Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The "Artist Driven" Book Deal Scam

"Artist driven" books are the ones in which artists pay a bunch of money up front to get their book published, but everyone pretends very hard that it's not a Vanity Press operation.

I used to think that "well, if the publisher is well run and competent, it's just that they can do more with less cash" but then I got into a discussion, and it happened that I thought about it a bit more. The answer is "no, it is always a scam, it always bad for artists" with a couple of exceptional cases I will talk about at the end.

Let's throw some numbers up there. The actual numbers don't matter so we'll keep it simple. Suppose we have a typical mainstream publisher, Wiley or someone, who doesn't ask authors for money up front. Some books sells, others don't. The winners pay for the losers. Suppose this year they are doing two (2) books. Each book edition costs $100 to do, all-up. The publisher fronts $200 and gets the books out there, one sells the other does not. One book produces $500 in total revenue, the other $0.

The publisher pays back their cash reserve $200, and then divides the remaining $300 up between themselves and the successful author.

The unsuccessful author gets nothing, but is at least not in negative territory.

Consider now a smaller publisher, less well capitalized. They only want to spend $100 to get the two books done, so they ask for $50 from each artist. They're just as good at this as Wiley, so they sell $500 of one book and $0 of the other, same as in the previous scenario.

The publisher pays themselves back the $100, and (presumably) pays the successful artist back $50. Look, there's an extra $50 in play! There's $350 now to divide between publisher and the successful author. Even in this, which is nearly the best case scenario, the transition from traditional to artist-driven constitutes a transfer of $50 from the losing author to the publisher and the winning author. If the publisher is dopey and prints a lot of books that don't sell, the situation gets worse all around.

This is not underwriting in any meaningful sense, although publishers often use that word. This is, technically, parimutuel betting, quite a different thing, and arguably the opposite of what underwriters traditionally do.

It is the fact that rather than using their own capital, and spreading the risk across it, but are instead forcing the risk out onto the artists one book at a time, that produces the extra $50 in the publisher's pocket. They divide the necessary risk capital up into little tranches, and only pay back the winning tranches. Notably, the incentive here is to get as many losing tranches as possible, which isn't quite what we'd like to see. Every losing artist is another $50 we get to divide up between ourselves and Martin Parr. I am being, to a degree, facetious here. The benefit or loss of a whole pack of losers depends on a lot of fiddly details and could go either way.

As a side note, this is basically the standard playbook of capitalism: push risk out onto someone else, someone who is less qualified to evaluate it, and less able to assume it; keep profits for yourself. Uber, for instance, is essentially a taxi company with risks, ongoing costs, and capital investments pushed out on to people utterly unqualified to quantify and manage these costs; but with the profits nicely preserved inside the company, thankyouverymuch.

I see two ways around this.

The first is to make all books successful, which isn't as silly as it sounds. The artist-driven turns into helping the artist pre-sell enough books to cover their contribution. Run a kickstarter or whatever. Now, this turns your artist into an unpaid marketing consultant and shipping clerk, but that is a minor peccadillo compared to taking $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 off them which you may or may not get back to them.

At least some publishers are doing this to at least some degree. There may be publishers for whom this is in fact formal policy, but I don't know. It seems unlikely that there are many who would turn down someone's check just because it didn't come from pre-sales. Once the formalism exists to accept money from the artist, it seems to be difficult to turn down money just because it's not based on already-sold books?

The second is to treat artist contributions as a common pool, and pay them back in a common way. Rather than asking the artist to front $15,000 for their book, you ask for $15,000 for the overall production fund, and pay all contributors back at the close of the relevant fiscal year based on overall sales. This more or less amounts to creating a publishing co-op, which may be a thing that exists for all I know.


  1. You write this from the point of view of artists' books, but this illness is a publishing industry wide phenomenon. It's true of scientific publications, periodicals and monographs, fiction, etc. Self-help crap and cookbooks may be the only exceptions, though there may be others sectors that are doing ok, I don't know. With visual artists, there is the additional complication of a minimum standard of colour/B&W reproduction that constrains things even more. Digital printing has reduced the set-up costs of physical printing, but copy-editing, proofing, layout, these things have changed a bit but are still there, somewhere.

    So far as I can tell, publishing companies nowadays consist of 3 or 4 people with an office and letterhead who outsource everything else, content creation, copy-editing, proofing, layout, physical printing, marketing, etc. Bookstores now mostly sell candles and coffee.

    We've all more or less come to believe that content should be free, books, photos, taxis, wi-fi access in coffee shops, etc. Some day soon, if we're not already there, the number of people and care about publishing will round to zero.

    I cannot get an answer to this question. Why are e-books so expensive? Why can't I get one for $3, where $2.98 of it goes to the author? There are fewer middlemen left, they were all outsourced for efficiency reasons, so where does my money go?

