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.