Saturday, June 17, 2017

Understanding Photobooks: The Ugly

Colberg presents us with a bit of a problem in this book of his. He is unabashedly in favor of traditional publishing, for reasons that he does not make particularly clear, and he is distinctly coy about the down sides.

He explicitly dismisses Print on Demand, repeatedly. He mentions that, in many cases, the photographer may be asked to pay for some of the costs up front when doing a book, but is too shy to mention any numbers. The number you're wondering about is north of $10,000, often considerably north. Let us recall that the up-front out of pocket expenses of PoD are less than $100 unless you are making a very fancy book indeed. Somewhat less than the $15,000 to $50,000 traditional publishers are likely to want.

Colberg is almost as dismissive of self-publishing, claiming that you want to work with a publisher because they know what sells and how to sell it. A few pages later he notes that you'll have done well if you sell 400 copies and don't make a nickle. Which is it, Jörg? Because it sounds to me a lot like these guys haven't got a clue what will sell, nor how to sell it. My evidence is this: They don't sell hardly any goddamned books.

There are people running kickstarters that sell books on this scale constantly. Kickstarters! Not that this route is easy, Colberg points out, correctly, that order fulfillment can easily turn into a nightmare, and you might wind up losing your shirt if you didn't figure out total shipping costs right, but still. Shifting a few hundred copies does not require the services of some magical Euro elf.

Dewi Lewis lays it out for us, although he wisely avoids doing it all in one place. He says, in Colberg's book, that he covers 50 to 60 percent of the $400,000 to $500,000 they spend on production costs each year. That is to say, Dewi is taking between $160,000 and $250,000 a year from the artists to cover production costs. The Dewi Lewis web sites states that they do about 20 titles a year, and also that unless you are an established photographer, you will be asked to "underwrite the risk". Which I think means, roughly, "If you are not Martin Parr or equivalent, you'll be covering the production costs" which begs the question "why on earth would I not self-pub?"

I asked around, and this is in fact basically the situation. Non-famous people pay up front. God knows what the back end of these deals looks like but given that the publishers appear to hold the whip hand, I assume "not great" is a solid guess.

Colberg hints at the real answer, saying that a Real Book might wind up in the hands of a curator, or gallerist, some influencer.

Let me tell you, if I was about to drop $35,000 into the hands of a publisher to do my book on those grounds, I would want some references. I would want to talk to someone who had gotten some success out of a book with MACK or Dewi Lewis on the colophon. My guess is that after I demanded references they'd simply stop talking to me, but who knows?

Colberg has about 21 quotes from publishers in the relevant section of his book, and two from an artist (and those deal with how tough it was to do distribution of a very successful self-published book). Nothing on "I published with Steidl and the next day Larry Gagosian wouldn't stop leaving me messages" for instance. Colberg teaches in an MFA program, surely he knows some artists.

So what's going on?

Well, nobody's getting rich. Dewi Lewis is probably selling 10,000 books a year, grossing, I dunno, half a million bucks or so. He's also taking $200,000 or thereabouts off of artists, for revenues of something under a million, which is covering the production costs and a few salaries. I could be off by a few thousand books, a few $100,000, but no matter how you slice it nobody's getting rich.

Here is another small datum. Colberg says that some publishers won't look at a PoD book dummy. I cannot imagine a legitimate reason for this, but it is easy to imagine bad reasons. "You have blurb on you, you are corrupted." At least some of these people don't want you messing about on blurb et al, and one cannot help but imagine that it's because they would prefer that you not discover that PoD is actually good enough for many projects.

What they are doing is having a good time pretending to be publishers.

Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!"

The difference between this and a proper Vanity Press is that these guys are pretty pretty princesses who will often still say no if they don't much like your project. Unfortunately, what they like is often un-sellable garbage.

What I suspect is actually going on here is that there is a substantial ecosystem of Artists, Designers, Publishers, Editors and So On who all work for one another part time, and who publish one another's books as well as the books brought to them by the marks. One of the books Colberg discusses in detail is authored by one person, designed by another, and these two show up elsewhere in Colberg's book as the designers of someone else's book. I think we're looking at a community of a few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who wear various hats and who are eking out a living here. A few of them, one assumes the publishers, seem to be doing OK. Presumably they pay themselves the largest salaries, after all, they are the boss.

Somebody gets a grant, borrows a bunch of money from mum, or just saves their pennies from the waitressing job for 20 years, and scrapes up some cash. This goes into the system to support it. Occasionally, some books are sold as well. Well, that's not fair. Dewi Lewis makes 2/3 of his revenues from selling books, which in the absence of other information we might as well take as the benchmark.

So, as a first swag, the Proper Publisher business is supported 2/3 from selling Martin Parr and a handful of other well known names, people who are already famous, and 1/3 extraction of cash from hopefuls, who are wishing desperately that the book will open the right doors.

Probably there is also a set of galleries and whatnot, the same blokes, who will in fact perk up when they see you have a book with Dewi Lewis. So in fact dropping the $35,000 or whatever to do the book probably does actually open these doors. Is it opening doors because you are a proven fundraiser who might be good for another touch? Or, is it opening doors because Michael Mack signed off on your work and so it might actually be good?

Probably a bit of both.

Either way, it's a pretty scandalous business, fairly seedy, and quite bad for artists. It forces the un-famous author into the role of fund-raiser, grant-writer, penny-pincher, mom-can-I-borrow-50,000. Then it runs that un-famous author through a lengthy process of editors, designers, and other helpful experts who will stick their nose into the project over the course of up to two years.

