Monday, March 4, 2019

Changin' Times (ToP)

Mike over on The Online Photographer put up a piece a little while ago, Changin' Times. One the one hand, it is simply a lament for times gone by which, while not perfect, were, at least better defined than today I guess.

The remarks and the following comments on books are interesting and tinged with tragedy. Those 3,000 book editions are gone. If you think that you, as an artist, might get a book deal and reach the world through that book, you are mistaken. I just spent a few minutes on the web sites of Steidl and Taschen. Almost entirely retrospectives. Probably a few Kim Kardashians and celebrity chefs if you dig a bit. The lesser publishers who can't access the catalogs of the Great Names of Yore are publishing small editions of MFA-driven bullshit.

You can still "break in" here if you spend a bunch of money on an MFA, and then raise another $10,000 to $30,000 or whatever to fund this great book deal you got, and maybe you'll sell a couple hundred copies. Your MFA program will have ruined your photography, though, so most likely a lot of the books will sit in a warehouse until the publisher goes bust and then they'll be pulped.

Nope. Small is the future.

There are small publishers doing small runs of books with decent pictures, I gather. And there's the print-on-demand thing, so pooh-poohed on ToP (which is of course where my hackles went up).

The people selling 1000+ photography books are, more often than not, doing it on print-on-demand platforms. There isn't any fundamental difference between printing at some bush-league Art Publisher and printing at Blurb, at the end of the day you get a bunch of pages with ink smeared on them, and it's more or less your job to persuade someone to buy them, if that's your jam.

Anyone who actually knows how to sell things into the general book market knows your book won't sell, so it's back to the well for another Kert├ęsz retrospective, which will sell. You and your photos do not figure, in this scenario.

The idea of some sort of global reach is dead, dead, dead, unless you happen to already be dead (or very old). Success in this sense is entirely about carving out a niche, finding and building an audience for your work.

Having cleared that away, I have some ideas. These are sketches, not final details; ideas, not a plan as such.

There isn't any reason you can't run an imprint with blurb as your backend printing platform, and their integration makes them pretty attractive for this.

I have this notional imprint, Rogue Photo. It consists of: an idea, and one part-time staffer (me). I have no budget. I have no audience. I have no equipment. I have access to exactly zero experts. I have no distribution channel. And so on, if you can think of it, I haven't got it.

So let's suppose you Publish With Rogue Photo. On the strength of my non-audience, maybe we could sell 4 books. That sounds awful, but consider that a minor publisher can sell maybe 100 books on the strength of their name, and a major one can sell maybe 1000 books. The gap between 4 and 100 isn't actually that enormous. We're only talking 96 books here. That's like one box.

So, how would it work? Well, if anything actually got sold or even given away (which is an entirely optional, Rogue Photo isn't really about getting books into people's hands, it's about making books), it would have to be on the strength of your name. Which seems a bit unfair, what the hell is Rogue Photo actually bringing?

At this point? Basically nothing except a single part-time staffer (me) who has a proven track record of getting shit done, which is maybe just what you need.

If, perchance, some things moved out into the hands of some people on the strength of your name, well, that would certainly burnish the good name of Rogue, wouldn't it? The next artist along might sell 8 books on the strength of the Rogue Photo name! And so on.

If money started to happen, even in very modest amounts, my tendency would be to plow it back in to artists. I mean, I might buy myself a cookie or two as well, it's not my intention to run a charity here, but I don't really need money. Suppose, in a year or two, RP had managed to sell 500 books total, for a total markup of, I dunno, $1000 or something. I am just picking numbers out of my ass.

Whoever made the books would get a piece of that, obviously. Per previous remarks, before we even got there we'd all know where we stood and with any amount of luck everyone would be happy. Rogue (me) might pocket $500 of that, let's say. After my cookie, there's $495.50 left over. Some of that might could go to giving an advance to an emerging artist. At some point, in this merry fantasy, I suppose someone's got to write some bloody contracts, which sounds awful.

Before someone complains that there's no accountability, what guarantee do we have that the $495.50 is going back to artists let me answer that: you don't. By agreement, it would already be my money, you have only your knowledge of my sunny personality to support the idea that I might plow it back into paying artists.

Still, if we're going to usher in a brave new world of indie publishing, some blood's going to spill, I guess.

An outfit like Taschen brings a bunch of stuff to the table: designers, printers, paper choices, distribution channels, a rolodex full of Important People, and the Taschen Name.

Print on demand makes a lot of that stuff irrelevant. All the details of getting books built go away. Distribution and connections is still real, and most real of all is the name recognition. These things, however, can be built. Taschen's reputation is borrowed from the artists and writers that have published there. They can access Doisneau's catalog because they are Taschen -- and they are Taschen because they access it.

The point here is that when you publish with someone, that imprint gets to borrow your audience, however large it is. If you have 100 followers on instagram, and you tell them you just did a book with Rogue Photo, Roque's audience just jumped up. If the book is good, and by some miracle 30 people outside your instagram lay hands on a copy, ditto. Your name, and the name Rogue Photo, just got a bit of a polish.

It's probably never going to be global. I don't want to be global, so in the event of some fantastical sequence of events I would probably ruin it kind of slightly maybe on purpose but mostly on accident.

