Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Ugly: Why Care?

I've been frothing at the mouth a bit about the ugly side of photobook publishing, notably the pay to play aspects, and one might reasonably ask why one should care. I've asserted that it's bad for Art and one might reasonably ask on what grounds I make that statement.

As an aside, let me clear up one point, and add some information that I have recently learned! It's obvious that not the whole publishing industry is like this. What's less obvious is that the entire photobook industry is not like this. The biggest fellows mainly publish established players, but Aperture at least seems genuinely devoted to finding good new artists and also seems to minimize the pay-to-play (I cite as evidence: I couldn't find anything about pay to play in a quick perusal of their web site, and Colberg doesn't mention them, so, not that strong a case).

One of my readers has done books with a small/boutique publisher that doesn't demand up front payment. That reader has indeed "leveled up" on the strength of those books. So, there is evidence of a system of real publishers out there. They're all muddled up with the fakes, though.

The pay-to-play model for photobook publishing (and, I dare say, other facets of the industry) has a couple of effects that we could do without.

First and foremost it selects artists based on their ability to raise money. The wealthy, the trust-fund-beneficiaries, the expert grant-writers, all bubble upwards (at least within this incestuous little self-licking ice cream cone universe), and none of those things particularly correlate with talent. Indeed, they take away from the work. If you're constantly busy mooching and writing grant proposals, you're probably not doing your best work.

I have seen it argued that this is not a problem, because it has always been this way, and to that I have two responses, the first of which appears in my second point here:

Secondly, it separates the money from the gatekeeping functions, which diffuses the gatekeeping. In the Badde Olde Dayes, you had a Medici who had, well, some sort of taste and a stack of money. He kept the gate, and he paid the money, and there you were. Good or bad, you sure as hell had a coherent vision being paid for. At least, in theory, and sometimes.

These days you have committees of people handing out grants based on who writes the best bullshit, committees who are surely, at least some of the time, deferring questions of taste and vision to... well, someone else. Then you have the publishers, who are struggling to make payroll, pay leases, and who may be more interested in things like book design than photography doing the rest of the gatekeeping function. As I have noted, I suspect that many of these people are unserious people simply playing at it anyways.

In other words, it hasn't always been this way.

The second, and more important, response to the "well, it's always been patrons and whatnot" argument is that in this modern era it doesn't have to be that way any more. I know homeless guys who have 100% of the resources necessary to do a decent book on blurb. They have a phone. They have enough money to buy tape, a blank notebook, and 4x6 prints to make a dummy. They can use the computers at the library to use blurb's online design tool to make their book, and they can get together enough money to buy a handful of copies. Not that they would but the point is that a literal homeless bum in the USA has the necessary resources to do a PoD book.

The system that Colberg endorses, the system that we are supposed to believe is a necessary part of the Serious Art World, turns artists into grant-writers and fundraisers, and then it consigns them to 18-24 months of development hell to get the book finished. All this is effort and time that is taken away from actually making art.

The old patronage system took the explicit form of "You are my chattel, now go do your thing. Probably with a bunch of restrictions and requests and demands, but do your thing." The modern system of grants and competitions which infests photography explicitly gets in the way of doing your thing. You're supposed to constantly attend events, write proposals, and take meetings. A modicum of success means, mainly, more meetings, more events, more proposals, and even less photography.

The single most important thing a would-be novelist needs to do is write novels. Do you want to be an actor? Then go act. Painters paint. Photographers, apparently, fundraise and agonize over how to best use the 7 gatefold pages their budget allows.

No wonder much of the high end photobook market consists of boring monographs by old men and endless iterations of what Mike Chisholm so hilariously characterized as My Sad Project. I'd be pretty fucking sad too, I guess.


  1. The 'pay-to-play' aspect of photobook publishing has never particularly bothered me, I guess because I just never participated. What continues to bother me a lot is the 'pay-to-play' aspects of magazine, gallery, and competition submissions. It certainly now seems the standard practice of all submission guidelines to demand a review fee. While I don't know, I suspect that many of these events actually use the fee as a profit-making tool, and as the primary reason for even having the 'event.' I have totally stopped submitting work if there is a fee involved. I might be shooting myself in the foot, but I am pretty happy with my decision.

  2. I generally like your iconoclastic analysis of photobook publishing, which exposes quite a few uncomfortable facts. However, consider the following points.