Now, I like collaboration. I approve of it. Being stuck endlessly toiling on a single project with an every-changing cast of collaborators, not all of my own choosing, and who I am increasingly invested in getting along with no matter what, well, that doesn't sound like fun. When you're in it to the tune of $30,000 of mom's money, and 12 months of effort, when the publisher trots out this new friend of his who's a designer, what are you gonna do?

What if you just don't like this guy? What if you think this guy's ideas are shit, are ruining your vision?

You got the strength to fire him anyways, to push back? I dunno. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. It's a tough spot to be in, and while it might not happen to you, it sure as hell happens to someone now and then.

Colberg is colluding with this system. His book is, explicitly, a how-to manual for entering this system in the role of "sucker".

Colberg explicitly and repeatedly urges his readers to avoid PoD and to avoid self-publishing. He explicitly advocates for the system I have described above, while simultaneously painting it in mildly rosy colors.

I won't go so far as to say that Colberg's view of things is a lie, or even wrong. It is distinctly biased and incomplete.


  1. "Vanity Press no longer means enabling people to pretend to be authors, it means enabling people to pretend to be publishers. The correct answer for most of these projects is "Your project is shit. No." but it turns out that the answer is occasionally "Oh, you have $50,000? Let me see those pictures!" "

    You have the whole thing there. It's a racket, related to that other racket known as "internship", restricting the sexy jobs to kids with rich parents who can support them through the "work for nothing" filter.

    There's also the business of "taste gatekeeping", which the likes of Colberg et al. fulfil. Wanna be published? Then make more of the sort of work that gets published.

    POD is wonderful, and one of the best innovations of the Web. Anyone who says different is a fool or a publisher. It's also very funny that so many of these trustafarian projects have a faux-punk aesthetic.


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  3. I always thought that art (and photography) was for the people. Contrary to this notion, it looks to me that high-end publishers like Steidl, MACK and others are all part of a small circle jerk of publishers, curators, collectors and artists serving themselves only in an infinite loop of highly over produced photo crap without any external participation from the general public.

    Imagine if important works of photography like Frank's The Americans or Walker's American Photographs were monopolized by these snobs, limited to prints of 200 expensive books, that would only circulate among rich collectors and gallerists, while at the same time tools like the internet and self publishing are readily available in order to make the work reach a larger audience.

    I do thing that Colberg's obsession with design and highly elaborate photobooks (and his demands that you should hire a professional book designer) comes from an effort to maintain or even extend the monopoly that these high end publishers have on art photography. "Hire a designer" essentially means "Go to a fancy publisher" because they will have the designers -- and also the sales and marketing people, and also all the contacts with the gallerists and collectors.

  4. "...magical Euro elf..."

    *flips back to read more*

  5. Self publishing is a threat to the traditional art book business, of course. But I think that guys like Steidl will survive, because he makes his money with other kinds of books (Günter Grass for example). He can afford to publish some photo books that don't have to be profitable. There is this interesting movie "How to make a book with Steidl". Go watch it.

    1. I agree and admire Steidl and what he does, and I think the photo world is better because of his publishing. However I think pursuing commercial publishers should not be done at the expense of POD or artist's books.

  6. Even on the risk to sound vaguely marxist: It's down to simple economics and technology. With conventional printing, you need a minimum print run to make it economically feasible. So this required a seizable investment prior to production. This economic risk is placed on the publisher. He might either act as a Gatekeeper of Good Taste, i.e. do market research to check whether the book is marketable, or pass the risk on to the author by taking his money to cover the cost.

    With PoD, the technical impediment of a minimum print run doesn't exist any more, so the role of the commercial publisher becomes obsolete. This is just another case where an economy is made redundant by advancing technology. In order to stay economically afloat, publishers resort to the role of the Gatekeepers of Good Taste. This means marketing a scarce good - recognition by the Art scene - "oh, he's got a book with Steidl!".

    Now, we're all grown-ups around here, so there's no need for the elementary school Art teacher to tell us whether we've drawn a proper picture. We can figure this out by ourselves, thank you very much.

    Best, Thomas

  7. It doesn't always have to be like this. I have had two books published by a small well-respected house in Germany, who I approached after buying and admiring one of their titles. The owner funds his passion for book-making out of his main job, and he has never asked me for a financial contribution. One of my two books sold out, and I’ve had exhibitions and magazine features on the strength of it. I accept that he may be one of the exceptions that prove the rule, though.

    1. Thank you!

      I probably should have made clearer that these guys are not 100% of publishing. It's obvious that the people who publish Stephen King novels are not these people.

      What I was not sure of, and what I was pleased to learn from your comment, was that there are still grownup publishers in photobooks.

      I suspect that, for instance, Phaidon and Aperture I think are at least less sleazy (they do enough volume to make the "bestsellers fund the failures" fiction into a reality).

      I am delighted to learn, also, that the system does in a sense work. Your book(s) moved the needle, as it were, and you are "more successful" in a meaningful way.

      Again, thanks for the counterpoint.

  8. I worked in the music biz during the 1980s & 1990s. Reading your last few columns brought back a lot of memories of that time.

    It was true back then, for me at least, that the most exciting work was being done by people with no real foot in the door who were "self-publishing" (the DIY movement of self-made and released cassettes, fanzines, etc).

    Of course today, technology has made this much easier to do, and with much higher quality. I am working on my first small photo book, of maybe 30 pages, right now. I plan to put out maybe 3 or 4 of these each year. Small, easily digestible, fairly current. And self-published, of course. It's quite a lot of fun! And who knows, maybe I'll sell a few copies along the way, too.