are a great way to see some books that I haven’t seen before. Plus, I always find it interesting to see what other people like and why. It doesn’t validate my own taste (I’m not interested in that), but it often allows me to approach something from a different angle. (more)

You can probably easily guess that as a direct consequence I have absolutely no problem with the fact that people get to make those lists. I don’t see any of these people as “taste makers.” And even if they were, what would be so wrong about it? If you follow someone’s blog you probably have a pretty good idea of their thoughts, and seeing their list then might make you look at stuff you haven’t considered before. It’s not quite the same thing obviously, but if someone you know well recommends a book to you that’s a bit different than seeing Amazon’s automated system recommend (let’s face it borderline) random stuff to you.

The lists and meta-list then had Colin Pantall write a post entitled Introspective, navel-gazing nitpickers. He makes various points about the lists and about the state of the photobook market. For example, based on the fact that Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood was the book on top of Feustel’s best-of-the-best list, Pantall bought it and ended up being disappointed. I thought Yukichi Watabe’s A Criminal Investigation (number 2 on Feustel’s list) wasn’t a very interesting book at all (I didn’t even buy it).

However, me not liking A Criminal Investigation has nothing to do with the fact that various people picked the book. If I wanted to infer anything from the fact that a lot of people like something that I don’t like… That might just not the best way to approach this. I just don’t think I should blame the “taste makers”.

In a response to Pantall’s post, Feustel writes: “I think the tastemakers are generally a positive force: the more there are of them and the more that their opinions differ, the better. You can take or leave their recommendations, but they are often helpful in drawing your attention to new work.” I agree.

Moving away from Pantall’s and Feustel’s posts, there’s more. Another accusation often lobbed at the photobook world is that it’s elitist. How dare photobook makers only produce, let’s say 2,000 copies, keeping the larger public from seeing these books! Now that’s a great narrative if you’re running for office, and it’s an easy narrative for online discussions. But it’s severely flawed.

To see why it’s flawed you just need to ask yourself whether you think that a photographer and/or publisher would mind selling 200,000 copies instead of (ideally) 2,000. If photographers/publishers were elitist then certainly they’d rather sell only 2,000 instead of catering to the unwashed masses and selling many books. There might be some photographers/publishers who think like that, but most - at least all the ones I have talked to - want to sell as many books as possible. Can you believe it?

Why then are photobooks printed with such small print runs? If a photobook publisher reads this, they’re welcome to send me email and correct me, but the basic answer is: You print as many books as a) you can afford to print and b) you think you can sell. That’s the way it works. Photobook publishing is a very tough business. Printing 200,000 copies of some photobook is a huge risk, unless you know that a) you’re going to get that book into each book shop in the country and b) the photographer (or subject matter/topic) is widely followed (this is an example).

The numbers of sold copies are rarely discussed in public, but for most photobooks the whole edition never even sells. If you print 2,000 copies and sell, say, 1,000 that’s alright (not great, though). But imagine you print 200,000 copies and sell 1,000 - do you think you could maintain your business if you had numbers like that?

The history of the photobook is filled with books that sold only a few copies, with the rest ultimately getting destroyed/pulped. Those books might now be well known, and they might sell for a huge amount of money because there are so few copies around. But the reason why there are so few copies around today is because back when the book came out people didn’t buy it.

What then about the 10 or 20 copies some photographers produce today? It’s the same game really. You might simply produce 20 copies to get your work out, to send it to some people who you think should have a copy and who might then help you to find a publisher. Or you think that given you’re unknown you might be able to sell 20 copies online. Plus, there often is that money aspect: Getting a quality photobook produced is very expensive. And if someone only prints ten books because the edition should be ten copies then there usually is a reason for that, too.

Of course, this has a lot to do with the market and how photobooks occupy a fragmented niche market. We could (and should!) talk about how we can change that and make photobooks more widely available. But I really think we should stop pretending that the photobook market is elitist by choice.

What is more, even if only a very small number of people - maybe a few thousand people - are interested in photobooks: Is that be so bad? Why do we have to have these silly debates about “elites” whenever there are small numbers? Why don’t we acknowledge instead that it’s great actually that photobooks are being made - despite the fact that so few people are interested in them?

You can’t have a discussion of the photobook market without some talk about collectors. Here, the easy narrative is that it’s sad that some people will buy photobooks and then never take them out of their shrink wrap. But what exactly does that tell us about photobooks? Absolutely nothing! The only thing it tells us is that if someone is really dedicated to collecting, that person will try to preserve whatever it is they collect very carefully. Some people collect LPs, other people collect baseball cards, other people collect photobooks. Who cares if some photobooks are never being looked at?

Oh, and while we’re at it, as easy as it is to diss the collector for buying potentially multiple copies, the same collector probably is going to buy a lot more books than the rest of us - thus supporting many publishers who would really like to sell as many books as possible. Since most photobooks don’t sell the full edition, there is no problem - unless a photoook’s edition really is sold out, and the price rises. Well, don’t blame the collectors or photographers! Blame the publishers for not re-printing the book! But then again, maybe don’t blame the publisher, because publishers usually are very happy to print stuff they think they can sell.

So I think what this all really comes down to is how we can make photobooks more widely available. After all, if they are more widely available we will have a chance to see more. Also, if they are more widely available people who are not interested in them right now might get hooked - making our community of photobook fans grow. If more photobooks are sold, edition sizes can grow because there’s more demand.

(Feel free to email me with thoughts, comments, ideas, maybe even sales figures - I’m going to update this post.)