Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Content vs. Form

Recently on twitter there was a brief conversation between some photobook people about photobooks, and the selling thereof. One person proposed that publishers should put up all the spreads on the sales web site. Another person agreed, and said that "photobook people" would buy just the same, or perhaps with more enthusiasm.

I found this very interesting.

In essence, the proposal is the give away the content of the book, in some sense, as a teaser or advertisement for the form of the book, for the physical object. The suggestion is that this would result in more sales, rather than fewer.

Well, maybe. There's a whole thing around this in the land of text. Certainly in this household the availability of electronic versions of books has cost some sales of some specific books. It may have, for all I know, led to an uptick in total sales, and has certainly increased total consumption of books. Arguably, a digital edition cannibalizes library usage more than sales, etcetera and so on. There's a lot of subtlety here, and the details are not at all obvious.

What's interesting to me here is not really whether or not you'd sell more or fewer books by giving the content away. What's interesting is what the attitude illustrated above tells us about photobooks and photobook people.

The blasé suggestion that one ought to, just naturally, put up all the spreads is at least consistent with the idea that the content doesn't really matter.

The photobook is, to these people and to the "photobook people" they're talking about, primarily an object to be coveted. As a bibliophile myself, I get that. I rather covet all my books. Nevertheless, it would never occur to me to put up all the content for free, of a book I was seriously trying to sell. I give away content a lot, but always for things I am simply giving away.

My interest in the book with photographs is specifically in the content, the ways you can shape the things you put in there to produce, well, results of some sort. I don't really care about the form, the object. Most of the objects I made are cheaply made boxes whose sole function is to contain content.

This is, of course, in contrast to much of the photobook industry, which is in the business of globbing ink as thickly as possible onto the page, in a sort of pitiable attempt to approach the Fine Print, which is itself a sort of pitiable attempt to emulate the Original Oil Painting, all of which is in my opinion a kind of bankrupt enterprise.

It is maybe not surprising that a Very Successful photobook sells 1000 copies, if the content isn't important. We see this sort of thing brought to a kind of apotheosis with things like Paul Graham's Mother which, for those who are not thrown into an instant rage by the reference, a small book consisting of 14 substantially identical portraits of Graham's mom. It is by all accounts a lovely object, an object to be coveted. But the content is essentially zilch. There's almost nothing there. "A boy loves his mom, news at 11."

Now, I don't really know if the people in the original conversation don't much care about content, or if they simply think their target market doesn't much care about content, and it doesn't matter. The point is, this attitude exists, and is to a large degree driving this little industry, and I don't think it's a good thing.

Content does so matter, damn it.


  1. Not exactly relevant, but kind of an odd twist.
    Lately I've been learning simple bookbinding, working up to making small hardbound books. So I've needed some content, and have been using a series of photos I did some years ago (all on Flickr I think.) So I'm looking at these books as nice objects that I'm hoping are justified by some old content I have lying around. But in fact the real point is just to learn in interesting craft. I'll be giving the books to friends and of course all they'll do is look at the pictures and wonder why I sent THIS?

    1. Bookbinding is always relevant. Also, SO FUN!

      Feel free to drop me a note if you have questions! I have, um, some answers!

  2. it's funny to see this here as I'm one of the folks in that twitter thread (I have your blog bookmarked with a few others =]) -- at least for my part, content comes first, however I'm interested in the book as an object that can complement or change the experience of looking at that content, maybe give it an extra bit of atmosphere that works with the pictures to make something greater together than each individual part. Screens flatten everything into a more or less homogenous format, but some print formats can make you experience a set of pictures a bit differently.

    On the other hand, I don't necessarily want to buy a book if everything from the sequence to the printing to the design makes it a £50 webpage with a semigloss finish, especially if the work can already be seen online. The only exception is maybe historically significant work or catalogues, and even they can have really considered design. I don't need to see the whole book (even if I did, it wouldn't stop me if I were really interested), but as I see a lot of publisher sites -- some of them literally show a digital render of the cover and nothing else, maybe 2 or 3 digital spreads. Enough do it that it gets a bit tedious

    1. I find with few exceptions, images look sharper and more clear on a computer display than in commercially printed photo books; the printing has to be very high quality indeed, and correspondingly expensive.

      It's pretty safe to assume that small-run and print-on-demand digital monochrome is going to disappoint. Colour fares a bit better, maybe because that's what most digital printers are designed for.

      I'm just not sure what the impetus for printing photo books even is, because it sure AF ain't profit (having said that, I fully recognize some are more adept at hustling their crap). In the case of 'zines' and suchlike, the off quality is (I suppose) part of the appeal as it could, in theory, lend an arty flavor to the proceedings, fingers crossed.

      I love well-printed books.

    2. Thank you for your remarks! I am assembling a second set of remarks on this same topic which will, I think, constitute something of a reply. That said, yes, I take your points generally.

      Hey, have you considered buying my book? It's pretty good! And it's inexpensive!


    3. David, yes, PoD b&w is never *great* and can be outright poor! When you're me, though, that's ok, because I am content-forward!

      It's probably just a reaction to my earlier days, like a fallen-away Catholic who can't stop smokin' and whorin', but I am embracing the lousy-print-quality aesthetic.

      Weirdly, though, even the cheapest of blurb's PoD books (and it's HP Indigo, like everyone else, don't let anyone tell you that so-and-so's stuff is sooooo much better, it's all the same slop) have excellent text quality.

    4. I love well-printed books too!

      If I may add, printing with Indigo will be as good (or bad) as it's operator.

      I've seen monochrome books produced with Indigo printers that you just wouldn't think were done on Indigo.
      You can print duotones, tritones and even quadtones and get jaw dropping results with your monochrome images if your printer knows what he's doing.

      You'd only be missing sophisticated techniques such as stochastic point, etc. but you can certainly achieve stunning results, not to mention the now large choice of media substrates you can use.

      It's just a matter of how far you want to go and what your budget allows.

      Just a thought.