Jonathan Blaustein: How do you define great? What motivates you? What do you think is interesting?
Dewi Lewis: It’s almost indefinable, isn’t it? For me, great work is work that excites me. If I see something that I feel is fresh, and has something to say, I think that’s quite important to me, rather than photographers just producing aesthetically pleasing images.
What encourages me to publish something is when I’m surprised and exhilarated by it. It’s as simple as that, really.
JB: When I think about your program, the words “Social Documentary” come into my mind. Do you think that’s a fair description?
DL: There are a number of the books that certainly come under that category. But there are also some that really defy it, I suppose. Some are firmly placed within a “Photography as Art” environment.
But I would say I’m more likely to respond to documentary work than conceptual or abstract work.
Taking it forward a bit, I’ve done many landscape books over the years, but usually those landscapes are saying something about the social or human condition. For me, they need to have that level, otherwise they’re not very interesting.
JB: We might call it cultural criticism?
DL: Yeah. Essentially. I’m looking for projects that say something about our culture as it’s lived today.
There are books we’ve done that have a more historical perspective to them. But essentially I’m really looking at what’s happening in a period that you could bracket by two or three years, at any time.
I’m really interested in the human aspect. Why do people do the things they do? And it’s probably no more complicated than that, actually.
JB: That was the impression that I got. And you find projects by word of mouth, I’m sure. You work with some artists multiple times, like Phil Toledano.
And you look at work at portfolio reviews. But I also noticed on your website that you do accept unsolicited submissions, if people follow a certain set of rules.
DL: Yeah, we get recommendations from other photographers. We work with people we’ve worked with before. But we also have 2 open submissions each year. Generally, one in May, and one in November. Anyone can send in work.
What I don’t like, and what is a real problem, is people sending through Dropbox. Links, and all the rest, throughout the year.
I really do like to focus it down to these two periods. It’s surprising. Most of the work that comes in from open submissions is not that interesting, I have to admit. But you do find things you’ve never come across before. Photographers who are totally unknown. And that’s kind of interesting.
We do about 20 books a year, and I would say it’s pretty rare to get more than 1, maximum 2 from open submissions in a year.
JB: Your website was almost shockingly honest. I’ve never done this before, but I want to read back to you some text from the site. If you’ll allow.
You said, “We’re increasingly finding that we can only publish established, international names, projects with major exhibitions, or those that come with sufficient funding to underwrite the risk. There are now only very few first books that we’re able to do with emerging photographers.”
JB: That’s naked honesty right there. And that has to be a function of all of the increased competition that we were talking about 15 minutes ago, no?
DL: Not really. When I started in publishing, one of the reasons there were very few photography publishers was that photography books simply didn’t make money. Or were very marginal.
There were people such as Aperture, but they were doing it by raising funds as a charity. Many of the other photo books were either mega-names, like Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson, or you would find that a mainstream publisher would publish one or two photo books, and then they would drop them.
They were trying them, finding they weren’t financially successful, and then moving on to something else.
It’s never been easy, financially. When I started in the Cornerhouse days, the arts center was a registered charity, so it was much easier to access public funding for books. A number were funded from public sources.
When I went independent, most of those sources dried up. It was a matter of how do we finance books? For the first 10 years, I had to finance them myself. The only way to do that was to do other work, so I did consultancy, and put that money into the books.
We developed it slowly like that. Then, about 10 years ago, there was a switch when it became apparent that increasingly, other publishers were expecting photographers to at least partially fund books.
That switch has just developed exponentially, really.
When we started, 100% was funded by us. Now, it’s generally no more than 50 to 60 %. Some books we totally fund, others we fund partially, and then others, we have to have totally funded. It’s that balance that helps to keep us going.
JB: In your opinion, why has there never been a significant demand in the marketplace? Why don’t they make money?
DL: It’s misleading, in a way, because you have to look at all forms of book publishing. And indeed music publishing. If you look at new fiction, for example, it’s not unusual for novels by unknown writers just to sell in the few hundreds.
DL: They don’t make any money. It’s always that balance where a mainstream publisher will decide on taking a risk on certain titles, to see whether they can make them work. We did publish fiction for a while, because my degree with in English, not photography.
We were very successful in getting various awards, but we weren’t very successful in terms of sales. When I started doing fiction, you could get about 1000 copies of advanced orders into the shops. We stopped when those advanced orders had dropped to about 200.
We were no different than any other publisher. The book shops just stopped taking a risk on new fiction.
Back to photo books, there are big sellers. The last Salgado, I know that well over 100,000 copies have been sold. Helmut Newton’s last book was also probably well over 100,000. However, most photo books, these days, are produced in runs of between 500-2000 copies.
It’s partly that the book shops don’t really support visual books very much. If you take that forward, if you’ve got a limited amount of space in a book shop, and you’re trying to generate revenue from it, you put onto those book shelves the things that you know will sell.
You don’t put on photo books when you can put on best-selling novels, or how-to manuals and guidebooks. It’s very difficult to get the level of distribution that’s necessary to pump up those physical numbers.
JB: If you’re working with established artists with a collector base and a standing in the marketplace, like Martin Parr, with whom you’ve worked before, and you know the books will sell you can go ahead and lay out those funds for publication and distribution.