    Sorry for the rant. I think of books and I think of Uber, and it seems to me that things are going in a direction that no one should want.

    I also get a kick out photo fora in which photographers scream about their copyright and how amateurs are driving down the price of everything, yet turn around looking for very complex free software to do their processing. And it is all said without apparent irony.

    1. Yes indeed, there is much of the world that appears hell-bound in a handbasket!

    2. If you can find any part not in that handbasket, please could you let me know?

    3. I may have mentioned this before (and who cares, they deserve the exposure), but there are exceptions, e.g. https://anotherplacepress.bigcartel.com

      Actually there are plenty more. The big publishers are corrupt, moribund basket cases, but there is a groundswell of a new grassroots movement which actually builds on new technology-driven opportunities rather than milking them for all they're worth. Or am I being naively optimistic?

  2. "Uber, for instance, is essentially a taxi company with risks, ongoing costs, and capital investments pushed out on to people utterly unqualified to quantify and manage these costs; but with the profits nicely preserved inside the company, thankyouverymuch."

    "By any measure, Uber’s seven-year entrepreneurial journey has been extraordinary. No venture has ever raised more capital, grown as fast, operated more globally, reached as lofty a valuation -- or lost as much money as Uber"

    Every Uber driver I've talked to is making money.

    1. "By pricing its services 30% or more below comparable taxi fares and then retaining 25% of gross bookings for itself, Uber has squeezed the revenues available to compensate drivers, who are ultimately responsible for providing the labor, equipment, maintenance, insurance and fuel to serve consumers."

      Drivers in general think they are making rather more money than they are, because they do not have a good handle on the actual all-up expenses they're covering. Actual earnings vary a lot, but in almost no cases is Uber a particularly good gig. In a lot of cases it is better than no job, but that's a very low bar.

      Anyways. The point is that capitalist corporations always seek to push risk and expense onto others who are less able to correctly price them, in order that the corporation can then underprice them and pocket the difference. If Uber isn't doing a good job of this, it's because they're dumb, not because they don't want to.

    2. "...Every Uber driver I've talked to is making money.
      " ??? Hardly any car owner you talk to knows the TCO of his/her car. The typical Uber driver mistakes turnover for revenue.
      And don't get me into discussing risk assessment - for the company, the driver and the passenger...

    3. Uber drivers have a very bad habit of not making estimated tax payments on their income. Come the following April, “making money” will suddenly become “holy shit how do I owe so much in taxes?”

    4. To be fair, there are certainly Uber drivers who are perfectly aware that they are, essentially, converting their car back in to cash in a sort of labor-intensive reverse mortgage operation.

      As a short-term strategy, it's not even a bad idea.

    5. Markus wrote, "The typical Uber driver mistakes turnover for revenue."

      Wikepedia makes the same mistake: "Revenue is also referred to as sales or turnover."


    6. I consider it possible that Markus is not a native speaker of English. His point is clear, even if the words are a bit muddled. "revenue" is a word that is often misused even by native speakers to mean a variety of different things.

    7. ... indeed no native speaker. Would "profit" be the right term?

  3. Does an Uber driver make enough money to pay the rent, feed his family, and save enough money to buy a new car when the current one dies? If he does not earn enough money to replace the car then he is subsidizing his "employer". Just because Uber is cheaper than a taxi doesn't make it a good thing, self-serving though it is to believe so.

  4. There is another kind of self publishing in the photography world that I would categorize as "folk" publishing, with various branches. You format a book or pay someone to format it for you. You send it to a publisher in China, who you pay in cash. You get back 500 or 1000 books, and over the next several years you sell them at craft fairs and in the "local" section of a couple independent bookstores. Eventually you make a few dollars, sort of, after you reach the break even point. If not, you have a big stack of books in your garage or closet until you die. I know a older nature photographer who does this regularly. I bought several of his books. They are very good (he's a serious author and retired scientist and life-long birder who also happens to mostly self-publish).


    1. Come to think of it a few of his books are even self-printed using a home printer, and they bound at a print shop for not too much.

    2. There are many many variations on self-publishing, and I approve of all of them ;)

      Real Publishers have a standard pitch, though, and it's not all wrong. With a publishing deal you get access to a crew of collaborators (designers, editors, and so on) who will by god make your book better most of the time.

      They also claim that they know what will sell and what won't (this is dicier, since they seem to Not Sell a lot of books anyways) and they have access to sales channels and distribution and blah blah.

      It's not all lies, although I am certain that some publishers are better at some or all of these things than others. It's also not free!

  5. There's no need to publish any more bad "photobooks" [sic], the market is saturated with them. Don't believe me? Head on over to cphmag.com

    1. Yes, I think many of us here read cphmag religiously. Some hate-read it, some simply read it.

      Even Jörg states pretty often that there are too many photobooks, and too many poor ones. He and the rest of the MFA crew disagree with the rest of us what the lousy ones are, of course.