    The highly acclaimed project Touching Strangers by Richard Renaldi apparently needed a Kickstarter in order to be published by Aperture. Even a "real publisher" does resort to those tactics. Richard Renaldi created the imprint Charles Lane Press in 2008 to publish his book Fall River Boys. So we have a fairly well established artist (he had an Aperture book in 2006) who is able to raise the money and has the know-how to self-publish preferring to go to a traditional publisher. They must bring something to the table.

    From my own experience of publishing a quite successful photography book using what you call the "pay-to-play" model, I can tell you that's it not necessarily a one-way street. If the author puts money upfront, he should be able to negotiate a larger share of royalties, and therefore potentially much greater financial rewards than with a traditional contract. Since my book is going into a third printing within a year of publication, that translates to a venture that actually makes good money. Also, I thought that my own preliminary design was quite good, but that was before I saw what a seasoned book designer was able to do!

    The drawback is that the financial risk of publishing is shifted from the publisher to the artist. But if one doesn't believe enough in the appeal of their work, why try to publish it in the first place?

    1. Thanks, QT, this is really good stuff to hear, to know.

      I hope I didn't actually say that a publisher, or designer, doesn't bring anything to the table! But, you know, I do write incautiously sometimes.

      I think, for the record, that they do. The question is whether it's worth it, and that is going to vary. Designers especially. Colberg won't tell us what they do, but I actually do know, and it can be very valuable.

      The question of increased royalties in the case of upfront payment was one that has occurred to me, although I don't think I posed it out loud. It seems reasonable, certainly. Do you think it happens?

      In general I am interested in these contracts. A lawyer with domain expertise is a clear necessity, but it's got to be tough to mentally justify a couple thousand bucks for really good counsel on a deal you're likely to lose money on anyways.

      I am delighted that you are doing well. Your book isn't the kind of thing I buy, but I am a huge fan of the national parks, and have great respect for your project.

      Having sailed the channel islands, I can attest that some of these parks are not so easy to get to.

    2. I really don't want to argue this point, but it seems to me it depends on what you mean by 'is.'
      Seriously though, I think appeal and merit, while not always, can be quite different from each other. That is, I can have a body of work that is tremendously appealing and be lacking merit [whatever that means] or vice versa. The book containing appealing images, appealingly presented, can be extremely successful, while on the other hand, a collection of photographs having great merit, by perhaps being ahead of their time, would be a dud. So, I could believe that my work has merit, but is not appealing or commercially viable, and yet, I would want to see it published.

  3. The value added by a publisher is certainly variable. It could be that in some cases, they are not much more expensive than self-publishing if one is going to finance the whole project and requires professional help.

    Increased royalties against financing by the author/artist is certainly a reality. There is even a name for that in the industry. It's called hybrid publishing, and is increasingly popular, for good reasons in my opinion. I don't think it is so difficult to understand as to require a lawyer.

    In the extreme case, when the author pays for all the production costs, the books belong to him and he earns all the royalties, minus the distribution fees, which are generally in the 25%-35% range. The other important advantage of financing the project is that many of the decisions are back in author's control.

    Out of curiosity, if you are a huge fan of the national parks, why wouldn't you buy a book about them?

    1. I think the lawyer is mandatory for the neophyte, at least, simply to provide a baseline for what's normal. The language of contracts, while boring, doesn't phase me. But, every contract ever is offered with airy handwaves of "Oh, this is all just normal boilerplate" with a heavy implication that even reading it isn't necessary.

      Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not.

      An interesting note in this book I am currently reading, is a switch from computing author royalties based on gross revenues (roughly) to computing them (at a higher percentage) based on net after expenses.

      This is the oldest trick in the book. Newbies in music and the movies are routinely ripped off, because expenses seem to track revenues almost exactly dollar for dollar, no matter how much money is made. It's *weird*. Now, publishers may not be there yet, but how am I to know?

      I guess another advantage of paying the expenses is that then you get to know what they are, and decide on them!

      Hence the lawyer.

      Is hybrid publishing essentially self-publishing, but with the assistance of a publisher's team working for you, on some predefined payment scheme? (hourly? project-rate? something like that)

      The reasons I have not bought your book are at least twofold. In the first place, I am really very strict about what books enter my home. I have too many books already, and I have children and a dog. The the second place, books that are largely decoration are simply not my thing. I have owned a few over the years, and they mainly languish on a shelf, making me feel vaguely guilty, and then I sell/donate them at a staggering loss.

      I *want* to like coffee-table-ish books, but apparently I just don't!