Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Future of Photography Books

This entry is a response to this.

(this is a very rough draft)

I've always viewed photography books as things, possessions that are to be cherished and collected.  I have a very small collection of books as I am very choosy as to what I would like to spend my money on.  I keep some books in my living room, on shelves around the television and some in a closet in another room.  The books that are out in the living space, near the TV, can be handled by guests.  The ones that are kept in the closet, are not to be handled unless I give permission.  These are the books I cherish the most.  Like the signed, first edition Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi.
These days, books seem to be getting more and more expensive.  The newest Sally Mann book, which I will be purchasing, is about $85 at Photo-eye.  I would probably buy two books a month, maybe more depending, but to lay out two or three hundred dollars a month on books,  is not wise in this day and age (according to my wife).

Some books need to be viewed as art pieces in their own right. For example, Photo-eye has a new book imprint, called Photo-eye Editions.  I was lucky enough to see two of these books about a week ago and they are exquisite.  They range in price from $850 to $1750.  They are made of fabric, wood and metal.  They are art objects.  If I could buy one without an argument from the misses, I probably would.

But as the editor of Fraction Magazine, who on occasion promotes a book with a book review, find the book publishing world frustrating.  In very recent times I have been asked by two book publishers, one who is very well respected, to write a book review, based on a pdf file, not the actual book.  I immediately declined the offer as it is a great injustice to my audience and the collectors of photography books, to write a photography book review based on what is viewed on a computer screen.  The print quality of the book is as important as the content of the book itself.  If the photographs are not well printed in physical book form, the potential buyer needs to know this.  If not, should the review come with a disclaimer that the reviewer has no idea how well the book is printed because the review was done via pdf?  Isn't that unfair to the reader/collector?  I think so. (side note: compensation for most  book reviews is the book itself. So if you are asking me to review your book via pdf file, what is the compensation for the time and energy to write that review and promote your product?)  
Based on this interaction with book publishers, it is obvious they are trying to trim back every budget they can so we have to wonder how far this will go.  Do I think photography books will follow the way of the newspaper, slowly disappearing into the digital realm?  I don't think so and here is why.

I dare say that photography books will become like shooting film in a film camera.  Shooting film is becoming kind of a niche market.  Only a handful of companies are left who produce film (and paper) and the product itself is getting expensive (remember buying Ilford film for $2 a roll?).   Maybe this will happen to photography books? In this regard, I think small companies like Photo-eye, Radius Books and Charles Lane Press will stick around.  These companies are run by artists who understand the concept of the photography book (as art form) and their importance to the collector as well as the artist.   Sure, the giant companies are going to whittle things down to the bare minimum and it will become like the recording industry; if you cannot sell a certain and predetermined quantity of units, you do not get published (this is probably happening already).  Gone are the days of believing in the work and the artist.  The economy is rough and every penny spent is scrutinized.

Also, self publishing companies like Lulu, Blurb and MagCloud will continue to better themselves and their output and make it easier for artist, writers and photographers to by-pass the publishing giants and produce their own books in their own time frames and manner.

So, I would hate to see photography books disappear.  They are so much a part of the history of the photographic art form (that is another response) that losing them to a digital medium would be very unfortunate.  Do I think this will happen?  Probably not.  And remember, there is a darkroom scene in the movie Minority Report, which is based in the year 2054, so there is a little bit of hope.


  1. I'm a dedicated Kindle user; I haven't bought a non-photographic book on paper in I-don't-know-how-long. I get my WSJ and other periodicals via the Kindle also.

    But I've bought several photographic books in the last few months, and will keep doing so. They are objets d'art themselves, and reading and handling (and even smelling!) them is a multisensory tactile experience that cannot be separated from enjoyment of the content itself.

    At PhotoNOLA this weekend I attended the publishing seminar featuring four individuals from different parts of the book-publishing industry. The consensus: unlikely you'll get a photo book published unless the work has the chance to expand its audience beyond "the 3000 people" who buy photo books just to look a photography for its own sake.

    You need to be "world famous" already; or the subject must be something of more general interest that you just happened to have shot extraordinarily well enough that it can be non-laughingly termed a "photography" book.

    What I find curious is why the publish-on-demand (POD) model hasn't caught on like wildfire in a more mainstream way. Economics? Technology? Tradition? The conventional publishing industry seems to be little more than a book consignment sale with publishers swallowing the large fixed upfront cost of setting up the press for the first book, or the first five thousand books, hoping to sell enough to make some dough as the print run gets larger and cheaper per-book. And then they have to eat what isn't sold! Who devised THIS business model?

    Granted, POD books may cost more per book. But is there some point at which a smaller per-book margin margin on a smaller "run" of POD books trumps a large loss on a huge run of cheaper-to-make, unsold copies?

  2. More on the future of photo books from Senior Product Manager at online publisher Tim Wright: