Are We Snobs?




The other day, I published some thoughts on photobooks, talking about numbers. Photobook publishing is a tough business because not many people buy photobooks. Or more precisely, the books we are happy to call photobooks. While editions of most photobooks tend to be small, some photobooks sell very large numbers of copies. (more)

Sales numbers are not easy to come by. But I found a few. According to her website, “More than 14 million Anne Geddes titles have been sold worldwide.” If we believe this page (and why wouldn’t we?) “Arthus-Bertrand has sold over 3 million copies of his book Earth from Above (translated into 24 languages)”. A Google search for that book resulted in anything from over a million to 3 million copies. Ume Kayo’s Ume-Me sold 110,000 copies in Japan. And the “1972 Aperture monograph Diane Arbus, now in its twelfth edition, has sold more than 100,000 copies.” (source).

There’s something curious about these books, though, isn’t there? I suppose we can all easily agree on Diane Arbus being a photobook. With Ume-Me, things already get slightly more complicated. A lot of people don’t think that’s necessarily a good example of a photobook (I’ve had people tell me that). And Geddes and Arthus-Bertrand… I don’t have to tell you what the fine-art photo crowd thinks of that work. You know, those aren’t even photobooks, they’re coffee-table books.

Here’s the thing. The books by Geddes and Arthus-Bertrand are not my cup of tea. But I can’t dismiss them as not being photobooks simply because of that. So when we talk about photobooks and how it’s so hard to sell them and how edition sizes are so small - That’s only true if we exclude the books that we deem unworthy. And if we do that then, well, we’re snobs, we’re being elitist. It’s as simple as that.

Instead of pretending that we live in some small niche community, we might as well realize that in part it is a niche community because of a decision we make: Some books aren’t worthy.

There are all kinds of ways to think about those books. My favourite approach is to treat them as the equivalent of gateway drugs. If someone is buying a book like Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth from Above isn’t it possible that that person then might be interested in other photobooks?

We don’t have to like books like Geddes’ or Arthus-Bertrand’s (just like we don’t have to like each and every book on any of the “best of” lists). But I think it’s very worthwhile to realize that they have a large appeal. What is more, that large appeal can possibly translate in people getting interested in books that are more along the lines of the photobooks we tend to like.