If you have no way of knowing if the books will sell, you’ll shift that risk onto the photographer. And for that, they get the benefit of your expertise, design team, and distribution network.
Is that the way it works?
DL: It’s more or less the way it works. Obviously, we don’t fear too much when we’re doing a Martin Parr book. It doesn’t mean they’ll sell in enormous numbers, but we’re pretty confident that we’ll at least break even, or make a small profit, and generally do a lot better than that.
But if you look at work by an emerging photographer, you’ve got to realize it’s not only the production cost of the book. We also have other direct costs, for example, my attendance on press to supervise the printing.
Then we have the issue of getting out press copies, which we generally do on a worldwide basis. On a dollars basis, that’s between $1500-2000. Attendance on press will be another $1500. This is just covering expenses, not getting any payment for the time involved.
Even if you have a book which is funded in terms of production costs, we would generally expect it to cost us anything from $4000-5000 to launch it.
JB: And books are heavy objects, and you need to ship them to stores around the world.
DL: Yeah, that’s the next factor.
JB: Of course.
DL: It’s not usually understood that for most bookshops, books are sold on a “sale or return” basis. For Barnes and Noble, for example, you’re not actually selling the book to them. You’re lending it to them.
If they sell it, you get paid, if they don’t, it gets sent back to you.
Essentially, you’re covering the cost of sending the books out, they can be sent back to you, and your distributor will then charge you a cost for actually handling it.
JB: Oh my goodness.
DL: You can actually lose money on certain books. Even above the cost of production.
JB: Let me read you the next quote from your website, as we set it up perfectly: “Please also remember that we must be able to sell the books that we publish. Please be realistic, when assessing your project, and don’t waste your or our time by sending proposals which have only a limited commercial appeal. Just because all your friends say it would make a great book doesn’t mean that anyone would buy it.”
JB: Yowzers. It’s like a kidney punch. You’re taking the air out of people’s false expectations.
DL: It doesn’t work though, Jonathan.
JB: It doesn’t work?
DL: They still send them in.
JB: You’re asking people to be honest with themselves about their dreams, which is very difficult to do.
But what do people buy? That’s where I wanted to head. You’re telling people that you have a sense of what commercial appeal is. Within the market that does exist, of people that do buy photo books, outside of a big name, how do you know what people will buy? When do you feel comfortable?
DL: Essentially, you never know, so you have to go on your own judgement. You go on the basis of belief in a project. Sometimes, I ignore the commercial reality.
One of our big successes last year was Laia Abril’s book “The Epilogue.” Now, that’s the story of a girl dying from bulimia, and the impact on her family. If you just put that in a sentence, and emailed me saying you had this great book project, my instant reaction would be, “How on Earth can I sell it?”
But I was so convinced by the photographer, by the way I knew she would approach the subject, that I thought it was an important book that needed doing. It was one where we had no funding towards it, a big financial risk. But we still felt it was important to do.
It’s one of the great things about being a small publisher, where I’m not working for a large company, nor responsible to a committee, or anyone else. Caroline and I can make decisions where we say, “We really want to do this, and if we lose badly on it, then we’ll have to balance it out with other things.”
We can work that way. There can be projects that come along where I do think, “Well, this is so interesting that I don’t even really think about what the audience is out there.”
I can give you an example of projects that I don’t think work.
JB: Great. Let’s hear it.
DL: Something that happened in the UK a few years ago was that students at the colleges seemed to be told to do a very personal project. They must have been told by tutors to go off to houses that had some meaning to them. It wasn’t unusual to have people who were going to their grandmother’s house, or something like that, photographing the things that had memories for them as a child.
JB: Of course. Dead grandparents?
DL: Dead grandparents.
JB: Yeah, that was big.
DL: Yup. You have to be realistic. Unless there’s something REALLY stunning about the photography, it’s not a subject that’s going to appeal to a wide audience. That seems obvious to me.
And if friends, relatives, etc may get a feel from it, most people won’t. I always say, when I’m giving a talk, that I can’t explain what photographers should send in to me. I don’t really know what I’m looking for until I see it.
This is the great difficulty. But there are guidelines you can give people, and one of the things I always say is that we’re publishing on an International basis. Therefore, the work has to carry across International boundaries. It has to resonate at the human level, so that it touches something within a human being.
There’s a book we did called “Mother and Father,” by Paddy Summerfield. He photographed almost exclusively in the back garden of his parent’s house in Oxford, as they were getting older.. His Mother had Alzheimer’s. She died. His father was left alone. Then, his father died.
He photographs, more or less, the last 10 years of their lives. But almost every photograph is taken in the back garden.
How small scale can you get, in one sense? But the story that it tells is such a human story, that it leaps all International boundaries. It’s understood by everyone, without reading any text.
It’s a very moving book, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. That is a very difficult subject too, but it’s done reasonably well in the shops, and had a good response from the critics and the audience.
JB: You’re looking for Universality?
JB: This is a big reason why I wanted to interview you. I write about books each week, and we’ve already agreed everyone wants one. But it’s rare that people out there get to hear such specific advice from someone with your expertise.