So, that's what it looks like. I am not exactly getting snowed under with proposals. In the sense that I have received zero. I myself have a thing in the pipeline, so the presses will be kept busy, though, so never worry!


  1. What do you think of Brook Jensen's way of displaying personal work in book-like PDF's people can download at no cost? He says he just likes the idea people are looking at them, with occasional feedback. You might not like the images and text, but I was wondering about the format and general experience of image/text consumption.

    1. "book-like PDF's people can download at no cost"

      This, to me, is the best and only realistic option.

      Bonus: no trees cut down, no boring templates, no crappy printing*, no shipping, no garbage* (well, metaphorical garbage perhaps, otherwise -- no harm done).

      *barring the relatively unlikely scenario of someone printing it at home

    2. I have not looked at Jensen's PDFs, but shall when I get a few contemplative moments!

      In general, I don't much like PDFs as a viewing method. They strike me as combining the disadvantages of computers with the disadvantages of books. As a guy who has been very fluent with computers for 35 years or so, I suspect that I have firm notions about what the "appropriate" idioms are for computers, and I suspect that trying to enforce book-like idioms in that context is more irritating to me than it might be for many other people.

      That said, I also find the all too common breathless attitude about how magical print is also annoying ;)

    3. Whelp, I did just have a look at Jensen's latest pdf, and I can't say I'm much impressed by it. His web site has relatively sophisticated presentation, so I'm disappointed to say the least.

      The pdf isn't 'book-like', it's more powerpoint-like in that it presents as a series of slides with in-your-face text and (apparently) heavily doctored photos.

      No, this format doesn't do anything for his photography, which is actually pretty good in a generic kind of way on its own.

      Photographers without any kind of a design background should leave well enough alone, and seek help.

  2. Has Blurb book quality improved significantly over the past year or so?

    I ask, because in late 2017, I used a friend's 50% off promo code to order a book containing 18 of my photos that I threw together as a test to see what they could do.

    Even though it was represented to be the best quality book they offered, I found the print quality to be just okay -- in particular, their "black" was really just a dark grey -- and I didn't like the look or feel of the paper at all.

    Perhaps my standards are higher than most -- including maybe yours? -- but being a photobook collector of sorts (I have just over 400 of them on my bookshelves, so I'm familiar with the level of technical quality that can be achieved these days), I would have been very disappointed if my book had been represented as equal in quality to a traditional, offset-printed book and I had bought it sight-unseen on that basis.

    Unless they have improved since my experiment, even the best quality Blurb books are to traditional, offset-printed books what .mp3s are to SACDs.

    As someone to whom technical quality matters at least as much as artistic quality, I want no part of either one, thank you!

    1. It's possible you got a badly printed book, certainly. That said, all the on demand stuff is printed on HP indigo printers, and tend to suffer from somewhat weak blacks and a smallish color gamut.

      I find, when I want strong looking blacks, that a curves adjustment to push contrast into the toe helps. It doesn't make the blacks any darker, but it makes them appear so to a degree.

      Also, printing on coated paper can help.

      But, no, it's not high end photo printing. It's good enough for many things, but it's not Steidl, it's not gravure.

  3. I've thought about projects, heh... but my collections aren't for sale, they're for me to, uuuh, laik, stare at and think about how they've fallen short and I'd need to do such-n-such to get it closer but hey otoh they're kiiinda in the ball-park so that's a thing... and they're certainly not art... and they're certainly not political... I'll have to re-read everything for the criteria and think about this a bit more. (yes, this is Stone Seal, and I am still being too lazy to re-set my google account...)

  4. Lodima Press - the efforts of Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee. High quality printing with photography that shows well.

    1. Just for info: Michael A. Smith passed away a few weeks ago. Lodima Press future is uncertain.

  5. I read Mike's post on TOP before reading yours. I think you partially missed what he was saying about Blurb books, perhaps because he hasn't imagined what you're proposing to do with Blurb. I thought he was simply arguing that most people who use Blurb to make photo books are doing the equivalent of putting some pictures up on their living room wall, i.e., it's for them and their friends and relations. That's in contrast to publishing a book to push your work out to the world.

    Anyway, Mike's post and the comments (especially) were depressing. Your post is more optimistic. I wouldn't mind a future made of lots of little self-published books that reached small, focused audiences. They'd work best if they reached people you actually knew and could talk to about your work. That seems vastly more productive and fun than only hearing feedback from "professional critics" (or nobody).

  6. Excuse my silly question, but who is buying the books from Taschen? I have no idea. For all I know, their only market could be public libraries and photo schools. They don't print that many books and they are in every public library.

    I am asking because I feel it is important to have at least a vague idea of the market for photo books.

    1. I've a fair few in my 'collection'. Not just their photo books, but all kinds of visual art.

  7. Andrew

    What are the submission guidelines for Rogue: size of images, word format (pdf, plain text), submit by email?


    1. There are none! Send in some pictures, writings, drawings, whatever, any size, and send notes on whatever you're thinking in terms of a concept!

      You don't even need a concept, but you probably have *some* notions, right? And, hopefully, you're not too sure where to go (because surely if you knew where yo go, you'd just go, right?)

      Then we talk about stuff and kick ideas around, and see where it goes!

  8. Compiling a few pic and emailing soon