      Me, I don't really care. You gotta throw a lot of stuff against the wall and in 100 years, assuming civilization remains, there will presumably some sort of sifting out of the stuff that's not artistically useful any more.

      I do wish publishers would stop taking money off overly optimistic authors, though. That seems to me fundamentally unfair.

    2. Fundamentally unfair, perhaps, but is this business really a scam?

      The photographers who enter into these arrangements do so voluntarily. So as long as the publisher actually delivers a book of the quality and in the quantity promised, makes a good faith effort to sell it, and accurately accounts for their revenue and expenses, where is the fraud or deception you believe occurs?

      I suspect in many cases, the photographers commit more of a scam than the publishers do, when they raise the funds for their mandatory contributions by hitting up family and friends and providing them with a generously rosy description of the book and hopelessly optimistic projections about its potential for returning a profit.

      That said, I agree with you that this is a very seamy business and one I have no wish to be involved with on either side, but I'm not sure it actually rises to the level of actually being a scam, as you believe to be the case.

      (Mind you, having worked professionally for more than a decade investigating financial frauds on behalf of the bankruptcy trustees who clean up the messes afterward, my definition of what constitutes a fraud is probably more legalistic than yours.)

    3. That is a very sound point to make. I consider it profoundly unlikely that any actual fraud is occurring here. It is seamy, for certain.

      A hypothetical case I failed to mention might clarify my repulsion slightly.

      Suppose a publisher is actually well capitalized, and couple in fact front the entire $200 and actually behave as an underwriter -- spreading the risk around by taking on multiple bets. Suppose that same publisher simply chose to instead operate artist-driven.

      Now we're in, hypothetically, territory where a publisher is simply choosing a business model that nets them more money because they can, not because they must.

    4. Over the years, I've collected a shit tonne of photo books (two words), by which I mean: photographers' monographs, exhibition catalogs, anthologies, histories &suchlike.

      They mostly have illuminating texts, careful selections, and good to fantastic reproductions.

      Most of the "photobooks" [sic] that Colberg promotes, represent projects that (in his view) redress historic societal ills, inclusivity deficits, through authorship and/or actual content (hence the name "Conscientious", as in ME JORG COLBERG AM WOKE WOW).

      One might allow that the projects generally succeed at this um, laudable goal on some level while also lamenting that they are also 'out there' (not in itself a bad thing) and yet, tediously and predictably, within the canon, the canon A.M. (our host) characterizes as "MFA" -- 'academic machine' is perhaps a more fitting descriptor, and with historical antecedents.

      I don't actually "hate read" cphmag, but too often turn away in disappointment and despair for the insularity and wasted effort it represents.

    5. I'm by no means an expert, but based on my few glimpses behind the curtains of this industry, I'd say your last scenario is not so much a hypothetical but right on the money far more often than you might realize!

      In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover this practice of paying to be published did not originate with book publishers demanding payments from photographers to publish their books, as many suspect, but from rejected, but well to do photographers offering them a tip (bribe?) as an inducement to change their mind and publish their book after all.

      Similar to slipping a valet or maître d' $20 for a better parking spot or table, except in this case, it's $20 large in exchange for a publishing slot.

      In which case, assuming the photos are at least decent quality, so the publisher's reputation isn't tarnished too badly, who can fault them for accepting what is very nearly free money?

      These payments have reduced their risk substantially, but have no effect on their upside potential. This has to be the dream of every businessperson alive: i.e., less risk and more profit!

      And if enough photographers-cum-authors will agree to make these payments, publishers would be fools not to accept them, even if they don't need any additional working capital, because it's basically pure profit and drops straight to the bottom line.

      In fact, now that I think about it, this might well be the reason why so many crappy photobooks are published today.

      Because the people who once served as gatekeepers and let only worthy books through now make so much money charging admission, they'll let every book through so long as their authors will pay them for the privilege.

    6. For the most part the books Colberg reviews are pure unadulterated shit. He's increasingly mired in undergraduate identity politics, and frantically signalling his alignment with their simplistic politics in his bid to make the leap to Real Academic.

      These books are, in general, seen by nobody and closely examined by even fewer. When you have an edition of 400 or 700, which will not sell out and which are not only incoherent but intolerably boring to look at, you cannot expect to make much of an impact.

      While Lewis Bush's "Metropole" has not been reviewed by Colberg, it is in that same general school of work, and my review of it is by far the most thorough, thoughtful, and insightful of any that appeared out there. The MFA criticism business is filled with lazy fools who want mainly to retype press-releases and coo a little, and Colberg is no exception.

      What is particularly ironic is that there are serious, well-respected, successful artists who are and have long been making powerful, but unfortunately nuanced, statements on precisely these issues for some decades who get short shrift from Colberg and his colleagues.