Let’s carry it forward, a bit. Where do you see it all going? If we’re talking about an industry that’s already had this much disruption, do you ever ask yourself what the climate will look like in 5 or 10 years?
DL: I try to look ahead, but I try not to respond to it.
JB: What are you suspecting?
DL: Let me tell you the problems, as I see them. Perhaps the biggest is that so many photographers now have books. Every photographer wants a book, as we said before. And every photographer now wants to do a more impressive book than other photographers have done.
By that, I mean in terms of the object. Not necessarily the content.
JB: That’s the competitiveness that we discussed earlier.
DL: Yeah, so there’s a sense in which they want a more complicated design, or more complex means of production. They’re driving up the expectations, which is good, in some ways, but it is making it increasingly impossible for many of them to ever get any of their money back.
You have some designers doing the same thing. Some of them don’t understand the technicalities, and are adding cost unnecessarily. Essentially, I think you have designers trying to leapfrog each other. On and on it goes.
The same thing is happening with photographers. I think it’s starting to go too far. I see that as a problem.
DL: I don’t see digital as a problem, as a competitive element, and I don’t see it happening over the next 5 years or so. Certainly, if you talk to publishers who are doing digital books, they’re pretty disappointed with the results they’re getting.
Not necessarily in terms of the production of them, but in terms of the response from audiences. People aren’t really buying them.
JB: Right, because is a digital book any different than a website? Or an app? The things people want out of a book are the tactile qualities.
DL: Right. Is it any different to a .pdf? It depends, though. If you have a book like “Mother and Father,” it’s very poetic and quiet. What you want is simply the images in the sequence that they are.
If you had a book that had something to do with the Yangtze River, say, then you might want to have lots of external links to images within the pages. You might want things about population, history, particular towns, cultural elements within the River area.
You can imagine video, audio, all sorts of extra things being brought into the digital book. That makes it interesting and exciting, something that can’t be done on paper. There are some books that would work digitally, and there are some that would be a disaster. It would add nothing, and simply take away from them.
So the digital question is almost a side issue.
JB: That’s not surprising. It’s one thing to read a thriller on a Kindle, but with photo books, people want to hold a set of photos in their hands.
DL: For me, what’s much more of a concern is that already the large book shops have partially removed themselves from visual books. Waterstones and Barnes and Noble carry very few photo books now, and very obvious titles. I think the days of those large book shops are severely numbered.
I wouldn’t be surprised, speaking of Waterstones in the UK, I can imagine that within 5 or 6 years, they might be down to less than a dozen stores. Key stores in major cities. At the moment, I think they still have over 300.
And while speciality stores are building, I don’t think they can take up the slack across towns and cities in various countries. I think that’s a problem.
JB: Well, the big chains have been shutting down here for years.
DL: But the area I worry about most is the printers themselves. Printing presses are hungry beasts. They need a lot of material coming through. Commercial work will dry up. Things like hotels and other business will no longer produce sales brochures. They’ll put content online, and digitally in some form.
The commercial side of printing is really going to reduce. I’m not convinced that there’s enough printing demand from other areas.
JB: So the prices will go up for those that stay in business.
DL: It’s a matter of, can they stay in business? It’s a whole chain. If printers close, what happens to the printing machine manufacturers. People like Heidelberg, and KBA. Will there be enough printers for them to continue doing this heavy engineering?
Very serious stuff. I do worry a bit about that chain. That’s probably 7-10 years out, but I do think that’s a problem.
If there is an end to the printed book in the numbers that we know now, then it’s going to come from that side, not just from people switching to digital.
JB: So now, we’re dealing with proliferation. Think about Kickstarter. When people are raising money, it’s not their money. There’s not a lot of risk involved when it’s not your money. You’re just accessing the funds from others, $10 at a time.
If what you’re speculating comes true, the people who are left in business are going be able to charge a lot more for their services. If all of a sudden, it costs $150,000 to make a book, instead of $50,000, then it won’t be nearly as easy to raise other people’s money on Kickstarter, and you end up with fewer and fewer books, the way it was before.
You’re saying this is potentially a bubble?
DL: I think it’s still got a few years to live…
DL: I’m really talking about offset printing. It’s pretty complex, isn’t it. I’m thinking longer term. It’s not round the corner.
A big question is what happens on the digital printing side. It’s been around a long time now, with Indigo and others. The printing sheet is still pretty small, though it’s starting to get larger.
It’s not cost effective to do large numbers of copies digitally. Can that take up what might be lost from offset printing? It’s a very complex arena, really.
JB: I want to take you off the prognosticator seat. Predicting the future is impossible, but I was just curious to see how you imagined the future of your industry.
You’ve been a great sport, and we really appreciate your time. You’re planning on being in business for a while, and you’re still excited about what you do?
DL: 50% of the time I’m excited. And that’s enough.
DL: It’s like this. Say you’re at FotoFest, for example, looking at portfolios, and you might have had a really awful day. Then the last session is something really stunning. That’s what publishing is.
You just go through a lot of shit to get to the crock at the end of the rainbow. You do find these extraordinary things, and that’s what keeps you going all the time.